Zoom for the holidays, plus a walk around town

A year ago—which feels rather like an entire lifetime ago—I could not have imagined writing this post. But here we are, near the end of 2020: the holidays are upon us, and we are spending much less time in person with other people and more time connecting via technology. Whether you’re working from home or chatting with friends and family, video conferencing has become a fact of life for a great many of us around the world.

How to look your best in a Zoom call
There is a wealth of information out there about how to look good on a video call, and I thought I wouldn’t need to add my two cents’ worth. However, I’ve noticed some issues in my own calls, so I thought I’d go ahead and write up a few tips. Everything here comes from my own experiences in video calls, plus I’ve also included a few links to other articles. There are no photos, because I didn’t ask my friends’ permission!

Before we go any further
My first question to you is this: do you want to be seen?

This might seem like a dumb question, but I’ve attended many of these calls, and I’ve noticed a lot of people who are physically present for the meeting, but they don’t look like they want to be seen. Food for thought.

Two basics of technology
It’s important to know that how you look in a mirror won’t necessarily be the same as how a camera will see you, especially a digital camera. The easiest way to understand this is to take your phone to your bathroom mirror. First, look at your reflection in the mirror. Really look. Second, hold up your phone with the camera turned around to selfie mode. You’ll see the differences right away. Thus, when I’m getting ready for a call, I first check how I look in the mirror, and then I always do a final check with my phone.

The second thing is a plea to everyone: be sure your camera is clean, whether you’re using your phone or your computer. Both devices are handled often, which means that it’s easy for oils on your hands to transfer to the camera lens. And that in turn will lead to a sort of soft-focus effect. Who knows? Maybe there are people out there who want that soft-focus Hollywood glamour shot for themselves. I can say though, that as a viewer, it’s less glamorous and more frustrating when the people I’m talking to look out of focus.

Basics of appearance: posture
Resist the urge to rest your head in your hands. It’s a posture that sends a very clear message: I don’t care. Be alert and pay attention, or turn the camera off. Whenever I see people resting their heads in their hands—and I see it often—they also tend to look sleepy, which supports the “I’d rather not be here” subtext.

Be thoughtful about how often you check your phone during a call. It looks like you’re bored or disinterested. Phones are often used for taking notes, just like writing notes on paper, and I understand the need to be able to do that. I do it too. Try to remember that when you’re all in the same conference room, the others can see you taking notes, whereas in a video conference, the others generally only see your head and shoulders, and they can’t tell that you’re writing notes. They only see your eyes looking elsewhere, which is distracting. I’ve found that people are more comfortable and understanding if I simply let them know that I’m taking notes.

Basics of appearance: attire
Of course, clothes are a personal choice, and I’m not here to tell people how to dress. Rather, I’d like to point out a few things I’ve noticed.

First, while hats can be fun to wear, they really don’t work in video calls. It is almost always the case that the light source is above your head (more on that below), which means that the hat is going to put your face in shadow. It’s hard to talk to someone whose face is there, but difficult to see.

The second thing was a complete surprise to me. It involves the color of your shirt. I wouldn’t have guessed that this could be an issue, and I haven’t seen a single article that addresses this point, but it’s real.

A while back, I was in a call with a bunch of friends, including one couple who both work in the photography business. She is Karen, the best photography teacher I’ve ever had. He is Joel, a printer of such skill that I think of him as an artist, too. They were sitting side-by-side for the call.

We were all chatting away about different topics, and I kept noticing that Joel was looking a little distracted about something. At one point, he held up a placemat from their table, and asked Karen to hold it across her chest, to cover her shirt. Their skin tones changed immediately, as if by magic.

What just happened? Joel had noticed that of the six squares on the screen—representing all of us on the call—the square he shared with Karen was the only one tinted a deep gold color, and he couldn’t immediately figure out why. Finally his thoughts landed on the laptop’s built-in camera, and that’s when he had the idea of holding up the placemat. Karen was wearing a pale lavender shirt, which the camera over-corrected by producing an unnatural dark yellow, the opposite color from blue on the color wheel. When Karen held up the white placemat, the camera recalibrated, and the skin tones immediately shifted to look more normal. Their square was no longer tinted in dark yellow.

I experienced the same thing once when I was wearing a turquoise shirt; I noticed in my selfie preview that my face looked really red, like I’d just come in from a long run on a hot day. I changed my shirt, and my skin looked much better.

This is one good reason to use your phone to check your appearance before a call, and to notice the difference between what the mirror tells you and what the phone sees. You can also see this principle at work in your calls, by looking closely at each person’s square on your monitor. I had a meeting the other day in which one person’s square was tinted olive green, and another was dark purple. It’s weird, and I am here to say that weird=distracting.

There are a few basic rules of lighting that you can use to your benefit. The first one is to never have the primary light source behind you. I see this one all the time. People like to sit with a window behind them, maybe to show off a pretty view or a lovely garden. I understand the motivation, but it rarely works because during the day there’s a lot more light outside than there is inside. That means that the pretty view is washed out—all white—and you appear as a black silhouette against all that whiteness.

If you’re using the overhead light from the room that you’re in, you are almost guaranteed to have unflattering dark shadows on your face and neck. Just sayin’.

A much better approach to lighting is to have a light source that is in front of you. You could turn around and face the window, although do be careful, because it might actually be too much light.

Even better is to use a soft light, like a desk lamp. Set it up behind the camera, so that its light illuminates your face.

It’s especially great if you have a way to soften that light source, so that the bare light bulb isn’t pointed directly toward your face. You can do this by using a lamp with a white or off-white shade, and turning the lamp so that the light is coming through the shade to light you up. If that doesn’t work, try draping a white handkerchief over the lamp, but be careful about creating a fire hazard.

When choosing a light bulb, white or warm white light is more flattering to skin tones than cool white. And as any good decorator knows, pink is the most flattering light of all. A very thin, pale pink scarf draped over the lamp will give your skin a lovely, healthy glow.

Like with the shirt colors I mentioned earlier, try these different methods with your phone on selfie mode and check out the differences between various light sources and colors of light.

Try to set up the camera so that it’s at eye-level to you, or a wee bit higher. It is nearly always more flattering when the subject—that’s YOU—is looking straight ahead or very slightly up into the camera. Having the device below your head means the camera is looking up your nose. Plus turkey-neck.

My setup is this: if I’m using my laptop for the call, I put it on top of a small but stable wooden box so that the camera is close to eye-level. If I’m using my phone, I either prop it up against the screen of the elevated laptop, or I put it on a tripod. There are many small tripods on the market that are made especially for smart phones.

Similar to sitting with a window behind them, people like to sit outside. Again, I get it; it’s splendid to be outside. But that slight breeze that you can’t even hear is being picked up by the incredibly sensitive microphone on your phone or computer. The noise is uncomfortable to listen to, and it usually bulldozes whatever is being said.

There’s a similar effect with rustling papers. That sensitive microphone also picks up the sounds of things being shuffled around nearby, and papers are the worst. Please be careful about the things you choose to move around and play with during your call.

In summary
You may have noticed that I used the word “distracting” a lot. That’s because the distractions are magnified in a video conference call in a way that we don’t notice when we’re in the same room with people. Identifying and limiting those distractions will help you look your best in these calls.

Very few of us were born with the skill set to be actor, costume designer, makeup artist, lighting and sound technician, camera crew, and director, all rolled into one person. It’s a lot to keep track of, but with a few simple tricks, you can look like the pro that you are.

Other articles:
1. Laura Vanderkam, 6 Ways to Look Great on a Video Call

2. Amanda Wills, How to Look Good on Video Chat

3. Bob Sacha, A Cinematographer’s Guide to Looking Good in Web-Based Video Conferencing

New exterior stairs on our old schoolhouse.

A walk around town
November gave us some glorious days for walking, and since we were limited to ambling within one kilometer of home, I enjoyed a few walks around town. Here’s what I saw.

The school in my town is too big for the number of students, so the top floor hasn’t been in use for a while. It turns out that the perfect time to clean and refurbish that part of the building was during the covid lockdown this past spring, when kids weren’t in school. The work is finished now, and that space can be used by the community, with access via this new exterior stairway.

Here are more scenes of Bize:

The view of the old part of the village from across the river. The trees at the left form part of the Promenade, an area that hosts our weekly outdoor market, summer festivals, concerts, town dinners, and teenagers hanging out together. The houses in the center are built around one of the medieval gates to the village, Porte Saint Michel, while the other houses are built along the lines of the town’s wall.
On the outer edges of the village, along the riverbank. Can you smell the fall leaves?
The roots of trees make their way along the same path that we walk, and in this season, they’re sprinkled with multicolored fallen leaves.
A narrow and secluded lane in town, quiet and a little mysterious.
I often walk past this door, and I always wonder… The handle appears to be peeking from behind the soft drape of a curtain. Someone certainly made an effort to reshape the wooden panel to work with the movement of what must have been (at some point) a new handle. It’s that gentle, draping curve framed by the sharp edges of peeling paint that gets me every time.

Parting shot
An award-winning baker in northern France has found extra inspiration from the most recent coronavirus lockdown. He printed 20,000 baguette bags with the mandatory attestation form that everyone living in France has to use for any trip outside the home.

“Teddy Rousselot, of the Boulangerie Saint Fiacre, Seine-et-Marne, stopped a confinement-induced drop-off in sales, helped customers without access to a printer, and prevented them from getting caught without a required lockdown attestation by having the documents printed on the bags in which he puts his baguettes.”
– The Connexion

Clever fellow.

Photograph from The Connexion. That’s Teddy’s baguette award on the left.

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