It seems almost all of us have been involved in more video conferences the past five months because of the pandemic. Offices and classrooms are closed and a lot of paid work is being done. The learning and workspaces have definitely moved online for many of us. But there are also teleconferences with friends and family that are purely social. I have used Zoom, Google Meet, Webex, Slack and Microsoft Teams for formal presentations, courses, social calls and team meetings.
We are also seeing newscasters and celebrities broadcasting from home with surprisingly varied results and quality. I am no longer surprised to see a well-known person who has the resources and motivation to look good on screen look really bad. There are some basic video tech tips that everyone should follow, but before I get to those I want to list some non-tech items that fall under the heading of being prepared.
- Prep your desktop. Do you need notes or a way to take notes? If you use papers or another device make sure they are off-camera and won't block the camera or your microphone.
- If you're using a phone or tablet, put it horizontally so that you get a full video frame. Have you ever watched a movie or TV show that was in a vertical format? Of course not - think movie screens.
- Hang a "Do not disturb" sign on your office door or at least warn people that you're going to be on air and to give you some privacy. Mute other phones nearby. I've been on several calls where someone's other phone rings or the cell phone rings while they're on their laptop.
- How you dress depends on the formality of the conference but avoid pinstripes and checks, which can create distracting moiré patterns on camera, and try not to wear bright white or deep black clothing, because many webcams have automatic exposure settings and will adjust to the brightness or darkness of those colors.
- When you position your camera, try to have it at your eye-level. You might be able to adjust the chair you use for that. You should be sitting straight up not slouched back on a couch. Low and high angles are unflattering. Leave those for horror films. Pros and semi-pros use a tripod to hold their camera or phone and you can get those relatively inexpensively, but there are also less expensive tablet and phone stands.
- On the more tech side of preparedness, I would say lighting is at the top of the list. Bad lighting can ruin a video. Most people don't have a studio lighting kit to work with or knowledge of three-point lighting schemes, so here are simple things to do. Do have the main light source behind the camera and pointed at you. That's true when using a sunny window or any kind of lamp. Do not have the light behind you or you might be a silhouette. A single bright light on one side of you might make for a dramatic photograph but not a good video. The light, like the camera, is best at eye level because higher or lower create unflattering shadows on your eyes, nose and chin. Again, leave that to the horror films. I sometimes use a sheet of white poster board to bounce the light on my face for a softer look. You might also point a bright lamp at a plain wall or ceiling to get softer light. If you have a smaller desk lamp around that you can point in different directions (such as a gooseneck one), that can work pretty well. If there are shadows on your face and you're using natural sunlight as your main source you can add the artificial light source to fill in the shadows. If you wear eyeglasses, try to avoid glare and reflections on them. You may have to adjust the angle of the light.
- It's a video meeting but being heard clearly is actually more important most of the time. There are people who connect by phone without video sometimes so all that have is your audio. Being in a quiet room. Try to avoid echo which shows up in empty rooms, halls and bathrooms (Yes, I know you sound great singing in the shower but...) Many people just use the microphone built into their laptop, phone or tablet which can be fine if you're close enough to it. If being close enough means you end up with a giant closeup of your face on the video then the microphone is an issue. Many people buy a special headset of higher-quality but also try out the earbuds that came with your phone (the optional wireless ones are great)
- Position yourself a distance from the camera that gives viewers a head and shoulders shot. Further back is better than too close. (Do consider that microphone though) When talking, look at the camera rather than at the screen of that iPad or laptop so that there is eye contact.
- People get concerned about the background in their video and may choose a location based on that rather than on the more important lighting considerations. Zoom and other apps actually allow you to put in a fake background. Newscasters might use a fake studio set and friends might put themselves on a beach or on the Moon. I'm not a fan of that and sometimes doing that causes odd halo effects that are very distracting. My suggestion is to avoid extremes. A blank white wall is not flattering but either is a busy background of shelves filled with clutter. I know that many academics and writers like to use bookshelves as their setting.
- You should practice with the setup and application you are using. All of the applications have websites with help on how to test your video (such as this one from Zoom). You should be aware of what tools are available and how to use them well before you go on air. Too many people don't know very basic things such as how to mute/unmute, change their ID on the screen, ask a question, use the chat function, etc. Practice may not make perfect but it certainly will make better. There are also many videos on YouTube with tips about the tech side of things and for specific applications. Some application help videos are even specific to certain users. The two screenshots shown here are from a Zoom training video that is for educators. Educators will want to use some of the more advanced tools in the apps, such as screen sharing, breakout rooms, whiteboards, etc.
- Finally, you want to look your best whether this is a job interview or saying hello to your granddaughter. The pros use makeup so that they look good under the bright lights, but for most of us, your ordinary makeup, groomed hair and a video-safe shirt or blouse is enough. If there is some shine on your face from the lighting a simple wipe with a soft cloth might be enough.