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Do You Look Like an Ogre in Video Calls? Me Too. Fix It With Simple Tips From Portraiture

With most of us on lockdown to some degree, the number of video calls for work and pleasure have increased exponentially. So, you might as well work out how to make yourself look halfway passable, rather than the cave-dwelling ogre you might without forethought.

I don't like being in front of the lens — any lens — and I avoid it most of the time. I like being behind the safety of the camera body, face partially obscured. (Maybe that's why I liked the GFX 100 so much: it obscured even more of my head.) But, with COVID-19 has come an influx of video calls with my family, friends, and even some work conferences. Like most, I naturally hold my camera at a low angle and started the first call without much forethought, to be greeted with a repugnant rendering of my appearance. Video calls are for all intents and purposes selfies, so it's time to take notice of those teens, as they've usually figured out techniques for looking good in them.

The unlucky recipient of my video feed could likely see up my nose — which appeared four times the size — as chins and bags under my eyes sprouted through creepy lighting. I recalled my grandad's first attempt video-calling me, in which I got to see the perspective of his face that a hair on his chin might have had. I realized that it was a common problem the more calls I was on and I can fix it. So, here's how to give the best representation of yourself in video calls. Please note, if you're not photogenic — as is unfortunately the case for me and many others — this will help, but it can't polish... let's get to the tips.

Fix the Angle, You Look Insane

Straight away, you need to have the camera at your eye level, or slightly above looking down. This will flatter your features, your jawline, and make your head look slimmer. It will also present everything a bit more proportionately. Portraits are seldom taken from below, and if they are, it's going to be well calculated and a subject that can fit it. Most of us get double chins, giant nostrils, and look generally bloated. You don't have to be square on to the camera either. Sometimes, 45 degrees to the left or right can create a more pleasing and natural result.

On this note, don't have your camera — whatever it may be attached to — too close to your face. Nothing good will come of it. The difference an angle can make when creating a portrait (which is essentially what you're doing in a video call — creating a portrait) is well documented. But let's refer back to Ricky Gervais for the difference, albeit an exaggerated one.

Make an Effort With the Lighting

I'm not saying you need two 50" softboxes over studio LEDs and a smattering of practicals in the scene (though that would look good), just that you need to put a little thought into it. The most common problem is the phone or computer screen being your primary light source; it makes you look like a hacker from a low budget 90s TV drama. The problem also echos the angle issue, with up-lighting (as the primary light source) casting horrible shadows. If you can, face a window with lots of natural light. If that's not possible, or it's dark, try to set up shop in front of a light slightly above you. Just experiment with positions and try not to let your device be your key light!

There are a few more considerations with lighting. For example, backlighting: Sitting with your back to a major light source like a window will either shroud you in shadows or the camera will compensate and make you look grainy. Also, be careful with the colors of lights. If your light is white or even blue, it can look a little harsh and sometimes make you look unhealthy, particularly if you're pasty white like me!

Finally, try to make sure your eyes are well lit. Bright eyes make everyone look better. Here's a good example. I picked Alicia Keys because she doesn't wear much or any makeup most of the time, and it's a video, so there's no retouching. Yes, she's ridiculously beautiful, but she is also employing the rules.

She's well lit with what looks to be a ring light, the background isn't too dark, the camera is above her, facing down slightly, and her eyes are bright. Additionally, she isn't holding the camera, which brings me on to my final tip:

Stop Moving the Camera

If you have a stand for your mobile phone, perhaps use that; if not, just prop it up against a book or vase. Holding the phone yourself limits how much power you have over the above tips, gives you an arm ache, and makes everyone else in the call a little seasick as you fumble about. It's also particularly difficult to look natural in this sort of situation, so don't make it worse for yourself by not being able to assume a comfortable posture!

Do You Have Any Tips You Can Share?

I suspect I'll never be fully comfortable in front of the camera, but if I employ the rules I either give my models and subjects, as well as basic lighting principles, I (and therefore you) can look less distorted and weird. Do you have any advice for looking better in the close-up angles of video calls?

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Mark Harris's picture

Presentation is always important, but I'm probably not the only one who has never thought about applying it to video conferencing, so thanks for that.
My wife is doing it a lot, and my jobs are mostly cancelled, so I now really want to build a huge studio around her and get a MUA in...

g coll's picture

It's all about the lighting bro

john Angulat's picture

Smear some Vaseline on the lens. Everyone looks good blurry...

Robert K Baggs's picture

Smear some Vaseline on yourself and be blurry without affecting your surroundings.

Paul Scharff's picture

I was at two Zoom conferences over the last 36 hours and was stunned at how bad people looked. I know I'm in the business but don't others see how bulbous and weird they look with a low camera that is right up to their face? Even when I'm forced to handhold a phone I hold it up over my face a bit.

My sense is that most photographers already have a pretty good look to their web cams, but I don't know how easy it would be to try to educate all the other participants without doing 5 minute 1-on-1 tutorials with each of them.

Mitchell Torjman's picture

sit in front of some window light and don't hold the phone so low or so close to your face lol :)

Joel Knepper's picture
Robert Digbe's picture

awesome post on video call story. I am using best application to make video calls. you can also use

g coll's picture