It’s All About Lighting (And Some Other Things Too…)

A snackable and in-depth guide on how to get the best lighting & visual presence for your next video call

Video calls were becoming a norm before the COVID-19 epidemic, but now it is safe to say video calls will be integral to the future of work. With tech giants such as Twitter looking at working from home as a long-term offering for employees. According to The Guardian, video-conferencing is going through a massive surge in usage and is expected to grow, as seen with over 62 million downloads experienced by video conferencing software alone over 10 days in March.

Video-conferencing seems like it is here to stay.

Despite its prevalence, many people are not as prepared as they should be regarding their video-conferencing setup. The purpose of this guide is to help professionals get the most out of their video-conferencing experience, enabling us to put our best foot, and best look forward when speaking on live video.

This guide is meant to be more of a handbook, with each section being written independently of the others, grouped in categories. Have fun reviewing and incorporating these tips into your video-conferencing repertoire.

Sections of Article (Click ahead to what interests you, come back for the rest!)

  • Cameras and Tech (Stocktaking; Updating)
  • Lighting (Natural Lighting; Artificial Lighting; Spotlighting; DIY Lighting Setup; Balance Lighting; Mirrors)
  • Background and Décor
  • Clothing and Accessories (Style; Contrasting; Colour; Accessories; Patterns)
  • General Tips (Skin Tone; Setup; Framing; Accessibility; Checking Yourself Out)

Cameras and Tech

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Stocktaking: Use your best front-view camera

These days, many professionals have multiple devices at their disposal for work, play, and everything in between. Many of these devices have front-facing cameras on them, such as laptops, smartphones, and tablets. The first step is to do a stocktaking of all of your available tech with front-facing cameras and using your best camera for your video-conferencing needs. In some instances, you may be surprised to discover that your newish and shiny smartphone may have a better front-facing camera then your slightly newish and not-so-shiny laptop. You can usually do this in one of two ways, first, you can check out the technical specifications of each of your devices, or you can simply test each one. When comparing information devices, look for overall picture quality, pixelation, and ability to work in lower light. Tech specs to look out for mainly involve the camera resolution or amount of megapixels (MP). A general rule of thumb, the higher the number, the better.

For example, when looking at Macbooks, most of the front-facing cameras are 720p HD while the iPhone 11 has front-facing cameras of 12MP capable of 2160p HD resolution. According to the specs between these two devices, the iPhone may be a better bet for your camera. Another thing to take into account is the supporting hardware and software of each device will also contribute to your video conferencing experience, so I would recommend testing as the go-to method for determining which device you should use for video-conferencing.

Update. Update. UPDATE!

To get the most out of your hardware and software, make sure you update your technology as required. That means software (apps and desktop programs), firmware and system updates, and hardware (if required, you may simply need a new device). Updating your technology will provide the best performance for your respective setup. Sometimes things can go awry with new updates, and when this occurs, getting in touch with the relevant company or manufacturer is the best we can do to sort out these issues.

Lighting

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As the title of this article denotes, it IS all about lighting. When engaging in video-conferencing, lighting is crucial for making a good impression. According to Dustin Smith from Lifesize.com, proper lighting matters for videos in multiple ways, including:

  • Illuminating facial expressions, with proper lighting eliminating unwanted shadows that may alter a person’s facial expressions, confusing meaning, and intention in communication
  • Minimizes distraction, again eliminating unwanted shadows and excessive glare from light sources
  • Renders realistic colours, be it through colour temperature (warm or cool colours) or auto white-balancing, making sure colours are accurate is key, especially for industries that heavily rely on colour distinction such as visual design, construction, or architecture.
  • Helps you achieve the best video quality for your calls

Natural light is a great (and fickle) source of ambient light

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If you are fortunate to have a great source of natural light, be it a window or a skylight, you can benefit from it for your video-conferencing needs. Natural light is amazing for bringing out a wholesome and natural look, it is also outside of your control. Clouds, overcast weather, or even the sun’s position changing mid-call may affect your ambient lighting levels.

When using natural lighting, be sure to make note of the time of day of the call, the weather, and having a supplemental/backlight source always helps.

Artificial lighting is everywhere and that is a good thing. Aim for the 3-Point Setup

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Artificial lighting is consistently available for all of your lighting needs, just ask a photographer or videographer. With artificial lighting, you can make whatever setup works for you. As a starting point, aim for a ‘3-point’ lighting setup. Think of a hand-clock, 12 o’clock as the camera, with 11 o’clock and 2 o’clock each having a lighting source, with a final light behind you forming a backlight. Go around your place to find lamps, spotlights (more of this later), and even positioning your overhead lights as backlights can work. Check out the below video featuring some creative 3-point lighting setups with lamps at home (or in the case of the video, a hotel room).

Spotlighting

Spotlighting is when you use a concentrated beam of light facing directly towards the subject, in this case, your face. When using spotlighting, think of the old tale of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears. Not too harsh, not too soft, but just right. Soft directional lighting is the most preferred for spotlighting. Think of using a lampshade or a diffuser to help out here as using bare bulbs provide a harsh light that is being washed out throughout the whole room.

Try your phone backlight for an easy spotlight

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Many smartphones have backlights that act as a flash for taking pictures. If you are not using your phone as your primary camera, try turning it around and turning on the flashlight (or torch) for a spotlight. This light could be one of your lights used in your 3-point light setup. Be mindful of whether the lighting is too harsh which may contribute to unnecessary glare.

Avoid being melodramatic: When using spotlighting, make sure you have adequate balancing lighting

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When using a spotlight, balance is key. If you only have one, it may create harsh shadows on your face, skewing facial expressions, making you look like a B-movie supervillain. The solution? Using another light on the other side of the spotlight to balance out ambient lighting, minimizing shadows. Although having prominent shadows does have artistic value for photographers, it doesn’t translate well for video calls.

A tip: Try to make sure the lighting on both sides is of a similar type and temperature, (both fluorescent or both incandescent). If they differ in type, it may create uneven textures and colours. On the flip side, depending on your lighting setup and skin tone, you may be able to use different types of lighting to balance out your needs. Play around and see what works for you.

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The Power of Mirrors

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If you lack enough lighting sources or are in a situation where you have an excess of spotlights and not enough diffused light sources, using mirrors may be an answer worth exploring. You would want to position a mirror to face you while shining a light on it. Mirrors can reflect lighting while diffusing it, or spreading it out. This is a way to turn your spotlights into ambient light, or vice-versa if you have the right lighting sources, and mirror sizes.

Background and Décor

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Backgrounds and in some cases, décor, can enhance the overall visual quality of your video-conference call, as well as allow you to inject some personality for the benefit of your audience/colleagues. Using brightly coloured or toned backgrounds, such as a simple white or off-white wall, is a great place to start. Luckily, most living space walls are white or off-white, so this is an easy win.

A tip: If you have walls that feature more of a glossy finish, be sure to watch out for lighting glare.

Your background and décor choices, such as plants, books, bookshelves, art pieces can add a lot of personality to your appearance. A few things to watch out for:

  • Décor is a nice touch, just make sure of what you are showing. Be it art, books, among other décor choices, it is always best to exercise a bit of judgement here, minimizing pieces that may prove to be distracting, or even controversial. A great rule of thumb here is to have a conservative environment for your background and décor. You’d be surprised how many people have some overly provocative or NSFW content in the background of their video-conference setup.
  • When using décor, make sure their visual perspective makes sense for that particular piece. For example, a beautiful bouquet may add a lot of pop to your video call, but make sure it is not too close to the camera, as they may look larger than life, they may also distract from your appearance. Again, this is where testing with some trusted colleagues, family members, or friends could be valuable. When in doubt, just reach out for a second opinion!

According to Sean Berry from Video Maker, your choice of background décor says a lot about you, so make sure you make a good impression as well as select pieces tailored for your personality and your audience is key.

Clothing & Accessories — Complement your style, Contrast when necessary

Just a heads up, this is not a fashion piece. I have little experience in the fashion industry and even less experience being a fashionable dresser. One thing though I do have experience in is dressing for function. When it comes to personal style, the player’s choice — always be professional and be yourself. When it comes to choosing pieces, I would recommend a balance of complementing your style and your background and décor, while contrasting for optimal lighting and better visual quality.

Contrast pieces for optimal lighting

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Clothes are a great way to help increase the overall visual quality of a conference call by adding some contrast. The reason this is important is that without some contrast, it can lead to a boring visual presentation, as well as a less effective one. A few things to take into account when choosing contrasting pieces:

Your skin and hair tone. People with darker skin tones should look for lighter pieces of clothing to add some contrast, while lighter skin tones should look for darker pieces. For folks that have more medium tones, you can add contrast through stronger lighting and an application of colour.

Have you ever been on a video with a person who is all one tone? Skin, hair, clothing, AND background?! I know that has happened to me personally, and it is not a good look. Make sure your top and/or accessories differ enough from your background and décor to make sure you pop.

Colour is your friend

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Grayscale tones, including black and white, are part of all of our fashion repertoire. And in many cases, these tones can do a lot for adding some necessary contrast for a video call. However, be mindful that greyscale tones, including black and white, can contribute to an excess of negative space, which can negatively impact visual quality. The key is to try and use clothing choices to add more positive space, helping viewers focus on you versus your background or even the particular piece of clothing in question. To combat this, a little colour can go a long way! One thing to keep in mind is that colour can vary in tones, so if you’re looking for some darker pieces, perhaps a dark green or a navy? If you’re looking for something brighter, a solar hue like a red or orange can pop on video. Colour helps people differentiate different things visually, and if utilized effectively, can add a lot to overall visual quality.

Watch out for accessory glare and noise

Accessories and jewelry can be a great way to bring some personality to yourself on video. If you have a lighting setup that utilizes a lot of spotlighting, be mindful of accessories or jewelry having too much glare. This can distract viewers and compromise the overall visual quality of your video call. Some accessories can also create unpleasant sounds when moving, so choosing simple accessories tends to work more for you than complex pieces.

Avoid queasy patterns

Have you ever noticed when someone wears a shirt with a pattern and it seems to compromise the video quality of the speaker? It is as if someone’s shirt can give off a ‘queasy’ effect that can be jarring for some viewers, contributing to mild motion sickness. The common pattern culprits for this phenomenon are patterns that feature fixed contrasting shapes that are small in scope, like tight plaid, houndstooth, or gingham. This is something that doesn’t affect everyone, but it always pays to be mindful and respectful of viewers who may have issues with motion sickness. If you have doubts about a pattern, simply elect to wear something else.

Prep some ‘video-ready’ outfits in advance

Taking some of the clothing tips written above into account, have some video call outfits prepped and ready to go for when you hop on a call. This is a common practice in many industries that feature people on video regularly, such as newscasters and journalists. Since most of us will have one or two setups available to us for being on video, spending some time to come up with some outfits for these setups is a relatively easy task.

A tip: Get some friends or family in on the action. This can be a fun get-together idea for people as well, think of a Friday Happy Hour with friends to decide on outfits that work for you on video.

According to Liana Satanstein from Vogue.com, dressing right and putting some thought into your video call style and outfits can have some net-positive psychological benefits as well. Look your best, feel your best!

General Tips and Points of Concern

The following points are additional points of concern for having the best video call you can, with the resources you have.

Keep your skin and hair (body) tones and skin texture in mind

Keeping your body tones in mind when choosing a lighting scheme/setup, wardrobe, a background, and décor choices is something many of us don’t take into consideration when hopping on video calls, but it is something that some of us need to take into consideration. Body tone, namely skin, and hair regarding video calls is only part of it, with skin texture (For example, oily vs. dry skin), which can be another factor to take into consideration, especially when it comes to lighting.

According to Bryan Lufkin from BBC Remote Control, minding your skin texture and health is highly important for video calls, as lighting can highlight oily or uneven skin textures. Exercising a combination of healthy skin hygiene in addition to blotting or light make-up application can help with texture issues.

Play around with different setups around your place

If you’re able to, you should explore different spots around your place for the best video call setup available to you. This may be more tricky in smaller places such as studios or for families in quarantine, so try to go for the best setup you can work with what you have.

Video call framing

When it comes to setting a basic frame or perspective for video calls, go with a basic half shoulder, half bust frame. You don’t want to be a talking head or to show too much body on a video call.

Use a stand and raise your camera if needed

Sometimes, having a stand for your camera or laptop can add a lot to your visual presentation, giving a realistic interpretation of your appearance. Most of us take video calls on laptops and have the camera facing ourselves at an angle. Although this is pretty standard, trying putting your unit or camera on a stand or top of some books for more of a realistic perspective.

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Strong Video (and Audio) Quality is also an Accessibility Issue

Having high fidelity in your video-conferencing calls is not only an issue of presenting well and looking good, but it is also an issue of accessibility for people who have disabilities. Working professionals who have physical disabilities including (D)deafness, Hard of Hearing (HoH), visual impairments, blindness, and learning disabilities may rely on a host of visual and audio stimuli when communicating. For example, for somebody who relies on lip-reading while communicating, distracting shadows, improper framing, or glare, can impede that person’s ability to understand what is being said. Aside from video, ensuring suitable audio fidelity helps folks with visual disabilities to participate.

Checking Yourself Out, Don’t Worry — You’re Not the Only One!

If you are someone who can’t help but check themselves out while on a video call, you are far from alone. Vanity aside, it is a perfectly natural habit. Focusing on your feed during a video call also a sure-fire way to consistently monitor your overall visual quality, lighting changes, among other things that could occur during a call. The key issue with this relates to your line of sight while on a call. Good video-calling etiquette suggests people should look more towards their camera versus other places on a screen. While mobile phones are designed with this in mind, with laptops this can be a concern.

Here is a simple hack for this. Most video-conferencing software enables you to move your video-feed around your screen. Simply lock the call to only show your video and position the window towards the top center of your laptop screen, right by your camera. This gives the ‘illusion’ that you are focusing on the camera, while only we know you’re making sure you look the part throughout the call.

Sometimes, it is okay to work with your habits versus trying to change them.

Do you have any other recommendations to make video-conferencing a bit easier on the eyes for all of us? If so, feel free to reach out. I would love to create a follow-up piece with your suggestions.

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