Dressing / Lighting / Makeup for Videoconferencing

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

People spend a huge amount of time, money, and effort to look good, for work and for social life. But now that much of our interactions are via videoconferencing, how should they rethink what they do?

Obviously, people don't care as much about wearing nice-looking shoes right now. (My guess is that many a woman is pleased at the break from heels.) Some people might still wear a shirt and a tie, which would be visible in a typical video head shot, and perhaps even a jacket; but is that normal these days, even for business meetings, given that everyone knows that everyone is talking from home? Or is it seen as especially valuable, precisely to distinguish the business conversation from one's normal home life? (I would certainly wear a jacket, shirt, and tie for a video argument in court, though don't put me under oath about whether I am wearing dress pants ….)

Nearly as obviously, people who care about their appearance (whether they want to look beautiful, look professional, or just have others easily see their facial expressions) should think about the lighting in their rooms. Nonetheless, I've been in videoconferences and seen oral arguments where people didn't think enough about that, likely because they've never been in the habit of thinking about it.

What about makeup? My guess is that some kinds of makeup that make people look better in real life are pointless on many videoconferences (though much may depend on the video resolution). Others, on the other hand, might possibly be useful. After all, many of us never wear makeup except when we're on TV, where the professionals assure us that we need it to avoid looking bad. Videoconferencing isn't necessarily the same, but might it be similar, at least in some respects?

Or are there reliable apps, beyond just Zoom's  ​​"Touch Up My Appearance" and similar features, that can take care of this without any work for us? (When I've worn makeup for TV, it was of course applied by professionals; even if you prove to me that I'd look better with a certain kind of makeup on video, I'm not sure I could learn how to do it well for myself.)

Naturally, Instagram influencers and the like have thought of this a lot, but I'm not sure if that carries over to videoconferencing, which I think tends to be much lower resolution. And in any case, why do research when I can start a conversation among our readers? Let me know what you think about this.

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  1. “What about makeup?”

    Here’s an example –


  2. Without going too deep into the weeds, with the exception of the sun and gaslights (i.e. Coleman Lanterns), there is no such thing as white light.

    Without going too deep into the waves, light is a form of electromagnetic radiation, which also includes radio and microwaves. The visible spectrum — visible light — has wavelengths between 380-740 nanometers, shorter is ultraviolet, longer is infra red — both of which are also in sunlight.

    This is why a rainbow has an equal distribution of colors without any gaps between them, it’s a complete spectrum. Artificial light is not — incandescent lights lean heavily into the longer wavelengths (red-yellow) and mercury vapor (i.e. florescent) are whatever the florescent coating on the tube produces. It’s never a complete spectrum. And LEDs produce *exactly* one wavelength, and hence an exact color — that’s why the blue LED police lightbars are so dangerous — although higher quality LED bulbs mix in a few different colors in an attempt to balance the colors.

    Circa 1980 TV cameras required lots of really bright quartz halogen lights — high in orange & yellow — and you needed the makeup so you didn’t “look like a ghost.”

    Now, with much dimmer lighting, I’m not so sure.

    1. Anyway, first thing to do is “white balance” your camera, if you can.
      That literally involves putting a piece of white paper in front of it so that the computer defines that as being “white” — adjusting its own settings to *make it* appear as white.

      You’ll see a TV News crew do this when they are setting up for a remote (indoors) and it’s a good idea to do it with your camera here if your settings allow you to do so. (Or you can buy a more expensive external camera that lets you do this.)

      Then look for shadows and what your home’s lights produce for colors on your computer — record a video of you talking to yourself (and also pay attention to how the sound comes out). You may want to move lights around, etc, — and your laptop screen is producing a blue light that will reflect off your face and glasses. You can change the brightness of your screen, you can adjust your mic imputs — all of that is in your settings. You may want an external microphone.

      Beyond that is vanity…..

    2. Ed,
      Can you explain why blue police lightbars are dangerous? I’ve never heard that before, and Googling “police blue lights danger” yielded nothing helpful.

      1. That might be because the eye has the worst chromatic aberration at blue wavelengths so the bright blue source washes out adjacent detail making sight difficult. Chromatic aberration is corrected in the brain but not for monochromatic sources.

        You might have noticed this trying to read blue and violet signs at night while driving.

        1. In addition, the human eye has its best reception in the area of green/blue light, so even if equal in intensity to other lighting (e.g. headlights) , they will be blinding.

          I’m also vaguely remembering something about differences in color in light reflected off objects (how we can see them) helping in depth perception.

      2. The human eye evolved using sunlight (broad spectrum and consistent) — sunlight also dimmed gradually. Then remember how movies (and TV) works — we can’t tell the difference between the various individual images so it appears to be a moving image.

        And humans evolved traveling no more than 3-4 MPH, the fastest that one could physically run. Not 65 MPH, or even 35 MPH…

        LED Police Light Bars (a) emit one *precise* wavelength of light that (b) is instantly on or off — there is no waxing or waning. Without either of these clues, it’s difficult to both tell how far away it is and changes in your distance from it — there is a stroboscopic effect. (If you are an officer, park your cruiser somewhere in a downpour and notice how the LEDs make the raindrops appear not to be moving.)

        What’s worse is when there is a curve in the road — the eye expects to see light from where it last did, and hence it can give the illusion of multiple cruisers — or worse, not seeing the second one.

        There is also evidence that they are hypnotic, and direct motorists (particularly impaired motorists) into the back of the cruiser much like airport approach lights direct pilots onto the runway. There is evidence of more parked cruisers getting hit than in years past, to the point where many departments are putting reflectors on the back bumpers — I presume for a reason…

        1. Just a quibble. 3-4 mph is a brisk walk. 10 mph is a decent run and most healthy young adults can sprint up to 15 mph for at least short distances. Our vision, however, evolved to accommodate not just on our own speed but also the speed of common predators. So 20-30 mph is well within our ability to visually gauge.

          No disagreement, however, with your comments about LEDs, strobes and the unintended consequences of police light bar settings.

  3. though don’t put me under oath about whether I am wearing dress pants ….)

    Wait, you’re wearing _any_ pants?

    1. Watch the movie “Anchorman”…..

  4. What about makeup?

    Answer: Orange-tinted makeup, of course. You’d be Orange Man Legal 🙂

  5. The background for this comment is many years’ experience doing professional photography and photojournalism. My experience, however, is mostly with available light, and this is a studio lighting problem. There are many guides available to introduce you to studio lighting, including some online. They may provide too much complication. Here is a simplified guide off the top of my head. I hope it helps to introduce the main principles:

    To make yourself look good on television, or in a video conference, lighting is your number one concern, outweighing the others by quite a bit. Note that when you see TV ads for miracle, youth-enhancing skin treatments, etc., and they feature before and after comparisons, in most cases the largest part of the visible difference is tricks played with the lighting.

    So what can you do at home? Two things, which together will get you more than 50% of the way toward looking like Chuck Todd on Meet The Press (You may not like Chuck Todd, but you have to admit his lighting makes him look great.) First, use an extensive light source. By that I mean physically large. Two-feet or more across. The size of the bulb itself does not matter as much as the size of the reflector behind the bulb, and (if it is present) the diffuser in front of the bulb.

    One fairly easy-to-get solution is to buy the biggest seasonal affective disorder (SAD) treatment lamp you can order. You will pay a few hundred, and get a multi-tube rectangular source about 2-feet or more across, with an effective plastic diffuser in front of the bulbs. As a bonus, the color of the light—which is a property of the bulb design—will be close to the color used for standard TV lighting. Typical room lighting comes across on conferences as an ugly red color, if you use the popular soft-light bulbs, or as a ghastly green, with standard fluorescents. Both those color casts make you look bad. SAD lights make you look great. Some of them can be ordered with portable stands on casters, delivering a flexible near-studio-quality lighting option for not much money. With two of those setups, and a little practice, you could put yourself in line for TV stardom.

    Indeed, light color is the second major factor I mentioned, and the SAD lights take care of that for you. For color, no matter your light source, what you want is a so-called color temperature between 5000 K, and 5500 K. Lower numbers start to look red, higher numbers look blue. (The special fluorescent tubes used in many SAD lights are typically either 5000 K or 5500 K, and do not make you look green.)

    If instead of a SAD light, you want to use hardware-store-available lighting, note that you can buy a range of different color-temperature LED bulbs, and the ones which say they deliver “Daylight” color are the ones you want. The bulbs often have the actual color temperature printed in small type on the base, and sometimes on the box.

    If you do buy bulbs, then you have to improvise a bit to make a large light source out of them. One bulb used bare would give you a harsh, interrogation-style light. Add an inexpensive cone-shaped reflector behind the bulb, and that in effect makes the light source larger, which is what you want. Then multiply the size, by rigging 4 or 5 such bulb-reflector combinations, spaced along a 5-ft length of 2×4. Congratulations, you have just built yourself an approximation of a luxury bathroom light bar, used to make you look your best in the mirror. Your source won’t be as fancy to look at, but the light will be just as good.

    How do you use your light? Consider the backdrop you want, and where in front of it you want to be seated. Putting a bit of distance between you and the backdrop helps separate you visually from the backdrop, and avoids distractions like letting everyone’s attention wander to reading the titles on your bookshelf. It is worth noting that if you will be conferencing in daytime, and have a good backdrop across the room from a large window, that window might be a better a light source than you could build—especially if there is no direct sunlight coming through. (Direct sunlight gets you back to the harsh point-source problem.) In that case it would be advantageous to move your seating position closer to the window than otherwise—which has the effect of increasing the angular size of the light source the window provides. Remember, mostly, bigger lights (measured by angular coverage) are better.

    That last means you should consider a bit how to optimize your distance from the light source. The farther away it is, the smaller the angular size. But the closer it is, the brighter the light will be. Too much brightness and you will get a harsh, almost shadowless image, which will not flatter facial contours. Too little brightness and you are lost in gloom. With most modern laptop camera systems, there should be a fairly wide sweet spot within which to experiment.

    One fine point on the lighting-size/lighting-distance/lighting intensity problem: while keeping optimal intensity in range, closer may be better. That is because the closer you, as the illuminated subject, sit to the light source, the more quickly the light falling across your face diminishes toward shadow. If you are distant, you will be very evenly illuminated. If you are close, and the light source is a bit to the side, one side of your face will be a bit brighter than the other. That looks more dynamic. With experiment, that effect can be managed to deliver highly professional-looking results.

    Finally, you must position the camera. If you use a laptop-mounted camera system, then one of most flexible options to position the camera is just to get a portable TV-table to put the laptop on. Put it generally in front of you, but experiment with slight variations of camera angle. Some may flatter your face better, and use your light better. Also, experiment with distance, to make sure your face is framed the way you want it, and that you are not so close that the typical wide-angle lens in a laptop is producing a fish-eye effect (try putting the laptop really close to your face to see the effect exaggerated). Having the laptop’s screen as close to upright as possible—or tilted back only slightly to get good framing—avoids introducing perspective distortions, which might make your skull look oddly tapered.

    Good luck and have fun. You probably have plenty of time on your hands to experiment.

    1. Oh yeah, and do not put any bright light sources (especially windows in daylight) behind you. Especially not anywhere within the camera frame.

      1. Two big caveats — first, reflectors sometimes are parabolic enough to focus and if that happens and the focal point is on something flammable, fires can start. Cheap hardware store ones aren’t.

        Second, for a rough estimate of amperage, divide watts by 100. (Technically, you should divide by the voltage, usually 118, but this is easier and gives you a margin of error — and you don’t want to draw 100% of a circuits capacity over time.)

        In newer houses, wall outlet circuits usually will be 20 amps, in older (1970’s) houses they may be 15 amps, and in really old houses, I’d be worried about drawing more than 10 amps regardless of what they are. ALWAYS uncoil extension cords and such lest you concentrate the heat, and warm wiring means that you are overloading something — stop it immediately.

        Don’t be on the same circuit as the washing machine or refrigerator is — i.e. same outlet. Those are segregated circuits because voltage will drop when the motors start, and most lights will show it.

        If other lights in the house dim when you plug this all in, you are overloading things. If other lights get *brighter*, call a licensed electrician, soonest, because your breaker box has lost reference to ground. (If the difference between one side of the box and the other can’t go to ground, it will increase the voltage on the other side.)

        I mention this because I don’t know how much power people will be drawing. If it’s less than, say, 800 watts, don’t worry about it unless you notice one of the lights making an incredibly bright little spot on the carpet — that’s bad. Likewise, hot wires or plugs are always bad. Strange smells often are a warning that something is getting hotter than you want it to be.

        1. > Second, for a rough estimate of amperage, divide watts by 100.
          > (Technically, you should divide by the voltage, usually 118, but this
          > is easier and gives you a margin of error — and you don’t want to
          > draw 100% of a circuits capacity over time.)

          Common electronic ballasts in compact LED and LCD bulbs do not have power factor correction so the actual current will be roughly 43% higher than the power rating suggests. Some bulbs are even worse than this.

          1. Are you sure that actual (total) power consumption isn’t printed on the item? I’ve always seen an amperage on a sticker on the “40 watt” florescent shop lights — and more than the 0.67 amps that two 40 watt bulbs would take.

            As an aside, anything other than incandescent is blinking on and off at least 120 times a second as the voltage reverses (that’s what AC power is) — incandescent merely dims slightly. This is real, it can make a moving electric saw (powered by the same AC power) appear not to be moving.

            But the “D” in LED stands for “diode” — a one-way gate valve for electricity. It’s DC once it goes through it as it blocks current going the other way. I’ve often wondered if they use both sides of the sine curve or if they only use one side — and are off half the time.

            1. The power consumption is separate from the power factor which at most is typically listed indirectly when both “watt” and “VA” are listed. Watts = VA (Volt-Amps) * Power Factor so lower power factors result in higher currents for the same wattage and it is the current which matters for tripping circuit breakers and resistive losses in the wiring. Watt-Hours is what your electric meter measures and it typically ignores power factor unless you are a large industrial customer.

              In common electronic ballasts in compact LED and CFL bulbs, the power factor represents the ballast only drawing current during the peak of the AC cycle. Since only part of the cycle is used, the peak current is higher compared to if the entire cycle was used which results in higher losses because they are proportional to the current squared and that is also what the circuit breaker and wiring see. Commercial power meters typically ignore power factor because the largest loads come from other things like ovens and heaters although that has changed in recent decades with so much computer equipment.

              The reason I mentioned it is that power factor could contribute significantly more to overloading a circuit than conservatively assuming the current is the power divided by 100 instead of 120. However because of their efficiency, it would take a lot more LED or fluorescent bulbs to overload a single circuit than I expect anybody would need for camera lighting. The “60 watt equivalent” LED bulbs I typically use (Cree) draw 7 watts and oddly enough, have a power factor of 0.95 (I just measured it for this post) which is unusually good but I know many LED lamps are much worse.

              Electronic (and passive) ballasts always use both halves of the cycle so any flicker should be 120 Hz; internally the AC is rectified to DC to drive the LEDs. Using one half of the cycle would immediately drop the power factor to 0.5 at best; maybe there are some ultra cheap ones that do this but I have never encountered one. Some cheap LED lamps do drive a pair of LEDs on alternate halves of each cycle but the result is the same as driving one with DC except for increased flicker.

    2. Stephen — no need to white balance?

      1. Dr. Ed, in principle, with a modern digital camera system and a ~ 5,000 K light source, maybe not.

        That said, white balancing—if you do it right—will definitely help when shooting under non-standard lighting conditions, which are most of them. But note that many digital camera systems now feature auto-compensation for color casts (meaning variations in light color), and on some systems those work very well.

    3. Great post, thank you.

  6. “People spend a huge amount of time, money, and effort to look good, for work and for social life.”

    Perhaps I’m in the minority in terms of both work and social life.

    I work in IT – computers and software don’t care what I look like. I’m also lucky enough to be in a workplace which has a casual dress policy (for the most part, no real policy at all). I wear clean clothes, shower most days, shave a few times a month. Just wearing a polo instead of a t-shirt puts me among the better-dressed at work. Now that I’m working from home, it’s not much different – not usually wearing shoes, wearing sweats instead of jeans and a henley, and I’ve got a decent start on a “COVID beard”.

    My social life largely consists of spending time with old friends. They’re used to how I look/dress. The only substantive change there is sharply reduced frequency of meeting.

    1. I also work in tech. I have noticed a change in how people dress on video conference calls – especially by executives. Much more casual. Had a one on one meeting with a VP today who was taking it outside on his deck.

      Beyond that not much change. I’ve stopped wearing a hoodie since I’m not sitting in an over air conditioned office or on a plane. My husband and I both own one suit each. Which we use when we go to the French Laundry twice a year or to the occasional funeral. Beyond that they sit in the closet unused. We got married outdoors and we were both wearing tshirts and shorts.

      So really relieved not to be trapped having to wear a uniform like a suit and tie. Or worrying about lighting.

  7. Been lecturing for several weeks via Zoom now and therefore qualified to give advice:
    (a) with a $30 webcam, you only need to shave every other day
    (b) showers now irrelevant
    (c) just make sure it’s a colored T-shirt so they can’t claim it was an undershirt
    (d) if you’re going to drink something put it in a coffee cup
    (e) really, just screenshare the powerpoint. No one wanted to see your face anyway.

  8. Easy rules for makeup and one quick suggestion are all I have to offer. Being painfully camera shy, I find that “mute” is the best look for me.

    However, if I had to be seen on a platform like Zoom, I would try to remember this:

    1. Makeup follows the same rules as other colors do. Dark colors absorb light, light colors deflect light. Apply lines, shadows, and lip colors accordingly. Shaping and makeup ‘plastic surgery’ is a more advanced course.
    2. Less is more. If you look all right to yourself in the mirror, follow the same rule for your makeup as Coco Chanel did for accessories: take one item off. Do a quick once over to tone everything down.
    3. Get a friend to video chat with you and offer mutual critiques. That friend should not be a liar nor should he or she have a distorted notion of ‘radical honesty.’ If either of those apply, ditch the friend, and if in doubt, the makeup.

    That’s all for now.

  9. One more thing — don’t have anything “growing out of your head.”

    Watch for things with horizontal or horizontalish lines behind you because if they line up right, they will appear to be growing out of your head. Quite unflattering and rather distracting.

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