I replaced my office lights to get better video

Note: This blog post has an accompanying video: I replaced my office lights for better video quality.

Jeff holding overhead light in office

Earlier this year, I started recording more videos and doing live streams in my office. Originally I just used a webcam, a Logitech C920.

Jeff - Webcam C920 Before

This is a frame of video from that webcam. It's adequate, but not too flattering, and you can see there's a lot of contrast where one side of my face is bright and blown out, and the other side is 'muddy' or 'flat'.

Jeff - iPhone Before

I also tried recording with my iPhone, and the quality was better, but it still wasn't great... and besides, it's a little clumsy and pretty inconvenient to use my main phone for live streaming and video conferencing.

So I got an Elgato Cam Link for my computer so I could plug my Sony a6000 into my Mac and use it as a webcam.

Jeff - a6000 with Sigma lens Before

It looks a lot better, because the much better—and much larger—image sensor and lens (in my case, a Sigma 30mm f/1.4) on the a6000 can compensate for the relatively poor lighting in my office.

I tried supplementing the office lights by adding an TaoTronics on-camera LED light. And I also bought an additional desk light that fills in a little more light on my other side. But even then, the overhead lights in my office are the main source of light, and because of that, the overall quality isn't great.

I do a lot of photography work, so I know that video and photo work is all about capturing light. In fact, one of my favorite books about photography is Light: Science and Magic, which really taught me the importance of light in photography, and taught me that to get good pictures, it's not just about getting as much light as you can. You have many different aspects of light to control, and the thing I'm battling in my office right now is the hardness of light.

Jeff - Worklights in office before replacement

The overhead lights in my office are four-foot-long 'worklights', basically. I built my office in 2014, and installed these lights so I could get more light than I got out of the original builder-grade lights I installed.

The original office lights put out about 3200 lumens of light, which was just about bright enough to make the office comfortable. The worklights bumped that up to 5800 lumens, and it made the office even easier to work in all day.

But worklights aren't usually great for video. The put out a long strip of light, and since it's right over my head, it acts like a bright overhead 'key' light like the sun, and you can see that glaring brightness in the webcam video, just like you see glaring brightness when you take a picture on a sunny afternoon.

Jeff - Brolly in Basement - Photography Umbrella

And to demonstrate why this lighting setup isn't great, I have a photography 'umbrella', or in photography lingo, a 'brolly'.

There's something that's not really intuitive about light that's easier to demonstrate with an umbrella. You can control how 'hard' or 'soft' the light is by moving it closer to or further away from your subject. If it's far away, like the sun on a sunny afternoon, you'll see harsh shadows. This is called 'hard' light:

Jeff - Hard light brolly further away

And then, if I move the light closer, and snap another picture, the light is now a bit more 'soft':

Jeff - Softer light brolly close

The light is soft because it can wrap around more surfaces on the subject—in this case, me! This is the reason you don't see harsh shadows on a day when there's light cloud cover. The clouds act like a big diffuser in the sky, making the sunlight 'wrap around' you, without harsh shadows.

Jeff - Hard and soft light comparison

Look at these two pictures, the one with the umbrella far away is on the left, and the one with it up close is on the right. Focus on my nose or my neckline, in particular. You can see the transition from shadow to light is a bit more gradual on the right, but it looks a bit more harsh on the left.

So that's great, and I'd like to have the light be a little softer in my office, but I'm not going to stick a massive umbrella on my desk all day, that would be really annoying.

So I decided to replace the worklights in my office with new 2' x 4' fixtures, which would diffuse light over a much larger surface area.

The strip light diffusers cover an area of 1.3 ft2, since they are 4 inches by 4 foot long. The new lights diffuse the light over a much larger area, about 8 ft2. That's six times greater area per light fixture, so hopefully, even though they're on the ceiling, they'll offer a bit more of a 'wraparound' effect than the old lights.

Cue up the installation montage!

Light installation montage gif

With the new lights installed, let's see if they made a difference.

Jeff - C920 Webcam After

Well, here's what the webcam looks like now. It is a little better now, but it's still nowhere near as good as the picture from my a6000. Here's a picture comparing the before and after with the webcam:

Jeff - Webcam before and after lighting change

Not a huge improvement, and you can still see it's not nearly as good as the picture from my mirrorless camera, but it's at least something.

I do like having the more diffuse overhead light in general, and the picture on the a6000 looks even better.

But overall, would I buy new lights again if I had a similar setup? Well, maybe. I think in the future, when I finish more of my basement, I'll spend a bit more time planning the lighting in general. Track or well-placed can lights might make lighting more flexible.

Now, if only I could do something about that annoying HVAC vent that shows up over my shoulder on every video...

HVAC vent in background - who me?


that was really interesting, thanks for posting!
I'm recording a number of DevOps/tech screencasts and have decided for the moment to not have a webcam. They'll be lots of terminals, a number of diagrams, and if people want more verve I'll add cats or something.
Out of curiosity, why/why not do you record yourself? Branding? The glory? :-D

Mostly because I like to try to relate more to my audience and putting a face on the video seems to help with that. Plus as an introvert it makes me feel like I'm being more social... even though I'm not seeing people on the other end of the video :D