Saturday, July 30, 2022

How to be the Best-Looking Square in your next Zoom Call

In this issue:

  • How to be the Best-Looking Square in your next Zoom Call
  • New Ebook on the OM System OM-1!
  • Next Time in Cameracraft
  • Black Background with No Backdrop
  • We're moving again...

How to be the Best Looking Square in your next Zoom Call

Have a look at the screen grab from a zoom call above.  Notice how few of them are well lit, and almost all are looking up at the user using unflattering wide angle lenses.  (Click on any image in this blog to see it larger.)

Now look at the top center square circled in red.  That's me and my wife.  We're well lit and it looks like we were shot with a professional portrait lens. :-)  Every time I give a Zoom lecture to a photography club I've had someone compliment me on how I look, and asked how I did it.  Well, it's actually not hard, and chances are you already have everything you need!  Three things are required:

1) Good light on you.  (This is kind of essential!  After all, if your light sucks then so will your video.)  Even a cheap desk lamp will do a great job as I demonstrate in the youtube video below.

2) A camera with a portrait lens (on a tripod)

If you use a fast lens (like f/2.8 at 200mm) and you place yourself in front of a bookcase, then your books will be realistically out-of-focus and it won't look like those tacky zoom backgrounds.  

3) Virtual Cam software from your camera's manufacturer

This software, when downloaded to your computer, creates a "virtual cam" that you can select in Zoom instead of that crappy wide webcam in your laptop.  (Again, see the video below.)

Here's where you can download the free software for Sony, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, and Canon.  Once installed, the software presents a new option in Zoom when it comes time to select which camera to use.

So here are the step-by-step instructions on how to use it:
  1. Hook up your camera to your computer via a USB cable.  (If your camera has more than one type of USB port, use USB-C.)
  2. Set your camera to Video mode, low ISO, and Program mode.  (Manual mode might produce more dramatic results but it depends on how comfortable you are with camera settings.  In the example Youtube video, Program mode did an ideal job because the camera optimizes exposure for the detected face.)
  3. In Zoom, select the virtual camera provided by the software you just installed by clicking on the tiny up-arrow icon in the corner of the "Stop Video" icon on the bottom of the screen (see Sony example below).

Here's a quick 2-minute video showing the impact these small changes will make and comparing it to my laptop's built-in webcam:

You can also see this camera/lens setup used in all of my recent Youtube videos, including this one and this one.  (I was using a bigger light and softbox in those.)

4) Bonus!  Make eye contact with your audience by putting a TV screen below your camera

Nothing says "Friendliness" like making sincere eye contact with the people you're talking with.  Conversely, have a look at that red circle in the first picture again, and you'll realize that although my wife and I were being shot with a telephoto lens at eye level, we had to look down at the laptop screen to see who we were interacting with.  Not engaging at all.  

Don't let this happen to you!  Be the best-looking person AND the more charismatic on your Zoom call by doing this very simple thing: Set up an external monitor and place it just below the camera thusly:

Here's an example from when I was doing Santa Zoom calls during the pandemic. Notice the difference in lighting.  

To do this, just set up the monitor and plug it into your computer's HDMI output.  The computer will treat it as a second screen, so you can drag windows from your laptop screen to the monitor under the camera.

Yes, that's all there is to it!  (You can go overboard, of course.  See my blog post from 2020 which provides hardware-based solutions to go full HD instead of 1,024 × 576 that Sony's virtual camera software allows.)

New Ebook is out!

The book for the OM System (formerly Olympus) OM-1 camera is out!  Tony Phillips has been working overtime on this one, given the camera's amazing complexity.  Get your copy here!

Next time in Cameracraft Magazine

Jaypix Belmer knows everybody on the streets in her neighborhood.  Walking downtown with her, even in 32 degree C summer heat, is like witnessing a non-stop high school reunion – people come up to her to give a high-five, she gives hugs to passers-by she sees, she asks how they’re doing, offers a bottle of cold water to a bystander, and sometimes even asks to take people’s portrait using the Canon digital Rebel camera that’s hanging around her neck.  Her enthusiasm for interacting with people is genuine and infectious.  

Right now, though, she’s a transformative figure for the city of Dorchester, a little-known suburb of Boston, Massachusetts.  Find out how she is using the medium of photography to help residents and business leaders intermingle, support each other, with the goal of building a stronger community and avoiding gentrification as her neighborhood is transformed.

Subscribe to Cameracraft Magazine today!  

Black Background with No Backdrop

The above shot was taken in a studio, right?  With big fancy lights?  Nope!  It was taken in a hallway using just one modest flash:

Sony RX10 II, 1/160th, f/8, ISO 200.  I could have easily gone to 1/1600th of a second (or higher by switching to High Speed Sync) with this camera, blackening the background even further.  Wasn't necessary.

The straight-out-of-the-camera .jpg on the left has a black background because I set my camera to manual and made sure that the f/stop, shutter speed, and ISO let in so little light that the ambient light just wouldn't register.  All of the light you see came from the flash.  The right BTS image was how it looked to my eye. 

I cut my teeth making great portraits like this in the field using my Five Dollar Studio.  Here, a single flash is mounted on the tripod (hard to see; it's in the red circle on the right), and the Mommy is holding a single piece of diffusing cloth between the flash and the subject to soften the light.  This is, in fact, the world's easiest softbox.  

I used a similar technique in Vietnam, taking studio-quality portraits outdoors at 11:00 AM.  You can see that example at the end of this blog post from 2019.

Wireless Flash is a capability smartphones don't have, and it's an essential tool if you want people to say "Wow!" to your images.  That's why I wrote the "Ways to 'Wow!' with Wireless Flash" e-booklet so you can learn this essential technique that separates the serious photographers from the iPhone crowd. :-)  Grab your copy here (for Sony, Olympus, and Fujifilm cameras) and your photography will never be the same.  There's also a videotaped lecture I gave in Malaysia showing how to do portraits like this step-by-step using Sony's system.  

We're Moving again

If you've been reading my blog regularly, you'll know that we moved to Boston in 2020, then moved to Plymouth in 2021.  Now we're moving again at the end of August, because we're gluttons for punishment and to escape the tyrannies of homeowner's associations.  Adding to the fun is the fact that we have to be out of here at the end of August but the new house (literally new; it's being built as we speak, about 10 miles away from here) won't be ready until the end of October.  So we'll be living in a motorhome for a couple of months.

(And before you all say what a great opportunity that is to go see the country in the motorhome, the reality is we have to stay put to supervise the new house and make sure they get the details right.  I was a project manager in my former life and I know how builders are.  So don't be jealous of me.  It won't be fun.)

Hopefully this will be the last move, but I've said that before...

Until next time,

Yours Truly, Gary Friedman


  1. I love your Friedman Archives and enjoyed the lesson. The little girl is darling! I know what you are going through with your move, which is horrible. Try to have some fun and rest.

    Love, Vicki

  2. Thanks for all the great tips and education, Gary, moving out of a HOA is definitely worth the pain. Best to you.

  3. In the larger Zoom sessions, most people turn off their picture anyway.

    1. Then this blog post isn't for them. :-)

    2. George E Givens JrAugust 1, 2022 at 9:48 AM

      Hi Gary, as usual your blogs are informative, educational, and entertaining. I find it amusing that you still have to convince people of the virtues of Wireless OCF. As you know I've been reading your blogs and books since I purchased my first Minolta camera, the HTsi PLUS. So, I'm no stranger to the virtues of using wireless OCF. That said I do take exception with your objection to HOAs. We, my wife and I have been living in an HOA community of single homes fie the past 21 years and yes, while they have their limitations they provide a valuable service by keeping people whose taste is questionable and whose rights of others is less than acceptable from ruining property values. Besides my wife has been on the board of our HOA since we've lived here and she works hard and takes more than her fair share of guff and insults from people who didn't bother to read the covenants, which ate supposed to be required reading, before moving into the community then want to complain when called out for not following the covenants.

    3. Hi, George! Yes I understand the thinking behind the rules and the benefits HOA's are supposed to provide, but if you're a rugged individualist who WANTS to put a lot of lawn decorations and pretty flowers in the front yard, you don't like being told that you can't. We're paying a lot of money for landscapers who don't know how to weed, and for irrigation that still doesn't work. (Plus it turns out there's a lot of corruption here with the builder... too long of a story to go into. But I expect we'll be much happier in the new place. And I intend to be on the board as an active participant.)

  4. Hi Gary, the link to the webcam-camera software are wrong because they go to the same landing page (this one)

  5. Gary,
    The links to the free software for virtual cam take you back to the top of the blog. Good luck with your new home!

  6. I read the latest blog article about suggestions for better zoom video. The next versions of the Apple iOS and MacOS software out this fall includes the option to use your iPhone camera for zoom - integrated into the full screen view on the Mac. (The iPhone camera is _much_ better than what Apple puts in the Macs.). Belkin and some other accessory manufacturers are releasing clamps to place the iPhone above the screen of the Mac. Believe me, this is easier than setting up a separate camera - no cables or adjustments needed. Good light is still important.

    1. I heard about that. I thought it was a strange kludge, given that Apple knows how to make good cameras but chose not to put them into their laptops. This might do well with the high-end iPhones that have a native telephoto setting; otherwise it will end up being a high-quality wide image that looks up your nose. :-)

  7. Gary, thank you for sharing your experience with Webcams for videoconferencing. IMHO, apart from insufficient lighting the biggest sin is people having a webcam too low. The camera should be at the height of your eyes or above, otherwise faces look distorted and you can look into their noses, which is not what you normally want to see.

    BTW I have a new Apple Studio monitor which has a crappy built-in webcam but an integrated, dedicated ARM processor (from iPad) with excellent portrait computational photography software that tries to fix it. It lightens up the face against the background, centers the head and unsharpens the background automatically and without CPU load for the computer. The result is acceptable as long as there is enough light and as long as the pictures stay small, which should be ok for most video conferences because of limited bandwidth anyway.

    Oliver Völckers, from Berlin, Germany.

    1. Hi, Oliver. It's a somewhat annoying trend that every instance of computational photography tries to make things look better than reality. Between that and VR, Gen Z will never have a desire to spend time in the real world. :-)

  8. Gary - Tried to buy book - It does not seem to work.....

    1. Please get in touch with me (Gary at Friedman Archives dot com) and let's figure it out...

    2. Gary,
      You are all techie and have an unlimited budget, obviously. Looks like you have a highly trained and paid assistant holding the diffuser (pillowcase). I usually just drape a Kleenex over the front of the flash, and if I really get fancy, I put a piece of tape on it so it doesn’t fall off. 😉 Seriously, great info, and the OM-1 book is great too. Thanks

  9. Gary, we are an all-Panasonic studio here. Is there a virtual cam software for Panny, too? Cheers and thanks, Kit

    1. Here, try this:

  10. Gary, sincere thanks for getting back to me. We use GX85 and G85 cameras in the studio and unfortunately these models are not included in the list of supported cameras. I did try connecting one of each type to the 2019 16" MBP via HDMI to USB-C, but neither Zoom nor Skype was able to see the cameras. I assume that's because this virtual camera software was not being used. I may have to accept that I will not be able to use these models this way.

    1. If you have an HDMI to USB adapter, then you need software like OBS Studio to create the virtual camera. More details at my old blog post:

  11. Ah—so the OSB software sits in between the camera and either Skype or Zoom? That's very helpful and I will report back.

  12. Gary, eventually, I was able to get Skype and Zoom to see the OBS Virtual Camera, but I had to reset the camera's recording mode to HD (1280 x 720/30p). We usually record at full HD or 4K. With the camera set to Full HD (1920 x 1080/30p) I was only able to see part of the camera's image in OBS.
    After resetting to HD, the whole frame displayed perfectly, and the quality is more than good enough for Skype or Zoom, and about a thousand percent better than the MacBookPro's inbuilt camera. Thanks again.

    1. I guess that's a limitation of your HDMI-to-USB adapter: You have to feed it video in the format it expects. At least you got it working!

  13. Better: the 'defaulting to 720p' behaviour was caused by a faulty Thunderbolt cable (first time, for me) which meant that the BlackMagic Design Ultra Studio Mini Recorder device I was using between the MBP and the camera was not powered correctly. Once I swapped that, I was able to record at 1080p as well as 720p, and everything works as hope for. Once again, thanks.

  14. Wonderful tips regarding the hallway flash session.


Thank you for your comment! All comments must be approved by a moderator before they will appear.