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Your MacBook webcam looks lousy in Zoom meetings. Try these tricks to fix it

The best laptops can sometimes have mediocre cameras. Here's how to fix those flaws and look your best online.

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Libe Ackerman

Apple released two generations of MacBook Air during the ongoing global pandemic, first in March 2020 and again in November, and more could be on the way (may be for Apple's October event scheduled for Oct. 18). The two MacBooks were remarkably different beasts in some ways, one with a traditional Intel processor at its heart and the other with a new Apple-designed M1 CPU. But both were great personal laptops overall and both shared the same weakness -- a truly mediocre webcam.

Reviewers, shoppers and MacBook owners (or potential owners) are always quick to point this out. MacBooks have never been known for having the best webcams. The iPad Pro, iPhone, etc. all have great forward- and rear-facing cameras, but the 720p resolution camera on the MacBook is noisy, looks flat and lacks depth-sensing technology. 

This is the same basic type of camera the company has been putting in laptops for years, and this isn't the first time we've complained about it. Many 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 is 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 many models are sold out right now on Amazon and elsewhere, so you may be stuck with the built-in camera. Whether it's a MacBook or another laptop, here's how to make the best of it. 

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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

The MacBook Air webcam looks especially bad in low-light situations. Lots of other laptop webcams do, 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 $50 and includes an 8-inch ring light, a tripod to mount it on and phone clip as well. Almost everyone at CNET is using this setup or something similar right now. 

The Macs with a better webcam

The MacBook Air and MacBook Pro both have that 720p webcam. But the 27-inch Intel iMac and the new-for-2021 24-inch M! iMac both have excellent 1080p cameras. Previously, you could only find that in the discontinued $5,000-and-up iMac Pro

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.