The Ultimate Manual to Zoom Lighting

Video conferencing has exploded in popularity in recent years, with no signs of slowing down for the foreseeable future. But the wrong lighting can impact the quality of your calls and even create a negative perception of your professionalism.

This guide will explain everything you need to know about Zoom lighting so you can have high-quality and professional lighting for every video call.

What is Zoom Lighting and Why is It So Important?

Zoom lighting impacts your visual appearance when you’re on a video call. The lighting in the room will change based on the time of day, the light source, your hardware, and a wide range of other variables.

The reason it’s so important to get your Zoom lighting right is that the light impacts the quality of your calls.

Even if you’re amazing at your job and giving a great presentation to coworkers, partners, prospective employers, clients, or prospects via Zoom, your appearance will affect the way you’re perceived.

In most professional scenarios, you probably won’t hop on a Zoom call wearing a dirty and wrinkled shirt—it’s unprofessional. The same concept applies to the call’s lighting. If your face is too dark, too bright, or obstructed by shadows, people on the other end of the call might not be as receptive to what you’re saying.

How Zoom Lighting Works

Zoom will apply its default settings to every video call. This holds true whether or not you’re using the software from a desktop or mobile device.

Those settings include your device’s built-in camera, microphone, and speakers. So if you do absolutely nothing to those options, you likely won’t have optimal lighting. Without getting too technical, I’m sure you understand that there will be a big difference in the lighting if you’re taking calls from your phone in the park on a sunny afternoon compared to a dark bedroom at night.

Using the default Zoom settings, neither of these options will be ideal. But there are certain things you can do to improve the quality of your Zoom lighting, even if you can’t always control your environment.

For those of you who take regular Zoom calls on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, it’s in your best interest to invest some time and potentially some money in your lighting quality.

You may just need to experiment with different angles or camera positions, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later on. In some cases, investing in an external light source could make a drastic difference in the quality of your Zoom lighting.

Before we dive deeper into different lighting concepts, tips, and tricks, I want to give you a few pointers on the settings you can adjust within Zoom to improve your lighting.

Example 1: Adjust For Low Light Settings

Zoom recently added a new feature to help improve the quality of videos and lighting. Rather than running around the house or the office trying to find a location with optimal lighting, you might be able to get away with a simple settings adjustment.

If you’re in a darker room, you want to make sure that the Adjust For Low Light setting has been enabled.

From the Zoom desktop, click your profile picture and then navigate to Settings. Next, select the Video tab on the left side of the screen. Then check off the box next to Adjust For Low Light.

By default, the low light adjustment will be set to Auto. This will automatically lighten the video in darker rooms.

If that auto setting is still too dark, you can change it to Manual and adjust the lighting on your own by moving the slider.

This gives you more control over the desired lighting effect in dark rooms.

Example 2: Touch Up Your Appearance

There’s another built-in feature on Zoom called Touch Up My Appearance.

You can find it in the same place as our last example by clicking your profile picture, navigating to Settings, and selecting Video from the menu.

This setting is not enabled by default, so you’ll need to check off the box to get this benefit. Then you can play around with the slider to see how the lighting adjusts.

The cool part about this feature is that Zoom will automatically remember your preference. So the touch-up settings will get applied to all of your future calls as well. That said, if the lighting in your room changes from call to call, you may need to continue adjusting this slider as the lighting changes.

This feature can enhance the way you look on video by brightening your features and smoothing over any blemishes. But this alone won’t always be enough to combat really poor lighting in the room.

Example #3: Use Backgrounds and Filters

Another way to leverage Zoom’s built-in features to improve your lighting is by adding a background or filter. These overlays, color filters, and other custom frames can improve your lighting.

Sometimes poor lighting in a room really stands out with everything behind you. But changing your background image on Zoom can fix some of those lighting flaws in the room.

You may need to experiment with different backgrounds and filters to see which ones provide the most flattering lighting. In some instances, these could appear unprofessional and may not convey your desired lighting settings.

But it’s a quick and easy way to eliminate poor lighting in your background without using any external hardware or physically moving your location.

How to Get Started With High-Quality Zoom Lighting

In addition to the Zoom settings mentioned above, there are additional steps you can take to achieve the perfect lighting for your Zoom calls. Depending on your preferences, you may opt to skip one or two of these steps. But here’s the general sequence you should follow:

Know the Difference Between Natural Lighting and Artificial Lighting

This is the first point of emphasis that you need to focus on. Ideally, you want to use as much natural light as possible. This will almost always give you the best lighting on a Zoom call.

So look for a place in your home or office that is bright enough to take a call where you won’t be forced to turn on any additional lights. From here, try to position yourself in a location where you’re facing the natural light source—like a window or sliding glass door. Light from the sun will make you look natural, as long as the sun isn’t directly hitting your face or body.

If you’re working in a windowless room or at a time of day where it’s dark outside, you’ll need to rely on artificial lighting. This could be as simple as turning on the existing lights in your home or office. But many times, those alone won’t give you a great appearance on Zoom.

For those of you who don’t mind a small investment, consider getting a ring light. Also known as circular lights, these are usually affordable and effective enough to get the job done. They can clip onto your monitor or be positioned as a small tripod on your desk. You can even use larger ring lights to serve as background lighting from a larger standing tripod in the room.

If you must rely on artificial lighting, a ring light is much more reasonable and affordable than investing in a studio lighting kit.

Experiment With Different Camera Angles

Sometimes the lighting in your room is fine. You just need to adjust your position and angle to improve the quality of the lighting on a Zoom call.

For Zoom calls, you’ll always want your face pointed directly at the camera. The light source, whether it be natural or artificial, should be behind the camera—coming from straight in front of you. You could potentially have the light source at a slight angle, but no more than 45 degrees from your position.

You may need to play around slightly to see what works best. This could be a simple adjustment in your chair or moving the monitor a few degrees in one direction or the other. But in some cases, you may need to move your desk or position in the room altogether.

In a traditional position at a seated desk, your camera will likely be below you. Try raising that camera to eye level, which will improve the angle and eliminate light coming from the ceiling. This also makes it easier for your camera to adjust on your face, and it’s overall a more flattering position for your facial features.

Use Neutral Walls to Your Advantage

If you have white, off-white, or other neutral-colored walls, then you can use those walls to improve your lighting.

Rather than pointing the light directly at yourself, position your light source so it reflects off of the wall. This effect ultimately reduces shadows on your face and other areas of the room. You just need to play around with the angle of the light on the wall and the light source’s distance from the wall.

Your face won’t always be super bright if your light source is coming from a wall reflection. But your camera should adjust accordingly to brighten things up. This is the perfect time to apply some of those Zoom settings we discussed in the examples from earlier in this guide.

Avoid Bright Overhead Lights and Direct Sunlight

Lots of people make the mistake of putting themselves too closely beneath a light source. If your light source is visible on camera, then it’s going to cause problems with the lighting quality.

For example, let’s say you’re seated at a desk with an overhead light on the ceiling behind you. If that light is in the camera shot, it’s going to have an adverse effect on your video stream.

But if you can adjust your camera angle and get that light source out of the shot, you may notice a significant improvement—assuming all of the other lighting settings in the room are appropriate.

The same concept applies to sunlight. Lots of people position their desks in a way where their backs are to a window. While this may be fine during mid-day hours, it can pose some challenges when the sun is rising or setting—especially if the sunlight is hitting the camera. It can also create some weird shadows behind you, which you’d need to avoid.

You could always try to block or soften direct light using sheer fabric. If you already have sheer curtains on your windows, this can be ideal for dealing with direct sunlight. That’s because the sheer fabric still lets the natural light in the room, but without as much strength.

But this only works if the sheers are white, grey, or neutral. If your curtains are red, purple, yellow, or another bold color, then this can create an unnatural color on your face.

Adjust Your Monitor Brightness

Another really simple way to improve your Zoom lighting is by playing around with your monitor brightness. This is easier than buying external lights or trying to create an artificial light source.

That’s because your monitor itself acts as a light source. So you can turn up the brightness, lower the brightness, and change the distance between your face and the monitor to try and get the most optimal lighting.

This won’t always work well in a dark room. Your face will look really bright, and everything around you will look dark. But if you apply this trick with the background image example we looked at earlier, then it’s a quick way to improve your Zoom lighting when everything behind you is dark.

Have a Plan For Different Times of the Day

Unless you’re only taking one Zoom call per day, at the exact same time each day, you’ll likely need to have different lighting plans.

From the exact same position in the room, the lighting will likely be very different from a 7 AM call compared to a 4 PM call, especially if you’re leveraging natural lighting.

If you’re using artificial lights, you can likely get the same lighting effect regardless of the time. But this really only holds true if the room doesn’t have a natural light source. Otherwise, you’ll still need to make some subtle adjustments to achieve the perfect Zoom call lighting.

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
Former VP of IT at GitLab

Incredible companies use Nira