At Home with Tech

It’s time to maximize the potential of all your gadgets.

Tag: Zoom

How to Improve your Zoom Background at Home

Making sure you’re properly lit in your Zoom shot isn’t always enough. What about the supporting cast in your webcam’s view?

It’s clear we’re at a point where participating in Zoom meetings is a permanent part of home life and a necessary tool to communicate with our world. So, it’s important to create a ‘remote video communications’ home set-up that really works for you and your viewers.

I hope most of us are beyond the chaotic experience of working from home and participating in meetings all day. During those early pandemic months, simply finding a quiet spot to open up your laptop for a Zoom, Skype or Teams meeting was a challenge.

How your shot looked understandably may not have been your priority.

Keeping it Real
But as we’ve settled into our new routines, many of us have improved our Zoom look.

I’m sure you know the basics by now:

  • Make sure you’ve got enough light on your face.
  • Don’t sit with a window behind you.
  • Position your webcam perpendicular to your eyes, not looking up your nose.
  • Declutter your background.

I know many folks are fond of using virtual backgrounds. While that’s okay, I like to keep my shot as authentic as possible.

I’ve tried digital and blurred backgrounds, but I always felt like I was in a science fiction movie.

Can you See my Robots?
So, even though my home office is hardly an ideal space to create the perfect video shot for my Zoom meetings, I’ve continued to tinker with my background throughout these many months.

Recently, I moved the furniture around in my home office, and to a certain extent I’ve created something of a blank canvas to work with.

I repositioned a short bookshelf into my Zoom background, and I used the top shelf to display a few robot statues I’ve collected over the years. (R2D2, C3PO, Robby the Robot and Robot from the original “Lost in Space”)

They’re also nice ice breakers as people sometimes ask about them when they spot my metal robots in my Zoom shot.

The only problem is my robots looked like shadows in my background. That’s because my back wall didn’t have a lot of light hitting it.

Time to Add More Light
Like any professional studio TV set, you’ve got to properly light your entire space, and that includes the background. Otherwise your environment will look drab, no matter what it contains.

And webcams are usually happier if your lighting is more even throughout the entire shot. That means you’ll look better and not over exposed.

So, I needed to figure out how to throw more light on that back wall and my little robot display.

Vertical LED Table Lamp
There are any number of ways to do that. A floor lamp next to the bookshelf would be an easy solution. That said, I didn’t want to clutter my background (or my home office). Instead, I looked for a lighting solution with a smaller footprint: some sort of lamp that could sit on the end of the book shelf just outside of my Zoom frame.

I found a small vertical LED table lamp made by Edishine on Amazon.
It was the perfect solution. It added the background fill light I needed without overwhelming my shelf. The lamp’s cold, minimalistic look also blended nicely with my little metal companions.

Think of it more like an under-cabinet lighting solution, but designed as a self-standing vertical glow.

Now, my robots are easy to spot in my Zoom background. Plus the extra light also helps my back wall pop.

Zoom-Optimized Rooms
If you want to really show up for your close up during Zoom meetings from home, you’ve got to do more than light your face and wear a nice shirt. Your environment is an extension of you, and it’s important to give it the same attention as you set up your webcam shot.

That means your whole room (or at least the part people see) needs enough light.

I know we don’t live in TV studios (well, most of us don’t). But I think it’s fair to say that when you think about how to decorate your living spaces moving forward, it’s not crazy to plan for the creation of Zoom-optimized rooms.

It’s not science fiction. Yes, reality has caught up.

We’re Living in a Vertical Video World

If you’ve been fighting back against the vertical video revolution, it’s time to jump into the pool. The water’s warm. Here’s how I found peace with this disruption.

I recently had an epiphany about the growing trend of vertical video disrupting the fundamentals of video production. My mini “ah ha” happened during a Zoom interview recording at work, when one person’s Zoom feed was accidentally locked in a vertical position. More on that story in a moment…

But regarding the general battle between horizontal and vertical video… It’s already over.

The smartphone has effectively killed horizontal video. We’re just living through the transition. Yes, it’s going to take some years, but it’s time to acknowledge the truth.

And that’s been really hard for me to do.

The First Time
Ten years ago, I was producing a corporate video shoot inside a multimedia brand center. My business client walked up to me ten minutes before the interview was scheduled to begin and asked if we could shoot the video vertically. She thought the background of our video shot would look more compelling if seen vertically.

I looked closely for any sign that this wasn’t actually a serious suggestion. The moment felt like those western movies right before the gunslingers do their shoot out. I squinted my eyes, tapped into my inner Clint Eastwood and waited for what felt like minutes before I responded.



It was a serious request.

Vertical Alignment is Coming
So, I explained that we couldn’t reset the shot in time, as our interviewee had already arrived. And I dodged the bullet.

But I remember feeling unsettled that the horizontal foundation of all video was so casually being challenged.

That was a decade ago. A lot has changed. The truth is my client was just slightly ahead of her time.

I have not forgotten this story, and it has been a reminder to me that creative winds and video boundaries are constantly evolving. That’s life. Everything changes.

Vertical TV Sets in your Home?
Today, vertical video is everywhere, primarily fueled by the social media apps on our smartphones. Vertical is natural. Vertical is comfortable in your hand. Vertical is accessible in every way, except on standard horizontal TV monitors.

But if you look around, there are plenty of vertical video monitors in public spaces.

It’s just a matter of time, until they show up in your home…

No More Rules
I know I’m fighting a losing battle whenever I try to correct someone who’s shooting a smartphone video vertically. Sure, I still work in a horizontal medium, though (here it comes) not exclusively.

Yes, today I am creating vertical video too. (There, I’ve come out and said it.)

And the transition to vertical video is only accelerating.

The iPhone has a Vertical Lock
So, back to my more recent story directing the remote interview via the Zoom feed. The interviewee was using her iPhone, which was fine. (The image quality was actually superior to the other three webcam Zoom shots in the conversation.) But for some unknown reason, the phone’s camera was locked in the vertical orientation. I asked her to turn her iPhone ninety degrees and then immediately back again. No dice.

I was stumped. I turned to the other crew members in our TV control room and asked for suggestions.

“Turn off the vertical lock!”

What? The iPhone has a vertical lock? (I had forgotten.)

I pulled out my iPhone and was quickly reschooled on this iOS feature.

That was indeed the solution for our remote interviewee, and her Zoom interview proceeded on horizontally.

Tap the Portrait Orientation Lock
After the interview, I looked again at my iPhone. I swiped down from the top right corner to access my Control Center screen.

It’s the “Portrait Orientation Lock” button. (The icon is a little lock surrounded by a circular arrow.)

If it’s activated, your iPhone screen and apps won’t rotate horizontally when you hold your iPhone horizontally.

Your phone’s screen is then effectively locked into a vertical orientation.


You might wonder why that feature is even there. Clearly, there’s a need to prevent horizontal anything!

And after doing some research, I am reminded that this frustrating feature is not that new. Apple has been satisfying the vertical preference for quite some time. In fact, I first discovered this way back in 2018.

A Vertical Matrix?
Yes, you and I are clearly living a vertical video world, though admittedly with any number of horizontal holdouts.

This feels a bit like my own Matrix story. You’re welcome to join if you feel similarly inclined. (There are plenty of pods to house all of us.)

But guess what? I wouldn’t place all bets on vertical video. Oh no. The truth is video can no longer be restricted to any dimension. It’s not horizontal, and it’s not vertical. Sometimes, it’s square (of course).

Maybe video will evolve into the circular. Perhaps oblong? Who knows… Trapezoidal?

The days of vertical video as the mainstream will surely be numbered.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Learn to Love Vertical Video
For now, I’m simply happy to say that I’ve successfully discarded my horizontal bias. I have made my peace with vertical video.

I am comfortable working on digital canvases that orient both vertically and horizontally.

Barrett has evolved.

5 Easy Ways to Upgrade your Zoom Video

If you want to look and sound better during your next Zoom meeting, don’t forget these simple best practices to present yourself in the best possible light.

It’s been over two years since Zoom saved us from pandemic isolation. Sort of. Yes, Zoom and other video conferencing platforms have been lifelines to our outside world over these many months. As life is evolving to a new normal, ‘hybrid’ is now clearly a part of that equation. That means the need to Zoom isn’t going away.

As remarkable as Zoom has been, I think everyone is exhausted. We’re cranky. We may know how to do a good Zoom. But we don’t want to. No. We don’t want to make that extra effort. Not anymore.

If you can hear my voice on Zoom, that’s enough. You don’t need to see me. And if for some reason I forget to turn off my camera, don’t expect much. If only half of my head is in the shot, that’s more than enough. If my bright window is dominating the image and obscuring my face, get used to it. It’s still me. Besides what I have to say is all that matters.

Is this perspective resonating right now? If so, I get it. You’re sick of having to show up for your close up. You didn’t sign up for this.

I know.

But let me offer this gentle reminder…

Zoom can Help You Stay Connected
Practicing good Zoom etiquette is worth it. If you want to show up in your life, then you do want to show up for your close up. It matters. If you want a seat at the table, then you’ve got to show up at the virtual table.

Turn on your webcam and follow these five best practices:

Illuminate your Face
You should be facing the window… not the other way around. Please want to actually see you. Not your silhouette.

Turn Off your Ceiling Light
You may think your ceiling light fixture is helping. It probably isn’t. Not if it’s directly over your head. That’s because it’s shining light down on top of you instead of in front of your face. That creates incredibly unflattering shadows. I don’t think you’re trying to audition for the next zombie movie. So turn off that ceiling light and flick on your desk lamp instead.

Elevate your Webcam
Your webcam should never look up at your chin. If your shot features your ceiling, you need to raise your camera to a more perpendicular angle with your face. Simply elevate your laptop with a few books.

Reduce the Headroom in your Shot
Headroom is the amount of space between the top of your head and the top of your Zoom box. I can almost guarantee that you’ve got too much headroom. There should only be a little gap. Please, tilt down your webcam. Your viewers want to see more of you, not more of your wall.

Wear your Headset or Earbuds
Sure, your computer’s onboard microphone will work, but it’s too far away from your mouth to provide crisp audio. Instead, the audio has that far-away feel. That’s because the microphone is far away. Your headset mic sounds so much better. Please wear it. If you’re concerned about how your headset looks on you, then wear your earbuds or AirPods. The audio sounds that much better. Really.

Don’t Forget to Smile
Life presents unexpected twists and turns. It can be really rough. The headlines are getting any easier to consume. I know it’s sometimes hard to pull it together. But your Zooms don’t have to reflect the imbalance you may feel.

If you take a little extra effort to follow these video-conference best practices, you can better present your best self.

And if you’re doing that, I expect you’ll feel better too.

%d bloggers like this: