I was on a video conference call the other day—altogether eight working professionals—and I noticed the wide variety of picture quality, from below average to just awful. So much business is done on Skype or Zoom and other video situations using our built-in computer cameras that it's worth talking about. It's important to know how to use these tools to look good, to look professional. So here are some useful tips.
First, always consider your personal appearance.
Even if you're doing business from your home don't use the on-board camera unless you look presentable and professional. In our creative industry that can certainly be casual but it most certainly does not mean pajamas or bathrobe. Remember, you are being photographed. And we all know too well that pictures (and video) can live forever on the internet—especially anything you don't want to! Always dress for business, comb your hair and be well groomed.
Control the Ambience
Close the door to your office or do what you need to reduce the noise and presence from kids, dogs, TV in the next room, etc. If the gardeners are mowing and blowing outside close the windows. Turn off the radio. Omit distractions to the viewer in the background—limit movement. Let anyone you are working with who will be seen in the background that you (and they) will be on camera and ask for his or her cooperation. If you are on your laptop in a public place move to a spot where the background is going to be harmless.
Many years ago, one of the writers at MAD Magazine http://www.madmagazine.com created a very funny article suggesting that with the (then new) capability of video on cell phones what was needed was a portable canvas backdrop of an office and recorded sound loop of office noise (phones and typewriters--remember them?) so you could call home from the local bar and make it look like you were working late! Even today, not a bad idea!
Also, omit distractions for you, so you can give your attention to the camera. Nobody likes talking to someone who doesn't keep eye contact. It's just rude—even on the web.
Position your camera for the best framing.
The fixed wide-angle lens inherent in most computers will distort your face if the computer screen is pointing down at you—or up at you. Tilt your screen (and the computer's camera) up or down to give as normal a view as possible.
The same is true if you are too close. Ideally you want to be seen in a head and shoulders or head-to-chest shot. That should make your image dominate the frame without distortion. Move your computer away or towards your most comfortable sitting position to make you relatively large in the frame without creating distortion every time you move.
The ideal position for a camera is at eye level to the subject. Sometimes a little higher or just a little lower (but not much) will work too. Web cameras are universally built into the top of the screen. Most of the time—if the screen isn't so large it's looking down on you— this makes for a reasonably pleasing angle. If it doesn't, either raise or lower the computer or raise or lower your chair, even adding cushions or phone books if needed to raise you (or the computer) up to eye level with the camera.
One of our callers was mostly hunched over and leaning in too close. The effect was to make them look lower, slightly distorted and dark as they were in shadow and the light from the computer screen was not enough to off set the relatively bright room behind. Position yourself comfortably in relationship to the computer, so you can work sitting up straight. Remember what your mother told you about posture!
Another one of our callers had very unusual framing: the picture was vertical! Now, it's becoming very common for people to shoot cell phone video in the vertical position—it's part of the new skill of one-handed operation of a phone with what I call the magic thumb! As a director and producer it bothers me to see vertical images, I'm so used to traditional, horizontal format. But this had a dual effect. It served to omit any background (distracting or otherwise) from the picture as the subject's body filled the vertical frame (that's good.) But it also left large black bars on the left and the right of the horizontal frame inherent in the Zoom feed (that's bad…OK, not really bad, just different.) Despite his vertical frame only showing up in the center third of his feed, he was close enough to the camera that he did not look smaller than anyone else on the call—just that he had these black bars on either side of his picture.
Bottom line, I had never seen it before. So after the call I contacted him to find out how he did it. Here's his explanation:
I used the iPad, and sat it on its end rather than putting it in landscape position. For no particular reason except the mic is at the top where my voice seemingly naturally goes to and I just propped the ipad on my desk rather than having it up on something higher, and I think if I would have had it positioned in landscape, I would have had to slink in my chair or have my forehead cut off. LOL. It was accidental, but I did notice I was the odd man out, being in portrait position. I didn't think of the point you make about it keeping focus on the subject and less on the surrounding room. Nice accident. ;)
An iPad in vertical position—Something to consider!
If you are using an out-board plug-in webcam try clipping it onto the SIDE of your screen at eye level rather than on the top of the screen where it may create a buzzard's view looming over you. During the web call we're going to be looking down occasionally, taking notes or whatever. Having the camera too high just emphasizes the top of your head—rarely anyone's best angle.
Twist your computer left or right to choose a better background - or for better lighting. Shift your chair accordingly
Consider repositioning your computer to a special location, maybe a different part of the room, just for video calls—a place that will give you better light and background.
Put some light on your face.
Perhaps the most important thing you can do to look good is to add some light to your face—or in the case of overexposure, eliminate some of the light hitting your face. The cameras used in computers are preset and automatic. You generally can't adjust them so you have to adjust everything else.
These cameras don't handle a lot of contrast, that is to say a lot of very bright and a lot of very dark in the same picture. With webcams the key to a good picture, more often than not, is to flatten the contrast: move everything into a medium range of illumination.
Of the eight people on our videoconference only one was overexposed: his cheeks and forehead were shiny hot spots with no detail. You don't have to be a cinematographer to recognize it certainly did not look normal. Perhaps he had a desk lamp shining in his face that wasn't needed. If that's the case turn it off—or put in a smaller watt bulb.
The most common problem however is that your face is darker than the background or the room. Do have some light on in the room so it's not a black pit. But turn off or dim the room lights if it's too bright. The easiest thing to do is put a desk lamp just off to the side of your computer screen. This position (about 30 degrees left or right of where you will be looking) is the classic position for good portrait lighting.
Experiment with the lampshade off and with smaller and larger watt bulbs to find the right amount of light, which will make you look only a little brighter than the background. Also move the light closer and farther away as needed.
Don't point the camera toward a window. Very bright light in the background will fight your face. Better to have the back of the computer toward the window and let the light from the window illuminate your face. Don't let the large computer screen block the light either. Put the computer just off the edge of the window.
Decorate your set.
The classic, generic background for TV interviews is some sort of bookcase. It can hold anything: books to make you look intellectual; awards to make you look successful, family pictures to make you look sympathetic as well as artwork, mementos and more. Choose the items you put in the background of your webcam shot to support your image as a professional. Spend a little time to arrange them so they are pleasing to the eye and complimentary to the your portrait on the webcam. In general try to create a business-like background or at least one that's neutral
Even in our casual business of media and entertainment we do better when we present ourselves as competent professionals—both in person and on the web.
About the author:
John W. Coleman is a producer-director-writer with over 25 years experience in all forms of media, from broadcast TV and radio to cable and interactive web. He is the Executive Producer of Twin Oaks Communications and a member of the Directors Guild of America. He currently serves on the international Board of Directors of Media Communications Association-international.