If you work in the video industry, you may be familiar with pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras. These mechanized, self-contained units make video production easier with a small crew. That’s especially true if you’re working in a crowded, permanent space. In this article, we offer an overview of how to use a PTZ camera for live streaming as part of your chosen live streaming solutions.
Many of these tips came from our friends at PTZOptics, who manufacture a line of professional-grade PTZ cameras. They’re great pieces of equipment. If you’re in the market for a PTZ camera for live streaming, we recommend you review this guide thoroughly.
We’ll begin with some more specifics on what a PTZ camera for live streaming is. We’ll also review key features to look for in a broadcast-quality PTZ camera. Then, we’ll move to a detailed discussion of how to set up your PTZ camera for live streaming successfully. Let’s jump right in!
What is a PTZ camera for live streaming?
As mentioned above, the acronym PTZ stands for “Pan-Tilt-Zoom.” A PTZ camera is an imaging unit attached to a mount capable of movement in two directions: side to side (panning) and up and down (tilting). However, what makes a PTZ camera for live streaming special are the integrated motors. Instead of a camera operator stationed at each unit, a PTZ camera for live streaming allows remote operation of the unit.
[Tweet “What is a PTZ camera for live streaming and how does it work? #OVP #onlinevideo #broadcasting”]
Features of a broadcast-quality PTZ camera
Overall, a PTZ camera for live streaming typically supports pro-grade HD-SDI video output cables and common broadcast frame rates. Other key features include:
- Broadcast-quality images (including resolution, dynamic range, color gamut, and noise)
- Lens focal length and zoom range (appropriate to the space in which it will be used)
- Maximum iris (f-stop) and manual iris control
- Lens quality (minimal distortion, chromatic aberration, moire, and other artifacts)
- Motor quality (smooth pans, tilts, and zooms without shake)
- Misc. features (such as support for pre-programmed shot positions)
- Manual controls for exposure, white balance, image inversion, etc.
Focus control is another important element of a broadcast-quality PTZ camera. Many PTZ cameras support only autofocus, for example. This may not be sufficient for broadcasting live. Instead, look for a PTZ camera for live streaming that supports manual programming of a focal point in advance. This can ensure you nail perfect focus on every shot.
Also, note that “ePTZ” cameras use digital zoom, which degrades image quality significantly. These cameras are ideal for security camera use, but not for broadcasting.
For more on the features of a true, high-quality PTZ camera for live streaming, check out this excellent white paper from Telemetrics.
Comparing PTZ robos with traditional portable cameras
Both traditional tripod-mounted or handheld cameras and PTZ cameras have advantages and disadvantages. We’ll review each in turn in this section.
Here are some of the main benefits of PTZ robos, or robotic cameras:
- One operator can control several cameras
- Can mount to a wall or ceiling to achieve unique viewing angles
- Can place in dangerous locations or areas where human operators cannot be present
- Save space in crowded studios or rooms
- Easily pre-program specific panning or zooming shots
- Auto-follow technology enables camera pre-programming to automatically track motion on stage
- Considerable cost savings, as compared to professional-grade standalone camera, tripod, and operator
Of course, even a PTZ camera for live streaming can fall short in some areas.
Here are some advantages that traditional broadcast or portable video cameras have over PTZ cameras for broadcasting live:
- Easily move from their mounted position to achieve other viewing angles
- Easily upgrade self-contained units
- Battery packs, audio recording devices, monitor screens, and diverse lens choices are available
- A human operator is more accurate and reliable for “follow” shots than an automated system
- Each camera operator has only one task on which to focus
- Easier to achieve artistic shots
Installating a PTZ camera for live streaming
Installing a PTZ camera for live streaming is relatively simple. First, most of these cameras come with a wall or ceiling mount.
For mounting on a scaffold, you may need to improvise some sort of wooden surface to screw your mount into. You can easily create this setup with a plywood plate and a number of bolts to secure it.
Wherever you choose to install your PTZ camera for live streaming, be sure to secure it properly. If you don’t, your camera could wiggle while it operates. This can ruin a shot completely. In the worst case scenario, your camera could even come completely loose and fall to the ground.
Joystick control by a single controller
Typically, PTZ cameras connect via Ethernet and/or SDI cable to a joystick controller. This controller is usually located in the production studio. There, an operator can control the movement and zoom of any given camera with a simple control panel. Also, note that these control panels come in the form of hardware or software.
Hardware control panels are small panels with various cable connections and controls. Inputs from each camera join to this controller. This type of controller panel allows you to:
- Select a given camera by hitting any of several buttons
- Zoom that camera in or out with a toggle
- Focus (or select autofocus mode)
- Pan the camera side to side, or tilt it up or down
- Set the iris/aperture (or select automatic mode)
- Program pre-set camera positions for each connected camera
- Navigate to those positions with a single button press
Integrating a PTZ camera for live streaming with encoding software and hardware
Most PTZ systems come with a software controller, either in addition to or as a replacement for a hardware controller. Software controllers are cheap and accessible via Ethernet. With the appropriate software, any computer on your network can access the camera controls. This can be ideal for broadcasting live, since control is redundant and monitoring over an ethernet connection is simple. This approach can also remove the need for a separate hardware joystick.
Many hardware platforms also offer built-in integration with a PTZ camera for live streaming. For example, NewTek’s TriCaster units integrate easily with PTZOptics camera units. TriCaster also integrates nicely with Panasonic PTZ cameras. Cameras from other manufacturers are supported as well.
Additional software to stream live video also connects with and can control a PTZ camera for live streaming. For example, vMix has an integrated PTZ software control. Other software applications, such as Wirecast, don’t support PTZ control natively. However, broadcasters can use separate PTZ software. That way, you can control cameras that are feeding video into Wirecast to broadcast live.
Finally, note that some PTZ cameras, such as those from PTZOptics, support open source control software via SDKs.
Camera presets for live streaming
One of the best things about using a PTZ camera for live streaming is the ability to pre-program specific camera positions ahead of time. This is highly useful for instantly switching to a pre-defined position.
For example, during a live broadcast one camera may focus on the left side of the stage, and another camera may focus on the right side. In this case, you can pre-program each camera with three positions. The first would be a wide shot, covering the crowd and most of the stage. The second would be a medium shot, showing just the stage. The third would be a tight shot on a podium, lectern, or microphone.
In short, you can arrange this setup before the live program begins.
Permanent cable runs and other streamlining benefits
One of the major benefits of using a PTZ cameras for live streaming relates to streamlining.
For example, with PTZ you can put permanent cable runs in place. These permanent runs allow you to disguise and protect cables inside fixtures and walls. With moveable cameras, on the other hand, this level of integration is not desirable or possible. Equipment needs to move so often that everything might as well be easily accessible.
However, a PTZ camera for live streaming supports professional grade broadcasting that’s actually discreet. With server motors delivering fast, precise, quiet movements, you might even forget they are there!
Last up in our features review, many PTZ cameras support the RS-232 cable standard. RS-232 is a serial communications method that is sometimes used to control PTZ cameras remotely. A great use case of RS-232 is to daisy chain PTZ cameras. Daisy chaining is the process of connecting a series of PTZ cameras to each other, and then running one connection to the controller. This approach works in contrast to running discreet cables from each camera to the controller.
Overall, this strategy allows you to minimize the length and simplify cable runs.[Tweet “Using a #PTZ camera for live streaming allows for permanent mounting, streamlined cable runs, and daisy chaining. #studio #provider”]
As this post highlights, a PTZ camera for live streaming enables a small staff to create a professional production in short order. Moreover, you can use PTZ cameras alongside traditional cameras. This allows for innovative angles and lets you reap the benefits of a smaller staff and lower costs. For live streaming in particular, these advantages are significant.
PTZ cameras are amazing pieces of technology, and they continue to evolve rapidly. 4K resolution PTZ cameras are beginning to become available. The next generation of PTZ cameras is going to be even more capable.
Are you considering using a PTZ camera for live streaming, or have you used one in the past? Any tips or tricks to share? Let us know in the comments, and we will get back to you.
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By Max Wilbert.