Everyone’s on Camera and Nobody Knows What They’re Doing

Daniel Brown
The Startup
Published in
7 min readJul 6, 2020

Being on camera is unintuitive, uncomfortable, and unnatural. It combines all of the unsettling fear of public speaking with the social disconnect of not actually being in front of people.

Unlike in person, where eye contact with individual audience members is brief and constantly shifting, on camera, your stage is a rectangle and your “gaze area” is extremely narrow. You’re no longer speaking at a room of people collectively, you’re speaking to a group, but individually. This subtly changes how, and even if, you make eye contact.

Unless you’ve been media-trained or otherwise coached in being on camera, you will likely make some common and understandable mistakes.

Here are some of the biggest ones and how to avoid them.

Record yourself in the setting and with the equipment you plan to use

Watching and listening to yourself is a unique form of torture. However, it will show you aspects of your presentation style, mannerisms, surroundings, etc. you might not otherwise notice. Do you swivel in your chair? Do you fiddle with a pen, twirl your hair, play with a fidget spinner, say “uh” or “like” every third word? This is the only way to know for sure.

Note that recording yourself isn’t just about watching yourself, it’s also about listening to yourself; not just what you’re saying, but how you sound. The acoustics of a room can profoundly influence how clearly you come across to an audience. More on audio in a minute.

The brain is more forgiving about visual information than aural information

Your visual cortex is far more complicated than your auditory system. The result is that most of what you see isn’t coming from your eyes, it’s pieced together by your brain. (It’s worth noting that your brain is collecting visual information from two separate eyes, about 2.5 inches apart and those images are also upside down and backwards.) This means that details aren’t as important in what you see as in what you hear.

If you’ve ever taken the blind spot test, you know that good chunk of your visual field can be missing and your brain can still piece it together. In the earliest days of internet video, the quality was terrible by today’s standards; and yet, it still “worked”.

Auditory information is linear and goes through less processing so your brain can’t easily interpolate missing information. For this reason, I would suggest that audio quality is just as important, if not more important, than video quality.

Biggest audio tip — don’t use the built-in microphone in your phone/pad/laptop. There are a dozen reasons for this, many having to do with the highly technical world of noise-cancellation, half-duplex vs full-duplex audio, etc., but perhaps the most obvious reason (as I’ve experienced several times) is that the mic in your device not only picks up everything it “hears”, it also picks up up everything it “feels”. Every click/tap on a tablet or laptop trackpad, every click/double click of a mouse, every keystroke, pen click, chair scoot, bracelet or watch band, nervous foot tap — you name it —will be picked up by that mic. I was on a call recently where the presenter would subconsciously smack the desk to punctuate each of his points. After the third one, the only thing the audience could pay attention to (and remember) was the “THUMP.”

To solve nearly all of these issues, keep the microphone as close to your face as possible. This means using an external microphone of just about any kind. Earbuds, a headset, or a USB microphone. The key is to physically isolate the microphone from everything else. Headsets and earbuds also keep the audio level consistent even if you turn your head or shift your position.

Your environment should also be considered, not just visually, but acoustically. How many conference calls have you been on where someone sounds like they’re, frankly, in the bathroom? It’s echoey, resonant, and when especially bad, difficult to understand them. Carpeted floors or throw rugs, drapes, and furniture all absorb echoes and will prevent you from sounding like you’re trapped in a well.

Make your background kinda boring

People are easily distracted. Humans constantly reassess new surroundings (the “doorway effect” or “transom effect”, which is to blame for when you forget why you went into another room). While you are likely familiar with everything in your background, other people are not, and they’ll be too busy parsing your extensive collection of Star Wars action figures to focus on you.

Most presenters focus on what they see — their slides and the audience — but only give cursory consideration to what others see. Yes, they hide the takeout containers from lunch, the home repair project “temporarily” set up on the kitchen table, and sequester children and/or pets a sufficient number of rooms away. Before a call, set everything up, turn on your camera, and really examine your surroundings.

Note that the quantity of objects visible isn’t necessarily the problem, it’s the complexity and diversity. A bookshelf of books is okay because it’s an abundance of a single thing (though there is an almost overwhelming urge to read the book titles). However, add a sculpture, a vase, some photographs, an antique camera, bowling trophies, etc. and suddenly, your audience is too busy assessing your background to pay attention to what you’re saying.

If there is any single thing clearly visible in your background, it should be relevant to your presentation or the purpose of the call. If you’re developing a high tech bicycle, have a bike (or a photo of one) in the background.

Under no circumstances should there be a window behind you. Few light sources can compete with the sun and that much backlighting will turn you into nothing more than a silhouette. (See lighting tips below.)

Likewise, never, ever allow something in the background that moves. While a significant portion of the human brain is dedicated to recognizing and analyzing human faces, a much older section focuses on moving objects, which are prioritized over just about everything else. (Once upon a time, things that move were either predator or prey.) No one will hear a single thing you say because they will be watching the background.

Camera placement

This is a whole world of psychological engagement. As awkward and intimate as this sounds, you need to imagine you are holding someone’s (still attached) head in your hands when talking to them remotely.

Think about it. Ever been Zooming with family or friends and they decide to show you some new renovation or their new baby? They grab their device and start bolting down the hallway. Suddenly, you feel like you’ve just been abducted and the only thing you can see are flashes of ceiling lights and the blurred faces of your captors. If you need to move the camera, do it slowly. Pretend your device is a very full glass of water and any swift movement could spill it.

Camera height is also a consideration. We subconsciously assess faces looking down on us as parental or authority figures (this can be useful in some settings). We assess faces looking up at us as children or someone weak or in need of help, and we tend to subtly (and unintentionally) speak in a more patronizing and condescending way.

You wouldn’t walk over to a friend sitting on a park bench and carry on a conversation for an hour while remaining standing, nor would you likely be comfortable with someone doing the same to you. Equalizing “eye gaze level” just makes everyone more comfortable. Your camera, not your screen, should be level with your eyes.

The window displaying other people’s faces should be on/under/near your camera. On video conferences, as in-person, we tend to talk to people’s faces. It’s disconcerting to be chatting with someone who is looking left or right of the camera, as if they’re ignoring you. Putting their face near your camera makes it feel more like you’re speaking directly to them.

Also important is your distance from the camera. You don’t want to be too far from it because it makes it harder for the other person to see subtle cues in your facial expressions, but being too close makes you a “close-talker.”

In-device cameras (and the processing software that handles them) assume you are about arm’s length from the lens. At that distance, the top of your head, as well as your shoulders, should be visible.

Position yourself so that the bridge of your nose is 1/3 of the way down the frame with a little space above your head and the curve of your shoulders is visible.

Lighting

The brightest source of light should be behind your camera shining on you, not behind you shining on your camera.

When I say “light” I don’t necessarily mean “a light”, as in a lamp, I mean (preferably) a window (during the daytime), bonus points if that window has blinds or curtains that soften and diffuse that light. Direct sunlight is much too harsh for those tiny cameras to handle. In a pinch, hang a white sheet, plastic shower curtain, or tracing paper to act as a diffuser.

If light directly behind your device isn’t possible, off to one side is workable, but try to avoid having light shine perpendicular to your face.You can “cheat” this scenario by using a large white object just off camera to “bounce” light onto the dark side of your face. A large piece of foam core or poster board works beautifully.

Hope these tips make everyone a better “Zoomer”!

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