Background Effects and Custom Images
Updated September 13, 2021
Microsoft introduced background blur for Teams meetings in September 2018. If your workstation hardware supports blurring, Teams can isolate your image from the background and apply a mask (like a green screen) to the background to remove the distraction of a cluttered office. Announced in Office 365 notification MC208577 on April 3, (Microsoft 365 roadmap item 62890), Participants in Teams meetings can choose a custom background (an image) instead of a simple background blur. Microsoft rolled out the custom backgrounds feature in April 2020.
Background filters (also called background effects) are available on Windows and Mac workstations. The Teams desktop client for Linux supports background blur but doesn’t support background images. The Teams mobile clients support both blurring and background effects. In September 2021, Microsoft introduced background effects for Teams browser clients.
Users can choose from a set of curated images provided by Microsoft or upload a custom image of their own or images from many web sources (see below). Tenant-level administrative control is available for background filters is available through the VideoFiltersMode setting active in Teams meeting policies. The setting allows tenants user-level control over the ability to use different types of background filters and uploading of custom images. You can also apply policies to stop users having any access to background filters (and take some fun out of their working lives).
Tenants can distribute their own curated set of background images to users. This is a preview feature that will require Teams Advanced Communications licenses when it becomes generally available in early 2022.
Hardware and Client Requirements
Three conditions must be met before you can use background filters:
- Your workstation supports the necessary hardware. Background filters depend on the hardware supporting the AVX extensions. AVX2 used to be the requirement, but Teams changed to support AVX (see user voice announcement of June 9, 2020) for background filters.
- Your Teams desktop client supports the feature. Use the Check for Updates function in Teams Settings to grab the latest version. Version 1.3.00.8663 or above should work.
Background filters are unsupported when Teams runs in a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) environment no matter if the underlying platform supports the necessary graphic extensions.
Choosing a Background Image
Background filters are supported in personal and channel Teams meetings, including Meet now in a channel. Filters aren’t supported for Teams Live Events. Users set background filters through the meeting pre-join screen (Windows client) or after the meeting starts. During a meeting, click the […] in the menu bar and then select Apply background effects (tip: use the CTRL-Shift-P combination to reveal the option to choose a background filter on a Windows PC). You can then select from the available filters:
- None (blank).
- Blur (same as background blurring)
- One of the set of curated images chosen by Microsoft.
- Custom images uploaded by you (see below).
A user’s ability to apply background filters can be controlled by a setting in the Teams meeting policy assigned to their account. For example, they might be limited to use background blurring only. See this post for more details.
When you select one of the standard images, Teams downloads a copy from a content delivery network to create a local copy on the workstation. If you can’t reach that network (perhaps because VPN settings prevent access), you won’t be able to see or download the standard background images. To test if this is true, try to access one of the standard images, like the contemporary office scene.
After you select a background filter, Teams remembers your choice and applies it to every meeting you use with video enabled until you choose a different filter.
Together mode is where Teams takes video feeds from meeting participants, isolates their heads and shoulders, and combines the feeds with a selected background to create the impression that everyone’s in the same place. Together mode is only available when five or more participants are in a meeting. This article explains more about together mode and the available background images for that mode.
Uploading Custom Images
Custom images span an immense spectrum of possibilities. I like the image shown in Figure 1 because it seems like I am sitting in front of a large window onto a beach with a storm rolling in (typical scenery from the West of Ireland).
The first implementation of custom images involved a manual upload to a specific folder on the client PC (described below). This is still useful because you can exploit the technique to upload many custom images at one time or do the job with a PowerShell script or other programming language. In June 2020, the Teams client was updated to support the option to update a custom background.
To upload a custom image via the Teams desktop client, access the Apply background effects option in a meeting and click Add New (Figure 2). Browse to the folder holding the image file and select it. Teams then copies the file to %AppData%\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads. The original file name is retained.
Once copied to the Teams folder, you can select an use the image in a meeting. If you make a mistake and copy the wrong file, you can remove it by hovering over the image to expose a … menu. Select Remove (Figure 3) and Teams will delete the image from the Uploads folder. If you decide to delete a file from the Uploads folder, make sure that you delete its thumbnail as well to avoid the potential of displaying a thumbnail in the gallery and the actual background can’t be loaded. You can’t remove one of the standard images provided by Microsoft.
I have uploaded large high-fidelity JPEG photos to the Uploads folder and used them as a background. Usually, I size images at 1920 x 1080 pixels (the same size used for Microsoft’s standard backgrounds) with a graphic editor (Paint can do this). You can use full-fidelity images, but it’s probably a good idea to downscale them so that images are around 1 MB. Note that the display of any graphic image can be adjusted to match the dimensions of a screen. If something in an image is really important to you, make sure that it’s positioned in the center.
Microsoft’s recommendations are a minimum size of 360 x 360 pixels (this will not look good) and a maximum of 2048 x 2048 pixels. BMP, JPEG, and PNG formats are allowed. I have uploaded and used significantly larger images. Teams resizes these images before using them as a background.
Note: when you test a background image before using it in your video feed, you’ll notice that the image is reversed. This is normal and the image will be seen the right way round when viewed by others.
Another way of seeing a preview of your background effect is to move the mouse over the camera in the meeting bar. If you’re using the Teams desktop client and your video feed is disabled, Teams turns on the camera to preview what the video feed will look like if you turn it on for the meeting (Figure 4). You can adjust the background effect using the preview. No one else in the meeting sees the video feed until you enable the camera for the meeting.
No Roaming Images
If you use Teams on several devices, you’ll also find that images don’t roam across devices. You must upload and maintain images on each device.
Background filters work by isolating the person from the video feed and inserting blurring or an image around the person. Sophisticated AI techniques are used to make sure that a clean merge happens between the background and the person, but sometimes “bleeding” happens. Usually this occurs where the AI can’t distinguish the precise dimensions of the person’s image and can be caused by spectacles, wearing a headset, or even fluffed hair. You won’t be able to eliminate bleeding as some will occur at the edges where the background and person meet, but you can minimize it.
- Use a plain background to make it easier for the AI to differentiate between background and person.
- Wear clothes with a contrasting color (no stripes) to the background.
- Use good lighting to increase contrast and sharpen the image.
Video (Moving) Backgrounds
Apps like Snap camera can generate images for Teams backgrounds using filters. This are static images and some would like dynamic images. I’ve seen this done using tools like XSplit Virtual Cam where people tape a video lasting a couple of seconds and play it on a constant loop as their background. Virtual Cam can generate other filters, so clearly there’s some pretty interesting techniques to explore here in an attempt to turn fellow workers wild with envy.
Manual Upload of Custom Backgrounds
While the GUI makes it easy to upload a background image, you can also do this manually. First, make sure that the target folder to hold the custom images exists. The easiest way to do this is to sign into Teams and start a meeting (in a channel or personal chat). Now use the Apply Background Effects option from the meeting menu and select one of the standard images. This action creates the folders used to store images on your workstation. Exit the meeting.
On a PC, you can now select some suitable images and copy them to the %AppData%\Microsoft\Teams\Backgrounds\Uploads folder (Figure 5) and will then be able to select those images for a meeting background.
On Macs, the images should be copied to:
You may need to hold down the OPTION key before you choose GO from the Finder Menu to get the Library to appear.
Finding Sources for Background Images
Given the popularity of background images across all video conferencing platforms, it’s unsurprising that companies publish images for people to use. For example, Star Wars fans looking for themed background images can find them here. Quite a nice collection is available, even if I look unsure about the runs of the Death Star in Figure 6.
In December 2020, Microsoft launched its own gallery of background images for Teams, including the ability for people to submit their own images to be considered for inclusion in the gallery. The latest set of images (the “Nostalgia” pack) includes the classic Windows XP desktop image and one featuring Office Clippy.
The Wallpaper Hub site is a rich source of images that can be used as background images. These images are created for use as PC desktop wallpaper but many of them make excellent background images for use with Teams or other conferencing software.
Another example is the IKEA collection, complete with IKEA-assembly style instructions (Figure 7). IKEA has a large Teams deployment, so it’s totally understandable why issue their own take on background images.
The Fox TV Twitter feed includes links to images from several popular shows such as the couch from the Simpsons, Pixabay has many free to use Harry Potter themed images, and Pixar has made images available from films like Toy Story and Up. In general, any images published for use as a background with Zoom will work nicely with Teams.
Crayon.com posted a nice set of background images suitable for the 2020 holidays. Microsoft has also released a set of custom background images for the 2020 holidays in a ZIP file (Figure 8). A set of holiday SharePoint-themed images looking like the knitted sweater much beloved by some are also available.
Finally, MVP Michel de Rooij has posted a set of background images that you might find some inspiration from, including a version of the Microsoft ugly sweater design featuring Exchange, Teams, and Outlook (Figure 9).
Using Bing Images
Bing publishes a daily photo which it uses as the daily background for its home page. The daily photo varies from market to market and often makes an attractive background. A script to fetch images from Bing can be downloaded from GitHub.
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