Lights, Camera, Zoom! How to stage your home office like a professional
With firms moving to remote work and employees transitioning to home offices, communication with clients and coworkers remains essential. Thankfully, advances in technology and software mean you can still connect digitally, conduct meetings and presentations through video conference, and keep your teams engaged and productive.
With video conferences becoming a new part of our everyday routine, Middle of Six has been brainstorming on how to make these sessions as effective as possible. Absent face-to-face interaction, an optimized setting for digital communication can make a world of difference when connecting online. For ideas on how to make the most of our home office set-ups, we reached out to Tacoma-based filmmaker and photographer, Annie Ferguson, to see what recommendations we can apply to our workspaces.
Annie, thanks so much for taking the time to let us pick your brain on this topic. How have you been connecting with clients and colleagues given the current situation? A: I’ve been meeting with clients on many different platforms including Google Meets, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. At first, it was a little nerve-racking (Did I sound ok? Where should I look? What am I going to do if the internet goes down?) but once I became used to meeting regularly via video conferencing, it feels super normal now, and reminds me a lot of the video productions and interviews I do for my business! (minus the whole global pandemic!)
With video conferencing becoming more prevalent, everyone is now getting used to the idea of being live and on screen. Do you have any tips on how to best handle the demands of being on camera? A: Tip 1: Have really killer internet speed. It’s worth the investment. The last thing you want to have happen is glitching out or completely kicked off a meeting due to a poor internet connection. It also helps with sound and video too--if you have a strong internet connection, the audio and video will be crystal clear.
Tip 2: Be prepared for your meeting well before it’s due to happen. Make yourself some tea or coffee, dress nice yet comfortable, eat if you need to and give yourself time to test out the video conferencing app. Make sure the audio and video are working well and that the lighting is favorable (more on that later!)
Tip 3: Lighting is everything, whether it’s for a large scale video production or an at-home video conference. Make sure to find a comfortable place that is filled with light to hold your video conference calls. Position yourself in a way that fills light on your face, not behind you on your back. People want to see you, and the best way for them to do so is if you’re well lit.
As you mentioned, lighting can make a big difference in video quality. How should we light our workspaces for virtual meetings? Do you have any specific tools or products you would recommend?
A: Natural light will always be your best bet, whether it’s an overcast or bright and sunny day. I like to set up my laptop near a window with a sheer curtain so that it provides filtered, natural light that isn’t direct, which can be blaring if the sun is shining bright. My next go-to if a window isn’t a good setup is to place a lamp in front of my laptop or desktop so that the lighting from the lamp is illuminated onto my face for proper face/light exposure.
"Lighting is everything, whether it’s for a large scale video production or an at-home video conference. Make sure to find a comfortable place that is filled with light to hold your video conference calls."
Audio is obviously important – you can’t communicate effectively if your audience can’t hear you clearly – and some computers and cell phones don’t have great microphones. Any tips how to enhance your audio when presenting?
A: Audio is extremely important, potentially more important than video. If you feel like the audio coming from your computer’s built-in microphone doesn’t sound too great and you want to step up your audio game, try using Bluetooth headphones with built-in mics, such as Apple AirPods or any other Bluetooth headphones. Not only are they wireless, but they’re also designed to be close to your face, allowing the audio to come out crisp and clear.
If you really wanted to step up your audio game, I highly recommend the Blue Yeti USB microphone that easily plugs into your computer via USB and you’ll in-turn have high quality (almost radio-like) audio.
When presenting on screen, what makes for a good background? How can presenters ensure that the focus remains on what they’re saying and not on what’s behind them?
A: I think what makes for a good background is one that isn’t too cluttered, doesn’t have a lot of foot traffic from other members of the home, and one that is subtly stylish. This is a great question because I often employ these techniques when I conduct sit down interviews with folks during production days.
When we're video conferencing, we’re basically inviting folks into our homes, so I like to prepare as though they’re actually coming over. First thing’s first I aim to find a nice spot to sit that’s minimal but also visually interesting in a subtle way— imagine your favorite armchair in front of tall bookshelves, your sofa in front of your favorite accent wall with a houseplant peeking in, or your desk in front of a large framed piece of art. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just tidy and minimal.
Next, I like to tidy up the frame. I usually remove any visually distracting items like unnecessarily bright objects, stacks of paper or notebooks, etc. Again, clean, minimal and simple is the least distracting and therefore allows for everyone to focus on you.
Above all else, I think it’s really important to choose a frame that has little to no foot traffic behind it. Interruptions like partners or kids walking by are totally normal but they can take away from the seamlessness of the meeting and distract yourself and others.
How about framing? What is the optimal way to position yourself on camera?
A: Eye-level camera framing is critical and by far the easiest win when it comes to making your video conferencing frame look professional. Without eye-level camera framing, your computer camera is aimed below your eyesight and is pointed up towards your face (not the best look!). No worries though, this is super easy to fix and makes a huge difference in creating a more professional look.
Whether you’re using a laptop or a desktop monitor, simply grab a stack of books (or even a laundry basket!) and place either right on top. You’re basically aiming to be eye level with the camera. Once you adjust the camera to the proper height, you're done!
"When we're video conferencing, we’re basically inviting folks into our homes, so I like to prepare as though they’re actually coming over."
I’ve heard that some clothing is better than others for being on camera. What are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to wardrobe?
A: Do: Dress nice, dress you, dress like you’re going to a professional meeting. I feel like a good rule of thumb is that if you feel good in what you’re wearing, you’ll look good in what you’re wearing.
Don't: Wear tiny stripes or neon colors. They hurt the eyes.
With lots of people having to make do on the fly, many home offices are popping up in unexpected places. What if we have no choice and have to present from our kitchen table or our basement? Any tips for staging tricky areas?
A: I love a good kitchen setup, mostly because they tend to provide a ton of natural light. Living rooms, kitchens, outdoor patios– I honestly wouldn’t worry about these spots for video conferencing. If you employ the same steps mentioned above about staying tidy, avoiding heavy foot-traffic areas, incorporating subtle yet visually appealing background elements and adjusting your camera to be eye-level, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
From a technical standpoint, are there any essential settings on our computers or software we should review before presenting?
A: Every computer is different, so my advice would be to always test out your presentation before you’re due to present it. Hop on a video call with a technology-hip family member and practice the tools to present flawlessly. If you run into a problem and can’t figure out what it is, come up with a back-up plan. People are really understanding during these strange times, so try not to sweat it too much if technology isn’t working in your favor.
Thanks so much for your time! I know the Middle of Six team is excited to follow your work and see what you do next.
Annie Ferguson is a Pacific Northwest filmmaker based in Tacoma, Washington with a background in marketing and content creation for the A/E/C industry. Visit her website at anniefergusonfilms.com and follow her on Instagram @anniefergusonfilms.