How to look good in front of a webcam

NEW YORK • Ms Catherine Minervini, a regional sales manager for textile company Sunbrella, video-chats in her New Jersey kitchen with an almost 7kg bag of brown rice in view.

Psychology professor Allen Hart at Amherst College in Massachusetts uses a home office hung with an upside-down world map.

Working at home, under siege from the coronavirus, means finding a quiet space to communicate remotely with colleagues, clients, students and friends.

Thanks to video-conferencing tools such as Google Hangouts and Zoom, it also means exposing one’s private sphere to the eyes of outsiders.

Those who have telecommuted for years know how to create a professional niche within a larger landscape of dirty dishes, whining children and sentimental wall decorations. They have learnt to look presentable through the lens of a webcam, if only from the waist up.

The cautionary tale still lingers of Professor Robert E. Kelly, the political scientist whose young children barged into his home office in South Korea three years ago and disrupted an on-air interview with the BBC. (The lesson: Lock the door.)

Then there are all the newcomers. Searches on Pinterest for “work from home set-up” increased 1,144 per cent between March 6 and 20, said Ms Amanda Switzer, the company’s consumer communications manager.

Asked for strategies to help rookies, design professionals came out of the woodwork.


“Keep it as simple as possible,” Mr Gideon Mendelson, a New York interior designer, advised about the view through the camera.

“You don’t want a staircase behind you where people are going up and down, or too long a vista. I don’t want to see multiple rooms in the shot; it’s distracting.”

He suggested creating “a little composition behind you” that is easy to set up and break down: a console table with a lamp and a couple of books. Or there could be a few flowering branches cut from a tree or shrub in one’s yard, or bought at a green market, and arranged in a vase.

Find a place in the home that has the most neutral wall background… Also, avoid any patterns behind you. 

INTERIOR DESIGNER LAUREN ROTTET on how to set up a basic backdrop at home that is suitable for video conferences

Ms Lauren Rottet, an interior designer with offices in Houston, Los Angeles and New York, agreed that a basic set-up is best.

“Find a place in the home that has the most neutral wall background,” she said, recommending walls that are light grey or light blue (off-white, darker blue and beige are also fine, she said, but orange, yellow and red are off-putting). “Also, avoid any patterns behind you.”


To make sure you can be easily heard, Mr Mendelson advised using a room with carpeting and window treatments to absorb sound.

His home office is “all wood and glass” and a beautiful place to work, he said, but too echo-y for conversations.

And to look your best, Ms Rottet warned never to sit directly under a light source – it will throw under-eye and next-to-nose shadows.

A lamp or window positioned about 60cm directly opposite you that lights you evenly will be most flattering and will not cast glare on your screen. (People adept at video-conferences also swear by ring lights: circular fluorescent or LED lamps that reduce facial shadows and the appearance of imperfections.)

To avoid glare and unwanted reflection, she said you should not let a light source, either from a light or window, be seen directly in the camera. “Have the light source in front of you or beside you, but not in camera view,” she said.


But how much fun is neutrality? Some home-bound workers are finding in video-conferencing set-ups a chance to project an upbeat attitude or convey a hopeful message.

Ms Minervini, for example, prefers her own surroundings to be vibrant. “I love having video-chats from my kitchen – it’s new, modern and bright, even on a cloudy day,” she said.

Prof Hart said he chose to sit in front of a “What’s Up? South!” map while teaching remotely because it is attractive and makes a humanistic point: “North and South are relative to each other,” he said.

“Depending on your perspective, the world may appear upside-down, and yet there is no absolute up or down.”

He also wears school swag. The message to his dispersed students, he said, is that “we are all still at Amherst, regardless of where we are currently”.

Judi Harvest, an artist, favours multiple backdrops in her New York studio, where she roams while chatting on FaceTime.

She arranges vignettes of her glass sculptures of seeds and fruit along with bowls heaped with real oranges, changing the displays frequently so as not to bore her conversational partners.

“I always have a plant or flowers and fruit in the picture, as living, blooming things now are optimistic,” she said.


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