Four Tips to Be Your Professional Best on Zoom

Screen shot: Like almost everything else in our professional lives, NANPA's monthly communications meetings have moved to Zoom.
Like almost everything else in our professional lives, NANPA’s monthly communications meetings have moved to Zoom.

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

It seems like everyone is on Zoom these days. In a previous article, NANPA’s Teresa Ransdell gave some great tips for using it, which will help the professional photographers who lead workshops, teach and speak and who have been moving their business to Zoom or similar platforms during the corona virus restrictions.  If you’re new to Zoom, are you presenting yourself professionally, with good lighting and thoughtful backgrounds?  You want your video presence to look and sound as professional and artistic as your photographs, right?  So, here are some tips to consider as you ramp up your online video conferencing.

If you’ve been on Zoom at all, (and who hasn’t lately?) you’ve seen at least one person in every meeting who has terrible lighting, or a weird, distracting background, whose video freezes or who sounds like they’re calling in from an airport runway.  Don’t let that be you! 

Assuming you already have great content and a lively presentation, the four most important things to get right are excellent lighting, good sound, a complementary background and knowing your platform. 

In assembling the kit to make a professional-looking video conference set up, I had two criteria in mind.  First, it all had to be relatively inexpensive—no more than a couple of pieces of new gear and nothing that was more than $100.  Second, there had to be other uses for any new gear.  It would have to grow with me or be useful in other ways.

Lighting

We may be really good at using light on landscapes or wildlife, but that doesn’t necessarily carry over into our office set up.  As much as any aspect of videoconferencing, bad lighting on the speaker detracts from a presentation.  If the speaker is in a room so dark you can’t see them clearly, if they look like they have Hallowe’en horror lighting or bad colors, it just screams “amateur!”  We’re professional photographers.  We should be able to light ourselves.

If you’re using a DSLR or mirrorless camera as your webcam, you have more flexibility and dynamic range than if you’re using the built-in webcam of your laptop.  Some manufacturers, like Canon and Sony, have released or will soon release software that enables you to use your camera for web streaming. Most laptop webcams have decent quality for streaming but aren’t very good at coping with difficult lighting.  Smart phones will also work, but have some drawbacks of their own.

My office area isn’t very good for lighting me for streaming video.  It wasn’t designed that way, so I need help.

Photo of a desk setup. With a window to my right, I can often even out the daylight using a white foam core as a reflector.
With a window to my right, I can often even out the light using a white foam core as a reflector.

For some people, it’s as simple as reorienting your desk to face a window, giving you a nice, soft light for your Zoom session.  If that’s not possible, there are several other options.  Some desk lamps will work fine–just be aware of the color temperature of the light bulb. Some bulbs have an orange cast. Light from your computer screen may give you a blueish cast. The coordinator of a virtual tutoring program in which I volunteer always has a deathly pallor because of the blue light his monitor casts.

You can use a reflector to bounce window light back onto your face, just like you would for a flower or macro shot out in the field.  Anything from an inexpensive piece of foam core to a regular photo reflector can work.

Many YouTubers use a ring light on a stand.  You can get serviceable ones that have some capacity to adjust the color and intensity for well under $100.  Look for one that includes a way to adjust the angle, through a ball head or similar.

LED light panels are another inexpensive choice, averaging $50 and up.  These are also popular among YouTubers who record out in the field. Many allow you to adjust the intensity and color temperature.  Some include diffusion filters that pop on in front of the panel to soften or color the light.  LED panels can be really bright and painful to look at directly, so they’re best used at an angle.  One option is using the panel as a fill light when one side of your face is lit by a window but the other is in shadow.  You can also put it on a light stand at a slight angle to you, so you avoid looking directly at it.  Some models let you dial the intensity way down to where they could also be used as low-level lighting for night photography.

Finally, if your home office has generally good light and just needs a little kick to be perfect, a Lume Cube or Litra Torch could be just the ticket.  These little LED light sources have a lot of uses, from providing some fill light for your video to adding a pop of light to macro shots to providing some low-level lighting out in the field.  At less than $100, they can be an interesting addition to your gear, as well as helping you look good on camera.  I keep mine in my backpack and have used it a few times in the field to provide a kiss of light on a close-up subject.  These little lights have limited battery life, so they may not work if you’re doing 90-minute sessions, for example.  They only get about 30 minutes at full power.  I rarely use mine on full and have had it last up to an hour at lower settings.

Ideally, your light source can just plug in to AC power, so you don’t have to worry about battery life.  Many ring lights and LED panels have that capability.  Most also have attachments enabling them to fit on your camera’s hot shoe or on any device that would support a flash with a hot shoe mount.

Oh, and make sure your web cam, whether a dedicated camera or your laptop’s webcam, is positioned at eye level or higher.  No one wants to look up your nose.  And that higher angle will make you appear to be looking right at the viewers, making a connection with them.

A few of the many options for lighting yourself in a Zoom meeting:  (left to right) an LED panel  with a diffusion filter on the hot shoe of a camera, a Lume Cube with filters, and a ring light with an attachment for a smart phone.
A few of the many options for lighting yourself in a Zoom meeting: (left to right) an LED panel with a diffusion filter on the hot shoe of a camera, a Lume Cube with filters, and a ring light with an attachment for a smart phone.

Sound

People are signing up and paying money to hear your thoughts and experiences, so good sound quality is a must.  Thinking about recording instructional videos to sell?  It’s well worth your while to get a decent quality external microphone.  I have one that came with a stand and different cables that can connect to my computer via USB or can support XLR output for PA systems and other audio interfaces, giving me room to grow with it.  For about $100, the sound quality is way better than my computer’s built-in microphone.  There are many other brands and models to choose from, so pick whatever suits your needs now and in the future.  I’ve used mine for recording videos, presenting webinars and being interviewed on podcasts, so I’ve gotten my money’s worth.  If you’re already or have plan to start recording out in the field, a wireless lavalier might be a better choice.

Background

The background behind you will also send a message to your viewers.  Is it a cluttered mess?  Does it have bright swatches of color that take attention away from you?  Plain and simple is best, whether that means using a photo backdrop, like white seamless paper, or shelves displaying camera gear or a bookshelf, choose something that give you a professional setting.  It may be tempting to use one of your photos as a virtual backdrop, as Zoom and some other platforms allow, but that is too often distracting.  Viewers wonder where the photo was taken or try to figure out what it is and aren’t paying attention to you.  The technology isn’t perfect either and Zoom often has problems separating the speaker from the background, especially when part of your head is in shadows.  You don’t want half your face to disappear in the middle of saying something important.  Simple is best!

Platform

There are several good options for hosting a video conference, whether you’re presenting a lesson or demonstration, guiding an interactive session, doing a critique or mentoring one-on-one.  Some of the best known are Zoom, Google Meet, Webex and GoToMeeting.  Each platform is slightly different and has things it does better and things it doesn’t do as well.  NANPA’s Teresa Ransdell explained some things to look for in an online platform and some of the useful features of Zoom in an earlier blog article

Practice, practice, practice so you can be very fluid when sharing your screen, using a whiteboard and annotation features, or using one of the other specialized functions of your platform.  We all know how annoying it is when the presenter is fumbling around with the technology.

Videoconferencing has come a long way but still requires a pretty robust broadband internet connection.  If you have trouble streaming Netflix, you’ll have problems videoconferencing. You might want to avoid scheduling your meeting or presentation during times of heavy bandwidth use.  Even if you have plenty of bandwidth, some in your audience might not and they’re more likely to blame you than the gamer playing Fortnite down the hall or the TV streaming movies

I have a feeling that we will continue offering Zoom trainings and learning activities long into the future, so I expect to continue to use the platform even after the virus restrictions have been lifted and COVID-19 is a distant memory.  In addition, I’ve found it to be a nice way to keep in touch with extended family scattered across the country, so I’ll continue using it for that, too.  I suspect that virtual sessions will become a permanent part of many a photographer’s business, so you might as well start with a professional look and feel.