How To Make Your Best Webcam Impression

Visual communication has changed our lives. Cameras are everywhere, and selfies are as common as a toothbrush. It’s hard to avoid having our image snapped or being invited to join in a video chat – and, in fact, we shouldn’t, because it provides an opportunity to interact long distance in a way that was unheard of not so long ago. Whether you’re posting YouTube videos, recording a video blog, Skyping with friends, clients, or book club meetings, or interviewing for a job or attending a conference call via Google+ Hangout, visual content is all the rage.

Image by Dana Robinson

Image by Dana Robinson

Sadly, seeing myself on camera is just agonizing. Not to mention that I have to climb out of my old sweats and ragged t-shirts, comb my hair, and find a shirt decent enough be seen in public. And I’ll admit I freaked out  the first time I saw myself in the webcam.

But at the same time, since I type half the day – on novels, blogs, and client emails – I welcome the opportunity to put the keyboard aside and have a verbal convo, all without having to get in the car and drive anywhere. So the question becomes: how can I take advantage of the video cam without looking like Frankenstein’s wife?

Banish the stage fright jitters with a practice session
The answer for me was to take a practice run and try to manage what I saw in my display. Confession: I’m not a natural-born techie and I haven’t filmed a video of any kind, so the easiest way I knew to “turn on” my internal webcam was to invite myself to a Google Hangout. Yeah, just me. Don’t laugh! Here’s how:

  • Go to Google+ or gmail, wherever you join Hangouts.
  • In Google+, mouse over the green camera icon in the bottom right corner that says, “Start a video hangout,” then click the green bar that pops up with the same phrase, “Start a video hangout.”
  • A new, black window pops up. In the middle there’s a white window with the link to the call and a place to enter email addresses of potential attendees. Just type in your gmail address and send it.
  • Argggh! There you are!

Accck! Mr. DeMille, I’m (not) ready for my close  up …
Now you can see exactly what you’re going to look like on your live call. Don’t love what you see? Here are a few ideas to polish up that frazzled writer look.

What’s that in the background? Ahhh … a pile of laundry
It’s been a decade since I bought my first laptop and left the confines of my former home office. I no longer have a dedicated office space in my house. I work on my bed, on the living room couch, outside in the patio chair. None of those locations are right for a video conference, especially one that needs to approach professional. And since the video cam gives everybody on the other end of the call a good look at what’s behind us, it’s best to put some thought into the visual.

Now I admire uber successful author Hugh Howey, but it cracks me up that he video blogs from his bedroom. Yeah, there’s the bed, right in the background. It’s great that he has the confidence (and the success!) not to care, but I’d rather not have folks thinking about my bedroom while I’m talking. So I looked around my house for a spot with good light, a decent back shot, and the right height so I wasn’t looking down at the laptop screen (more on that below). I settled on the kitchen counter. The dining room is behind. A curtained window, a marble buffet. No dust bunnies or laundry in evidence. Eureka!

Position the webcam at or above eye level
A common issue with a laptop webcam is that it’s often in your lap, so the shot comes up from beneath your chin. That’s not a good angle for most of us, and it also has the drawback of highlighting the ceiling of the room in the back shot. Not an issue if you’re Skyping with friends or family, but it might prove distracting during a professional convo. So if you’re using a laptop, place it on a surface and boost it up as needed with your thesaurus and a couple of dictionaries or editing guides – something hefty – to raise the webcam so your fellow Hangouters are not looking up your nose.

Next move your chair up and back, position the webcam closer and farther away, tweak the laptop screen until you’ve hit on the angle that works best. Keep in mind that if you’re trying to distance yourself too much – like in the next room – the audio won’t be strong enough for the other attendees to hear you. Drat.

You light up my life …
Next is lighting. Make sure you’re not back lit. The light source should come from in front of you (behind your webcam) or from above, but not from behind. This is where a lamp might come in handy – try different lighting setups until you’re resigned to the fact that it’s as good as it’s going to get. (lol!)

Wardrobe, hair and makeup
I’ve never been a makeup person – which is probably why my video cam persona looks so pale and unhealthy – but if you are, you’ll probably want to doll yourself up a bit before you join the party. Run a brush through your hair, pull on a shirt that didn’t come from the pile of clothes in the corner of your bedroom, sit up straight, put a smile on your face, and you should be ready to rock n’ roll.

Once you’ve got it down, standardize your video chat space and make the setup as simple as possible so calls or video blogs aren’t a pain. And one more thing: I speak from personal experience when I say don’t ever forget you’re on camera, especially if you try to multi-task while you talk. I was recently part of a Google Hangout chat with a lovely group of ladies, most of whom I knew from social media but have never met “in person.” We were talking book marketing and I was discretely (I thought) folding clean laundry beneath the level of my laptop’s video cam. At one point I got caught up in the conversation and was still folding away, but realized I was holding a pair of underwear up high enough for everyone to see. They were all too lovely to mention it. Be warned!

Readers, do you have tricks that help maximize your appearance on a video chat? Please, please, leave a comment and tell me your secrets!

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Image by Creative Commons License dana robinson

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16 Responses to How To Make Your Best Webcam Impression

  1. Belinda Pollard May 5, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    Hahahahaha Molly, HOW did you get that photo of me??

    Still giggling about that one, but managed to calm down enough to read your post and you’ve got great tips.

    I find this whole thing excruciating too, and since I got a new computer last year I wish my webcam was not quite so high-resolution. Who needs HD on wrinkles??? Nice’n’soft is better, surely!

    Only thing I’d add to your wonderful list is that the very best light is slightly above and in front, and I now tend to even turn my desk lamp on in the daytime and shine it at me. (Light directly from above tends to create dark shadows under my eye baggage, not that I have any of course!!) But above still beats behind any day, unless you want to be mysterious. I actually rearranged my office to try to get light on my face when I’m doing Skype meetings with clients.

    I believe this is why video phones so popular in sci-fi movies of the past have NEVER TAKEN ON, even though we have plenty of tech to do it now. (And long may they remain fictional.)

    • Molly Greene May 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      Actually, what i should have said in the post is that if you use backlighting, your face will be in shadow – and that may be what I’ll try next time!! After all, I do write mysteries 😉 Thanks, Belinda!!

  2. Pamela Beason May 5, 2014 at 3:27 pm #

    Good tips, Molly! Love the folding undies slip-up! I find it very distracting when people lean close, then sit back, then lean close, etc.-tends to give me motion sickness.

    Also it’s not usually convenient to have a cat that wants to type or sleep on my keyboard while video-chatting.

    • Molly Greene May 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      Haha thanks Pam! I always try to get my dog in the shot, but he’s camera-shy, just walks back and forth in the background trying to figure out who I’m talking to …

  3. Anne R. Allen May 5, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    What great advice, Molly! I’ve reached an age when I don’t do videocams, period. I look like a freeze-dried frog on a videocam. But I’ve seen lots of people who do video stuff and obviously have NOT thought this stuff through. Essential tips here!

    • Molly Greene May 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      Thanks, Anne! If I had my druthers I wouldn’t do them, either – or maybe wearing a veil. Or a burkha.

  4. Patricia Sands May 5, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    Ewwww – there have been a few days when I thought I looked like that. I Skype with my sister in Spain practically every day, first thing in the morning … usually in my nightgown, no makeup, messy hair … She knows I’ll be on my comp writing. She is the only person I would ever let see me like that. The biggest lesson I’ve learned, that should apply to ALL video chats ~ DON’T SIT TOO CLOSE TO THE SCREEN! Seriously, for some reason we all feel we have to get close to the computer and it’s just not a good idea. Thanks for this comprehensive list, Molly!

    • Molly Greene May 5, 2014 at 5:09 pm #

      Hi Patricia! Made me laugh … I Skype with one of my best friends from high school in my “come as you are” type outfits – but NO ONE ELSE will ever see the horror of that. Aren’t women funny??!

  5. A.K.Andrew May 5, 2014 at 9:39 pm #

    Great post Molly. I could so relate to this one. Perfect to G+ with yourself. as it is hard to know how wide the scan is if your background. Is it just what you can see once you’re in the hangout or, heaven forbid further than you think. Really good points to remember. Thanks

    • Molly Greene May 6, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

      Thanks, AK! I thought you’d all laugh about my “Google+ Hangout for one” idea. Good to know it makes sense to someone other than me!

  6. joybelle2012 May 5, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    I recall a conversation I once had with a man who was changing the neon lights in the ladies loo.After the initial shock of finding him in there, I noticed that he had selected pink lights and not the usual white ones. I asked him why, and he said that pink lighting made the ladies faces look prettier when they looked in the mirror.
    What a thoughtful man!!

    • Molly Greene May 6, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

      Joybelle, what a great idea! I’m going to go find a pink bulb for my webcam lamp …

  7. Cindy May 6, 2014 at 5:41 am #

    I am going to be getting a new computer this fall that will have the webcam attached and will certainly use your example. Love the group for one on Google.

    • Molly Greene May 6, 2014 at 9:28 am #

      Thanks, Cindy!! Best to you with your new computer!

  8. elaine pinkerton coleman May 6, 2014 at 11:37 am #

    These tips are very helpful, Molly. The only people I’ve Skyped with so far are my 10-year-old granddaughter and my best friend who’s moved to Panama. The latter is very tan and relaxed on the video cam. The former, adorable little sprite that she is, comes across as lovely. I’m thinking that I may never want to appear live and yet the day may come when it’s needed. So far, what I’ve seen of me in the Skype screen is NOT ok and would NOT make people want to buy my books. I may have to re-think the situation, however, as I have a new guidebook coming out in the fall and will establish a webpage for it. Maybe I can partially hide behind a hiking hat and behind shades? It’s a scary prospect, entering the Skype-o-sphere.

    • Molly Greene May 6, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

      Made me laugh, Elaine, but I completely understand. The truth is I don’t think many of us enjoy seeing ourselves on that camera, and I think the best trick may just be having a sense of humor. You seem to have mastered that already, so you’ll be fine!