Using a dSLR as a Webcam for Live Streaming
Broadcasting on the internet is here to stay. More and more we are seeing people use sites like Twitch and Youtube to deliver real-time video and audio to connect with their audience.
Increasingly over the years as a remote worker video chats have become more and more the standard of communication. Tools like Zoom have turned what used to be a choppy, shitty, robo-voice experience into a smooth high-quality communication channel.
At egghead we are using Zoom webinars to put on live streaming video events for our members.
It's a lot of fun, and it means that high quality audio and video is more important than ever.
For years I've been true and loyal to Logitech HD web cams. They aren't bad, cost under $100, and generally give you enough quality to get by for video calls. For the mac I use iGlasses, software that gives you color controls over the webcam. Overall, this will get you to "good enough".
This is actually the camera on my mac, not the logitech. It might not even get a "good enough" rating ;)
As I spend more time on video, I want the quality to match the effort.
Get the Essentials
There's more detail below about options and considerations for a killer pro-style webcam setup using a dSLR camera. This is a reasonable shopping list if you want to get right to business:
- 📷 camera: Sony a5100 is reasonably priced and does the job well
- 🔌 usb device: elgato Cam Link 4k to send HDMI signal from camera to computer as a webcam
- 📺 camera remote: Sony camera remote that is essential for focus/zoom control without reaching up to the camera
- ⚡️ camera power: Sony power adapter
- 🧍♂️ tripod: GorillaPod 5k tripod grips the top of a monitor or stands behind a laptop
- 🕯 light: elgato Key Light (2x) a single light is fine, 2 gives you key and fill which is great. They come with basic clamp stands.
- 🎙 microphone: Airpods Pro are great when you use just 1 for meetings and calls
Very high quality streaming internet video
I'm an AV nerd. Gear makes me giddy. I've got a small collection of SLR cameras and lenses that produce beautiful recorded photos and videos.
To use an SLR as a webcam it needs "clean" HDMI output. Clean means that the HDMI signal doesn't have text overlays displaying various settings. Makes sense, that'd look really bad.
You also need a camera that will stay awake if it is left on. Some cameras insist on sleeping and won't let you override it, and that wouldn't be good if you are streaming video.
I'm using the Sony Alpha a9. It's an amazing full-frame camera that I use and love for all of my photo and video needs. Sony has been putting out amazing lenses and accessories for the Alpha series for years. It is relatively small and light compared to other full-frame SLRs.
It's arguably overbuilt for as a webcam. It's definitely not the budget option. 😬
The Sony a5100 is the smaller more portable sibling to the a9, but has all the features you need to both using it as a webcam, but also as an excellent v-log camera. It has a great selection of interchangable lenses, though the one that comes with it will definitely do the job. It also has a flip up LCD so you can see what you are shooting from the front.
You'll also want the AC adapter for constant power, which is essential for use as a webcam.
While not required, I also like the Sony remote trigger for focusing without needing to reach over the camera.
It's very likely that you'll want a longer HDMI cable for the camera as well. There are LOTS of cable brands. They are NOT all created equal. I got the Sony branded cable and it works great so far after the first cable I had failed in a few days for unknown reasons.
If you already own an HD capable SLR or video camera here's a tool to check if it has compatible clean HDMI output.
The camera is strongly gripping the monitor with the GorillaPod 5k tripod. They are awesome flexible tripods that always amaze me with their versatility.
I've also been using the elgato multimount which works very well and has the advantage of not needing to be attached to the monitor.
The Webcam Adapter
Now that you've got a nice camera with clean HDMI out, you need to have it recognized as a webcam. Simply plugging it in to the USB port won't work, it needs to have a device in between to "trick" the computer into seeing the HDMI signal as a webcam.
At the low-end, the elgato Cam Link 4k is effective and simple. It has an HDMI port on one side and a USB port on the other. When you plug the camera into the hdmi port and the usb into the computer, your SLR will show up as a webcam. ez
The camlink has been "just OK" for us though. It requires occasional restarts for no apparent reason.
For a more substantial solution the Blackmagic Web Presenter is a great upgrade. It gives you multiple input options and even lets you switch between inputs. It is also a USB interface for audio equipment, so you can hook your mic into it as well. Similar to the elgato, you just need to plug in the HDMI in and connect the USB to the computer and it "just works". Note that you need to buy both a power cable and a usb cable for this thing. They don't come included and that can be annoying.
My current favorite solution for this is the Blackmagic ATEM Mini. This device is very cool and a definite upgrade from the Web Presenter (and cheaper!). The ATEM Mini allows you to have up 2 4 HDMI sources for multicamera (or computer screen sharing) switching. It allows for ATEM controls via software, which is also neat, but for me I just use a single camera most of the time. It's USB-C which is great for my mac-centric setup, and sends 1080p at 60fps which is a massive upgrade over the Web Presenter.
To get a good picture you absolutely need to supplement your lighting. These days there is a great selection of LED lights that work as a softbox.
There's a LOT of garbage in this space, so watch out for the cheap stuff. I went for the FotodioX FlapJack, and it is really great. It lets you control the temperature and the brightness is just right for a desktop situation.
You'll probably want a light stand for the light as well, and this little one fit well on my desk.
Another light that I love is the elgato Key Light. It comes with a elgato multimount which is also great (I use one for my camera too) and has the ability to be controlled from your computer or phone. Two of these lights is a very pro style key/fill lighting setup.
You've got the lights, you've got the camera, and you are ready to record.
Here's the thing, unless you are just very stylish, you might reconsider your background. In particular, nobody needs to see your piles of laundry, bed, doors, or any other aspect of your personal space. Some backdrops are more egregious than others, but you get the idea.
I went with a lightweight folding acoustic room divider. This thing is fantastic, and serves two purposes:
- a neutral backdrop
- it really helps with audio quality
It's also very easy to fold and put to the side.
Additionally, because sounding good is as important as looking good, I bought two acoustic panels to hang on the wall behind my desk. When you walk in and out of my "broadcasting fort" it is very noticable change in acoustics, outside noise doesn't interfere as much, and it makes recording less stressful if the occasional noise is part of your environment.
Sounding your best...
Audio is a deep rabbit hole that you can throw as much money as you want down in to. Generally speaking I want to sound great, but I'm not recording voice over for movies or audio books. For streaming and video chat I want a dynamic (vs condenser) microphone that sounds good and is very forgiving.
For me that's the Shure SM7B. This is a classic mic. It's the mic that they used to record Michael Jackson's Thriller. It's nice looking and one you've probably seen many podcast hosts using.
If you get the SM7B, you'll also want the Cloudlifter CL-1. It's essential to get a very good range of gain out of this microphone. It's kind of annoying that you have to buy the CL-1 for this mic to really shine, but in for a penny in for a pound ;)
If you're on a budget it's hard to go wrong with the Shure Beta 87a. This is the mic we send out to egghead instructors because it is extremely forgiving and sounds great. It doesn't need a CL-1 either, so cost wise it is about half what the SM7B costs.
For both mics you'll need an XLR to USB interface for your computer. The Focusrite Scarlett Solo is excellent and priced competitively.
I also recommend a high quality microphone boom arm, and my favorite is the OC White ProBoom Elite. They come in various sizes, but this is a solid piece of gear. Most mic booms on Amazon etc are cheap pieces of shit! Skip to the end of the line and treat yourself to a high-quality boom arm. They also sell a seperate desk clamp for these arms that you may need. Note: the clamp is not compatible with the riser version of the arm, which I strongly prefer and I just recommend screwing it onto your desk if possible 😂
Finally, if you've come this far you might consider a "channel strip" compressor, noise gate, and limiter that sits between your microphone and your USB interface. A great place to start is the DBX 286s, which is full featured and can add great repeateable levels to your audio.
After you get all your gear setup, you might also consider calling George the Tech to help you dial it all in. He's knowledgeable and relatively affordable (considering what you just spent on gear anyway) and can save hours of hassle.
High quality audio and video are essential if you are broadcasting professionally. For years I avoided video conferencing, but now that bandwidth and equipment has caught up I find myself in more and more face to face conversations over the internet. I'm excited for the potential to connect and communicate without geographic proximity being a limiting factor.
Hit me up on twitter if you have any questions. I used affiliate links liberally to Amazon for all the gear above.