Why Your MacBook Air Webcam Looks Bad in Zoom Meetings and How to Fix It
Here are some lighting and positioning tricks to help you make up for that grainy 720p webcam on older Macs.
Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
"Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
ExpertiseI've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever.Credentials
Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Almost every new MacBook sold today has an upgraded high-resolution webcam, but that only helps if you've bought one in the last year or so. Many MacBook owners are still using either older Intel versions or the 13-inch M1 MacBook Air or MacBook Pro, and all of those systems are held back by one unfortunate quirk: a flat-looking 720p-resolution webcam with lots of noise and a lack of depth-sensing technology.
A lot of Windows laptops are barely better, many with similar outdated webcams, but at least some have better light sensitivity, color accuracy or depth sensing for facial-recognition logins. However, many Windows laptops were even ahead of Apple in adding better 1080p webcams over the past few years.
The side effect of MacBooks being in wide circulation and tending to last for many years is that there's a lot of older hardware out there. And that means your Zoom or other video meetings are not going to look great, both because of the camera and because many people don't have their laptops set up to capture a decent-looking image.
There's at least a reasonable chance you're beaming into an online Zoom meeting (or other video meeting) from a pre-2022 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 sometimes use my phone mounted from an eye-level tripod clip.
The latest MacOS version, called Ventura, adds a powerful new feature called Camera Continuity. Take an iPhone with iOS 16 and a MacBook with Ventura, and you can easily link them, using the phone's superior camera as your webcam. It's a feature that took far too many years to get, but it solves a ton of problems. Even better, it works on (some) older Intel Macs, and you can see the exact list of compatible systems here.
But even with a better camera, your video presence will benefit from proper position and lighting. Here are some tips based on my experience beaming into live TV spots from my MacBook during the pandemic.
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 else heavy, 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.
Good lighting cures (most) ills
Low-res webcam signals look especially bad in low-light situations. Even higher-res cameras benefit from lots of light. 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
Among current MacBooks, the M1 MacBook Air and 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro both have that old 720p webcam. But the MacBook Pro 14 and Pro 16 have excellent 1080p cameras, along with the 2021 24-inch M1 iMac and the 2022 M2 MacBook Air. Previously, you could only find that in the discontinued $5,000-and-up iMac Pro and 27-inch iMac. The M2 MacBook Air is the biggest game-changer, if you ask me, as it has an excellent 1080p webcam, and is just a great all-around laptop.