Zoom: My Top 10 Home Lighting Tips

Hey, all! Welcome, welcome!

I’m giving you 10 whole days of lighting advice to help you become the master of your own Zoom domain. I know how frustrating it can feel when you’re using a platform that already has the potential for awkwardness, and on top of that, your space isn’t showing in a way that comes across as polished and professional.

I’m here to help you with at least part of that. I’ve been a portrait photographer for the past 12 years (professionally–if we’re counting all the time I’ve been obsessed with photographing people, it’s much, much longer) I can tell you that lighting is almost always the single biggest issue. You want to be heard–like really heard–and that’s so much easier when you can be seen.

Check back here on the blog each day for a new tip, or sign up HERE and it will be sent straight to your inbox. After signing up, you’ll be given a sneak peek into all 10 tips with a handy Zoom Lighting Quick Guide.

Alright, time to get into it! Let’s talk about one of the most common issues first.

A lot of people are sitting in front of their laptop when working from home. There are few problems with that (aside from the ache in your neck and shoulders after a full day of looking down at your laptop screen). Of course, I’m focusing specifically on the problems in regard to lighting and, subsequently, our appearance on camera.

Problem: Bright overhead light in the background

When the camera is at a position lower than your face, we tip it up so that people can see us in the frame. When that happens, often the camera is also getting a view of whatever overhead light you have in the room. As I mentioned in the video, the cameras on our devices (even the smarter ones like iPhones), are reading all of the information they’re being given and trying to average it out. If it’s seeing a very bright light, it tries to expose for it, and it makes the rest of the image darker. That translates into a dark face and unflattering shadows.

Fix: Raise your camera up to eye level

It’s just so easy! Raising the camera up a bit accomplishes a few things. First, it takes out the light on your ceiling. With that gone, there’s likely nothing else as bright in the frame and your camera can balance the exposure much more easily. Probably, your face will be one of the brightest things it sees and it will adjust to expose for you. Isn’t that neat? Second, it’s a much more flattering angle than a view up the nose. And third, it’s a much more socially comfortable position from which to have a conversation. Think about the person on the other end–it’d be like having a conversation with someone sitting on a judge’s bench!

You also want to keep this same idea in mind if you have a bright floor lamp or other light source behind you, as it might create that same kind of dark witness-protection-programmy look that we’re trying to guard against. If you see it causing that problem, try 1) moving the lamp out of the frame, 2) adjusting the angle of your camera, or 3) just turn the damn thing off.

Problem: Bright light on one side, dark shadows on the other

In our home office spaces (or let’s be honest, in our living room, kitchen, laundry room?—wherever it is we find ourselves setting up for these virtual meetings), we often have a window on one side of us. How nice it is to take a break from staring at the screen all day to gaze at the beautiful trees and pretend we’re outside playing amongst them? But, alas, we must sign into our Zoom meetings…

With the window over on your side, you might notice that the view on the screen shows one side of your face as very bright, and the other side dark with shadows. While the easiest answer would be to turn more towards the window, that’s not always feasible. Sometimes we’re not physically able to move the angle of our desk, or possibly, shifting the angle of ourselves and our computer puts an unfavorable background in view.

This lighting pattern where only half of the face is lit is called “Split Lighting”. It’s known for having a fairly moody and mysterious effect, which you may not be going for in your professional meetings—makes me think of Phantom of the Opera, even (who is that mysterious man in the shadows!?). It also tends to emphasize texture and imperfections in the face.

Fix: Use a reflector to fill in shadows

Reflecting natural light is a great way to fill in those shadows. As a photographer, I’ve got professional-grade reflectors, but it’s very simple to create something of your own. In the video, I show off my makeshift reflector made of a cut-open cereal box with tin foil glued on one side and white sheets of printer paper glued onto the other. I used these two different materials to show that each creates a different effect. Professionally, I almost always opt for my white reflector, as I think it creates a more natural-looking fill. The more reflective tin-foil brings more light into the shadow, but it tends to create a somewhat more artificial fill in the shadows. If you’re going to take the time to make something of your own, I would recommend that you , too, put a different material on each side so that you can try them both out and see what you prefer for your circumstances. And the bigger, the better—both in terms of kicking more light back in and the ability to prop it up easily. A large, flat piece of cardboard could prop up very easily on the seat of a chair sitting next to you.

A full length mirror is also a great reflector, if you have one handy. Actually, if we’re getting really creative here, a large cookie sheet would also do a great job as a reflector. You’ll want to be sure, though, that whatever you decide to use is a neutral color so that you’re not putting a strange color cast onto your face.

Problem: Your face is very bright while the rest of the room is a dark cave

Do you have to hop on early morning or late evening meetings sometimes? And if so, does it seem like you’re broadcasting from some secret underground lair where your face is over-bright and the rest of the room is much darker? What all of this translates to is a discrepancy between the light in the foreground (on you) and the light in the background (the rest of the room). The bluish tint on your face, if you’re seeing one, is coming from the color of light that’s being put out by your monitor.

Fix: Experiment with monitor brightness

Oh man, this one is so easy—much easier than making your own reflecting device. Just turn down the brightness of your monitor. Voila! It might take some playing around to get it at the right level, and it may also be necessary to add some additional light into the rest of the room, but we’ll get more into that later.

If you’re not sure how to adjust the brightness on your particular monitor by using the quickkeys or function keys on your keyboard (represented by a big sun and a smaller sun), you can usually adjust it manually in your System Preferences (or Settings if you’re on a mobile device, though the effect with a mobile device won’t be as great since it’s a much smaller light source). If you’re struggling, you can find a more complete guide to adjusting brightness HERE.

Just like we talked about in both tips #1 and #2, your camera wants to expose for the brightest thing it sees. So, if your face is by far the brightest thing, the rest of the room is going to be very dark and produce that underground-lair-effect.

By turning down the brightness, you allow the camera to bring in more of the rest of the light in the space—the ambient light. As you move the brightness up and down, you’ll be able to see the exposure adjusting in real time –and possibly the color, if the blue light from your monitor doesn’t match the ambient light of the room.  

Just like my other suggestions, this is going to a look a little bit different for everyone depending on all the different variables of your particular environment, so just play around with it until you find what looks best for you.

Problem: Your desk is situated smack dab in the middle of some glorious direct sunlight

Wow, it feels good to have that sunlight streaming into our offices while we work. And while it certainly helps elevate our mood, it does not help elevate the quality of our Zoom feed. At this point, you can probably predict the reason for that. So much light is being shone onto your face that the camera goes a little haywire trying to expose for that intense highlight. Likely, it can’t quite do the job, and what you end up with is a ghostly white face—somehow usually lacking a nose?

Fix: Soften or block that direct sunlight

One way to fix the issue is to physically move yourself just out of the direct light. You may not be able to do that—maybe it’s filling up the entire room and you can’t escape it. Also, if your meeting lasts more than a few minutes, the sun will move and potentially bring that direct light back onto you.

My preferred method, as shown in the video, is to put up a piece of sheer fabric in the offending window. Of course, if you already have sheer curtains and a curtain rod, this is going to the be easiest way to go. Be sure that the fabric or curtains you’re using are a neutral color—preferably sheer white or gray. This will ensure you don’t end up with a strange color cast on your face and in the rest of the room. The same is true for other types of window treatments—if light still gets through but it’s traveling through something that’s wood-colored or otherwise, that will show in the color of your picture.

Since I don’t have curtain rods above my windows, I used gaffers tape to put the curtain up. Painters tape will also work well. You’ll just want to use a tape that won’t peel the paint off your walls. After taping it up, the sun was still too bright on me, so I folded over the curtain and then taped it up again—this time it was perfect. The effect that it produces is similar to a softbox in a photo studio. That sheer curtain breaks up the light rays and spreads them around (diffuses them) so that those rays aren’t coming in on a direct path to the face.

If you don’t have a sheer curtain/fabric, try parchment or wax paper. It will have much of the same effect. OR if you don’t have those things, you can simply block the direct light with a large piece of cardboard taped up onto the window. In this case, you’ll want to still leave a good amount of light coming in from the part of the window that’s not shining directly onto your face so that you’re still illuminating the room.

Problem: You’re shining a light directly onto yourself and it’s creating some extreme highlights and shadows

So, you’ve finally found a space in your house that’s quiet and secluded enough for conducting your business meetings—but it’s dark as hell. Luckily, you’ve got a desk lamp. Hooray! …But wait, now look at those ghastly shadows on one side of your face and the shine in your T-zone it’s showing off. Not ideal.

Fix: Use neutral walls to bounce harsh light

This technique is going to be especially easy and effective if 1) your walls are white, and 2) you’re stationed with a wall close in front of you (i.e. directly behind your computer/camera).

Simply point your light directly at that wall, rather than at yourself. This way, the light will reflect off the wall and soften its effect on your face. Because the light is spreading out, there will be fewer shadows on your face and in the rest of the room. Even though the light on your face won’t be as bright, you’ll find that the camera adjusts for it, and, just as we found when we adjusted the brightness of our monitors, more ambient light is let in and we’ll be able to see more of the room around us.  

As noted in the video, you’ll want to be sure that any wall you’re bouncing light from is a neutral color. If your walls are a non-neutral color, you can create your own neutral “wall” by taping up a homemade reflector (see tip #2) or simply a large swath of parchment/wax paper. Those items will be great reflective and neutral surfaces. You’ll have a different effect depending on how close your light is to the wall or “wall” so I recommend trying a few different distances to see what looks best for your situation.

Problem:  You’ve got enough light on you (but not too much), you’ve softened it—and yet, you still don’t look great and you’re not sure why.

This may be harder to recognize as a problem. I suppose it’s just more of a general dissatisfaction about your appearance. Maybe your eyes seem too dark and dead. Or the light is shining upward at your face at an awkward angle. Nobody really needs to see what it looks like inside your nostrils, do they? Whatever the case, something just feels off.

Fix: Experiment with your angles.

For Zoom purposes, since we’ll always have our faces turned directly toward the camera, the best options are either going to be having the light coming from straight in front of you (right behind your computer) or just to the side of that, up to a max of about a 45 degrees.

Generally, the most flattering height for the light will be just above eye level.  If it’s too high, your brow bone will get in the way and the light won’t make it to your eyes. If necessary, get a box or a stack of books to raise up your light source. It will be worth the effort, I promise.

Ideally, you’ll be able to see what we photographers call a catchlight, that tiny little reflection of the light source in the pupil of your eyes. It’s what makes the eyes come alive in an image. Note, though, that if you’re bouncing your light off of a wall (as suggested in tip #5 for harsh lights), the light source will be made much larger and you won’t likely get a distinguishable catchlight because of that (and that’s OK). Also, if you’re bouncing off of a wall, you’ll want to be sure the place your aiming at on the wall is slightly above eye level. That spot on the wall is now your light source, and the same rules apply as to the most flattering angles.

As with pretty much every tip I’ve gone over so far—play around and see what looks best. I can tell you from lots of experience that everyone’s face looks best when lit from its own unique angle, and tiny changes of position make a huge difference.

Problem: You’ve gotten your lighting setup just how you like it, but your very early morning meeting throws it all off.

If you’re like me and have a standing meeting once a week at 7am, you know that the light in your home office is going to be way different than it is a even just a few hours later. Depending on the direction of your windows, you’re either going to have zero natural light, or the sun will be shooting right into your space, creating an entirely different situation for you.

Fix: Create a plan for daytime AND nighttime.

The good news is that we can use all the tips leading up to this to troubleshoot any issues your daytime/nighttime situation is posing. For example, if you have a ton of early morning direct light flooding into your space, diffuse it with a sheer curtain or a large swath of wax paper. If your space is very dark in the morning, know which lights you’ll be using to illuminate yourself and your space. Just jot down a note reminding you what looks best for each situation, and have the items handy that you’ll need to use–certain lights/lamps, wax paper, curtain, gaff tape–whatever it may be. That way, you can quickly adjust and it won’t take more than a few seconds before you hop on your Zoom call.

Problem: Why is everything green?! Or red?! Or blue?!

You get to your virtual meeting and you’re all in the Brady-Bunch squares, and everyone else is thinking “Why does it look like Kevin is in an aquarium??” … or at a discotheque?…or fell asleep on the beach and woke up looking like a lobster?

Fix: Try out different light bulb temperatures

As I’ve mentioned previously, our computer cameras are NOT great at adjusting for color. If they’re getting mixed messages, their little camera brains go haywire. Just kidding. Cameras don’t have brains.

Each type of light bulb is made to display at a certain color temperature, represented in degrees Kelvin. For example, a daylight bulb puts out light that reads at 5000 degrees Kelvin. Without getting too technical, the higher the number, the cooler the light. And the lower the number, the warmer the light.

Since we’re typically at home for our virtual meetings, we’re most often using tungsten or LED light bulbs to illuminate our spaces. These bulbs can be purchased in a range of color temperatures—most often: daylight, soft white, and warm white. If you’re like me, you’ve got some of each type floating around the house because different rooms call for their own type of light. In the bathroom, I want fresh, cool daylight, while in the livingroom, I like the nice warm glow of warm white.

Here are a few suggestions to help troubleshoot some common color casts:

Blue: try replacing the bulb with a warm white or soft white.

Red:  go for the daylight instead.

Purple: it’s possible that your monitor is too bright (it puts off a blue light) and it’s mixing with the warm white you’ve got coming from the lamp next to you. Try turning down the brightness of your monitor so that your camera isn’t so confused (that’s explained more in Tip #3).

Green: you’re either…

a) under oldschool fluorescent lights. If you can, turn off the flourescents altogether and opt, instead, for a floor lamp or table lamp in your space

b) you’ve got both daylight bulbs and warm/soft white bulbs on you at the same time. Go with just one at a time.

Your color of walls will also make a difference, so as always, try a few things—this will just be a good place to start. Have you followed my advice and it’s still showing you in a crazy hue? This happened with a gal I was helping out virtually, and we were stumped for a bit—we couldn’t get the purple on her face to go away…Until I found out she had an extra monitor next to her that had a big purple flower on its desktop display. She just changed that image to something more neutral and…voila!

Problem: Ack! Your face is two different colors!

What’s going on here? One side of your face looks normal, but the other side is all red? Or maybe you’ve got a different combination of strange colors, but regardless, something’s wrong.

Fix: Fill in daylight shadows with daylight bulbs

This has everything to do with our little talk in Tip #8 all about light temperature. If you’re sitting next to a window with daylight coming in, that light is a cool temperature. To guard against weird split color on your face, you’ll want to have other nearby light sources in the room match that color temp—or at least be somewhat similar—with daylight bulbs.

This one is a little tricky, though, because an exception is during sunrise/sunset hours where the natural light coming in through your window is going to be much warmer than it is throughout the rest of the day. Just like your daytime vs. nighttime plan from Tip #7, this might be a situation where you’ve got a note written down about what to adjust depending on the time of day you’re signing in for your meeting.

When it comes to messing around with light temperature, it can get complicated pretty quickly. My advice for most folks is to focus mostly on the light of your face—that’s the most important thing to light well—it’s what allows us to connect with others virtually in a way that’s clear and focused.

Problem: Uh oh! The first thing you tried didn’t work!

I totally didn’t mean that to sound snarky. I, too, fall victim to giving up right away when it seems like something might actually require a little bit of effort.

Fix: Just keep trying! And try things in different combinations.

A common theme throughout ALL of my tips and videos–try it on your own and see what looks best. That’s because these tips are just basic guidelines to help you get started. Depending on SO many things (time of day, color of walls, window treatments, etc., etc., etc.) your results will vary widely. So find a block of time on your calendar to set aside for experimenting.

Before that time, get yourself ready so that it’s as easy as can be to swap out different things. Here’s a list of some helpful items to gather:

All the different types of light bulbs you have

Lamps and lampshades

Sheer, neutral fabric/curtain

Wax/parchment paper

Gaff tape/painters tape

Different reflective surfaces (full length mirror, cookie sheet/broiler pain, or your own crafted reflector from Tip #2)

Then, sign into Zoom and start up a meeting with only yourself. That way you’ll be able to see the view that other meeting attendees would be seeing, and you can see the changes that happen with different techniques in real time. Once you find something that looks awesome, jot down a note that you can tape up next to your computer so that you don’t forget how you got there.

That’s it for my Top 10 Tips for Zoom home lighting! If you haven’t gotten the Quick Guide, you can find that RIGHT HERE. And that guide will be a good go-to reminder incase you find yourself in a tough lighting situation in the future.

Happy Zooming, everyone!

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