I know this is mostly an audio blog, but in my last post I talked about how to make your voice sound good when participating in a meeting on Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams or similar online meeting formats. But in participating in these meetings, I have become aware that the visual image of many participants is weak in various ways. Having been a photographer and network television producer I have always been concerned with imagery, not just the audio. This post discusses pointers for making your own image as a participant stand out. It is not about how to show videos, Powerpoint slides, or still pictures you have taken when participating in an online meeting, just how to make you, as a participant, look good.
Some factors which influence the visual quality of your participation are:
The quality of the camera you are using
Being involved in professional cinematography, I do own a high-end professional high-definition video camera. But, of course, I would not bother to set that up just to record my face on a Skype or Zoom conference. For that I use the camera that most people do: the ones built into my cell phone, my laptop computer or my desktop computer (even with an inexpensive USB camera attached if necessary). So, the secret here is not to worry about a professional camera, but to use professional video production techniques to get good results from these built-in cameras.
The visual environment where you are talking
A good first step is to figure out a good place to record. In the previous post I talked about places where the sound would be best, but you need to consider a place where the video is best also.
I suggest a simple background when possible, something plain that does not draw the viewer’s attention to it instead of to you. It might even reinforce the perception of you. And try not to “wear the background.” What I mean by that is if you are sitting in front of a beige wall, try not to wear a beige shirt so you blend in too much with the background. Wear something that contrasts with the background. Also try to avoid clothing that might distract from you because of its colors, pattern, or imagery. Simple and plain is best.
If you are in a discussion group about sailing, it might look cool to have sailboats in the background. That does not mean you necessarily have to participate on Zoom from a dock near a sailing center. Professional newscasters and weather forecasters often stand in front of a plain green background and use capabilities in the studio vision mixer to make it look they you are standing in front of a background from another source (camera or slide). With video conferencing software these days, such as Zoom or Skype, you can actually change the background behind a relatively normal shot of yourself even without a green screen. But be careful you are not confusing the viewers. If you live in a snowy community in the winter, but have a background of swimmers on a beach in the tropics, realize that your image might confuse viewers and even have them questioning if you are where you say you are.
The lighting on you and your background
This is one of the most important considerations. Our eyes can see an enormous range of brightness, meaning that if there is a bright background, we can see even small detail within something located in a shadow area in front of it. But a camera cannot do that. Thus, if you sit with a bright window behind you and put your camera point your camera towards you and the window, most likely the outcome will be a video of the window with you as a dark silhouette in front. Not good. Of course, you could place bright photographic lights in front of you to compensate for the light coming from the widow, but that would be inconvenient for a Zoom conference. A simple solution would be to sit back from the window, and face the window, putting your laptop camera between you and the window with the window behind your camera and in front of you.
For accurate pictures of you, soft light works best. That means avoiding harsh theatrical spotlights or direct sunlight on your face. Unless you are making a horror video, harsh lights produce spooky shadows and can also make you squint. If you are doing regular Zoom or Skype meetings you can buy soft video lights used by networks and other professional cinematographers, but usually that is overkill for casual meetings. It is amazing to me how well cell phone cameras or cameras built into laptops and tablets these days do in low light. But think about where the light comes from. Also, if you have a bright table lamp next to you the laptop or phone camera may try to compensate for that by making you look dark since it cannot handle the brightness range your eyes (looking directly on) can. So those lights should be kept out of your picture frame.
The focus range of your camera
Your eyes change focus so fast you don’t even realize it. You can look at a long landscape then look down at a book and both seem in focus. Cameras cannot do that so well.
One way to make yourself stand out in a picture, as on Zoom or Skype, is to be in focus while the background is slightly out of focus. In photography that is called “selective focus.” My version of Skype allows me to blur the background some while keeping my image in focus. Photographers using professional cameras do this my using a wide f/stop, such as F/2, and a fairly long focus (telephoto) lens and focusing only on the person being photographed. Most cell phone and computer cameras have a fairly wide-angle lens that keeps more stuff in focus. That can be good sometimes but can also make it hard to practice selective focus.
However, I find the reverse problem more annoying. Cameras and cell phones try to “guess” at what is most important and keep those things in focus. I have participated in many Zoom and Skype meetings where the background behind a person is in good focus – I often can even read the titles of books on a bookcase behind the subject — while the face of the subject is often not in good focus. Without having a manual focus control, as one would get with most dedicated cameras, the best solution is to sit slightly farther back, closer to the background, to stay in focus. Of course, another good solution is to use a plain neutral background so the focus mechanism in your camera or laptops sees you as the main subject.
The composition of the visual frame
There are many tutorials that show people good photographic composition for still or motion images. I can’t go into them all here but most can be boiled down to one major principle: compose your image so the viewers eye is guided to you or to whatever you are trying to show. That means look for composition “lines” that guide the viewer’s eye. Also consider contrast so what is most important stands out. And make sure the main subject (probably you) is in focus even if the background is somewhat out of focus because you are using selective focus (see above). Your main subject does not have to be centered as long as your composition guides the eye to what you are trying to show. And be careful also about “headroom” — the space from your head to the top of the frame. Too much can make it look like you are slouching and too little can make it look like your head is touching the top of the frame, or even cut off by it. If you move around during the Zoom or Skype session, adjust your camera position as needed.
The quality needed to accomplish your task
It surprises me to see how good the video quality is on most very recent cell phones, laptop cameras, and tablet cameras. You might need something more professional if you are part of the major network TV show, but following the pointers I have given above you can probably create an image that will work on a virtual conference. For video work involving network TV or shooting a movie for release, you might need to be concerned with other technical elements such as color balance, contrast range, etc. but for participation in video conferences with modern cell phones and tablet/computer cameras, usually you are fine with their default settings. Whew! Fewer things to think about.
I have tried to keep this relatively short and to the point. Obviously, there is a lot one can learn about audio and visual communication in internet chats. If there is something you want to see expanded in a future post, then feel free to comment in the feedback link. The “picture telephone” was something that was envisioned long before it became economical to do. With cell phones and cameras/microphone on computers, it is now common and easy. But it all takes some practice to make it truly successful. Good luck.