HOW TO LOOK GOOD ON ZOOM
Control the camera to control your professional image
The techniques for looking good on Zoom and other video conferencing, as used by top executives, influencers and celebrities, are largely unknown to most business professionals. Here our amateur volunteer ‘models’ demonstrate these universal photography principles, and what applies to them applies to all of us.
Five simple steps will transform how you look on video calls. Following them means you can sit down in front of your screen, click ‘start video’ and know that you are in control of your professional image.
It means exploring how you interact physically with your screen and with your camera lens: you are going to position yourself with them in mind. It means looking at your environment, and at what lighting and clothes flatter you. You will only have to go through the experiment once, and then you will be able to sit down knowing how to look great on all your Zoom calls.
Once you are looking your best, we will talk about the single most powerful thing you can do in a video call meeting or interview: make eye contact.
First, let’s find the tiny dot on your device that is the camera lens. You may have never even looked at it before, but now you are going to experiment with its height, tilt and distance to your face.
Here’s how to take control of what that obscure little dot is seeing:
1. CENTER YOURSELF
Show your whole face to look good on Zoom
Take a good look at where you are appearing on the screen. We want to see your whole head and a bit of your shoulders—anything else looks slightly uncomfortable. It reminds us that we are looking at you on a screen, rather than creating the illusion that we are in a conversation together. It’s disconcerting.
You want to appear as though you are at the distance of a normal conversation. Cutting off your chin, or slicing through your forehead, means you are too close to the camera, or that the screen of your device is angled badly. You don’t want your face to take up the whole screen either—as though you are checking for something in your eye in the mirror. It’s easy to make your new colleague feel that you are uncomfortably close.
Your whole head and shoulders appearing on the screen is what looks polished and professional.
So simply find the little dot that is the camera lens and adjust the tilt of your screen, or sit nearer or further away from it, to change what it sees and to make your whole face visible.
Choose your position
Usually your camera lens will be at the center of your device. You give a different impression to viewers if you place yourself right in front of the lens or to one side.
Being centered in your viewers’ screen gives you more presence. Your shoulders will take up as much of the width of the screen as possible, making you look larger and more broad-shouldered. You look more competent, confident, and assertive. You dominate your space.
Sitting to one side, in an asymmetrical position, is more casual and friendly. Asymmetrical poses can show more of the curves and the shape of your body, and look less assertive and less authoritative.
2. CONSIDER YOUR CAMERA’S POSITION
Put your camera lens at the most flattering height
Every camera follows a basic principle that photographers use to change how we look in photos and videos. Whatever is closest to the camera looks the biggest. Closer to the camera = bigger in the photo.
So whatever parts of your face are closer to the camera will look bigger than the parts that are further away, even though the distances are very small. You can see this in action—watch how your face is reshaped when you hold the front-facing camera below you, at eye-level and above you.
What you are doing is choosing whether your chin, your nose or your eyes are going to be closer to the camera, and so you are changing their relative sizes. On the left, Mona’s chin is closer to the camera. In the middle, her nose and cheeks are the closest. On the right, her forehead and eyes are closest, and her eyes look much bigger.
You may want to keep this in mind when you are thinking about how to look good on Zoom. When you position the screen toofar below you, it can be unflattering. Fortunately, you can change the height of any device.
Experiment with how high that tiny dot of a lens should be. You could try using a laptop stand, or propping your device on a pile of books. Or try tilting the angle of your screen to see how different parts of your face look closer to the camera.
The height of the camera affects not only your facial features, but also the impact you make. Let’s see Sally video-calling with the camera lens below her, and then above her.
Lowering your device gives you the Emperor Effect:
- your eyes look smaller, with your eyelids coming down over your eyes.
- your lips and smile may look bigger.
- your jawline is emphasized, making some faces look older, more confident and more dominating.
- you seem to be looking down at your viewers.
This angle can give you an aura of authority, competence and power. The Emperor Effect is heavily used by business executives and politicians for still photos and videos – just don’t put the screen so far below you that all anyone sees is a pair of huge nostrils!
Raising your device gives you the Baby Face Effect:
- your eyes look up to the screen and your lids are raised, which makes your eyes look bigger.
- your forehead looks bigger, and your nose and mouth look smaller.
- your cheekbones cast a flattering, contouring shadow over your cheeks below.
- you hide a double chin or a neck you don’t like.
- you look more approachable.
Larger foreheads, big eyes and smaller jaws appeal to us, since we associate them with a childlike appearance. This angle can make you look more friendly, more approachable and more personable. But you might look younger and less competent. Consider the trade offs and how you want to be perceived on your video calls.
Adjusting the camera height gives you more control over your image than a meeting in person. Sally can choose one extreme or the other, or pick a more neutral height in between.
Here’s Olivier, adjusting the height of his Ipad to try both effects.
3. CHOOSE YOUR VIDEO CALL SURROUNDINGS
Give your background the once-over
You want the camera lens to focus on you. For personal calls, go ahead and let your kitchen or your bedroom express your personality. But for work calls, a fairly blank wall puts the focus on you and what you have to say. A window with blinds, or a large headboard on your bed, can work too.
Why do you want to keep it simple?
Whoever is on the other side of the call may be seeing a lot of clutter in their own environment. And if you are on a big group call, your own photo can be tiny and hard to distinguish. A plain backdrop makes sure that you, your expressions, and your gestures stand out.
You can try to find a background that is different in color from your hair and your clothes, so you don’t fade into it. If you have to take video calls in a cluttered environment, try wearing a single solid color to pop out from the background.
Some video services let you blur your background or put up a photo or virtual background—especially useful if you have family or friends moving back and forth behind you. Just check that, when you are actually on your call, your background isn’t too distracting, and doesn’t make you look like you have a plant or a lamppost growing out of your head!
Find the best light for your video call
Everyone looks bad in bad lighting. It’s worth giving just a moment’s thought to what kind of lighting you have, and where it is before you start your video conference.
The best place for a video call is facing a window. Many of the complicated lighting arrangements in professional studios try to mimic window light.
If you have daylight, whether it’s sunny or cloudy, just turn off the indoor lights and face your window for a uniquely flattering light. Try it and see.
If you have blinds, you can diffuse the light to give your face a slightly smoothing filter. Some video conferencing apps have something similar, such as Zoom’s subtle ‘Touch up my appearance’ option under Preferences/Video, which is designed to help you look good.
If you don’t have window light available, see if you can find a desk lamp to use for video calls. It will let you choose where to put the light, which will make a big difference. It is most flattering to sit with your light source in front of you. Here’s why.
A light directly above you or directly below you casts strange shadows on your facial features.
And a light behind you creates a highlight for the camera lens: it will burn out part of your image with a patch of pure white, which is tiring for your colleagues to look at for more than a few minutes.
But a light in front of you smooths away undereye shadows and softens your features and your skin, as you can see in the photos below.
If you can sit in front of a window, or put a desk lamp on the other side of your device, so it shines gently on your face, you will see the difference.
To get the effect of daylight, a light therapy lamp can be rigged up to your computer for a flattering white light (these are popular in Nordic countries with short periods of daylight).
Influencers and celebrities invest in all kind of lighting products to help them look their best on video calls, but any light shining in front of you will help you put your best self forward.
4. CHECK YOUR CLOTHES
What you are wearing can distract your viewers. Patterns can be overlooked in everyday life, but then spring out at us distractingly on the screen.
The same thing happens if you have a slogan or logo across your chest. You may have forgotten you put it on, but we can’t help reading the text repeatedly, sucking attention away from you.
Instead, try wearing solid colors to let the camera highlight you. You may not want to fuss over your clothes for every Skype call, but consider keeping something helpful on hand wherever you usually make calls: a blazer, a solid-colored sweater, or a scarf that will stop a pattern dominating, cover up a distracting slogan, or even just hide that you are still wearing your pyjamas.
If it’s really important, wear white
Your laptop camera, unlike the human eye and brain, cannot adjust and compensate for different types of light, and might turn you inexplicably orange or blue!
Including white somewhere for the camera to latch onto – either something white on your clothes or in your surroundings – will prevent this.
5. FINALLY, FORGET ABOUT YOURSELF!
Now you’ve located the small camera lens and positioned it so that:
- it can see your whole face
- it is at the right height for your face.
You’ve chosen your setting for important video calls, trying to have:
- a simple background
- light in front of you (daylight, if it’s the right time of day)
- an accessory that camouflages your pyjamas, if necessary
You’ve done all this to look your most polished, and now you can forget about it for the duration of your call. You can be confident that you will look good on Zoom. The reason you are on this video call is to connect with someone. Here’s an important way to do that.
Make eye contact
You know that the camera lens is above your screen. Because we are looking at our screens, we are all having conversations apparently not looking at each other.
Video calls can feel unnatural because we don’t remember to look at the camera lens. We look at the window showing the other person’s face, or we look at our own image. (This is really obvious to the other person, mesmerizing though it is to us.)
The problem is worse if you have several windows open, so keep the window with your conversation centered. Otherwise your eyeballs turn to the side as you look at the other person/your own face, and the whites of your eyes face the camera the whole time.
It’s also obvious if you are reading something in another window: your rhythmic eye movements give you away. And if you are secretly typing, the sound of your keyboard will give you away.
Group calls get muddled because of the lack of eye contact–our eyes are giving off confusing signals. Real-life conversations are a kind of dance in which people take turns speaking, with their eye signals telling us what to do next. (People avert their gaze when they are speaking, and then look at us as they are finishing and giving up their turn. While they are talking, in real life, we are looking steadily at them. We don’t even realize we are doing it.) But on video calls, because we are looking at our screens instead of at the camera, we are all looking in different directions. So we jump in to talk at the wrong time. Being conscious of what your eyes are doing, and what they appear to be doing, can help.
So how do you go about making eye contact? Look at the dot of the camera lens: you will seem to be looking directly at the person you are talking to!
No one can do this all the time, but when you catch yourself admiring yourself on the screen, try redirecting your eyes to the camera lens. Imagine a bullseye or an eye around the tiny dim dot, or just stick a hole reinforcer on it.
Appearing to look into your viewer’s eyes is meaningful: it overcomes social distancing. That colleague, seeing you attentive about their impassioned point, will remember you for it.
Once you sort out the practicalities of the camera position and your surroundings, you can be confident you are presenting yourself at your very best. Ultimately, when you feel confident in front of the camera, you can forget about how you look and focus on what matters most – your words and your impact.