I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had several wonderful mentors in my experiences with photography. When I was about 14 or 15, my friend’s father recognized my interest and actually offered me paid work!
However, my first gig did not require I actually touch a camera. “Back in the day” top event photographers would use large format cameras (2 1/4″ square negative) typically with an off-camera mounted high-powered flash unit. But that was not sufficient.
Leading photographers tend to be extreme perfectionists and even neurotic about getting the best possible result. So, these event photographers would have an assistant who held a second “slave” flash. That was me.
As the slave flash assistant, you had three responsibilities. First, make sure the flash was pointed at the subject. Second, make sure the slave sensor was pointed at the main flash. And, third, alert the photographer to any background elements that might ruin the picture.
These included poles or other background elements that might appear to be growing from the subject’s head. Or, a very bright light that could distract from the subjects or even ruin the exposure. In the heat of photographic battle, it is amazingly easy to miss things like this. So, having an assistant and second pair of eyes looking for these visual distractions was a big deal.
As a young photographer, learning about distracting backgrounds was an important lesson to learn. In the age of Zoom, it is equally significant. Look carefully at your background. Is there something growing from your subject’s head? Just this morning my wife and I were looking at a major network news broadcast. It appeared a highly respected female commentator had a “growth” of some sort coming out of her shoulder. What made it worse – the top she was wearing, and the background distraction were the same color!
This same mentor would tell me, “when doing posed photos, ask the subjects to lower their chin by about 1/2 inch.” As he explained, “no one wants to see anyone’s neck, and the slightly lowered face would lead to a more aesthetic result.” I probably shouldn’t say this, but as people get older, this is even more true!
So, what does this mean today? During an online meeting, no one wants to be looking up someone’s nostrils. They do not want to see more than half the screen be the ceiling above the speaker. To accomplish this, you must move the camera higher and point it downward. The typical angle of a notebook computer or tablet attached to a keyboard is guilty of making this happen. Move the computer on to a very thick book. Tilt the screen forward and look at the result. No more ceiling or nostrils!
If you are paying attention to the wide variety of home-shot material that is dominating our pandemic induced broadcasts you will see a considerable variety of production values. In all the situations where a “professional” is helping, or from a high end in-their-own-house studio (hello John Legend, Keith Urban, Steven Colbert, etc.) you will see the camera angle is exactly as it should be.
Check the the resolution of the camera you are using. Anything less than 720p High Definition is no longer acceptable. We have an older Logitech webcam that clips onto the top of the monitor. Due to its age, it has a maximum resolution of 480p. It turns out that the camera built into my laptop is 720p and the difference is huge.
Since Zoom and other meeting applications use a lot of bandwidth, make sure your modem and router combination are strong too. An old router will cause video and audio delay and will ruin the experience for your viewers.
Another basic lesson from photography. The camera must be steady! Mount the camera in a stationary way. If you are walking around with your phone during a Zoom meeting, it is not a comfortable feeling for the viewer!
Zoom meetings are becoming a needed way to do business or check in with others as we go through Corona-Ville. Turns out they can be fun and truly enable another channel for supportive and enjoyable communication that will outlast the virus. We may as well do it right.