How to Use (Almost) Any Camera as a Webcam

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By this point, I'm sure nearly everyone has joined more video calls or meetings than they can count. For better or worse, it seems that even if our lives start to return to "normal," the idea of video conferencing and livestreaming will remain just as strong. Now, you might be wondering how to use a current camera (or future one) for streaming or even just how to upgrade from your device's built-in webcam. You have come to the right place to learn how to stream from just about any modern camera.

Option 1 (Best Quality): Clean HDMI or SDI

Getting a clean HDMI (or SDI) video feed from your camera into your computer is perhaps the best way to get set up for streaming. To do this, you will need to make sure your camera can output a clean video signal—one without any UI or graphical menu elements—over HDMI or SDI and then pick up a video capture device.

Here's what you need:

Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 4K Mini Thunderbolt 3 Capture & Playback Unit
Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 4K Mini Thunderbolt™ 3 Capture & Playback Unit

Many cameras send their greatest quality via HDMI or SDI output, usually providing uncompressed footage at greater bit depths. If you want the absolute best quality, this is one way to do it. Many cameras offer this, from your point-and-shoot all the way up to professional cinema cameras, so, no matter your setup and budget, this method can likely work for you.

You may have to dig into your menus or do some research online (or ask us about it!) to find out if your camera supports clean output. Most cameras from the past few years should be able to do this no problem, but older cameras may not have the option. Once you find out, hopefully, that your camera does support clean output you’ll have to get it ready.

Take your camera and get it set up as you would for a normal video recording. Then, select the best settings for streaming and the camera's output resolution. Keep in mind that the best option isn't always the highest resolution. If you are only streaming in Full HD, it might be a better choice to output Full HD instead of 4K footage. You also might need to invest in more expensive equipment to handle a 4K stream.

When selecting a cable, you'll want to make sure it is the appropriate length and that you don't need adapters. Ideally, you have a length that isn't too long and isn't too short; it will be just right. Longer cables add cost and headaches while shorter cables can become problematic if you want to relocate your setup. Err on the side of having a little bit extra after everything is connected.

As for the video capture device, this is where you can go for super simple or incredibly complex. There are two basic device options, though: dongles that attach via USB or Thunderbolt™ and PCIe cards that require installation in a desktop or a separate enclosure to use.

For newcomers or those simply looking to use one camera as a webcam, I recommend that you go for the dongle option. They are usually plug-and-play and convert the video signal into a general webcam format that most apps can readily use. The simplest only offer a single input, either HDMI or SDI, and a single connection to the computer. Also, they are generally limited to Full HD as a maximum resolution, though some affordable 4K options do exist. If you are looking for maximum quality or perhaps want to do more with your capture device you may want a better capture device, which may be a PCIe card you have to install into your PC or an expansion chassis. 

If you are looking for more, consider options with screens for preview and settings for converting signals or downsampling. Some can handle multiple inputs at once and have physical buttons for switching from different angles instantly. They can even feature XLR ports and a headphone jack for advanced audio capture from professional microphones before the signal even hits your computer.

More advanced capture devices can record your video in the highest quality using dedicated software. Making use of these will be good if you aim to upload a higher quality version of your stream later on since they capture via the source and not through your stream’s variable quality. These are all major considerations if you intend to make more of a production out of your streams, but for most people just looking for better video calls you can go with just our first recommendation of a simple dongle.

Follow the instructions, and then when you have your capture device set up, all you should have to do is match your camera's video output to the spec of the device and you should be ready to roll.

Option 2 (Fewer Tools, Complex Setup): Software Solutions

If you want something that works with what you have today, or just something that doesn't require additional dongles and parts to function, there is a fairly unique solution available using certain applications and select cameras. Many stills cameras—think DSLRs, mirrorless, and point-and-shoots—offer a type of tethering function via USB. This usually works with a dedicated application provided by the manufacturer or a third party, such as Capture One Pro. Then there are other apps that allow you to stream what's on your screen. It can get complex, and it certainly isn't perfect, but it is a viable solution.

Let's walk through one method that seems to be working well, but please keep in mind that you may encounter bugs or errors based on odd compatibility challenges with your specific equipment.

I shoot tethered quite often with my Sony a7R IV and rely on Capture One Pro to do so. Sony also has its own Remote application that can do a similar job. When you are shooting tethered, you can preview the camera's image, which is effectively a video from the camera via the USB port. Keep in mind that the USB connection will not transmit audio; you will need another audio solution for your computer. This also isn't the absolute highest quality you can get.

Capture One Pro 20
Capture One Pro 20

When you have a live view from the camera, your next step is to find software that has more control over screen recording and streaming functionality. My recommendation is the free OBS Studio. It lets you select the application window as a source and then crop in to eliminate the extra controls and information you don't need or want. With OBS Studio and some other software, you will then need to have it provide a virtual webcam functionality. This may require another plug-in or program to accomplish. For OBS Studio, they advise the VirtualCam plug-in for Windows and CamTwist for macOS.

OBS Studio
OBS Studio

When you have the framing right and the virtual-camera option working, you should be able to select it in your video-conferencing app of choice. It's a bit weird and can be buggy, but it's practically a free solution to getting your camera set up as a webcam.

Other Streaming Tools

One thing you may not have considered is positioning of the camera. You can't exactly balance a full-size camera on top of your monitor, so you should pick up a desktop tripod or other mounting solution. Adding a light can give you a cleaner, better-looking image, too, since you can then use lower sensitivities on the camera and you may also want a microphone for crisp audio that is free from unwanted background sounds and noise from your built-in mic. Here's a good list of essentials:

Oben CTT-1000 Carbon Fiber Tabletop Tripod (left) Genaray 2 x SL-57 Soft LED Lights & 2 x PIXI Plus Mini Tripods Kit (center) and Senal UC4-B USB Professional Multi-Pattern Microphone (right)
Oben CTT-1000 Carbon Fiber Tabletop Tripod (left) Genaray 2 x SL-57 Soft LED Lights & 2 x PIXI Plus Mini Tripods Kit (center) and Senal UC4-B USB Professional Multi-Pattern Microphone (right)

Beyond that, there are some additional nice-to-haves, depending on your needs:

Impact Background Support Kit

Impact Background Support Kit

If you want to get into multi-cam I would recommend looking into switcher boards or perhaps a combination video capture device/switcher. But, that is a whole other topic that we don’t exactly have time to get into here.

If you still need help getting your camera set up for livestreaming or are curious about multi-cam setups, please feel free to reach out by chat or phone (800.221.5743 or 212.239.7765) or by dropping by the Comments section, below. You can also stop by our Learn About Livestreaming page for plenty more content to help you upgrade your setup.

2 Comments

Hi, I am wondering if it is possible to use the Olympus Pen-F as a webcam. I have tried different options but cannot make it work.

Thanks!

I have had very good results with SparkoCam and my Canon 6d mark I.  It's free to use with a watermark, so you can test it out, and if it works for you pay to remove the watermark.  Not a free solution but very simple.  I also have lights that I was going to set up but ended up not needing them.  I have a dual monitor setup with my camera in between them.  If I leave one of the monitors on a mostly white page and the other on a slightly darker page and adjust the white balance to match, the lighting is quite good on its own.

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