Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, video calls are suddenly more crucial than ever. Instead of the occasional FaceTime while vacationing, your loved ones and livelihood require constant communication over Zoom and other chat apps. And that makes a finicky webcam twice as frustrating. We’re here to help you troubleshoot.
Ensure Audio Isn’t Muted and Video Is On
Let’s start with a seemingly obvious but common issue. Some meetings may automatically mute your audio or video when you enter, or you may have accidentally clicked the wrong thing. Look for the camera and/or microphone icon in the chat program and click them to see if you’ve muted one or the other. It seems basic, but it’s an easy thing to miss.
Similarly, if you have a webcam slider or piece of tape covering the lens for privacy reasons, make sure you’ve opened or removed it. Otherwise, your colleagues will just see a black screen where your face should be. It’s embarrassing how much time I’ve spent troubleshooting before realizing I forgot to remove my webcam tape.
Check That Both Devices Are Selected in Your Chat
Sometimes, your video chat program will see multiple devices and select the wrong one for audio or video. For example, I’ve had Zoom try to route audio through my HDMI monitor instead of my speakers, preventing me from hearing anyone on a call.
Open your video chat’s settings and ensure the correct devices are selected for your webcam, audio input (aka your microphone), and audio output (aka your headphones or speakers). If you aren’t sure which is the correct device—sometimes they have rather generic names—try each one until you get a signal that works. It should remember the correct device the next time you try to chat.
This is also a good way to ensure the highest quality audio for your voice. Just because you have a USB microphone plugged in doesn’t mean you’re using it, as chat programs might still default to your webcam’s built-in mic.
Install Your Webcam’s Drivers and Software
If your webcam does not appear in the list, it’s possible Windows isn’t recognizing the device. Click the Start menu, type Device Manager, and press Enter to see a list of hardware connected to your PC.
If you don’t see any options under Cameras, Imaging Devices, or Universal Serial Bus Controllers that correspond to your webcam—or you see something with a yellow exclamation point—you may need to install or update the drivers for your webcam hardware.
Even with Windows’ generic drivers installed, I had to install Logitech’s webcam software for my webcam to work, so head to the manufacturer’s support page to find the requisite software.
Windows and macOS both have privacy settings that allow you to block access to your webcam, and it’s possible this is interfering with your video chat.
Check Your Privacy Settings
In Windows, head to Settings > Privacy > Camera and make sure camera access is turned on for the apps you want. (You’ll need to scroll all the way to the bottom to see what desktop apps are allowed.) Read more about Windows’ webcam privacy here.
In macOS, head to System Preferences > Security & Privacy and click the lock in the bottom-left corner to make changes. After entering your password, look through the list on the left, making sure your video chat program is allowed to access the camera and microphone. You can also allow screen recording, access to files, and other permissions here.
You should also check the same permissions in your browser. Most browsers have their own privacy settings allowing you to block camera access across the board, or for certain sites. In Chrome, for example, you can find these permissions under Settings > Privacy and Security > Site Settings.
By default, both Camera and Microphone should be set to Ask Before Accessing, but if it isn’t, you can change that here. If the camera is blocked on a specific site (like Zoom’s domain), you can fix that by visiting that site and clicking the lock icon in the address bar to allow camera and microphone access.
Plug Into Another USB Port or PC
Another tip from the basic-but-often-ignored files: if you’re using a USB webcam or microphone, make sure the USB port isn’t faulty. Plug your camera into another USB port and see if that helps. If it’s plugged into a USB hub, try plugging it directly into your PC instead.
If you have another PC on hand, try plugging your webcam into that machine too. If it doesn’t work there, it’s likely your webcam is broken or defective. If it does work in another PC, you know the problem lies somewhere on the original machine.
Try Another Webcam or Microphone
If the problem lies with your PC, it can help to try another webcam or microphone to see if the problem is system-wide or specific to a certain hardware setup. Try plugging in the headset that came with your phone to see if that microphone works properly.
If you don’t have an extra USB webcam lying around (who does?) you can turn your phone, Canon camera, or other devices into a webcam. If those work but your regular webcam doesn’t, you can narrow down the source of the problem a bit.
Reinstall and Reboot
You may not remember, but most video chat services—even on the web—require you to install a small helper app the first time you use them. While I haven’t encountered a situation where reinstalling that software fixes my problem, it’s a standard troubleshooting step you should always take to minimize variables.
Head to the program’s website and download the latest version of the software—for example, you can manually grab Zoom’s software from the download page. Reinstall the program, restart your computer, and see if it magically springs back to life. You never know what weird problems can be lurking underneath.
No Luck? Try Another Device or Chat Program
I’ve overcome a lot of video chat quirks over the years, but some solutions still elude me. Google Hangouts, for example, only decides to work properly on random days, while my Chromebook is just not cooperative when it comes to piping audio through my headset. Sometimes, you can save yourself a lot of time by admitting defeat and using a different machine.
If you have the ability to try a different chat program, give that a go—there are plenty of great, free options out there. Or, if you’re on a company-mandated Zoom call, try calling in from your laptop or phone instead of your desktop. Even if it isn’t ideal as a long-term solution, it’ll allow you to get into the current call and spend time troubleshooting later.
It’s possible your webcam is broken or defective, and you’ll need to contact the manufacturer for a replacement—or, if you’re handy with a screwdriver, fix it yourself.