Montreal faculty member Adam van Sertima – a self-described “Dad, philosopher, art historian and Games Studies specialist” who teaches film courses – sat down with Liz Allen-Pennebaker of the Core Division and CLT to share his filmmaking expertise with all of us at Champlain who want to up our videoconferencing and video recording game. Edited by Caroline Toy.

Adam’s Top Tips:

Raise your camera to eye level

Place the camera an arm’s length from you

Positioning the Camera to Simulate Eye Contact

Liz: I feel like whenever I get on a video call, everyone’s interacting in a really constrained, artificial way. In the spring that was not the end of the world, because I knew my students in person before we all went remote, but this semester, we’re trying to form relationships purely over Zoom. What can I do with my camera and desk setup to make meetings and classes seem more like in-person interactions and to create more of a sense of connection with my students?

Adam: My students have told me that one of the things they really hate about Zoom conferencing is that they never get eye contact with anyone.

But you can give people the feeling of eye contact over Zoom. If you look into the camera, it’ll work.  A lot of times people don’t look at the camera because they’re looking at the screen of their computer or at a different monitor if they have a two-monitor setup. 

You can set things up to make looking into the camera easier and more natural. I’ve got a camera set up on a tripod just above my eye level between me and  my big computer screen. And, because I’m looking at the big screen of my computer most of the time, and the camera’s at eye level, it looks like I’m looking at you directly. The camera is actually about a third of the way between my face and the screen. I look past it, letting my eyes focus past the webcam, onto the screen. It is a bit annoying, but I’m used to it now.

Adam in his home office with his videoconference setup. Measurements on the picture show that his face is thirty inches or 75cm from the camera on its tripod, and the large monitor showing his students is forty inches or one meter beyond the camera.
Adam’s workspace, seen from above to show the relative positions of his camera and his screen.

If you’re just using a laptop on a desk, the top part of the laptop screen where the camera eye is will be around shoulder level on most people. That means that the camera’s roughly hitting their sternum. You want it to be higher than that. You need to put the laptop up on a box to get the camera at eye level.

Adam sits in front of his laptop, which is raised on a box sitting on a bar stool.
Raise your laptop so the camera is at, or just below, eye level, rather than tilting the screen

Framing Your Face with Camera Distance

If you can, put your camera about an arm’s length from your face, or even a bit more. That’s a nice framing for your face. If your camera is too close, it distorts your face – you tend to look wide. So being back a little from the camera is very nice because it’s more forgiving. Also, when you’re filling a screen, it’s like you’re six inches away from the other person’s face. And that’s disconcerting. It gives you the bizarre sense that somebody is too close to you. If someone is leaning in really close in real life and their face looks like that to you, either you know them really well or you’re in a lot of trouble. It’s incredibly intimate either way. You’re literally “in each other’s faces”. But it’s even more disconcerting on video. There’s an emotional disconnect because someone is really “close” but they’re not really there. So, you want to give people a sense of a certain amount of space so as not to unsettle them.

Having your camera a little distance away from you also gives you some opportunity to move around as you speak, and that gives you some room for dynamics. You can gesture more broadly, which is kind of nice.

Adam raises his arm toward his laptop screen to show that the camera is an arm's length away.
Try to keep at least an arm’s length from the camera

Remember some students are joining class on phones or small tablets, so we have to bear in mind that they might be looking at a very tiny version of us. And we have to think: what data are we making available to them? Are we up too close or too far for them to get a good “read” on us from a small device?

Conversely, some students will be looking at us on a big screen, and we want them to see something fairly flattering. If you’re really close to your own camera, and a student has a high-res screen, they can tighten their focus to see your nose in gruesome detail. So sitting back from your camera can be much better than having your face right in there.

Besides the “Kilroy was here” effect you get when you’re framed too low relative to the bottom of the screen (cutting off your chin, or even the lower part of your face), another thing you want to avoid when you frame your body is cutting your body off at a joint. Don’t frame your face so that it looks like you’ve chopped your head off at the neck, for example. It’s like you’ve been through a guillotine and it’s disturbing.

Lately, I’ve got my webcam on a tripod to prevent this effect, set at about eye level. But you can improvise by putting your laptop on a box or a stack of books to get the level and the distance and the framing you want.

Liz tried this! In her words:

“Recently, I read about a psychological study that found that a big part of “Zoom fatigue” is because we have a lot of trouble parsing conversational cues on video – but that if you can see more of the other person’s body, it really helps with cut down on that cognitive load. (Read more from Liz on minimizing cognitive load and reducing Zoom fatigue for students.) So, the first thing I did was work on getting more of my body into the camera frame. I’ve been tinkering with having my laptop on boxes on my desk and found that if I moved the boxes back so that the camera was about four feet from me, it makes my shoulders and arms visible and when I wave my hands around, they stay on screen. That makes me able to converse in a more natural way when I’m talking over video.

“As a plus, I found that I liked the way I looked on camera a lot better when the camera was further back on my desk – and I also felt more physically comfortable and less fatigued after a day of video conferences simply because I was able to move around a bit more instead of sitting totally still in one spot.

“I’ve also been playing around with having my camera at different angles – right at eye level, slightly higher, or over to one side or the other. Fortunately, the angle that is most flattering – slightly above my face so I’m looking up ever so slightly – also seems to be the most physically comfortable too, leaving my neck less stiff than when I try to sit still and look straight ahead.

“However, I found that it was really hard to see my laptop screen from four feet away, which made it more or less impossible to look at other things on my screen (like the chat or a screen shared by another presenter) during a video conference.

“To fix this, I recently bought a webcam and I’m playing with it now. One thing I like already is that a webcam mounted on the top of a larger secondary monitor lets me put my Zoom or Meet windows right at the top of the monitor screen underneath the camera, just like Adam recommended. This really does let me have a relatively normal conversation – I’m able to look at the face of the person I’m talking to and at the camera at the same time, which both feels natural to me and gives the person I’m talking to the impression that I’m actually looking at them while I’m speaking.”

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