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Your MacBook Webcam Isn't Doing You Any Favors

Here are some lighting and positioning tricks to help you make up for that grainy 720p webcam.

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Libe Ackerman

Apple's MacBooks boast formidable specs, but almost all of these laptops share one unfortunate quirk: a flat-looking 720p webcam with lots of noise and a lack of depth-sensing technology. The 2021 MacBook Pro M1 proved to be an exception with its full HD webcam, and the rumored 2022 MacBook Pro could very well follow suit. But that won't un-pixelate your appearance on Zoom right this instant.

The 720p webcam is the same basic type of camera Apple has been putting in laptops for years, and this isn't the first time we've complained about it. A lot of Windows laptops are barely better, many with similar sub-1080p resolutions, but at least some have better light sensitivity, color accuracy or depth sensing for facial-recognition logins. 

So, what are we going to do about that?

There's at least a reasonable chance you're beaming into an online video meeting from a MacBook Air or something similar. That means you're not looking your best. Especially for a smaller, low-slung laptop like the Air, your camera isn't going to be at an optimal angle if it's sitting on your desk or kitchen table and aimed up at you. 

One option is to use your phone's camera. Either the front or back cameras will be better than any laptop you have. For TV appearances from my work-from-home office, I've been using my phone mounted from an eye-level tripod clip. I've also been using EpocCam software from Elgato, which runs on my phone and allows me to use the phone as a wireless 1080p camera for my MacBook. The Pro version costs a few bucks, and won't work for every scenario, but it's worth it if you're using a compatible app like Zoom or Microsoft Teams. 

You could also attach an external webcam from Logitech or another company. But if you'd rather not go to the trouble, here's how to make the best of the webcam you've got.

Raise your laptop

If your laptop is anywhere close to a good ergonomic position for your hands, then it's nowhere near the best spot for a Zoom meeting. Get some big books. Get some giant board game boxes. Prop that sucker up. Use big coffee table books or something similar, so you won't get as much wobble. Don't use empty cardboard boxes. 

Where do you want the camera pointing? Get it to sit just above eye level. 

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A not-great shot from the 2020 MacBook Air webcam. Note the soft image quality, and the laptop should be propped up higher. 

Dan Ackerman/CNET

Good lighting cures (most) ills

MacBook Air webcam footage looks especially bad in low-light situations. Lots of other laptop webcams are like that, too. That's why movie and TV sets and professional photography are flooded with giant lights. You don't need all that, but a good source of natural sunlight is an easy and inexpensive way to drastically improve your webcam shot. Face the window, don't put your back to it. You want the camera to see the light from the window, not the window itself. 

If natural light isn't available, don't spend a ton on a fancy light setup. This set from UBeesize is under $35 and includes an 8-inch ring light, a tripod to mount it on and phone clip as well. Many people at CNET use this setup or something similar for remote work.

Know the Macs with a better webcam

The MacBook Air and most MacBook Pros both have that 720p webcam. But the 2021 MacBook Pro 14 and Pro 16 have excellent 1080p cameras, along with the 2021 24-inch M1 iMac. Previously, you could only find that in the discontinued $5,000-and-up iMac Pro and 27-inch iMac

My colleague Brian Cooley has many more general webcam setup tips, including some good headset mic suggestions -- although your phone headset or AirPods should be fine for anything short of a live hit on CNN.