Jake’s Take: How I Stream Our RPG Actual Play, Part 3 – Digging into Video

Alright! Howdy folks and welcome to part 3 of our Chronicles of Rinn deep dive looking at how we put our RPG stream together. In part 1 we looked at a broad overview of how I put our stream together, and in part 2 we looked in depth at the audio segment, including stuff like microphone theory and some recommendations for audio equipment. This week we’re giving video the same treatment, although I want to open by saying that while I study and work with audio all the time and consider myself to be quite experienced and knowledgeable about it, I in no way consider myself to have the same level of experience with video. If you’re expecting a mammoth post like the audio one with lots of theory and explanation, I’m afraid you’re probably not going to find it here – hopefully you’ll still find something useful though!

So to recap again, for my video feed (again, it’s the one I understand best so the one I’ll talk about) I use a Sony NEX-VG20E camcorder, connected to an Elgato HD60 Pro capture card in my computer (via HDMI cable). I use a Sigma 19mm prime lens with it. Let’s break that all down!

Cameras and Webcams

My camera! I have it mounted on a little clamping arm that’s clamped to my monitor arm. The light mounted on top doesn’t get used any more, but I don’t really have anywhere better to put it and it doesn’t get in the way there.

Alright, so, to my knowledge, there’s basically two categories when it comes to cameras, and that’s ‘real’ cameras and webcams. This much you probably already know. Much like ‘real’ and USB microphones we talked about last time, this basically comes down to the more involved, higher-quality-on-average ‘real’ camera, or your plug-and-play, set-it-and-forget-it USB webcam.

To understand the difference (or at least what I understand it to be), we need to understand that cameras are essentially a digital sensor (I’m talking purely about digital cameras here, film ones are a whole other fettle of kish which I’m not touching). That digital sensor receives light which is focused by the camera’s lens in basically the same way as our eyes work. You’ve seen those diagrams of two rays of light entering our eye and being focused to a point, right? And if you need glasses it’s because the lens in your eye focuses that light to a point that’s either in front or behind your ocular nerve? That’s how cameras work.

The lens is super important and has a bunch of numbers describing how it focuses light. The most important of those lens numbers are focal length and aperture. Focal length is measured in mm and is the measurement between where light enters the lens and where it arrives at the camera sensor, it principally describes how ‘zoomed’ a camera’s image is. The lower the focal length the less zoomed and wider the picture will be, and the higher the focal length the narrower and more zoomed. Aperture, given as fX.Y like f1.8 or something (also called ‘f-stop’), is a measurement of how much light a camera lens lets in. The lower the number the more light it can let in (a lens is usually given with just it’s lowest possible aperture rather than a range of apertures it’s capable of). The other word that came up earlier was “prime lens”. That one’s simple – a prime lens is one where its focal length cannot be adjusted, and its counterpart is a zoom lens (I think), where focal length can be adjusted, usually by a big rotate-y bit around the lens. Prime lenses tend to be less expensive than their zoom equivalent, and they tend to have lower aperture capabilities as well (so they can let in more light, somewhat counterintuitively).

One of the key differences between a real camera and a webcam is that real cameras let you swap lenses (ok, most real cameras) and webcams don’t, making real cameras a lot more flexible (assuming you have multiple lenses available). Real cameras are also much bigger which means they’ve got a bigger sensor and bigger lenses, which usually results in better image quality because manufacturers have more space to work with than on a titchy wee webcam and they can just generally take in more light which is usually good. Webcams also tend to not have information on their aperture or focal length readily available, and what settings they do have are pretty fixed, meaningthe end user just has to work with what they’re given.

That all sounds as if real cameras are the way to go, and yeah, if you’re able for it I think that’s probably true, but the principal difference that will probably decide whether you use a webcam or a real camera is price. Real cameras are…they’re expensive, especially compared to a £20 webcam or whatever’s built into your laptop. Real cameras, similar to microphones, also require some sort of intermediary device between camera and computer that allows the camera and computer to talk to one another. That’s called a capture card, and they’re not especially cheap either. Webcams win on that one because, like USB microphones, they have that capability built in – you just plug them in and let them rip.

Thus ends our tour of camera theory because…that’s about the extent of my understanding. TL;DR: Real cameras are more expensive but more flexible and generally better, except you need to get a capture card as well. Webcams are cheap, simple and straightforward.

Lighting

The other really important thing I’ve found with video is lighting. I’ve been continually surprised just how much light cameras need in order to perform at their best, and I think it’s something that most people really underestimate. I probably still do! If you’re unhappy with the image your webcam or camera is giving you, if you’re dark or it’s not focusing on you right or the picture’s grainy, turn more lights on. Number 1 suggestion – I think it’s the absolute cheapest and most straightforward way to make a video feed look better, and many ‘bad’ webcams or cameras would probably produce a quite respectable output if the subject is lit well.

When I’m streaming, I have a big LED panel on a stand behind me to illuminate the room and my face, and a lamp to the right of me that adds a little extra. This makes the room far brighter than I need to see by, but gets rid of all the grain and noise on my video feed that I get if I just use the normal room lights. If you’re really trying to up your lighting game, you want to also be thinking about the position of the light(s) you’re using, and how that affects the shadows they cast. If you have only one light source, it’s going to create a shadow, and you can either adjust the position of that shadow by moving the light source if that’s something you want, or you can remove the shadow by shining a light in an opposing direction. The standard approach seems to be “three-point lighting”, where you have two lights in front of you at about 45 degrees either side, and one light behind you, but most people aren’t in a position to be setting that up (I certainly don’t do that, maybe I should).

Another factor that needs bearing in mind is how diffuse that light is, sometimes referred to as how ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ a light is. A more diffuse light spreads its light output evenly over a wider area, whereas a less diffuse light spreads light less, creating harsher light and more shadows. It’s basically the difference between a bare lightbulb (not very diffuse) and a lightbulb through a lampshade (more diffuse). In most scenarios, more diffuse light is better.

You can make a light more diffuse a few ways, either by shining it through a diffusive material (you can get special light diffusing fabric like what they use on photography lights), or by reflecting it off something like a wall. I personally do both with my big video light – it shines through a piece of diffusing plastic that came with the light, and I have it behind me, pointed at the wall in front of where I sit so that it bounces from that wall onto my face. You don’t get quite as much light this way, but it casts softer shadows and generally looks better. I also find it much less blinding – I used to use a little LED light that sat on top of my camera but I got really bad headaches if I had to sit in front of it for a few hours, obviously not ideal for RPG streaming. My new setup works much better.

Recommendations

I’m afraid I’ve relatively few recommendations to make on the video front – I’d certainly recommend my VG-20E camera but it was originally made in, like, 2009 so finding one might be difficult. For capture cards I use an Elgato HD60 Pro. By and large these come in two varieties – USB or PCIe (goes inside your desktop computer). The HD60 Pro is one of the latter forms but Elgato make USB versions also. I’ve had no problem with my capture card although I’m hesitant to recommend it purely based on the price point. Elgato have positioned themselves as a ‘streamer brand’ which means their products, while good from what I’ve seen, come in at a higher price point than equivalent stuff and I’d encourage you to check out the competition to see if there’s something better for your circumstances. I think AVerMedia are another big name in the capture card industry, I’d probably check out their offerings if I was in the market again.

I can offer a lot more suggestions on the webcam front as when we played in person I was using three or four webcams in addition to my main camera. The Logitech C920 is the one most commonly recommended and I can back it up – I bought a C920 on sale for somewhere around £40 I think and used it for a long time. In our in-person episodes it was the battlemat camera. You can also get a C922 which is a step up from the C920, I believe it was capable of higher frame rates than the C920 but was otherwise basically the same.

For the player cameras in our in-person sessions I used the next step up in Logitech’s lineup, the Logitech BRIO. These ones were great, they could shoot in up to 4K (not functionality I ever used so I can’t comment on the effectiveness), and could do 1080p at 60 frames per second which looked really good. We haven’t touched on frame rates so far but for those that aren’t aware, cameras tend to be able to shoot video in at 30 frames per second and/or 60 frames per second. 30 frames per second is closer to how most films are shot so the output is more ‘cinematic’, and 60 frames per second captures motion better which makes the output look more like real life. It’s mostly a stylistic choice, but it’s nice to have the option available.

Those webcams are still in use in our remote stream, Narinn and Zorgar use the BRIOs and Muir uses the C920 or the C922, I don’t remember. Someone else has the other one. Rurak maybe? Everyone else just uses no-name webcams they’ve accrued at some point, I think. I’ve found the Logitech webcams to be totally rock solid and I’d happily replace them with the same ones were they to die.

My main light! It’s…it’s a light. It’s on a tripod? That’s really all there is to it.

Lighting doesn’t seem to have the same sort of brand presence as cameras and capture cards, and lights are pretty simple beasts so I don’t think you’ll need to look for brands and models in the same way – you can find lighting solutions at all budgets basically. I use a Neewer video light for my main light source, it’s on a Neewer branded stand and I’ve had absolutely no problem with it. It has two different colours of LED (warm and cold white) which you can mix between for your desired look. I don’t think it has a specific name, I picked it up off Amazon a few years ago for about £70 I think, it’s identifying characteristic seems to be that it has 660 LEDs. Otherwise I just use an IKEA anglepoise-knockoff for my side lamp (a FORSA, apparently), and my room light if I feel I need it.

Conclusion

And there we go! Video! Like I say, I’ve not got the same level of knowledge or interest in videography as I do with audio stuff so I’m afraid I can’t offer the same kind of breakdown as last week, but video stuff is a lot easier to find straightforward information about on the web than audio, especially information geared towards streaming.

Next issue we’ll be taking a look at the nuts and bolts of the production – how I have my OBS settings set up, how I capture everything and how I put it together within my PC. This is the stuff I found hardest to find out about when I was starting out so I’m hoping to make it quite a detailed breakdown that’ll hopefully be helpful for folks looking to try their hand at this stuff. See you then!

Chronicles of Rinn streams weekly on Twitch, 19:00 UK time every Tuesday.

1 thought on “Jake’s Take: How I Stream Our RPG Actual Play, Part 3 – Digging into Video”

  1. Pingback: Jake's Take: How I Stream Our RPG Actual Play, Part 2 – Digging into Audio | Animancer

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