I’m Ready For My Close Up

Becoming aware of your virtual presence.

We have all found ourselves recently stuck within the virtual frame. It’s uncomfortable. We’ve been trained to meet in person, look across the room, position our chairs relative to the couch, and engage with the patient. Body language and posture. Eye contact and facial contortions. Immediate, visceral and present. But the experience of Covid has created a barrier, a dimension that we need to speak through, a membrane to cut through, and we are adrift. With the following strategies, we can regain our poise, reassert our confidence, and connect with our patients.

Have you found yourself wondering, “Why is that person sitting SO… FAR………AWAY……………….. “ Or sometimes they are freakishly close, and revealing the depth of their pores? Just as posture and body position in the therapeutic environment creates insight into your patients comfort, so to does their relationship to the screen provide some insight into their level of comfortability with virtual sessions. In turn, the same can be observed about you. Positioning yourself in the camera is the first critical step to creating a comfortable virtual environment. Consider the screen as a portrait frame. In photography it is know as the rule of thirds. Your face should be centered, consisting of eyebrows to middle chin. The upper third is forehead, with a decent amount of space above. The lower third is chin to shoulders. Ultimately, your distance to the screen should feel comfortable. Always make sure to view yourself in the preview screen before you go live.

There is nothing more disorienting than a camera angle looking up someone’s nose, a giant chin and long narrow forehead. Laptop and phone camera’s quickly fish-eye and distort any image. Try and face your camera head on. Minimize distortion. Consider your chair height relative to your computer screen. Often, it necessary to place your laptop on a few large books to get it closer to level.

Why is that person looking at my forehead? Why are they watching my mouth? Are they uncomfortable making eye contact? In the real world, we all make an effort to look people in the eyes and are aware when someone cannot return a gaze. Yet in our virtual worlds, we all get caught in the screen trap. We stare at our screens while forgetting to look at the camera. This can result to a disconnect between patient and therapist. The closer you are to the camera exaggerates this effect. Make an effort to look directly at the camera during sessions, especially at times when your patient is vulnerable and expressive. It is disorienting at first, as our reaction is to fully look at the person, but with some practice, your become comfortable looking at the camera while glancing at the screen.

Check your teeth, wipe your mouth, clean your nose, and please wear something clean and appropriate. We all have gotten a bit lax during the lock down….. Kidding aside, consider the lighting on your face. Does the heavy shadows under your eyes make you look like a holdover from the zombie apocalypse? Is the southern sun streaming through your window flooding your office making you seem like an other worldly being? Is your black shirt and dark space making you look like a creeper in the basement shadows? Utilize indirect lighting to achieve an even light with soft shadows. This will highlight features you want to show, and minimize blemishes. Indirect lighting is light that does not come straight from its source. Think of it as a raw light bulb vs a light bulb with a shade. You can achieve the effect of indirect lighting by utilizing a translucent shade on a south facing window. A desk lamp, either shaded or shining down in front of your computer. Introduce warm moderate lighting to bring out your features without dramatic shadows. You only need a little light in from of you to bring out your features and project you to the foreground.

Whatever your background, make sure that it is lit. A prominent dark shadow on the wall behind you is distracting. Your background should have a uniform light quality. Gradation is key, limiting visual contrast is paramount. Imagine lightning as being on a scale from 1 to 10. If your lighting is 1 and 10, you’ll be a comic book. Strive for lighting contrast 5 through 7. This can be achieved by your light sources being indirect. If you are lucky enough to have a beautiful view basked in sunlight out your window, reconsider making it your background. Your camera will only pick up the light, leaving your face in darkness. In general, you want to light the background first, and then play with the indirect light on your face (the foreground). Often, background lighting will cast and refract enough light forward so you’ll only need minimal indirect lighting on your face. For more on backgrounds, read our next post.

Surprisingly, the best environment to conduct virtual sessions is probably your professional office. You have already spent a lot of time getting it to feel right. You’re comfortable in the space, and the ambiance works. Being an office space, the lighting is already in place, and you may already have experience doing virtual sessions there. Refer to our safety tips to re-entering you office space, to identify if your landlord has provided you with a safe environment. If so, venture back in. Your patients may feel more comfortable with the familiar environment. For you it can be a safehaven to conduct virtual sessions.