There are a lot more video meetings going on, and some of them are important: interviews, presentations, introductions to your boss’s boss – who knows, maybe even a first date. And if you’re lucky enough to have one of those lined up, you’re going to want to put your best foot forward.
We all have experience on how to present ourselves well in person – wear nice clothes, a suit or maybe a collared shirt, comb your hair, a bit of makeup, maybe some jewelry. But then you sit down in front of your web camera, fire up the video preview – and bam! It’s not what you’re hoping to see.
But don’t worry, a few small things can make a huge difference. I’m going to give you seven simple tips you can (probably) implement with things you have around the house that will help you go from this:
To more like this:
- Use lots of light
Modern web and phone cameras are awesome. They can take pictures in terrible low-light situations that would have been impossible a decade ago. But just because a camera can take a picture doesn’t mean that is the picture you’re going to want to use to represent yourself. If your light is poor your video will look grainy and dingy – fine for a regular team meeting, or a chat with a friend, but not the best way to make a great impression.
So bring in a few lamps, or flashlights, whatever you can find. Every bit of light you can get (within reason) will let your camera take higher quality video. But beware – you have to use the light correctly. In fact, adding light in the wrong way will make your face darker, or cast harsh shadows that make you look like a super-villain-wanna-be.
The next few tips will help you use light to achieve best results.
- Avoid back-light
Your face should be the brightest thing your camera sees. Bright lights behind you cause your camera to compensate and can make your face darker instead of brighter. It’s easy to make a mistake with back light. One common fail-job is to set up in front of a window, because damn, your yard looks amazing and wouldn’t people like to get a look at that? No! Remember, the sun is a gigantic nuclear explosion in outer space. The sun makes a LOT of light. Even on a cloudy day, even with thin curtains drawn, if your camera can see a window behind you, you’re going to have a hard time making your face look its best.
Even dim lamps behind you can cause problems. Sure, they can create a neat effect, especially when they have colored lights, but setting up that effect takes some tweaking (and some gear). You can learn how to do it, if you want, but how about you start easy – where the camera can’t see any light source or window directly.
- Diffuse your light
Ever wonder why photographers use those ridiculous gigantic umbrella-dome-things on their lights? It’s because the domes diffuse light. That is, they spread out a light source, so light emanates from the largest possible area, instead of all coming from a single point. When bright light comes from a single point it casts harsh shadows. Your face has all sorts of bumps and ridges that interact poorly with harsh light to make you look terrible.
It’s kind of like the difference between the shadows the sun makes on a sunny day (which are harsh) and the shadows the sun makes on a cloudy day (which are soft). Soft shadows look much, much better on your face that hash shadows do. So you should be careful not to shine harsh light at your face – diffuse it first!
A window can be a great diffuse light source (as long as the sun isn’t shining through it directly onto your face or creating back light).
You can make a diffuse light source taking a light (or window) and hanging a sheet in front of it, so the light passes through the sheet, diffuses across the sheet, and then reaches your face. Remember, you want to make the light source as big as possible, so put the light several feet behind the sheet, so the light-spot it makes is as large as possible.
If you don’t have any appropriate sheets, you can try reflecting the light off the wall too. Try to pick a wall with a neutral color.
- 3-point lighting
A bit more advanced, but if you are using multiple lights you want the brightest one to be in front of you, a few feet to one side of the camera, and maybe a little bit above eye level (this is called the ‘key’ light). It should be as diffuse as possible, but even a diffuse light will cast some shadow on your face, so you might want to use a second, less-bright light in front of you, a few feet on the other side of the camera from the key light to fill in those shadows (this is called a ‘fill’ light).
Finally, if you want to get even more fancy, you could put a light above you, shining down at the back of your head. Put it somewhere the camera won’t see it. It should create a bright rim on you, which will make you pop out from the background and look more alive and engaging (this is called the ‘rim’ light, or sometimes a ‘hair’ light). This one doesn’t have to be diffuse.
- Give your audience a natural perspective
Doing a video conference with your laptop in your lap? Well, your audience perceives themselves as being below you, staring up your nose. That’s not a very natural thing for someone to do. Imagine you’re in a room with someone, sitting across a table from them. Their eyes would be generally at the same level as yours. You’ll make your audience most comfortable by giving them a similar perspective in the video chat.
So try to position your camera at eye height. You might want to pull over a table, stack some books to make a stand, and put your phone or laptop on it.
- Make eye contact
Making eye contact is a great way to build a connection. It lets you communicate with micro expressions and is a big part of natural engagement between people. Unfortunately, when communicating via video chat, it’s hard to make eye contact. You’re doing what your brain is programmed to do, looking at the other person’s eyes in the video feed, but they aren’t looking back from that spot – they are looking through your camera. So to them, it will seem like you are looking down. The further apart your camera and the video on the screen, the worse the effect.
So if you have multiple monitors, make sure your video-chat app and camera are on the same monitor.
And if you have a big screen, position the chat app window as close as possible to your camera. You can do this by shrinking the video window way down and positioning it as close to the camera as possible. Or you can do it by rigging a stand to position your camera in front of your screen, right in line with the other person’s eyes on your monitor. You won’t see as much detail in a smaller video window, or with a camera blocking part of your screen, but your audience will have a much stronger illusion that you are meeting their eyes, which will make them feel more connected, more like you’re interested in what they have to say.
If these tricks won’t work for you, for example if you’re using a phone and can’t move the camera or the video window, try propping up the phone and standing back a few feet. The further away you are from the camera and video display, the less it will seem you are looking away from making eye contact – simple geometry.
- Get a natural sound
Your computer probably has a microphone in it, your phone and laptop certainly do. You can use those for your video meeting, but they might not sound the best. In fact, they can sound quite echo-y and thin, particularly if your room has bad acoustics or if the microphone is more than a few feet away from your mouth (as it probably will be if you’re trying to set up an engaging visual connection).
One option is to get a little lapel mic (also called a lavalier mic). Clip it to your shirt and plug it into your computer’s audio input. You can get some amazing sound out of a pretty cheap lav if you spend a few minutes positioning it well. Here is an excellent lavalier microphone.
Another option, that a lot of professional broadcasters have been using when getting sound from home during Covid, is air pods (or some other Bluetooth audio ear buds). The sound is great, and people are getting used to seeing things dangling out of ears, so it probably won’t be too distracting.
With these tips, things you can find around the house, and an hour of experimentation, you can make your video meetings more effective and engaging.
Good luck and stay safe!
You can view this content on youtube (with many more samples).