Improving Your Camera Appearance On Video Conferencing

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed business meetings forever. Committees and workgroups previously always met in person in a conference room but the need for social distancing has led to conference calls now replacing in-person meetings. Whether you use WebEx, Zoom, GoToMeeting, Blue Jeans, or some other meeting application, you are now on video camera and how you use that camera can greatly influence how you present yourself to other people. Lighting, background, and camera position can make the difference between you coming across as a professional or as a dud. Here are some tips to make sure that you use video conferencing to best effect.

Be aware of what is behind you

Video conferencing from your kitchen with a stack of dirty dishes behind you or from your basement with that poster of dogs playing poker that you’ve had since college is not going to project a image of competence and dedication to the job. Also, be aware of a plain wall that can create an institutionalized presence. A window with people or cars passing by can be distracting. I prefer an uncluttered bookshelf (just be careful what book titles are on that shelf!).

Be aware of what you are doing

When my mind starts to wander during video conferences, I start to scroll through the various participants to see what people are doing. Inevitably, someone is eating, or doing a crossword puzzle, or watching television. It is easy to forget that just because you are alone in a room, everyone is still watching you. Also, many video cameras will have auto-focusing lenses. if you move, particularly from front to back, you will become blurred for a moment while the lens refocuses. If you move back and forth frequently, then you will appear blurred more often than you appear in focus.

Get the correct camera position

The camera should be lined up horizontal and level with your face. This can be tricky if you are using your cell phone since it is often too easy to just lay the phone flat on your desk next to your computer screen or prop your phone up on the desk below your face. You end up giving the conference call attendees a great view up your nose and of your ceiling. A camera mounted to the top of the computer monitor works well. Don’t forget that when you are talking to other person on a video conference, look at the camera and not the other person – it is very tempting to look at the person whose face is appearing on your computer screen but when you do that, your eyes will appear to be looking down to the other person. It is better to look directly at the camera so that the other person perceives that you are having eye-to-eye contact with them. When I video conference with patients during telemedicine visits, I position their video image in the top of my computer screen, just below my camera, so that they perceive me looking at them. I give them warning that I will sometimes be looking away from them as I enter information into the electronic medical record that I have pulled up on a second monitor.

Lighting makes a big difference

I have moderated our our College of Medicine’s weekly continuing medical education webcast, MedNet for 18 years, and moderated its predecessor satellite television program, OMEN-TV (Ohio Medical Education Network) for 4 years before that. I’ve spent a lot of time in television studios over the past 22 years and have come to appreciate the importance of lighting. Most people don’t have formal studio lights at home but a couple of well-positioned floor lamps or table lamps can make a big difference. If you want to spend a little money, you can get a good quality basic 3-light set of studio lights with umbrellas for about $50. Here is how I have my office set up for video conferencing with the blinds shut, overhead fluorescent lights turned off, and a 3-light studio lighting set. Different lighting can affect how you look on a video conference:

  1. Natural window light. Different types of light bulbs will have a different color of light and this can affect how you appear on a video conference. Natural sunlight is ideal so if you can position yourself so that you are facing directly toward a window, you can get good, even lighting on your face. However, many offices are laid out so that the person is not facing directly at a window because it can create eye strain when a computer monitor is set up on the desk with the sunlight coming directly into the person’s eyes. Therefore most offices will have a window to the side of the desk. This can create asymmetric lighting of a person’s face during a video conference resulting in a shadow across half of the face, such as you see in this photo (I apologize for the stern look). If the sun is shining directly in the window, then that will further accentuate the shadows on one side of the face and cause glare on the other side of the face.
  2. Overhead ceiling light. This is what is generally installed in most offices and is very functional for most day-to-day office work. However, it can create glare on the top of the head, particularly if you happen to be bald or have a large forehead. Furthermore, this will create shadows from your eyebrows that can make you look sinister.
  3. Computer light. One of the problems with using your computer as a light source is that the amount of light and the color of the light can vary from moment to moment, depending on what is on the computer screen at any given time. When doing a video conference, you can’t get away entirely from the computer screen since you will usually be watching other people on video or looking at PowerPoint presentations when you are on camera. But if you rely entirely on the computer screen light, it will make it look like you are living in a cave.
  4. Studio lights. A basic studio light set up will include a right frontal light, a left frontal light, and a back light. The left and right lights will generally be mounted slightly above the subject and the back light will be close to the floor behind the subject. By using umbrellas on the left and right lights, you can diffuse and soften the light. If the light is still to bright, you can reverse the lights and umbrellas so that only light reflected off of the umbrella reaches the subject. If you don’t have studio lights, then a couple of lamps can work nearly as well. This photo uses a 2-light studio lighting set (with the back light turned off).
  5. Be aware of what you are wearing. If you have a dark background, you should be wearing lighter colored clothing. Otherwise, you will fade into whatever is behind you. A back light can help offset this by creating more definition to the border between you and the background but back lights are often impractical in a regular office. If you keep a jacket or sweater in your office that contrasts nicely with the office background, then you don’t have to be constantly planning your wardrobe around whether and where you’ll be doing a video conference later in the day. Ideally, you should choose a background that creates contrast with your skin tone – if you are have a  light complexion, then a dark background is optimal but if you have a dark complexion, then a lighter background helps to create contrast. If you don’t have a choice in the background, then using a back light can help to provide some contrast to help separate your face from the background.

Put the camera at the right distance.

Ideally, the camera should be 2-3 feet from you. You will amplify your nose and chin due to distortion if the camera is too close. If the camera is too far away, then you will appear small and this can negatively affect how others perceive you on a video conference. However, each camera is a little different so you have to experiment a bit to find the right distance. Also, if the camera is too close, then it accentuates things that you may not want accentuated, like your 5 o’clock shadow (all physicians at our hospital were required to shave their beards during the COVID-19 outbreak this year so that they could be fit-tested for N-95 masks so I’ve recently experienced the 5 o’clock shadow for the first time in 35 years!). If your entire face fills the video screen, the people viewing you on a video conference will perceive that you are very close to them and it can create a sense that you are encroaching on personal space.

Humans most effectively communicate with a combination of sound plus visuals. Facial expressions, body positioning, and hand gestures can greatly enhance speech alone. In order to optimize your presence and be as persuasive as possible during a video conference, you need to be aware of how you appear on camera.

April 12, 2020

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital