Here at Four Kitchens, almost every meeting is virtual, and almost every team member is at home or on the go. Valuing face to face communication as much as any team-oriented workplace, we rely on the oft-neglected art of video conferencing. We originally used Google’s free browser-based “Hangouts” video chat. Four Kitchens has since moved on to Zoom, a native application based cross-platform meeting service that’s served us well for years now.
One thing that doesn’t change depending on what application you use, is how you present yourself to others. Pants not required, get your hair in order, find a good place to sit or stand, and say hello!
But wait, what’s that behind you? Your cat attacking a toilet paper roll? Your three-year-old running in to give you hugs while you give a report on international TV? Your kitchen and pile of dirty dishes? Far too often the best place to do your meeting at home doesn’t have the most professionally appropriate or non-distracting background. No one is perfect, but a cluttered, distracting, or moderately disheveled background is no way to present yourself professionally to a client.
The good news is, there’s a number of easy solutions that can step up your video conferencing game quickly and make you the envy of any meeting you join.
Without spending a dime or more than a few minutes prep work, you should be able to improve your look quickly.
More light/Avoid backlighting
Sitting in front of a window can be good, but only if your camera/laptop is pointed away from the window as it lights your face. Modern laptop and other webcameras with their tiny lenses cannot capture enough light, so always make sure and err on the side of more light than less. Unless you’re giving scrum updates from an actual dungeon, do your best to make sure it doesn’t look like one.
If mobile, find a wall
This one seems obvious, but far too many people miss it. If you can move around, find a table or chair nearest to a wall to appear in front of. This significantly limits the visible area of your room, and it’s usually easy to find a flat colored section of wall without much on it. It may be boring, but it gets the job done and doesn’t cost anything more than a little thinking.
When in (serious) doubt, nix it
Your hair is literally a flock of seagulls. The dogs got into the packing peanuts and wanted to show you how to redecorate. Whatever the excuse, just forget using video. Turn off your camera (or use the sticker method) and excuse yourself for the time being until you can fully enact one of the following far better methods.
Green screen: Virtual backgrounds so you can be anywhere
I recently found myself living in a single room, with nothing but my bed and dresser behind my desk. An impossible situation when it comes to trying to regularly have meetings in front of my standing desk, on a whim I discovered an answer: Green screen!
Green screen (or “chroma key” as it’s called in the biz) has been used for replacing backgrounds of film, video, and photos for nearly 100 years. Now with incredibly powerful computers, these kinds of effects can be done real time on the consumer hardware we use every day. These let you replace whatever color is behind you with a single static image or video.
Step 1: The screen
There are about as many options for your screen as there are for your virtual backgrounds. Here are three cheap options that give you the best bang for your buck:
Folding pop-out portable screen
These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some twist or fold into compact sizes for carrying with you. They are often double sided with green and blue. They will need to be very close to you or propped up on a table or chair to stay put at the right height, but it’ll work well in a pinch.
The brightest, most saturated green paint you can find will likely be enough to get you the desired effect. It’s relatively cheap, but it requires sacrificing either some or all of your wall permanently. Also, it’s not at all portable.
Green screen fabric
Obtainable online and at most video supply stores this can be had cheaply and in almost any size imaginable. It comes on a roll and can be big enough to stand on while covering an entire wall! Technically portable, but requires extra hanging hardware. I chose this last method as it made the most sense for my available space and semi-permanent requirements.
To hang my screen I first cut it to fit the width of the room (less a few feet) and wrapped it around a PVC pipe, with an internal steel pipe. Hanging the steel pipe directly to the wall, the PVC allows the green screen to roll/unroll at will using a piece of twine and a screw attached. This allows me to pull down and roll up at will with no complicated or expensive hardware.
Step 2: Lighting!
I mentioned lighting earlier, as incredibly important as it is generally, it’s even more important when it comes to green screen quality. You want wide, soft even lighting across your green screen with as few shadows as possible. Wrinkles, backlighting or anything that changes the color appearance of the background to the camera is going to mess with your effect. For my setup, I took a single LED fluorescent tube replacement light bouncing off my white wall in front of the screen.
This single light (bought for ~$20 from a local hardware store) happened to be enough to evenly light the entire screen well enough that the only other light I needed was a desk lamp on the ground to fill in any shadows. Semi-professional studio lighting can be had for relatively cheap, but they often require tripod/ceiling mounting. Considering the limited scope of use, it’s rarely worth the extra space, money, or effort.
Do your best to avoid wearing green or reflecting colors. Being on-brand in my green Four Kitchens track jacket can be a bit tricky, but with a little adjustment of the green screen color cutoffs, I can make it work. If the green were just a bit brighter, I would be a floating head.
Step 3: Start the magic
You’ve got your lighting, your green screen is clean, mean and keen! Now it’s time to make the magic happen. If using Zoom, enable the virtual background feature and select an image. Adjust the settings until everything looks right and you should be good to go.
If you don’t use Zoom, you want a few more options, or the ability to use videos as backgrounds, on Windows, I recommend SparkoCam. It presents its final video from almost any video source and overlays as a virtual webcam, allowing it to be used by basically any video conferencing software that runs on the system. For Mac check out ManyCam and CamMask for a similar feature set.
Choosing the right background
We spent all this effort replacing our cluttered or messy background, but with great power comes great responsibility. Just because you can replace your background with a wiener dog infinitely zooming around a bed, does not mean that you should.
Chose with great restraint, think of your audience, and if you use a background with motion, always work to ensure it’s subtle and appropriate. For team meetings, I can be on top of a volcano or be sitting on a tropical beach. For client meetings, if I need to be fully incognito I use a static image of a cubicle or living room, once I get to know them a bit I can slowly transition to pristine landscapes.
Things to avoid for backgrounds generally
While there are no direct rules, I recommend keeping things simple. No overly complex or cluttered images. Avoid text or logos, even if it may seem fun for a client, it will get old quickly. Avoid flat colors as they’re hard on the eyes (two-color linear gradients work well though).
Don’t be afraid to have fun
Internal meetings are a great place to just have fun with it. Your coworkers generally know you well enough to get a kick out of green screen antics. It’s probably wiser to ease your clients or vendors into the fun. After getting to know one another, perhaps surprise them with a fun background, but be ready to switch back to something more professional if the situation warrants it.
When you’re working from home, you can work from anywhere. With the right tools and a little preparation, you can just look like you’re working from anywhere and never have to change out of your pajama pants.
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