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