What’s the best camera choice for live streaming?
As you might imagine, that’s not a simple question. Live streaming cameras vary widely in quality, price, and the details of how they connect to your system. Some are more flexible than others, some are more user-friendly than others, some provide a higher quality image than others. As with so many other questions involved in how to broadcast live, much depends on exactly what you want to do.
There are several different kinds of camera for live streaming. Let’s start with the most basic and inexpensive and work our way up.
Webcams are cameras that are connected to a computer, and via the computer to the Internet. Webcams are built into most computers or they may be separate items that connect to the computer via USB. A webcam doesn’t have its own Internet connection or IP address, so a computer is required to connect to a network and process the image into a form that can be streamed.
The advantages of webcams are simplicity of use and price. You can find a decent-quality webcam for around $100, assuming the screen webcam in your computer is too limiting. (Except for video phone conversations, it probably is.)
Webcams are easy to use as well. The controls are simple, the direct connection to the computer means you don’t have to worry about power sources, and no capture card is required. Using a webcam for live streaming adds very little to the complexity of the operation. Assuming you have the software tools installed to create the finished video content and embed it to a web site or upload it to a streaming platform, there are no special additional tools or efforts necessary because of the camera itself.
On the other hand, webcams don’t generally deliver as high image quality as other options. They have no storage for images, so it’s not possible to use them separately from the computer. Most come with built-in microphones, but the sound quality is not high. You’ll need a separate mic and sound channel if you want professional sound quality. Most webcams are very simple in their controls, which is as much a liability as an asset. Typically, they lack zoom capability, variable focus, and any ability to customize the image.
Whether any of that is important depends on what you are trying to do. If you just need to embed video of a conference or lecture to provide information to viewers, webcams might provide all the power you need. For serious professional quality video, though, you should consider other options.
An IP camera has an IP address and its own ability to link to the Internet separately from a computer. Using IP cameras is a little more complicated than using webcams, but much more versatile. Because their connection is wireless, they can be positioned anywhere you need them. Because many IP cameras include power over ethernet (POE), you can run them 24/7. This combination makes them ideal for video streaming nature, a concert or other performance where you need multiple perspectives, and similar functions.
Using IP cameras with streaming video is a little more complicated than using webcams. It requires an encoder, because the protocol most IP cameras use isn’t suitable for live streaming. You’re also looking at a pricier camera. Costs vary quite a bit, but a good IP camera is likely to run at least $800 and could be higher, depending on the features you need.
An IP camera is a good choice of live streaming camera if you need a lot of flexibility in where the camera is located relative to the computer processing the image. Provided the camera has access to the Internet over a wireless network, it can be located literally anywhere.
The most expensive option is to use a professional-quality HDMI or SDI output camera (especially a high-definition SDI camera). In addition to the camera itself being more expensive than most IP cameras, this option requires a capture card to facilitate using the camera for live streaming. A capture card is a separate device connected to a computer that converts the video signal into a form that can be used for live streaming. Capture cards can be internal or external devices, with the internal versions generally a bit cheaper and sometimes offering more advanced functions, while external capture cards offer plug-and-play simplicity and don’t require you to perform surgery on your computer. They’re also easier to use with a laptop.
It’s also important to ensure that your capture card will work with your camera’s input. Not all capture cards are designed to facilitate analog video, for example. Some work only with analog and don’t accommodate digital signals. Check the particulars of the card and accompanying software before buying.
Professional cameras offer more flexibility and power than any of the cheaper options. You can change and upgrade lenses, use zoom and wide angle focus, and do all of the things you’d expect from a professional camera. Today’s professional-quality video cameras are quite compact, too, compared to older versions. While not as portable as a webcam or IP camera, they’re fairly easy to transport and use on site. For more polished productions, a high-quality camera is necessary to achieve real professional quality video. Of course, versatility and ease of use generally don’t go together. Professional video cameras aren’t as simple to use as a webcam. If you don’t already have experience with them, you may face a learning curve.
Aside from that, the only downside is the cost. A good quality HDMI camera will run you at least $600 – $700, while the price for a top of the line HD-SDI camera runs into the thousands. The capture card represents additional expense.
What type of camera you need for live streaming depends on what you want to stream. For some purposes, simple webcams work just fine. If that’s the case, professional cameras and accompanying software and capture card are an unnecessary expense. For others, using less than a professional camera gives results that look amateur.
As with everything else involved in how to broadcast live, knowing your audience and the purpose of your production is crucial to making this decision.
With that in mind, here’s a list of recommended cameras and capture cards that work well with live streaming.
Once you are done selecting your camera, be sure to check out our archived webinar below. This will walk you through the sages to take your live broadcast to the next level: promoting it.
By Elise Lagarde.