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How Not To Look Bad On Zoom

You know the problem: weird shadows, awkward backdrops, under-the-chin shots from laptops below you. Broadcasting your face to co-workers, classmates and romantic prospects has been a dicey business since the pandemic forced us to avoid in-person gatherings. We spend meeting after meeting staring at our own Zoom squares and, too often, not liking what we see.

Trying to look one's best while working from home, on a Zoom happy hour or on a FaceTime date has made us wonder whether anyone knows how to put their best virtual foot forward on a video chat. Luckily for us, internet influencers have been hashing out the same problems for years.

The best affordable, user-friendly tools that made early adopters look and sound better are smartphone tripods, laptop stands, external webcams and microphones. But most crucial is lighting. For even, steady lighting, have one steady lamp directly next to your face.

Many swear by a ring light, a glowing halo that sits atop a tripod or attaches to your phone or laptop. While a far cry from the lighting setup of a professional model or actor, it provides a direct light that softly illuminates the face. Ring lights gained popularity with makeup influencers, which helped the tools cross over to the mainstream consumer market where people are rushing to correct their pallid, shadow-distorted faces. As working from home has worn on, some companies have told employees that they can expense a ring light for work meetings, along with things like a desk chair and an external monitor.

Sidelights and backlights will always create a bad effect. Avoid sitting with your back to a window: The camera will adjust for the light and make you into a silhouette. Instead, turn your setup around and face the window, which will give you soft, people-pleasing light. This advice is from photographer Larry Becket, who wrote a book about improving our appearance titled Great on Camera.

Get rid of wide-angle face. Cameras on smartphones and webcams have wide camera angles for mid-distance shots. If you get too close, you will look distorted. Step back from the camera and position it so that your eye is level with the webcam.

Create soft lighting by reflecting a light off the wall or desk to illuminate your face. You can also diffuse a lamp with a pillowcase or other white material.

In another era, image-conscious office employees sometimes complained of the harsh fluorescent lights in their workspaces, which made every flyaway hair and makeup smudge painfully obvious. But the past year has revealed the reason why we never relied on natural light: It's not very reliable, at least not in every space. Telegraphing professionalism means controlling that space to the best of your ability. Little by little, many employees who are lucky enough to work from home have constructed amateur video studios even if we don't realize what we've done yet.

Using devices such as ring lights to enhance our online images might be new for work-from-home employees, but we're making our living online now. Given the limited time you have in a day to make a direct impression on your colleagues and the people who determine your salary, working from home means being the star of the smallest audience with the highest personal stakes. Lighting is a tool in the pursuit of perceived legitimacy — whether you're hoping to impress fans or your boss. Our expectations are based very much on professional production processes.

Consumer-grade ring lights, tripods and microphones give you a sheen of professionalism for gig-worker prices. Some lights adjust from cool to warm so you can set the most flattering tone setting.

Good luck in perfecting your online persona!

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