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Ah, virtual interviews. Love them or hate them, they are probably here to stay.
I’m a big fan of the virtual interview on the basis of cost savings conferred to the applicants alone. The price tag on my interview season was significantly lower than that of my friends one year ahead of me. This was great for my wallet but did very little to manage my anxiety regarding how the freak I was going to make a good impression over Zoom.
My school did their best to assist us with preparing for virtual interviews, but it was unfamiliar territory for everyone. They sent out articles and videos with tips and tricks designed to prepare us. They included things like, “try out your connection beforehand”, “get some extra lighting and unclutter your background”, “make eye-contact with the camera when talking”, “set your computer up on a stack of books to hide your double chin”, “wear pants”, etc. It was good stuff.
I was mostly concerned about having control of my surroundings. I had two kids at home in a two-bedroom apartment. My program provided space at one of the university offices, but it was a first come, first serve situation. And there were a lot of law students meandering through, loudly discussing their love lives. I couldn’t effectively defend my choice in specialty whilst also trying to diagnose STDs through paper thin plaster walls.
So, I was going to have to construct the ultimate Zoom set-up in the corner of my bedroom. And I was going to do it on a budget. I didn’t have to spend $10K on travel, but I still had no money. My total cost for virtual interviews was $218 for equipment and $127 for a new suit. I spent a lot more on applications, obviously, because ERAS is still a scam, but I kept costs down where I could. In the end I was super proud of my virtual interview set-up. In every single interview I had at least one person comment on how “professional” they thought my background and lighting appeared. If they could’ve seen the wide angle shot, they definitely would’ve been surprised.
I did have an ace up my sleeve for this whole process. My dad was a photographer for about 25 years. A really good one. So, I called him up and he helped me hack the virtual interview set-up. Here’s what I learned and what I came up with.
There is no limit to how much you could theoretically spend to build an amazing set-up. But there are three main areas to focus on (and spend on). These include lighting, camera, and background.
In my opinion, the most important factor is the lighting. A great camera will not make up for terrible lighting, but stellar lighting can make a less than ideal camera look much better. Similarly, harsh shadows cast by your face holes may be more distracting than anything in your background.
Here are a couple of principles to be cognizant of when considering your lighting set up:
Avoid “flat” lighting. This is where the saying “the camera adds 10 lbs” comes from. The classic “man on the street” lighting is a bright light aimed head on at the subject. It makes your face look flat and featureless. Even people with thin faces will seem to have a rounded shape and it will be unflattering.
Diffused light is your friend. Harsh shadows are created by direct, unfiltered light. You might think a desk lamp would be enough to light up your face for a virtual interview, but you’ll look at it and feel like something just isn’t quite right. Every imperfection in your face is amplified by all these harsh beams of light that are uniformly oriented. “Diffused light” is light that is slightly disrupted because it is passing through a thin sheet of canvas, is reflected off of an uneven/irregular surface, or is coming from many tiny individual light sources. The variation of the light beams results in softer shadow lines and more evenly distributed light on your face, making subtle imperfections less obvious.
Light can create separation and highlight. This bleeds into the category of background slightly. If you do any research about portrait photography, you will read about “hair lights” and “backlights”. You can light things in the background differently than you light things in the foreground to create separation and make yourself “pop”. Particularly if you don’t have much to work with in your background. A hair light gets rid of shadows and will give you halo or glow that is pleasing to behold. This is where that cheap desk lamp from amazon will really shine. Pun fully intended. This is also where you use shadows to your advantage. Shadows aren’t inherently bad. If you manipulate your lighting, you can actually make yourself more photogenic. It plays more of a role in portrait photography, but it can be implemented in the virtual interview setting as well. Techniques like Rembrandt, loop, butterfly, and short lighting can be used and modified to “show your good side”.
There are a ton of options out there for lights. And honestly, I don’t know what makes the top tier ones good or not. I do know how to tell which ones are cheap. I did my usual comparisons and shopping around and ultimately landed on a pair of Mount Dog box lights for about $70. I went with them because of price and also because with two of them, it would give me more latitude for shuffling things around and messing with the set-up. I was very happy with the result. I know people love the ring lights, but they were pricier, and I thought the two box lights might have other applications in the future. Like, if I needed to rig some kind of painfully bright flashbang booby trap.
I am kicking myself for not saving pictures of my setup from the perspective of my webcam, but I do have pictures of what it looked like from the wide view. It looks deceiving, but I promise you that the actual result was very crisp and professional.
After trying several different light arrangements, we determined that the “butterfly lighting” looked best in the dark basement I was initially interviewing from. This is the type of lighting you see in make-up advertisements where the light is coming from all around and leaving only a tiny shadow just under your nose. This is often the goal of ring lights but can be accomplished by utilizing some reflective surface to bounce light back up at your face. In my case, I used a wrinkled sheet of tinfoil.
I sat in my chair, that does not swivel, with my dad on Zoom and had my wife adjust the lights until we achieved the look. Both lights were 45 degrees off center, about 18-22 inches up off the table, and were angled slightly down. The tin foil reflected light up under my chin but wasn’t so bright that it cast any shadows. It just further softened the already subtle shadows from the box lights. Here’s what it looked like from my phone off to the side.
I still have my lights, for the booby trap, so I decided to set them up and show you the differences between a couple different lighting scenarios to better illustrate the effect you can achieve from some cheap lights from amazon. I used my phone camera to shoot these, and I kept the exact same position and settings for each picture. Literally the only thing that changes is lighting.
The first picture shows the lighting in my room without any modification. There are two floor lamps. The second picture is where I’ve added a desk lamp and shined it in my face from my right side. Notice how sharp that shadow line is on my face now? In the third picture I just opened up the window to my left to let some light in from outside. The last picture shows what it looks like with my computer monitor on, just off to my left. Overall, these aren’t horrible. If you were going to just use your lamps as your lighting, I would pick up a large reflective dash protector from Amazon or Walmart to bounce some diffused light back at your face from the shadow side. Tin foil also works.
This is the look I acheived using some of the tricks I learned from my dad and my cheap lights. These are the results you could expect if you are a total noob like me.
The first one is just using a single Mount Dog box light offset about 45 degrees from center to my right and raised 18 inches. No other light source or reflectors. For the second photo I am adding in a backlight with my lamp behind me sitting on a cardboard box, shining at the wall. In the third picture, I’ve added my second box light, but I liked the slight shadow I was getting, so I threw out a white blanket on my computer monitor just off screen to my left and pointed the second light at it to bounce back some nice soft diffused light. The last picture is the same except with the addition of the backlight. This kind of blew my mind when you consider my first picture up above is with the exact same camera. It was quick and easy to do. Probably the best $70 I spent during medical school.
- Get some cheap diffused light source(s).
- Have someone Zoom chat with you while you play around with the light position.
- Bounce light off of a shiny dash protector, crumpled tinfoil, or white blanket to subtly reduce shadows.
- Sit on a chair that doesn’t roll or swivel (you want to maintain your awesome lighting and not look like a nervous dweeb).
- Use a desk lamp as a backlight or hair light to create separation between you and your background.
This is where the cheese gets binding. You could drop some serious cash on a fancy camera and rationalize it away saying you’re going to “pick up photography” when we both know that’s not true. You work in hospital and have no life. And if everything goes according to plan and you match, you’re about to have even less of a life.
I was using an old Microsoft Surface for my laptop in medical school and, I swear, I could get better resolution from a toaster than I could get with that built in camera. So, I did buy a new webcam. I got the Logitech C920 HD Pro webcam. Which, at the beginning of COVID, cost me $120 and took 3 months to arrive. Nowadays its closer to $65. If I were going to do it all over again, I think I would pick up the $5 DroidCam app and just use my android phone as my webcam. The camera on my phone is way more powerful than my webcam. Here is an awesome article by WIRED that breaks down how to do this (with IPhone and Android).
If you have a newer laptop, I don’t know that you really need to upgrade to a different camera at all so long as you are able to adjust the camera angle to achieve a flattering result. Kevin just used his Mac and it worked great.
I got a cheap tripod that allowed me to raise the camera to just above eye level. (see below)
If you do end up getting a webcam, recognize that most of them don’t have the ability to manually adjust the white balance and color scale. It will try to average out the colors it sees. So, when your beautiful, patterned navy-blue suit coat looks boring and solid black on your webcam, you’ll know why. Sometimes you have to add a splash of warmer tones for the camera to adjust and give you a color pallet closer to real life. This means you should use your webcam as much as your mirror when picking your outfit for interview day. I ended up using a really rich orange-ish pink tie to help me not look super pale under the bright lights.
Another thing I would include in this section is how you are going to arrange your desk space. I mentioned the webcam tripod earlier. I knew I wanted to maintain eye-contact as much as possible to communicate confidence and such, but I couldn’t be trusted to just do this myself. I can’t help but look at the Zoom screen. So, I set up my camera and then propped my surface up behind it on boxes, coolers, or whatever I could find so if I was just staring at my screen, it looked like I was making eye contact the whole time. I also stacked up some of my notes where I had written down intelligent questions I wanted to ask, stories I would use to answer behavioral questions, and highlights from my research projects for quick reference.
Lastly, while you are practicing your Zoom set up, recognize that sometimes Zoom will crop your camera differently than how your computer does when you just open the webcam. Elements of the background you’re trying to include might be cut out completely on Zoom. Or, like when you go to breakout rooms, sometimes the camera crops to a wider view, including the pile of underwear on your bed that you thought was just out of frame. The same is true for other videoconference software. Make sure you practice how you play and account for subtle differences in video cropping.
- Don’t break the bank buying a new DSLR camera for interviews, save your money for moving expenses. If you already have one, sweet.
- Get a respectable web cam, use your phone, or use your laptop camera.
- Adjust your camera angle to be more flattering. Don’t shoot from below.
- Look into the camera, even if you have to trick yourself to do this.
- Place notes in view for quick reference.
- Make sure the camera crop is what you expect it to be.
Speaking of piles of underwear. You should give some thought to your background, but I would consider this the lowest yield area of focus for Zoom interviews. I spent $10 total on my background. But I had some help. My first couple of interviews were in the basement of my in-laws’ house. It was a solid gray wall with a framed picture over my left shoulder. I stuck a small fern thing on a stool and half the works of J.K. Rowling and that was good.
When I was back at my apartment, I bought a Christmas Nordic Pine from Walmart for $10. I named him Thor.
The wall was a beige color that was really glossy, so I grabbed an old studio backdrop that my dad had in his garage and strung it up using thumb tacks and duct tape. Most people wouldn’t have access to something like this, but it was just canvas painted with a mix of attractive neutral browns and blues. I think you could attempt this yourself if you were the artsy type. If I didn’t have access to it, I would’ve just sat against the bare wall. It wasn’t that bad.
I didn’t have any cool framed pictures on my wall, so I took a random wood tray and hung it just over my shoulder, so it looked like the corner of a wood picture frame. It was suspended by 20 lb test monofilament fishing line because I didn’t want to put a hole in my dad’s backdrop.
Funny story, that line broke one night while I was asleep and came crashing down. Missed my face by mere millimeters.
Zoom backgrounds have actually come a long way during the past two years, and I think they are viable options nowadays. Make sure that you know how to trouble shoot them if they stop working for some reason.
I didn’t have a lot of space, so I was pretty much backed right up against the wall. If you do this, separation can be an issue. You will blend into the background and look flat and two-dimensional. You can use the backlight to give you some separation. If you are going to pick a new backdrop, I would stick with neutral colors as they are pretty safe. If you have dark hair and are planning on wearing a dark outfit, I would avoid the dark back drops unless you have a good hair light or can sit a good distance from the wall.
- Got a plant? A picture? A book shelf? You’re probably good.
- Sit far enough away from your background to create separation. If you can’t, use desk lamp as a backlight.
- Try out a few Zoom backgrounds. Have a plan B if they fail.
- Get creative with what you have around the house.
- Try out your outfit with your background and camera to make sure the desired effect is achieved.
My recommended equipment list
My total set-up cost: Lights $69.99 + Webcam $120 (Now $65.67) + Webcam tripod $17.90 + Thor the Nordic Pine $10 (plant) + New suit $127= approximately $344.89
I mentioned using your phone as a webcam up above. If you do, you will want a stand to clamp it into. There are also microphones you can get that will give you a richer sound if you are interested. This is not necessary at all. I’ve included links to those two items as well, but I did not use them during my interview season. I discovered them later.
Mount Dog Lights https://amzn.to/3BWCsEl
C920 HD Pro Webcam https://amzn.to/3y3yN6f
Webcam Tripod https://amzn.to/3dVUgY3
Desk lamp https://amzn.to/3fzPC2w
Photography reflectors https://amzn.to/3tMAxyi
Smartphone Tripod https://amzn.to/3SFuXZ8 – does not have a separate 1/4” screw mount for the microphone. I glued a 1/4 screw to it to be able to attach the microphone and the phone at the same time.
Smartphone microphone https://amzn.to/3y458di
Hopefully you find some of this helpful. Virtual interviews are stressful. Having a set up you can be proud of will help you be confident and allow you to focus on making a great impression and finding a good fit. And the good news is that it really doesn’t have to cost you that much. Certainly much less than airfare and lodging could have been.