Streaming Backgrounds: To Chroma Key… or not to Chroma Key (Part II: Green Screens)

A couple months ago, we brought you a primer on how to have a nice, professional, and branded background using your surrounding environment. This time, we’re discussing the best way to utilize a green screen to accomplish something quite different.

Making the choice to use a green screen is a popular method to avoid having to keep a stream space organized or attractive for your backdrop. Using software like OBS, SLOBS, Xplit, and other popular streaming software makes getting into green screening a breeze.

While we won’t go into specifics of how to configure your particular software for using green screen and chroma key here, we will go into the basics for pulling off a professional looking background utilizing a green screen. 

The Backdrop

When looking for the green screen backdrop itself, there are a few important things to look for in order to make your backdrop function properly.

If you don’t want to fork out the cash for a ready-to-use one, you can make your own by purchasing some green fabric from a craft store or finding some online. Follow these guidelines when getting material for your backdrop:

  • Choose a lighter, brighter, green-colored cloth rather than a darker one. Familiarize yourself with the typical shades of green used on green screens before buying.
  • Make sure the material you select isn’t reflective or shiny. 
  • Wrinkles are the enemy. So find a fabric that will resist wrinkling. 
  • Heavy material is generally better for color, especially if there’s something behind it that might show through. But heavier material is also more prone to wrinkles. 
  • Make sure you get enough fabric to cover your entire camera frame. A good way to determine this is to sit or stand in your stream space and hold your arms out at your sides. And above your head. The fabric should cover this area. 

If you have the cash and just want a hassle free green screen backdrop, one of the most popular is the Elgato Green Screen that will run you between $90.00 – $160.00 USD. They are widely available at places like Amazon, Best Buy, and Micro Center.

Lighting Is Key

Once you have your backdrop, an important part of the setup is to make sure that your green screen is properly lit. Make sure your backdrop is free from uneven lighting or shadows. This goes for your shadow that could be cast on the screen too.

Play with light sources and the distance between your back and the screen to remove shadows as much as possible. The goal is to get a nice, even amount of light across the whole surface of the backdrop with no wrinkles or shadows.

You will also want to make sure there are no bright sources of light from behind the backdrop either. A sunlit window behind your green screen might need to be covered so that the light coming from it doesn’t interfere with the lighting gradient.

The more uniform the surface, color and lighting is on your green screen, the better the chroma key function in your streaming software will work. Below is a basic example of how to achieve the best lighting.

The Transparent Scene

The most common use of the green screen is to make your background transparent. This is how streamers seem to “float” on the screen in the game, with only themselves visible and none of their background showing.

This gives the streamer a very unobtrusive presence on the screen, allowing them to coexist with the various graphics and objects of their broadcast without taking up all the extra space of the frame.

Using this “scene”, you can fit yourself anywhere onscreen without that square boundary box around you. A transparent scene without those sharp corners of your frame and dissimilar background gives your stream a slick and integrated appearance.

The Graphical Choice

If you chose not to use a transparent scene, one of the best things about using a green screen is there are almost no limits as to what your background can be!

Want your background to be a space scene? No problem! Want to be at the beach? The green screen has you covered!

Any static picture you like can become your background. For best results, use a picture with the same resolution that you’re streaming in. You can go higher, of course. But it won’t appear any sharper or clearer to your viewers.

Be careful about using a low resolution or small images as a background. Your stream software may distort or stretch the image in order to make it fit the window, and it could end up looking very ugly.

Be mindful of how “busy” the picture is, as well. A chaotic image that’s busy with lots of action, lines, angles and colors is apt to be more distracting than complimentary to your scene.

A well crafted background image can become the staple of your stream, and be the scene your viewers become familiar and comfortable with when they tune in.

Effects and Overlays

Using a green screen with chroma key enabled also gives you the ability to have effects and overlays to highlight events or give your stream a little flair. There are countless free graphics like the one below available on sites like Gfycat.

A google search for “Green Screen Gifs” will get you a lot to chose from.

The Clothing Conundrum

All this technology is great. It’s enabled pretty much everyone with access to entry level tools to do things only a TV or movie studio could do a decade ago. But there are limitations.

One of the most frustrating limitations, however, is your software can’t tell the difference between your clothing and the green screen!

The chroma key function of your streaming software picks up on a specific shade of color. So anything close to that same shade, like spots on your shirt or your hat, will also be treated as your background.

While you can play with the sensitivity of the software to make it not pick green spots in your clothing, you’ll find that it can become a constant battle to keep the quality up of your chroma key’s appearance.

The easiest way to avoid this is to not wear anything green that is close to the shade of your green screen’s color. Although, sometimes your viewers might get a kick out of seeing holes in their favorite streamer!

What has worked for you? Is a green screen right for you or will you be sticking with a native background? Be sure to check out our previous article on Streaming Backgrounds and let us know what you use!

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