A Zoom with a view: How to get your home video call-ready

Screen-eye view: the workspace of Ally Dowsing-Reynolds is understated and uncluttered.Picture: Ally

Screen-eye view: the workspace of Ally Dowsing-Reynolds is understated and uncluttered.Picture: Ally Dowsing-Reynolds - Credit: Archant

The spike in popularity of video calls has left many of us worring about how our meeting ‘window’ looks. Richard Burton asked the experts for advice.

The clean lines of these Brayer Design bookcases provide an interesting backdrop without dominating.

The clean lines of these Brayer Design bookcases provide an interesting backdrop without dominating. Picture: Brayer Design - Credit: Archant

Three times a week I speak to an editor in the Middle East. I’ve seen his face framed against the silk curtains of a hotel room, the cupboards of his study and, once the lockdown lifts, he assures me, I’ll see his office.

Once a week until recently, I’d chat to writers from Germany, the US and, occasionally, India. And whether they were giving me good or bad news, telling me things I wanted or didn’t want to hear, I would generally ask one or more of them where they were. And by that, I mean what part of the house.

Such a question would have absolutely no relevance to anything we were talking about. I was just being opportunist. Oh, all right then, nosey. It’s just that the one thing this lockdown has done has allowed rare glimpses into the private lives of people I previously only knew professionally, thanks to the likes of everything from Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts or Microsoft Teams.

It all began with the TV news interviews: the politicians, captains of industry, celebrities and media commentators I was used to seeing on studio chairs were suddenly blinking into their laptops at home.

I was struck by the rather oppressive-looking cupboard of a room that seemed to surround the Health Secretary Matt Hancock when getting a grilling from Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain – it was about a tenth of the size of the one I remember Morgan having in his Mirror days.

Switch screen and we have Alastair Campbell in the sort of spacious, loft-style study I’d probably never want to leave. Again, about ten times the size of the cubby hole I used to squeeze into when I had a query with his copy during his Mirror days, incidentally.

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Three weeks ago, I was on a 40-strong Zoom conference call with a newspaper planning its lockdown future. More than 30 of us had our screens on and everyone was either in a study or a bedroom. Shelves or wardrobes. Books or yesterday’s ironing.

But at least that was nothing like a job interview I did with a promising writer via Skype a year ago who sat with his Press Award commendation in a frame behind him. I asked him which year he won it as I’d been on the judging panel for a few of them. But what I meant to say was, isn’t that just a bit like wearing your medals to the supermarket. (He got the job BTW).

By contrast, last week the celebrity hairdresser, Michael Douglas, spoke on TV from his St Albans home giving advice on cutting hair from his kitchen. It was a real, living, breathing, working kitchen that gave us glimpses of the conservatory and the houses at the back.

Lights, camera . . NA Architects created this lavish loft-style space furnished by Boca de Lobo. Pic

Lights, camera . . NA Architects created this lavish loft-style space furnished by Boca de Lobo. Picture: Boca de Lobo - Credit: Archant

I thought that was far more honest than trying to turn a home into a studio: one of the reasons I let my kids say hello occasionally when their faces pop up behind me while I’m discussing anything from bounce-back loans to the war in Yemen.

Not on the legend-affirming scale of Prof Robert Kelly, who forgot to lock his study door during a BBC interview only for his children to make a cameo appearance more memorable than anything he said about South Korean politics.

But, if we’re in this for the medium-term at least, that sort of quirkiness may fade as quickly as it came as we seek comfort in knowing that, when we do have serious contact with the outside world, our backdrop is befitting a serious conversation.

Ally Dowsing-Reynolds who runs her own eponymous interiors fixtures supply company, said: “Our spaces are serving a multitude of purposes at the moment with makeshift home offices cropping up in corners of living rooms, attic bedrooms and even hallways.

“The key to styling your video meeting ‘window’ is to keep it relatively clutter-free and well-lit, but use items that will inspire or comfort you.”

She assures me you don’t have to make huge renovations, recommending plants, table lamps and artwork as “perfect for making a quick and easy change”.

She adds: “The biggest change you can make to your webcam window view is to change the colour of the wall behind you. Fixing a shelf to the bare wall gives you a platform (literally) to show off your style arrangement skills to those lucky enough to be on the receiving end of your next video call.”

Shelving is useful for creating visual interest without showing everyone a larger personal space, according to Tim Pope of On&On Creative Systems in Hatfield Road, St Albans.

“I think this may be either to do with either privacy or a lack of confidence about showing it off,” he said. “I would also assume using Zoom people want a quiet space and this tends to be in a smaller room, so inevitably there will be a wall or wall with shelves.

ON&ON's floating desk with under shelf lighting. Picture: ON&ON

ON&ON's floating desk with under shelf lighting. Picture: ON&ON - Credit: Archant

“Without shelves, all the attention and focus will be on the caller, for many people they feel more comfortable with something else in the shot.”

That’s a good point. But many advise against anything too distracting. Keep it simple and relevant, seems to be sound advice. The interior designer with the swatch books piled high behind her recently seemed to have created a sense of place but the accountant seemed a little out of place with bunk beds behind him, especially given the teen posters that came into view when he adjusted his screen.

There is a way to cheat of course. If you really don’t want to reveal the flock wallpaper, unwashed dishes or ironing board, Zoom and Skype allow you to change background artificially to anything you can download from the internet.

Or you can go completely the other way and do what interiors expert Karen Sear Shimali did when planning a series of textile talks for interior designers on Instagram Live.

The Stitch by Stitch director told me: “We felt it was important to get the background right for these, as well as giving an opportunity to share our work. So I rigged up a backdrop of our textiles using a stepladder and mop handle so I could hang blankets and quilts behind me so that my backdrop wasn’t just a blank wall, or worse, my bed!”

I’m a veteran of dodging the background trap. I have literally lost count of the number of times I’ve been in newspaper offices when camera crews dropped by to get a quickie interview with a columnist on everything from MPs’ expenses and football bungs to the death of Robert Maxwell and the divorce of Charles and Diana. When the latter happened, our in-house PR lady even advised those of us ‘in shot’ to remain professional at all times. As if...

On one rare occasion when I’ve been the one interviewed, I was whisked to a studio at Broadcasting House (one of five nabbed for quickie questions on how the internet is changing newspaper law) and sat in front of a floor-to-ceiling screen on which each of us had our newspapers’ websites displayed.

Halfway through the one take that came across as something resembling acceptable, the producer called it to a halt and made me do it again. Just as I’d uttered the one sentence I was proud of – “online republishing will leave many of us having to look over our shoulders” – it became clear why. The screen behind me had suddenly stopped showing the Telegraph’s portal, and was running footage of Mr Blobby.