This Trick will Improve your Zoom Virtual Background

Using a virtual background with Zoom can be hard to get right. Here’s a way to upgrade your look in this digital arena.

Have you gotten a haircut yet? I haven’t. Now, after months of COVID-19 seclusion, my Zoom video shots look like a time portal back into ‘70s. Yes, I must admit I’ve started using hair gel to try to tame my mad scientist look. But I know it’s not sustainable for any long-term plan. I’m spotting lots of folks now with new haircuts. I certainly can’t wait two years until there’s a vaccine!

I think this speaks to what we’re all currently grappling with… how to traverse this new reality when the plan to continue to lock yourself up at home isn’t realistic anymore.

For now though, I’m relying on my hair gel as well as a cool video trick I’ve discovered to improve my Zoom videos when using virtual backgrounds. 

The Challenge Using Virtual Backgrounds
The holy-grail solution to generating a great virtual background is to place a green screen behind you that spans your entire background. Then, Zoom will create a beautiful chroma-keyed background using the green. 

The other option is to let Zoom figure it out without the benefit of a solid color. It works, but often with the edges of your head and body shimmering like an apparition.

Maybe some people don’t care how ‘solid’ they appear with their virtual background. But I just can’t let that sloppy look go without attempting to fix it.

The Limitations of Space Restriction
But, the challenge I face when trying to improve my own virtual background starts with the basic shot my iMac’s webcam creates. It’s a relatively wide field of view, and you will see much more of my home office than I’d prefer. 

No, there’s no dirty laundry to see. (I moved all that another foot away.)
But it’s still not pretty.

I can’t cover my entire background with a green screen, because there simply isn’t enough room based on the configuration of my home office. Even if I could somehow jam one in, I wouldn’t be able to move around anymore. So that really wouldn’t work…

But I’ve figured something else out that does…

Add a White Screen Behind your Head
My trick is to place some ‘white’ behind your head and shoulders. It can be with a white screen, curtain or even a big piece of white paper. It doesn’t have to cover your whole background. Just enough of your body.

Then, when you activate your virtual background, the white screen also disappears, and it does wonders to reduce that horrible black ‘helmet outline’ that often surrounds your head.

And if your virtual background displays lots of white or brightness behind your out-of-control hair, the overall key around your head will look much more realistic. That’s because the virtual background will appear to show through the mess of your hair. 

Otherwise, Zoom will digitally crop the edges of your hair with that black line circling your head.
(Now, if you want Zoom to give you a digital haircut, go right ahead!)

Brighter Backgrounds will Help You Light your Face 
There’s also another big benefit to adding some white behind you before activating your virtual background. It can really improve how your face looks!

This is especially true if your room is generally dark. That’s because ‘Zooming’ in a darker space generally forces your webcam to overexpose your face while trying to bring out more detail in the background of your shot.

So then, when you’re forced to lower the lighting on your face to fix the problem, you end up sitting mostly in the dark.  

And then it becomes a cascading problem, because you really want more light on your face to help your webcam display it properly. Without enough light, your whole shot starts to deteriorate.

But…

If you’ve got the white screen behind you, that will trick your webcam into thinking your background is relatively bright, and it will then automatically allow more light to hit your face and improve your look. 

Here’s my collapsible white screen.

And here’s how I look in my virtual background using my hidden white screen.

My coloring looks normal.

Here’s the same shot without using my white screen.

My skin tone is off, and I look overly pink and generally overly lit. Plus you see that unnatural black edging by my left ear.

I feel the difference is definitely worth the extra step of setting up the white screen.

Now, it’s showtime!

Give Your Face a Little Pop!
The collapsible white screen I’m using is the Studio Essentials Pop-Up Reversible Background (5’x6.5’ Black/White).

$49.99 at B&H Photo

But any home-grown solution using a roll of white art paper will work just as well.

One more tip: Don’t only focus on how your face and hair show up on your next Zoom call. Remember to also pay attention to how your shirt looks. Certain patterns will shimmer in your video (like my shirt did in the above test shots).

And hair gel.

Video chatting is here to stay. Sure, we’ll eventually get our haircuts, but getting our Zoom shots into tip-top shape will always be a best practice moving forward.