Is it Zoom Fatigue? Or is it Just Bad Lighting?

How a producer produced her own shot and learned to love video calls again

laptop with a virtual meeting showing variety of people on screen
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

There are many things I’m looking forward to when things start to open up again: a professional haircut, a pedicure, and visiting family for the first time since September. But there’s one thing I hope to keep doing in the “new” new normal — virtual meetings. And this is definitely not something I would have said a few weeks ago.

Like many of you I absolutely loathed this new way of doing business. In the beforetimes I was a busy television producer working on a daily lifestyle program. I was surrounded by people doing creative things: producers, lighting crew, camera operators, audio engineers. I could do my best work collaborating with the best people.

Then I had to work from home, alone in my 500 square foot condo. The people were gone.

Our show had to figure out how to create content remotely, working with people who have never dealt with the tech side of TV. The learning curve was steep, so when it came time for me to log into my first Zoom production meeting I had nothing left in the can to set up my own shot. Ironically the team was meeting to figure out a way to streamline communicating to our experts at home how to set up a TV-worthy shot.

“Basically tell them not to do whatever Tara is doing,” I heard our director say. Here’s what that looked like:

Dark silhouette of person with no distinguishable features
Recreation of my first Zoom appearance. Would you believe this person has 15+ years producing experience?

I had broken the first rule of looking good on Zoom. My first work-from-home setup was just me on a laptop at the kitchen island — the only surface large enough to work from. My condo has a literal wall of window in the living room — floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Sure I have blackout blinds (a must for living downtown) but even with the blinds drawn, this light source is always going to be the brightest light in the room.

I favoured the convenience of logging in “wherever” over looking like a recognizable face in a meeting.

It took a while for me to commit to a more permanent work-from-home situation. I live in a small space and for the first part of the pandemic I had a dog crate taking up a lot of real estate in the living room. I packed up the dog crate (and crossed my fingers we did enough puppy training) and parked the desk directly in front of the window. I was always facing the strongest light source, which meant I was always lit enough for a Zoom meeting. Plus, it’s a nice view for when you’re working.

View of work from home setup with a desk facing a large window
First setup of permanent wfh situation. The first rule of video calls: face your brightest light source
Properly lit face looking into a computer screen
Actual laptop shot facing window. Blinds are drawn to better balance light hitting my face

This shot was good, but not great. I have depth, but in order to get good lighting I need to turn on EVERY light source behind me. And even then, I’m just illuminating a series of doors.

Still I didn’t see the need to improve the shot. Until the stakes completely changed. This past winter I had to look for work — during the pandemic, in the middle of a lockdown. The same technology I used as quick fix to a temporary problem, is the very technology I now rely on to find work.

I struggled with interviews in the beginning. I was working overtime to convince people that I’m this creative powerhouse with tons of TV experience, but all I can see is a poorly composed and unevenly lit background. I’ve talked myself out of so many jobs because I was self-conscious of my frame.

If I’m being totally honest, I’ve felt this way for my entire Zoom experience. I never liked how I looked, which lead to a general feeling of discomfort and eventually disengagement. I hated being on Zoom for family gatherings and catching up with friends. I never looked right — mainly because I was thinking of these as calls, and not televised appearances.

Even though these shots are not for an official broadcast, you’re still “broadcasting” to the other people on the call. In TV, a poorly composed frame loses viewers. Is it possible the same applies to video calls?

I decided to apply my TV knowledge to myself. The shift was surprisingly easy. I shifted my desk and shelving unit 90 degrees so they face each other.

I’m still getting light from the window, and it’s also lighting the space behind me.

view of same home office space but the desk is angled to sit beside the window, as opposed to facing the window
Same wfh space, but desk and book shelf now face each other
Person logging into video call with good lighting and interesting background
Actual laptop photo of this setup. Not as much depth behind, but the background has more interest than the other angle. I’m also using a bare lightbulb to reduce shadows on the side of my face not facing the window

Simply put, a world of difference! I had a networking call with a CBC executive recently and she said “well, we’ve both figured out how to do TV remotely” as she gestured to my now properly composed shot — the exact opposite experience I had from similar calls when the other producers didn’t sound as convinced of my skills.

Once I started working on my shot, it’s opened up a world of creativity. I’ve made even more improvements to the lighting using what I already have around the house. The tips are too much to share in a single post, so I’m starting to share them on my professional Instagram account: @mcewenmedia.

I’ve been using this setup for just over a month, and the change in my comfort and confidence is remarkable. The only downside is, the more time I spend on video calls, the more I want to fix other people’s shots — even the ones on TV!

It makes perfect sense that not everyone knows how to do this. Not enough people are sharing how to apply professional TV techniques to everyday life. My hope is by sharing this, we’ll all look better and feel better on video.

I’m still eagerly waiting the chance to see my family in person again, but I’m no longer dreading the next Zoom invite I get. And that feels pretty good too.

Follow @mcewenmedia on Instagram for more advice on how to set up your video call like a professional television producer

Navigating the next phase of my career, where I’m determined to come out of this pandemic better than I came into it | Word nerd | Dog mom