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Framing your online presence

Empty Fram held up by hand infant of cliff, beach and sea.

Publication date: April 14, 2020

image of Andy CottomWritten by Andy Cottom, UKCP Vice-chair and psychotherapist

With the sudden way in which our profession has now become so dependent on online work, I felt it might be useful to share some guidance from the 20,000 interviews that I filmed during my earlier career in factual television.

Television has a grammar that we are so used to that many of us don’t even recognise the sense of security that comes from following the same conventions. Here are a few tips about your possibly new screen presence. The face to face therapy session is at least 2 people in a room and I find it is useful to try and simulate this in our online work.

Framing

Rule of thirds

Look at any TV interview and both the interviewers and interviewees eyes are placed by the cameraman to be a third of the way from the top of the screen. Whether you are on your phone or your laptop you can tilt your device so that your eyes are seen to be a third of the way down the screen. Play around with it and see what feels right for you.

Rule of thirds 2

The same applies horizontally as vertically. News readers and party-political broadcasts place the speaker in the centre of the screen giving an authoritarian, commanding dominance to the speaker. In television grammar, an interview gives equal power to the interviewer and the interviewee and positions each on either the left or the right of the screen (usually a third of the way across the screen) – facing each other. It’s the equivalent of how some of us place our chairs in the consulting room to give ourselves looking room. Copying this in your own framing means that you can easily look away from the lens (and therefore your client) so that you don’t appear to be scrutinising them all the time.

Portrait or landscape

Our eyes have greater peripheral vision horizontally than vertically and so the television screen is wider than it is high. We are therefore used to seeing interviews in landscape format. Laptops and iPads are the same but most people hold their phones in a portrait format. That may be OK for a chat with your family or friends, but think which suits the therapy session best.

Eye line

Try to put your camera lens at the same level as your eyes. Having it below means that your client will feel that you are looking down on them, placing it above means they may feel that they are superior to you. You can place your laptop or phone on a pile of books to achieve this.

Image size

Different platforms (Zoom, VSee, Teams, Skype, What’s App), use your camera in different ways so that you will fill more of the screen with one than with another. Check with the platform that you are using and move your camera, laptop or phone towards or away from you to set up a Mid Shot/Medium Close up so that your head, shoulders and the upper part of your chest are all in the frame. A Close up (just your head) can feel over intimate or intimidatingly close and a Wide Shot (where you can see from the waist up or even the whole body) can feel quite distancing.

Set dressing

Background

For those who usually work from home, it is preferable to try and set up your online presence in the same room with the same background as you normally see your clients. For those who have had to find a new location, think about how much of yourself you want to reveal through what you show in the background. Having a bookcase behind you full of novels or pictures of your family might give more information away than you want. If you do have books behind, try to make sure that the titles are out of focus.

Some choose a completely blank wall behind you, but this can look clinical or bleak. Watching a documentary can give you ideas on what you want in your background that makes your invitation into your home welcoming but not too revealing.

Sound

Be aware of what your client can hear as well as see. Partners, children, neighbours, bin men, deliveries can all intrude into the session.

Lighting

Background light

If you place yourself in front of brightly lit background, then your camera will automatically adjust the brightness accordingly and your face will be in darkness.

Natural light/interior lighting

Although it is good to have some natural light coming in from outside, bear in mind that this will vary with both the weather and the time of day. A sun- drenched room in the morning may not be so in the afternoon and certainly won’t be later into the evening.

Lighting the face/eyes

Your clients want to see your face and your eyes especially. Try to position yourself with a light above you and off to one side. Then try and bring in another light (a table light or angel poise) on the opposite side so that both sides of your face can be seen. Wearing white or pale colours on your upper body will reflect light into your face from below getting rid of shadows under the nose or neck.

Practice with your friends and family, so that you have a frame that you feel best works for you.

 

Comments

  • Angela Fell says:

    That’s very useful Andy. Thank you. I’ve had trouble with one patients tech where we are not looking directly at each other.

  • Thankyou for these helpful suggestions. Since moving my practice onto Zoom, I have become particularly aware of the client’s sensitivity to the scrutinising gaze. The screen seems to reduce the ‘space between us’ in which the eye can wander and wonder (and so soften). To encourage moments of deeper connection and reflection, I have been experimenting with including the option of turning the camera off. for a time in a session. Sight is the dominant sense and when allowed to take a back seat, the more primal subtle body of sound/voice can be deeply affecting and soothing. Clients seem to appreciate this way of navigating their consent to being seen.

  • Robert says:

    Not all clients are sighted and neither are all practitioners – so some thought and input about these technologies and working on line in relation to hearing and sight impairments would be good to include.

  • thanks. This is very helpful, especially about lighting and what is behind me.

  • After 20 years of providing therapy via phone and Internet I can vouch for all of the above. Mostly, however, I would say to our profession – stop deskilling yourselves. We are the people who deal in change and now we are being put to the test. Any half-decent therapist will learn with the client what works and what doesn’t. If you are unsure then simply talk about this with your client. I suspect that it’s therapists who are now playing catch up with clients far more comfortable and used to the technology then they are.

    Remember your skills
    Remember why you came into this profession

    The tech will melt away and the relationship will develop.

  • Niki Reeves says:

    Thank you I agree with all you write and appreciate the tips on lighting I will adjust my own to light my face more effectively.
    Sitting slightly away from the screen and to one side enables the client the opportunity to look elsewhere which gives rest and allows for self-regulation.

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