How to get good webcam video

Even after we are through the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are expecting telework to be much more common in the future. But if you’ve been forced into video meetings recently, you might have been less than impressed with the quality of your video conference and you’re wondering what you might be able to do to improve it.

The trouble is, MacBook computers, particularly the recent models, ship with a lower quality camera. Why? Because the screens are so thin now that it’s difficult for them to cram a teeny tiny camera into them that’s of decent quality. Your iPad and especially your iPhone are much thicker and have a significantly better quality camera in them. The good news is, if you’re looking for something better and want an external USB webcam for your desk, they are affordable and easy to install.

Free ways to improve your video

Before you go buying a new video camera, however, try these tips to improve your video at no cost:

  • Wipe off your lens. This is really obvious but easy to overlook. Webcams don’t have particularly high quality lenses so any clean cloth will do.
  • Experiment with lighting. Turn off or down the lights behind you that don’t light your face, and keep windows out of the frame. Move a lamp closer to your camera which is the best location for a light source. Face a window if it’s daytime. Avoid overhead lighting. If facing a wall point a light at the wall to reflect a soft glow. The general rule is that the less focused the light and the more in front of you the better.
  • Elevate your camera, which for a laptop may mean putting your computer on a stack of books. Low angles are unflattering. Use an external mouse and keyboard if that makes it easier. Aim for eye-level or slightly higher.
  • Search your app for quality settings. Some apps (Zoom comes to mind) don’t enable HD video unless you choose it in the settings. But remember that increased video quality comes with increased internet usage. If you or your participants complain about the video or audio dropping out try disabling HD video.
  • Move closer to your router or put your router out in the open. Sometimes it’s a Wi-Fi signal problem, especially if people complain about your video being blocky or choppy.
  • Reboot your router, modem, and/or gateway. Sometimes a speed problem can be fixed just by unplugging the power, plugging it back in, and waiting 5 or 10 minutes for the internet to come back online.
  • Try using your iPhone or iPad for the call instead. The cameras in them, especially newer models, are much better than most Macs. And oftentimes the apps on iOS and iPadOS are less finicky.
  • Not directly related to video, but if people have a difficult time hearing you, you may wish to use a headset, AirPods, or get a dedicated mic.

Unrelated to video quality but perhaps even more important, be sure you assume your camera is enabled! Especially when you are on a group call it’s easy to forget that the camera is on, to accidentally activate the camera when you only intended to use audio, or to have a member of the household unwittingly wander into frame. Already in the past couple of weeks I’ve heard of several stories of people not realizing their cameras were on and their colleagues getting an eyeful and of spouses stepping out of a shower into a Zoom meeting. Use a lens cover if your camera has one or you can get some of these simple stick-on covers.

For a deeper dive in how to improve your calls Wirecutter has a great article.

Using an external USB camera

Right now getting a USB webcam might prove a little difficult, as many of the most popular models are selling out. My personal preference (and Wirecutter’s) is the Logitech C920S HD Pro. Don’t bother using any of the software they offer. Simply plug the camera into your USB port and select it in your video call app’s preferences. Instructions for each app will be slightly different. For example, in FaceTime it’s under the Video menu. In Zoom it’s in the Zoom menu > Preferences > Video.