Home Careers Looking Great on Zoom Video Calls: Advice from a Filmmaker
Looking Great on Zoom Video Calls: Advice from a Filmmaker

Looking Great on Zoom Video Calls: Advice from a Filmmaker

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Image courtesy of the author.

By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, In Military, InCyberDefense and In Space News

Welcome to 2020, where business is now conducted from the relative safety of your home. For many of us, Zoom and its competitors (Skype, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex, to name a few) are how we stay engaged with bosses, subordinates and team members in the age of COVID.

Your primary goal in these meetings, aside from looking like a movie star, is to make a meaningful connection with your teammates. Now, it’s time to up your game when it comes to Zoom video calls. Your career might depend on it.

How many times have you had to suffer through abysmal audio or washed-out video from a colleague? What’s worse are those occasions when people abandon the video altogether and throw up their thumbnail photo. While disabling video temporarily is fine at times, nothing says ‘I don’t care about this conversation’ more than leaving your 15-year-old Glamour ShotsTM photo in place while you speak.

Making the Best Impression on Zoom Video Calls

Let’s start with video. Many of us will settle for the two-megapixel camera on our 10-year-old company-issued laptop, and that’s fine.

The biggest mistake I see in new filmmakers is the rush to buy expensive cameras and lenses before learning the fundamentals of video.

Zoom video call O'Donnell
My typical setup for making a Zoom video call. Image courtesy of the author.

Fancy equipment isn’t always necessary to shoot a quality video. Director Danny Boyle’s incredible 2002 film “28 Days Later” was (mostly) filmed on an 8mm DV camcorder! And there have been some truly majestic films shot on nothing but an iPhone.

If you really wish to upgrade, you can get a solid high definition (1080p) webcam from Amazon or Best Buy for under $50. This small purchase pays huge dividends in image quality.

In fact, I often forward my Zoom invites to a personal email. This practice allows me to break out of the company ecosystem and participate in calls using my own equipment on my own desktop.

Correct Camera Placement

Let me ask you a question: What is the single most unflattering camera angle? If you guessed “the camera at a low angle looking up at you,” then you guessed right.

In film, there are certain artistic or story-driven reasons why you might place the camera above or below your talent. For instance, in Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing,” Spike would often keep the camera low to give his characters the feeling of more power.

But for Zoom video calls at work, a low camera simply adds unnecessary weight to the subject and draws attention to your neck. Unfortunately, this is the single most common camera placement in work-related video calls.

Why? Because for many people, their camera is attached to their 15-inch laptop screen, which is sitting on their desk below them. The ideal camera placement is at eye level. If this means you need to set your laptop on a stack of books, that’s fine.

Make Eye Contact with the Camera during Zoom Meetings

This one is a little tougher. But once you practice a little, the results can be amazing.

As humans, we like to look at the person that we are talking to. When you’re having a conversation in person, this works fine. But on Zoom calls, the camera lens is the equivalent of their eyes.

It’s tempting to look at the person on your screen when you are speaking. But what other people are seeing is you looking down or off to the side.

When it’s your time to speak, practice speaking directly into the camera by making eye contact with that glossy black circle. I know…it’s tough. Director Werner Herzog once said, “It’s like Death staring at you when you look at a camera.”

But once you get good at it, people genuinely feel more connected to you.

Use Good Lighting

The next most common sin, but equally as egregious as poor camera placement, is poor lighting.

Ask any cinematographer. Proper lighting can make an amateur scene look epic, just as improper lighting can make a big-budget film look like hot garbage (see “Justice League”).

Like you, I’ve seen dozens of Zoom participants who are either entirely dark or washed out in blinding light.

Zoom video calls
In this image, the lighting is too dark. It’s impossible to make out my facial expressions!
Zoom calls
Here, the lighting is TOO bright and washes out my face.

Let’s break down the basic lighting components of a documentary interview (because that’s the closest analogue to our Zoom meetings).

When I participate in a Zoom meeting, I use what’s called a three-point lighting setup. Sound expensive and complicated? It’s not.

The first light is called the “key light,” and it is the primary light that illuminates your face. You can use any lamp with a light bulb, so long as it’s not shining directly on your face.

I bought a $20 ring light on Amazon that emits a nice soft light. But if you are using a regular lamp, shine it on the wall behind your screen. That allows the light to soften (which is known as diffusion) before it hits your face.

key light
The first piece of my three-point lighting: The key light. Image courtesy of the author.

I like to put the key light at a 45-degree angle to the camera. This creates shadows on my face, which creates depth.

The ring light was designed in such a way as to encourage you to put your camera in the ring. But when your camera and key light share the same angle (zero degrees), it lights up your entire face equally. This lighting is great for YouTube makeup tutorials, but not so much for cinematic lighting unless that’s the “look” you are going for.

The second light in a three-point setup is called the “fill light.” With your key light at a 45-degree angle, you might find that the shadows on the dark side of your face are too dark.

That’s where the “fill” comes in. It’s simply a low-power light or even a reflector that can lightly fill in some of the shadows, so you don’t lose all detail.

For me, my fill light is often my second monitor.

Even if you had no other lights other than the key and fill lights, your Zoom calls would look better than 90% of your colleagues. Lighting past this point is just icing on the cake.

The third point in lighting is called the “back light” and its sole purpose is to separate you from your background. Having a gentle light hitting the back of your head and shoulders creates even more depth and ensures that you don’t disappear into whatever is behind you.

I use an LED panel of lights. But this same effect can be achieved with something as simple as the light from a window or a cheap lamp.

Zoom video calls
The third piece of my three-point lighting: The backlight. Image courtesy of the author.

There is a fourth light that helps illuminate the background but is not always necessary, especially if it’s distracting. My fourth light are some subtle LEDs lighting up a bookshelf where I keep my lenses and other camera equipment, as well as a fireplace on the wall.

Creating Good Sound

There’s an old saying in Hollywood: “An audience will sit through a film with a bad picture but good audio, but an audience won’t stay for a film with beautiful visuals but bad sound.”

Sound is just as, if not more important, than your video image. If you’re lit well and making eye contact, it would be a tragedy to sound like you’re speaking in a tin can.

Zoom video microphone
A quality microphone can be worth the investment. Image courtesy of the author.

But I must stress again that you don’t need expensive equipment. For instance, you don’t need to buy a $1,000 podcast microphone (I use a Blue Yeti mic from Best Buy for $120).

In fact, you don’t even have to spend that much. The earbuds that came with your cell phone will be head and shoulders above the built-in microphone on your laptop or webcam.

Also, minimize background noises when you’re on your call. In addition, mute yourself when you’re not speaking so that any noises you make won’t distract from whoever is currently speaking.

Compose Your Shot

I don’t like rules…especially filmmaking rules. That’s probably because I believe that “art” shouldn’t have rules attached to it. But here’s a rule you might want to take to heart: In a rectangular frame, it’s often more aesthetically pleasing to offset your subject (you) so you’re not in the middle of the frame. This is known as the rule of thirds.

Most modern cameras, including your cell phone, have a built-in visual grid if you would like to use it. Using this grid helps you to create a visual image that is more attractive to viewers.

There is creativity to be found in negative space. You don’t need to fill every inch of your frame all of the time.

Check Your Zoom Background

Your workplace is full of people who desperately want a window into your home life. What’s behind you in the frame reveals a lot about your personal life. From the books on your bookshelf to how clean your floors are, make sure that you carefully craft what’s in your frame.

If you absolutely must use them, Zoom has virtual backgrounds. You can choose one of theirs or create your own.

Just don’t get too crazy with the settings and options. Otherwise, you might end up like the woman who turned herself into a potato during a Microsoft Teams meeting and couldn’t figure out how to turn it off.

Remember, meaningful connection is the name of the game. Make yourself stand out in our new normal by putting some effort into your Zoom video work calls. Your career will benefit.

About the Author

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and managing editor of In Space News, In Military and InCyberDefense. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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