In the Golden Age of the selfie, even the most camera-shy among us are no strangers to flashing our own image. But the magic of the flawless Instagram snap is in the number of takes we get to perfect it (what’s your average? Two shots? Five?). Video chat, by unforgiving contrast, operates in real time, without retakes and filters.
Whatever your relationship with social media, FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts are not just for techies: A Wainhouse research study found that 64 percent of us video conference weekly, and with telecommuting on the rise, a winning digital image has become a professional imperative.
You may think video conferencing doesn’t demand the same level of polish you would bring to an in-person interview or client meeting, but the visual impact remains the same. Video calls can feel like a photo shoot and interview all rolled into one. We’re more self-conscious on video chats, in part because we can see ourselves while we’re talking (awkward). But it’s not just your own appearance that demands your attention on these calls. Your immediate space becomes a mini movie set, and you must play both actor and director as you step into the frame.
Here are five key elements to strategically manipulate as you prepare for your close-up.
Perhaps more than anything else, lighting matters. As a general rule (in life, but also when it comes to video conferencing), avoid fluorescent light, which can cast unflattering shadows. Instead, seek out natural light whenever possible. Avoid overhead lights, too, as they can create nasty undereye shadows.
Once you’ve chosen your best light source, lay out your scene, developing an easily replicable positioning between you, the computer and your lights. Don’t point the light directly at you — direct sunlight can leave half of you lurking in the shadows. Instead, diffuse it to soften the image. Multiple, diffused sources of light are your best bet, like a lampshade or a window with a sheer curtain, or an eye-level lamp off to the side can cast a flattering halo. In general, the light should go in front of you, not behind (so look at the window if you’re using natural light, or place one of the lamps behind your computer).
Choose the Right Clothes and Makeup
Your on-screen image should be aligned with the professional image you project in an office — with a few minor adjustments. Even if you don’t normally wear foundation or powder, consider a light dusting to even out your skin tone on screen. A swipe of eyeliner on the top of the lid and some mascara creates a more alert and awake eye, and a punch of color (matte or gloss) on the lips brings the whole look to life.
In general, you’re aiming for a contrast in color, which can be diminished by the camera (hence the need for a little more makeup than you might wear in real life). Studies show that blood flows differently through our faces when we change expression, and the blood concentration deepens on your cheeks when you smile, meaning blushed cheeks mimic happiness — so adding a little color to your cheeks sends a warm message to your video partner.
When it comes to clothing, avoid patterns and prints (unless they’re very small and dark). Think bold, solid colors. Simple jewelry is best — some button earrings and a small chain, or possibly a single statement necklace, but nothing too overpowering that diverts attention from your face. Bonus: Pants are optional!
Right before you dial in, give your face a once-over: Inspect your teeth and nostrils, and smooth your hair (flyaways can be distracting, as is hair in your face).
Positioning Is Everything
An unflattering camera angle can make you feel like you’re performing in front of a funhouse mirror. Looking down into the camera can give the illusion of a fuller face, whereas a higher angle is far more flattering. Keep the device — whether a phone, laptop, or tablet — at eye level to avoid looking distorted. This is especially tricky when using your phone, so keep it at least an arm’s distance away. Better yet, prop it up on an eye-level surface two feet in front of you. Stack some books under your device if necessary. Tilt your chin slightly down and your eyes up. Keep the entire top half of your body (from your chest up) in the frame. Choose a chair that’s comfortable enough to sit in for a prolonged period of time without fidgeting, but avoid lounge chair territory. And please don’t swivel.
If you need to look at some notes during your call, connect a second monitor to your computer and open them on the additional screen so you can quickly glance at the notes — avoiding the off-putting face-in-screen squint as you try to navigate away from and back to the video screen. Memorize as many points as possible and keep a notepad and pen handy to make some notes with as little visual disruption as possible.
One of the biggest downfalls of video conferencing is the lack of eye contact. Try to resist looking at yourself in the small frame (self-consciousness and vanity are great distractors), and instead do as you would if you were actually looking at the other person live: Look directly at the camera as often as possible, or at least at their face in the screen.
Get the Best Audio/Visual
Replicating a quiet conference room should be your primary goal when setting your scene. If video conferencing is a regular part of your life, consider investing in a USB conference microphone and an external webcam for the most professional sound and picture (but if your camera is HD, pay extra attention to makeup, as high def can highlight flaws). When video streaming freezes or gets choppy, it interrupts the conversation flow, and Wi-Fi can be 30 percent slower than Ethernet — so when your video chat matters, plug in.
Depending on your surroundings, using a headset may be the best bet, particularly if you aren’t alone during your call. However, if you can minimize ambient noise, a video chat without headphone wires hanging along your face feels and looks the most natural. If you have pets, be sure they’re in another room (same goes for children, if possible). Anything that would be considered inappropriate or distracting in-person should also be avoided on video.
What’s in the Background?
Minimalism is your friend. A bookshelf sets the right tone, and a blank wall or a piece of art in the background creates a more serene frame than your kitchen sink or bed. A dark or brick wall can also be particularly flattering.
But don’t mistake simplicity for blandness — it’s nice to have some context. Think of your background as part of the visual story you’re telling. Ask yourself: Would you take a photograph in that position? If not, it’s best to relocate. Avoid clutter, piles of anything, and items that may require an explanation, including anything that advertises a brand/team/place that doesn’t directly correlate with your company.
If you’re an entrepreneur, consider designating one wall as your company wall. Invest in the color and image of that wall and keep it consistent — even if your clients know you’re a solo operation, they don’t need to be reminded that you’re working from home.
If you have an important call, do a test run with a friend or family member — unlike in real life, you can adjust the frame and maximize your appearance. Or just log on and look at yourself before dialing to tweak the variables. Still feeling camera shy? Check out “The Essential Digital Interview Handbook” by Paul Bailo for more professional 411 on video chats.
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the “thinking person’s stylist.” She is the founder of Sociology of Style, which takes an intelligent look at image and culture-related issues and offers holistic image consulting and life coaching services.