Cameras, even in cell phones, boast megapixels and lens specifications – but with laptops? Not as much. There's a reason why computer companies don't say much about the webcams built into their laptops or all-in-one devices. Most of these cameras are of low quality, with tiny sensors and cheap lenses. Sure, they work for simple video conferencing, but they're not very impressive, and they certainly make us want something more.
While you can simply buy a standalone webcam connected via USB, you can opt for a DSLR or mirrorless camera to really increase the production value. You need some workarounds for this type of camera to be recognized by your computer as a webcam. It's worth the effort, however, because of the higher resolution, much better low-light performance, and cinematic background blur.
Streaming with a mirrorless camera
Vs. Streaming with a built-in webcam
To achieve this, you need certain hardware and / or software so that your camera and computer can play well. Fortunately, using your DSLR or mirrorless camera as a webcam with the right tools is a straightforward process.
The hardware solution
Most computers cannot read the video coming from a camera's HDMI output natively. If your computer has an HDMI connector, it is probably an output connector itself. And while cameras have USB ports, they generally don't send a clean video signal through them.
You need a device that converts your camera's HDMI feed into a USB output that your computer thinks is a connected webcam. The nice thing about this setup is that you can generally use any HDMI source as input, from a camera to a game console to another computer. The output can be used in any way, from video conferencing to live streaming or recording.
The quality of the video that your computer receives is limited by the device. Even if you have a camera that can record 4K video, the USB adapter may only support 1080p output. Given that most livestreams and video conferencing are reduced to 1080p (or even 720p) anyway, this is probably not a big problem.
There are various products for this. Some of the top places are:
The last one on this list is an HDMI switch with four inputs. You can connect multiple cameras or other HDMI inputs and choose which one should be output to your computer, which is a simple webcam. This enables advanced live streaming setups with different angles or the sharing of a screen from a tablet or phone or even printing material via an HDMI document camera. Sure, you don't need that for an average zoom meeting, but the ATEM Mini offers a lot more flexibility than a simple HDMI to USB adapter – and it's not even that expensive.
The next step is to make sure that your camera outputs a “clean” signal. Otherwise, stream everything you see on the camera screen, including user interface overlays such as exposure settings and focus indicators. The menu settings of the individual cameras are different. However, look for an option for “Home Display” or “HDMI Info Display”. Consult your camera's user guide if you cannot find these settings.
Note that while a clean HDMI output is becoming increasingly popular, it isn't available on every camera and is usually reserved for midrange and high-end models.
Next, put your focus. If your camera has face detection autofocus (or rather eye detection), this is a great feature to turn on because there is no guesswork when focusing. If your camera does not have this feature, you can use standard continuous autofocus (C-AF), although this may not be reliable. You can also preset the focus manually, but you need to make sure that you don't move during the video.
Finally, tell the video chat platform that you want to use a camera alongside the built-in webcam by going to the settings and switching to the camera you have connected. (How to change the camera in Zoom and Skype)
The software solution
Some software programs can get the video feed from a camera connected directly to the USB port without worrying about HDMI. However, these software solutions are less universal than graphics cards.
Canon has a beta program to plug and play a camera as a webcam that works via USB. Fujifilm has just launched a program, Fujifilm X Webcam, that connects mirrorless high-end cameras from Fujifilm, including X-T2, X-T3 and X-T4, as well as all GFX models. Currently only available for Windows, it also uses a USB connection.
Of course, the above programs are only designed for cameras of this brand, and even then some older or inexpensive cameras may not be compatible. With the increasing number of video conferences, other camera manufacturers can follow suit with their own programs to adapt cameras to webcams.
SparkoCam is a Windows program that allows Canon and Nikon DSLRs to use webcams without any special hardware (first check full compatibility with your camera). The program can be tested for free, but starts at $ 50 to remove the software's large watermark from the video. Unfortunately, it is not available for Mac.
There are also some free hacks that allow a camera to be used as a webcam without a capture card, although the setup isn't the most seamless.
As with the hardware method, you must tell the video chat program that you are using a camera other than the built-in webcam. The camera also does not provide audio, so you must use the computer's built-in microphone or an external microphone.
Other accessories you may need
Since you are unlikely to be able to mount your camera directly on your monitor without blocking it, you need a tripod. A compact table tripod is probably the best way for video conferencing. We are fans of the Joby GorillaPod series and the Manfrotto Pixi, both of which are listed among our choices for the best tripods.
And while you're improving your video quality, it's probably a good time to check your audio quality too. Adding an external USB microphone to your computer is a surefire way to improve the sound of your voice. Let yourself be inspired by how Digital Trends producer Dan Baker set up his home office for live streaming.