When it comes to backgrounds and their effect on light and exposure, webcams are dumb tools that are easily tricked, but there are some simple things you can do to get good images when you’re talking to your students, clients and colleagues. I’m not going to talk about how to decorate your background other than say tidy up up and make sure it’s appropriate for your audience.

Webcam backgrounds and exposure

First, webcams are fully automatic but not “good” automatic like your smartphone which has a lot of processing going on in the background. Webcams are like your first driving lesson, you’re on the road and getting it mainly right but if things change you’re heading for the gutter, then crossing 2 lanes of traffic before getting it under control. They constantly hunt for the best light setting and will clumsily jump based on minor changes.

They don’t come with clever camera apps like your smartphone. There are some webcam applications for your computer which I’ll cover in future posts but they can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

The wrong background can under or over expose your image
Now a bit about exposure

Basically exposure relates to the amount of light that hits the sensor in your camera and therefore how bright or dark your image is. It’s not just about room lighting it’s also about how light or dark your background is, what clothes you wear, what your skin tone is. Any large object in the shot can cause problems.
I’m not going to get too technical here (I’ll cover that in future posts and resources) but In most non-webcam cameras and in good smartphone apps you’ll probably see a Manual mode, or Aperture priority or Shutter speed priority. These allow you to manually change how light or dark your image is. Importantly they also let you lock in the ideal setting so you don’t get the brightness jumping around.

Webcams don’t have this. It’s all on you.

Tips for good exposure

I afraid I’m going to cramp your style a bit, at least at first. You may have to trade personality for visibility, but have a play and see what works for you.

  • Use backgrounds with a constant colour and brightness, particularly if you like to move about on your chair. If you move in front of a dark or light object the webcam will try to adjust for the change.
  • Avoid very light or dark backgrounds.
    • You may have to give up on that awesome window view in the background (unless you want to look like a silhouetted anonymous informant on true crime TV).
    • If you have very dark skin you may need a darker background.
    • Adding extra light on your face (like a lamp) can be helpful if you have a bright background. “Bright white” or daylight globes are usually better than “warm white” globes which can look a bit yellow.
  • Avoid very light or dark clothing.
    • If your clothing contrasts too much with your background you are more likely to get over or under exposure of your face, and more jumps in lighting if you move.
    • If you have a fair complexion and dark hair, dark clothes may make you look washed out and aneamic.
  • Avoid clothes with big blocks of different colours and tones. As you move the webcam will try to adjust the exposure.
  • Avoid movement in your background.
    • If you have figured out the lighting to have a window in the background make sure things aren’t moving in it. As well as messing up your exposure it can be distracting.
    • Put your cat or dog or kids in the other room. Even if it doesn’t mess up your lighting it’s distracting and risks undermining your credibility.