It’s time to get real and professional about Zoom and other online calls. Even with the possibility of an end to the COVID-19 pandemic by mid-2021, it appears Zoom calls are a new way of life that won’t go away anytime in the near future.

So, if you’ve been limping along just dealing with the poor quality of your Zoom calls, and your shadowy appearance in them, it’s time to get serious about improving the quality of your appearance on Zoom, starting with the lighting.

Lighting is a particular problem for people of color, especially Black people who are well pigmented. Without proper lighting, you look more like a dark blob than a real human. If you’re Zooming with family, that might work, but for regular business and professional calls, interviews and even dating calls, you need to work on your lighting and your appearance.

It's particularly hard to get good light on Zoom calls. The program doesn’t have a low light mode nor are there any of those filters that so many people are using to make their social media photos look near perfect. So what are you do do?

We’ve dug deep and found some of the best tips on lighting we could get for your online calls, most of them from professional videographers. Here are a few of the tips we found.

Camera

First, start with a good camera.

The cameras on your Android or IOS device are capable of handling the demands of a Zoom meeting. Consider using your front-facing camera, instead of your rear facing camera, because that camera is, generally speaking, far superior to the rear-facing hardware, so it’s going to have an easier time with the video aspect of your meeting.

The problem with using your front-facing camera is you won't be able to see what's going on, so unless you have the ability to plug your mobile device into an external monitor, you might need to strategically place a mirror behind your phone so you can see everyone.

The cameras on laptops and desk tops are notoriously low resolution. So, you might consider purchasing an external webcam to attach to your device. Early on in the pandemic, there was a big run on webcams and they were in short supply. Now the demand has cleared up and you should be able to get a fairly decent external webcam for under $100 and a more professional quality device for $200 or less.

Use external lights

If you can’t afford a new webcam or the one you purchased still isn’t providing you enough lighting, consider adding external lights. Go with LED lights, not incandescent bults. Why? Because LED light is more video-friendly and because they don’t give off as much heat and the last thing you want is lighting that causes you to sweat.

As for fluorescent (or CF) bulbs, their coloration tends to cast people in a very unflattering light. So grab any kind of LED you can. And if you have it, make it a 5-6K daylight bulb. If you opt to go the 3K soft or warm light glow, the light will cast too much amber on you. You want as white a light as you can get.

Always place the lighting in front of you, not behind you. Whether its natural light – the window – or from a lamp, light behind you because the camera will expose for the light and make you into a silhouette. Instead, flip it, and face the window or lighting in front of you.

A few of the professionals suggest three lights, preferably identical. Place one light directly in front of you, one at around 45-degrees to the left and one 45-degrees to the right. Make sure to place all lights behind your camera--otherwise they can bleed too much light into the lens.

If you have the budget for it, a ring light is a perfect solution. Not only will it generate plenty of light, it'll give your eyes that flattering circle of light to make them pop. We just purchased a new video camera with a built-in ring lighting. It’s the best of both worlds, a better camera and additional lighting.

If at all possible, make sure the lights point down from above, not directly at you, because they can be too harsh, or from below, because they'll create sinister and unflattering shadows. However, avoid overhead lighting, that’s not a good look for anyone, too many shadows. Also avoid lighting from below, its kind of creepy.

If you’re using multiple lights, your bulbs should match. That keeps you from having “Shady Face,” that is where half of their face is shaded or blocked in some way.

Here’s another great tip: Set up near a wall and place your external light close to the wall in front of you because the wall will bounce the light from the lamp back onto your face. That kind of glow is more flattering than direct light.

Similarly, if you have a fairly hard light, think about bouncing that light against another surface instead of directing it at you. All that requires is aiming the light at a wall next to you, for example, which then forces the light to re-aim, or bounce toward you, which makes it less strong.

A simple piece of white poster board can help to bounce and soften harsh lighting and also to fill in shadows. You can do the same thing with a white poster board or a piece of fabric that you pin into a frame or tack on to a board.

Ideally, the white surface should be a bit lower than your face — and lower than the camera (and of course behind the camera so it's not seen.) This isn't going to create a huge amount of light on your face, but it can help to re-direct other light back on to you, and create a softer halo effect.

Use natural lighting

If you don't have access to spare LED lights and lighting fixtures, you can always count on Mother Nature. Find a room in your house that allows as much natural lighting as possible. North lighting is good, so take your Zoom calls near a north-facing window. Look for shadows.

Natural light is great, unless it’s too strong. If shadows on the wall are sharp, you might need to dampen the light a bit. Many things can serve as curtains to help dampen harsh light. Try shower curtains, printer paper, pillow cases, or a bedsheet.

If you don't have an internal room with good light, maybe you can take your end of the meeting outdoors – weather permitting

If you live in an area that is relatively peaceful, this is always an option. Just make sure to not place anything in the background of the video that could give away your location. If you're creative enough, you can make an outdoor meeting look quite professional, and the added bonus of all that natural lighting should make you look quite good. However, Becker says to steer clear of shirts that are bright white or dark black because they look like a "blob" on camera.

Clothing

Here’s a final tip, particularly for people of color, you can defeat all of the lighting tips we just discussed by wearing white. Depending on where your camera focuses, your camera may likely adjust for the lighter white clothing and then not provide enough lighting for your face. You don’t necessarily have to wear black, but step down from pure white and too bright.

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