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We’re all getting used to working at home and doing work conferences via video… but video calls have a way of magnifying small distractions until they become unprofessional. 

I don’t care about my flyaway hair in real life, but on camera it makes me look like I have my finger stuck in a light socket! And don’t get me started on the nude picture I accidentally flashed to a colleague during a Google Hangouts video call for work.

Learn from my mistakes. 

Here are 10 ways to look and sound so much better when you do video calls or video job interviews from home. They’re all easy – and most of them are free.

Level 1: Easy (stuff you already have)

1. Pick a background that’s non distracting. All you need behind you is a blank wall, with a little interest – like maybe a vase of flowers or a couple of books. Check there’s nothing controversial behind you, like an open door to the bathroom.

True story: I video-chatted with my colleague. She seemed distracted. I wondered why… until I ended the video call and turned around – to realise she’d been confronted by a large nude artwork on the wall behind me. Lesson learnt.

Keep your background relatively clean and clutter-free, to avoid becoming a source of distraction. Photo: 123RF

2. Avoid sitting right in front of a window because the light streaming from behind you turns you into a black silhouette. “We can’t see your face. You look like someone hiding in witness protection” is how one of my colleagues described it, when I made this mistake a few weeks ago.

It’s better to sit sideways to the window, or have window light shining onto your face, from in front of you. Video Director Casey Claus @caseyklaus makes it easy to see how well this tip works with this easy-to-follow video tutorial.

Left: A window behind you makes you difficult to see on your video call, as Video Director Casey Claus shows. Right: For a more professional-looking video call, move around so the window is beside you, or light is streaming onto your face. See more tips from Casey at  www.cklaus.net.

3. Raise your laptop so it’s at your face height. Stacking it on a pile of books is fine. It makes typing  more of a challenge but it’s less distracting than a view up your nose. Plus, elevating the laptop (and the camera inside) instantly makes you look taller and more elegant. 

You want the camera about eye level, and about an arms length away from you… because that’s how people usually see you. See the difference it makes in this Skype video tutorial (the linked video interview checklist is also very helpful if you’re pitching yourself remotely to new employers  – or seeking to wow the employer you already have).

Raise your laptop, and position it about arms length away from you, to look good in a video interview or video call for work, as this Skype tutorial shows. Screenshot from NTDTrainingVideos/Youtube

4. Look at the camera lens… not your own photo in the corner of the screen. It’s hard not to stare at your own video image – but it makes it look like you’ re talking to someone else in the room, because it moves your eyes away from the camera. Make a conscious effort to look into the lens. You look attentive and natural. As a bonus, you don’t get distracted by your crazy hair.

Speaking of which…

Level 2: Lighting

5. Makeup and hair helps you stand out, in a good way. If you suffer from flyaway hair (like me), I found it helps to neaten the frizz with a little gel, or spray hairspray on a brush and smooth down the crazy.

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A shiny T-zone can also be oddly distracting, because flight reflects off those areas of your face. So if you have oily skin, use an oil blotter and powder your face before a video call. Cameras tend to wash out your skin tone, so it helps to swipe on lipstick and add a thin line of eyeliner close to your top lashes to help your eyes stand out. If you have smaller eyes, try adding a thin line of glitter eyeliner under your eyes. Light reflects off the glitter, and opens up your eyes.

The goal is to wear enough makeup so you look well-groomed, but not so much that you look overdone – try doing a video call with a friend, so they can tell you how you’re looking. 

For ideas for makeup and hairstyles that look great on camera (or at work), read these:

6. Put a light in front of you, slightly above your shoulder height. Cameras magnify every shadow on your face. Suddenly you look like Dracula, with gloomy darkness and bags under your eyes. A simple fix is to put your own desk light in front of you, balanced on a pile of books so it shines down into your face. This video by Daily Vanity video gives great hacks using stuff you already have at home.

You can use lights you already have to look more dymanic on camera during a video call or video job interview. See how in this video tutorial by Daily Candy video. Screenshot from DailyCandy/Youtube

7. Use a ring light to look five years younger. It’s optional.. But nice! Ring lights create flattering, even, whitish light that blurs out fine lines and dark spots and eye bags.That’s why ring lights are often used by photographers, influencers and vloggers. 

Small clip-on ring lights are less than S$5 online. Just clip onto your smartphone or mount above your laptop screen. These little lights are designed for selfies so they only light up your face and shoulders, but they’re still more flattering than using only a regular room light. Plus, they’re super easy to use and the soft clamps don’t scratch your phone.

You can get rechargeable and cheaper battery powered versions. The battery versions quickly run out of power, but for under $5, they’re perfect for beginners. 

A bigger ring light that mounts on a tripod is great if you video call a lot. They’re about $30 and easy to buy online – just type in “ring light for video calls” and a million come up on Shopee, Lazada and other online stores.

You can buy a light that screws onto a camera tripod, or get a light that comes with it’s own tripod. Tall tripods are easier to  angle above your face. But if you have kids or pets, it’s safer to get a small tripod for about S$15 that has bendy legs to wrap around a shelf. Ring lights tend to be top heavy – a toddler can get their feet tangled in the tripod legs and knock them over. 

Level 3: Legit Pro

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8. An external microphone helps you get your point across clearly. Laptops come with inbuilt microphones, but they’re not amazing. So if you’re talking in an empty room, or the room has tiled floors, your listeners will hear distracting echoes.  

For about $25 you can get a headset with a microphone attached. Just plug the lead into the little port on the laptop with the microphone icon and voila! Everyone can hear you more clearly, and the headset helps drown out annoying noises from outside. Since it’s almost impossible to avoid construction noise in Singapore, I find this incredibly helpful. I can actually hear what people are saying on the call. 

9. If you don’t want to mess your hair up with a headset, it’s easy to plug in an external video microphone. Plug it into the hole in the laptop with the mic icon and it will stand to attention by your laptop on it’s own little stand. These microphones are designed for videography, but they work just great for video calls.

This video by Youtube channel NoClueHowTo shows how bonkers easy installation is.

Just plug an external microphone into your laptop and you’ll sound as crisp as a newsreader on your next video conference call for work. Screenshot from NoClueHowTo/Youtube

10. If you often make video calls with your handphone, you can get tiny S$60 mics about the size of a lipstick that plug into your phone, like this. Sound quality is much better than the mic in regular earphones. They’re about S$60. Add a little adapter if you need to connect your microphone to iPhone, for around S$12.35.

If you often use your phone to make work video calls, you can improve your voice quality with a microphone about the size of a lipstick. Photo: Rode

Enhance and adjust your phone or webcam’s video settings with apps that can brighten the video, enhance skin tone or subtly remove skin flaws. Skype, Google+ offer free filters, and iMessage offers free filters with iPhone X.

If you use a Mac, you can try iGlasses app, which lets you adjust the video’s lighting, saturation, brightness, and so on. It’s US$19.95 to download here.

10. Since the coronavirus outbreak Snap has seen a tenfold spike in downloads of the free Snap Camera app – which gives you thousands of artistic Snap lenses to play around with. Suddenly flowers appear in your hair as you video chat, or flames flicker out of your eyes! 

Such playful filters are not useful for a conference call with the boss. But they’re maybe fun for a remote brainstorming meeting with your colleagues?

The free Snap Camera app gives you thousands of Snap lenses to mess around with when you make video calls.

If you’re calling on Facebook Messenger, you get a similar effect if you tap on the center of the screen. Free Filter and effect buttons appear. Tap the Filter button (the droplet symbol) at the bottom to scroll through filters that change your video’s  colours, contrast, and style.

In the top right corner, you can see the changes as they happen. To remove any filters, scroll to the left of it. When you tap the Effects button (the star symbol), you find digital overlays, from puppy ears for your face to falling heart shapes that rain down over your screen.