The Virtual You Redux

By John Gilstrap

Back in October of 2020, I posted a piece here that I called “The Virtual You,” which Talked about some of the basic lessons I’d learned about Zooming. That article talks about framing and lighting and a little about set design. A lot has changed since then, so I thought I’d share some updates.

My New Set

Two months ago, we completed our move to West Virginia, which was two years in the making, the final 7 months of which was in a tiny apartment in an urban part of Northern Virginia. In moving into the new place I designed my office around the reality of video-oriented promotional opportunities. My office in the previous house was designed such that my desk was in front of a pretty bay window that looked out onto the neighborhood. I enjoyed having all that light coming in over my shoulders while I worked, but it made for a terrible video backdrop. As a consequence, I did all my Zooming from the bar in my basement. It looked cool, but was not appropriate for all audiences.

Now, in the West Virginia forever office, I can shoot video from my desk, and the backdrop is a bookcase loaded with my books. (Always be marketing, right?) It’s quite the relief not to have to go traipsing down two levels every time I need to do an interview.

Built-In Teleprompter

Because I can do what I need to do from my desk, I have the advantage of a second screen on which I can see the people I’m talking to without looking down, or, in the case of videos for my YouTube Channel, I can have an outline of what I want to say right there in my peripheral vision. In my old YouTube setup, I would have to tape cheat sheets to the walls and bookcases to keep the narrative on track.

Note The Angle Of The Camera

In the first iteration of “The Virtual You” I talked about my obsession about not featuring my various chins in the video frame–the curse of recording through my laptop’s built-in camera. What you see in the photo is a Logitech 1080p Webcam. Mine is a couple of years old, but the newer versions cost less than $60.

It’s a bit tricky getting Windows to recognize the external webcam as the default device. You have to go into settings and disable the built-in cameras. (That was about 45 minutes of research boiled down to a sentence. You’re welcome.)

New Lighting Design

The French doors you see on the right in the photo create interesting challenges for lighting. Those doors face due west. Without obscuring them with a blanket–something I don’t want to do–any camera work that happens in the last 30 minutes before sunset will be impossible to light properly. For the rest of the day, though, I find that if I turn on the overhead light, and crank up the ring light in the corner, I can live with what I get. The light is pointed toward the wall because the reflected light works better than straight-on.

Improved Sound

With the publication of Blue Fire back in February, I have been slammed with podcasts and radio interviews. One of the most enjoyable interviews was with David Temple, who hosts The Thriller Zone podcast. At the conclusion of the interview, I asked him specifically for suggestions on how to make my own performance (if that’s the right word) better. Reluctantly, he told me that my audio quality was substandard with lots of echo. At my request, he sent some recommendations for high-quality yet affordable sound equipment.

After a couple of weeks of due diligence, I decided on the Rode NT-USB Mini studio-quality microphone. For less than $100, I am very pleased with the results. Since then, several interviewers have commented without my asking that the quality of sound is very good. And let’s face it, when you’re listening to a podcast, bad sound is a turnoff. Through experimentation, I learned that closer is better when using the USB Mini, so I bought a mic stand that keeps the device about two inches from my lips while I speak, yet still below the lower margin of the viewing frame.

Anything Worth Doing . . .

You know the adage, and you know it’s true. Remote speaking and teaching and conferencing are a permanent part of our business lives. How are y’all embracing the new reality?



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About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

23 thoughts on “The Virtual You Redux

  1. Thanks for this, John. Mostly I avoid doing online anything as my method. I also watch very few podcasts. If I go to a zoom meeting, I turn my camera off. (Something the woman eating breakfast, brushing her teeth, and doing exercises should have done.) But I’ve only done one individual podcast. It was for Draft2Digital, and for that I bought a very inexpensive Logitech camera that sits on top of my monitor. The built-in with my All In One PC sits at the bottom of the frame and it was virtually impossible to get a decent “head on” shot. I have another podcast for a Sisters in Crime chapter in August, and I was toying with getting a headset with mic. Maybe I’ll look into a stand alone microphone, but I’m not in demand the way you are.

    • The headset mics work well, but they look a bit aeronautical to me. If you go that way, be sure to get one with a boom mic. The in-line mics like the one for your phone come off as very tinny.

  2. Thanks for this, John, particularly for the microphone recommendation. The price on those bad-boys has really come down, as is the case with much formerly out-of-reach hardware, software, and the like.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying your new home. Hope you’re having a great week.

    • Oh, you can still spend tons of money on this stuff if you want. The breaking point I found on price is when you want to have more than one person on-mic at the same time. That requires a mixer board and then you’re opening the wallet wide.

  3. Thanks for all the great tips, John. Your set looks great. I like the idea of a second screen for notes and a quality mic on a stand below the camera view.

    Your reflective light set-up reminded me that I had some old lighting equipment (with light umbrellas) I used when I was taking pictures of woodworking projects. Two umbrellas give you the opportunity to get the shadows just the way you want them.

    I also liked the view of your desk, especially that quill pen and holder. Nice.

  4. Excellent tips, John. I hadn’t considered facing the ring light toward the wall. Even on a low setting they’re too bright. I’ve been filming videos on my iPhone with a ring light/phone holder combo. It works, but… Last Saturday I did a Zoom presentation with Sisters in Crime and had to use my iMac, like I did with my 5-week course. The picture quality is fine but the audio isn’t the best. Any computer audio causes too much echo. After the event, I looked into microphones and found an overwhelming number of options. You made my life easier with this post. Thank you!

    I do the same, with my script on my laptop and Zoom on the desktop. Works great.

    • Not only is the ring light too bright, it’s very hard not to get reflected rings in my glasses, even though they have an anti-reflective coating. I’ve mentioned before that I have a regular virtual happy hour with some writer buddies. We experiment with this stuff with each other.

  5. I’ve used a Blue Snowball mic (under $50) for several years, with great sound quality.

    Tomorrow I’ll be doing my 6-hour workshop, JSB’s Story Grinder, from my office, and later a keynote where I’ll be on a big screen to the conference. Not being a fan of air travel recently, this is quite nice.

    My background is a stuffed bookshelf and, off to the side, Dash, my Maltese Falcon replica.

    • Jim, I was using a Blue Snowball when I was told about the echo. Don’t you have some kind of an acoustic cage around your mic to improve sound quality?

      • I do have that sound-proofing desktop setup, mainly for when I do my own recordings. The foam sleeve for the Blue Snowball works fine on its own for straight audio.

  6. Thanks for this information, John. Your office setup looks great.

    I’ve been fortunate to have had a few podcast interviews. I have a Samson QU2 Microphone and Samson SR350 headphones. Very cost effective, and the sound quality is good.

    For Zoom meetings, I set my laptop up on a stand on the dining room table so the webcam is at eye-level. I can adjust the lighting in the room, and the backdrop is an oil painting (still life) over a small table with a lamp and green plant. I like to use that room because the dining room table is large and I can spread lots of stuff out on it without having things falling on the floor. (Not that my office desk is messy, mind you. 🙂 )

  7. Love your setup! I’ve been looking for a mic, so thanks for the recommendations. I’ve done several classes on Zoom and made a few videos to share on Instagram and FB.

    I have a MacBook Pro and haven’t found a camera that works with it…or I’m woefully inadequate to set it up. Does anyone have suggestions for a camera that works with a Mac?

  8. I only Zoom for family, and that’s very rare. The days of typing to fans and interviewers on BBs was bad enough. You are welcome to see my chin waddles, but not a typo.

  9. Excellent tips, John—thanks! As for mics and echo, my wife and I use a low-cost TONOR TC30 (available from Amazon) hooked via USB to Apple computers. I put the microphone inside a storage box lined with foam padding, which eliminates most of the echo in our cavern-like loft. When recording, to clean up any remaining hiss or echo, we use free software, Audacity, recommended by the folks at Udemy. If that’s of interest, Dusty Porter gives a short YouTube video on “How To Remove Background Noise in Audacity.” To record videos, we use Canva Pro, easy to use and includes thousands of video and art elements to dress up your work. For detailed courses, ScreenFlow 10 knocks it out of the park, including excellent customization of audio recordings.

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