Natural light and virtual backgrounds: five ways to up your Zoom game

The video conferencing app has become a portal to the outside world – but are you presenting yourself in the best possible light?

You can download virtual pop-culture backdrops from Modsy to use on your Zoom calls. This is a replica of the 'Friends' living room made by the site. Courtesy Modsy
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You may not have even heard of Zoom four weeks ago, but chances are it's now become a lifeline – a way to conduct business, communicate with colleagues, reach out to friends or even dine with strangers.

As we all grapple with working remotely and existing in isolation, the app has become a much-needed portal to the outside world. But are you presenting yourself in the best possible light during those video calls?

Here are five ways to up your Zoom game.

Video Call Facetime Chatting Communication Concept
Zoom has become a lifeline for many during the current crisis. Courtesy Zoom

Jazz up your background IRL

Spruce up that empty white wall that acts as the backdrop to all your Zoom chats. Now is the perfect time to embark on some home improvement projects – and creating a statement wall is an easy place to start. You can buy wallpaper online and spend this weekend putting it up.

The new Sedar online shop has plenty of options, as does Wall Art. An alternative option is to paint the wall in a bold new hue. Ace stocks a number of paint brands, including Dulux and Clark & Kensington, and is offering free home delivery for orders over Dh99.

“Choose a colour that contrasts with your skin tone and hair colour, so that you are more prominent to the viewer,” suggests Pallavi Dean, founder and creative director of Dubai design company,  Roar. “Bookshelves are also really nice as a backdrop, because they give you a sense of depth and scale and space, which works well.”

For a more personalised option, create a gallery wall using framed photographs, prints and images. Include a mix of small, medium and large frames, and choose things that have sentimental value – for example, print out one of your favourite quotes, rendered in an interesting font, or pictures of some of the destinations you most want to visit once things have returned to normal.

Just don’t overdo it. You want to create a backdrop that is visually interesting but not overwhelming, advises Dean. “Try to make sure that your backdrop is not too busy or distracting, and that there’s not a lot of windows or movement behind you, as this will distract the viewer.”

Fake it ’til you make it 

If all that sounds like a little too much effort, you can use Zoom’s Virtual Background feature, which will introduce a still image or video as a backdrop to your call.

From your Zoom portal, go to Settings in the top right-hand corner of the screen, then scroll down to the Virtual Background feature. Zoom provides some sample backgrounds, but you can also upload your own. A tropical island scene? A famous global landmark? A scene from Pulp Fiction? The options are endless.

Unsplash has free high-quality stock images, so you can choose a scene from there, while the online interior design provider Modsy is offering up renderings of famous pop-culture homes for you to use, including the kitchen from Golden Girls, Carrie Bradshaw's bedroom in Sex and the City and the living rooms from Frasier and Friends.

Use the kitchen from hit TV show Golden Girls as a virtual background for your Zoom video calls. Courtesy Modsy
Use the kitchen from hit TV show Golden Girls as a virtual background for your Zoom video calls. Courtesy Modsy

There is endless fun to be had here, but make sure that your chosen backdrop is appropriate for the call at hand.

Also note that Zoom's virtual background feature is only available on certain devices, with a full list provided here.

Dress the part

While the temptation to lounge around all day in your pyjamas is strong while working remotely, experts agree that it’s important to maintain some kind of routine and normalcy while doing your job in isolation. That means waking up and putting on clothes that are comfortable, but also presentable.

When you are taking a video call, opt for neutral colours and avoid loud, boisterous prints and patterns, including checks, stripes and polka dots. Steer clear of anything shiny as this won’t translate well on-screen. Solid colours work best, but avoid soft and pastel tones, as they may make you look washed out.

And while it’s very tempting to pull on a shirt and keep your pyjamas bottoms on, we’d advise against it. You never know when you might have to get up, or if your laptop will slip, and your colleagues could probably do without seeing those faded, baggy sweat pants.

Natural light

Lighting is crucial if you want to look your best on screen. Try to put your computer near a window, as natural light is your friend.

“Make sure that natural light is coming from the side of your screen so that it lights your face really nicely,” suggests Dean. If that's not an option, go for an even amount of overhead light. If you are doing a lot of video calls, it might be worth investing in a small webcam light.

Video Call Facetime Chatting Communication Concept
Place your computer on a smooth, even surface, ideally above eye level. Courtesy Zoom

For the most flattering view of your face, keep your laptop out of your lap – place it on a firm, even surface, just above eye level. And don’t sit too close to it – nobody needs to do an inventory of your open pores.

Get a little help from this filter

The easiest way to look more polished during your video calls is to use Zoom’s own Touch Up My Appearance filter, which will smooth out your skin tone and shift your video to a softer focus. You’ll find it by clicking on Video Settings in the lower left-hand corner of your screen.

Please note that this function will not make it look like you’ve brushed your hair or washed your face – you’ll still have to do those things for real.