Cameras, even those in phones, brag about megapixels and lens specifications — but laptops? Not so much. There’s a reason computer companies don’t say much about the webcams that come built in to the bezels of their laptops or all-in-ones. Most of these cameras are low quality, with tiny sensors and cheap lenses. Sure, they work for basic videoconferencing, but they aren’t very impressive and certainly leave us wanting something more.
While you could just buy a stand-alone webcam that connects over USB, to really take production value up a notch, you can opt for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. You’ll need a few workarounds to get this type of camera to be recognized as a webcam by your computer, but the trouble is worth it for the higher resolution, much better low light performance, and cinematic background blur.
To accomplish this, you’ll need some specific hardware and/or software to get your camera and computer to play nice. Fortunately, with the right tools, using your DSLR or mirrorless camera as a webcam is a straightforward procedure.
The hardware solution
Most computers cannot natively read the video coming from a camera’s HDMI output. If your computer has an HDMI port, it is likely itself an output port. And while cameras have USB ports, they generally do not send a clean video signal through them.
You’ll need a device that converts your camera’s HDMI feed to a USB output your computer will think is a connected web cam. The beauty of this setup is that you can generally use any HDMI source as the input, from a camera to a game console to another computer, and the output can be used however you’d like, from videoconferencing to livestreaming or recording.
The quality of the video that your computer receives is limited by the device. Even if you have a camera that can shoot 4K video, the USB adapter may only support 1080p output. Given that most livestreams and videoconferencing is reduced to 1080p (or even 720p) anyway, this probably isn’t a huge concern.
There are a number of different products for achieving this. Some of the top-ranked ones include:
The last one on this list is actually a four-input HDMI switcher. It allows you to connect multiple cameras, or other HDMI inputs, and select which one to output to your computer, which will see it as a simple webcam. This allows for advanced live-streaming setups with different angles, or to share a screen from a tablet or phone, or even printed material via an HDMI document camera. Sure, you don’t need that for your average Zoom meeting, but the ATEM Mini has much more flexibility than a simple HDMI to USB adapter — and it’s not even that expensive.
The next step is to make sure your camera is outputting a “clean” signal. Otherwise, you’ll stream everything you see on the camera screen, including the user interface overlays, like exposure settings and focus indicators. Each camera’s menu settings will be different, but look for an option for “output display” or “HDMI info display.” Consult your camera’s user manual if you can’t find those settings.
Note that while clean HDMI output has become a more popular feature, it is still not found on every camera and is typically reserved for midrange and high-end models.
Next, set your focus. If your camera has face-detection autofocus (or, better, eye detection), this is a great feature to turn on as it will take all of the guesswork out of focusing. If your camera doesn’t have this feature, you can use standard continuous autofocus (C-AF), although this may not be reliable. You can also manually preset the focus, but you’ll need to make sure you don’t move during the video.
Finally, tell the video chat platform that you want to use a camera besides the built-in webcam by going to the settings and switching to the camera you connected. (Here’s how to change the camera in Zoom and Skype).
The software solution
Some software programs can grab the video feed from a camera that’s plugged directly into the USB port without bothering with HDMI at all. These software solutions are less universal than video cards, however.
Canon is offering a public beta of its new EOS Webcam Utility app that lets you plug-and-play a camera as a webcam over USB. Initially available for Windows only, a MacOS version was recently introduced.
Fujifilm has also jumped on the bandwagon with Fujifilm X Webcam. The app, currently available for Windows only, with several high-end Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, including the X-T2, X-T3, and X-T4 as well as all medium-format GFX models.
The above programs are, of course, designed to only work with cameras made by their respective brands, and even then, some older or budget models may not be compatible. As video conferencing grows, other camera manufacturers will likely follow suit with their own programs to adapt cameras to webcams. Sony, for one, plans to introduce webcam support for its ZV-1 vlogging camera in July.
There are also third-party options. SparkoCam is a Windows program that allows Canon and Nikon DSLRs to work as webcams without any special hardware (check for full compatibility with your camera first). The program is free to try but starts at $50 to remove the large watermark. Unfortunately, it isn’t available for Mac.
There are also some free hacks to get a camera to work as a webcam without a capture card, although the setup isn’t the most seamless.
Unlike using HDMI, USB doesn’t provide access to the camera’s microphone, so these software tools will still require you to use your computer’s built-in mic or an external one.
Other accessories you may need
Since you probably can’t mount your camera directly to your monitor without, well, blocking it, you’re going to need some kind of tripod. For videoconferencing, a compact tabletop tripod is probably the best way to go. We’re fans of the Joby GorillaPod series and the Manfrotto Pixi, both of which you’ll find listed among our picks for the best tripods.
And while you’re upgrading your video quality, it’s probably a good time to take a look at your audio quality, too. Adding an external USB microphone to your computer is a surefire way to improve the sound of your voice. For some inspiration, see how Digital Trends Producer Dan Baker set up his home office for live-streaming.
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