Webcams are available at a dizzying array of price points. That’s because, inside these seemingly identical little black rectangles, there is an equally extensive variety of feature options to consider. So what makes a great webcam? How do you make the best recommendations to your customers (or choose the right device for your own purposes)? It very much depends on the use case at hand.
First, let’s take a look at some of the features a user should consider before purchasing a webcam:
Resolution – This refers to the number of pixels a camera captures. Most webcams top out at 4K or 1080p resolution, but broadcast-quality cameras can go much higher.
Pan/Tilt/Zoom (PTZ) – This feature provides the ability to adjust a camera’s physical position or optical zoom. Users can zoom in and out, tilt the camera towards the ceiling or the floor, or pan from one side of the room to the other using a remote control, joystick, web interface, or other camera control device. Often used in medium to large spaces, PTZ cameras have an optical zoom lens, allowing users to zoom in on objects from dozens of feet away without any loss of resolution. PTZ cameras typically have a much larger format than traditional webcams, but PTZ cameras with USB interfaces are available and can be used as webcams.
ePTZ – electronic pan/tilt/zoom. An ePTZ camera mimics the features of a PTZ camera without any physical movement. Instead of moving robotically, an ePTZ camera captures a really high-resolution image, but outputs only the selected area. A user can output the whole area, or digitally “zoom in” to only a portion of the captured image. This results in loss of resolution, but because the resolution of the capture is so high (and the resolution of livestreaming or videoconferencing images so limited), this loss is typically immaterial to the output. Once zoomed in, the user can also “pan” across the capture area, or “tilt” from top to bottom. ePTZ cameras are often no larger than a typical webcam.
Presets – Many PTZ and ePTZ cameras can also be configured with presets, allowing the user to save favorite camera positions and recall them instantly with a remote control or other camera control device.
Autoframe – Some cameras with PTZ or ePTZ capabilities don’t require the user to lift a finger to find the best camera position. Autoframing cameras detect the position of any people in the camera’s view, and automatically adjust so that they are properly framed. If anyone leaves during the course of the conference or livestream, then the camera automatically readjusts.
Autotrack – Some people naturally move during presentations. Autotracking features are perfect for users looking to create more dynamic recordings. An autotracking camera automatically follows a subject as they move throughout a space.
Fine-tune capabilities – Some cameras are black boxes automatically choosing settings for their users. For many use cases, though, the user will want the ability to fine-tune and adjust camera settings that affect the brightness, contrast, and tone of their images, including such features as white balance, aperture size, shutter speed, and red/blue gain.
Does the average consumer need all these advanced features? Probably not — but they are likely to need some of them. For typical home office use involving occasional videoconferencing, a static high-resolution webcam with automated image settings is probably adequate. As use cases for streaming diversify, though, more features are required. Let’s examine three common examples: livestreaming, product presentations, and family conferencing.
Livestreaming is a broad category. The features a user needs depend on what kind of streams they’re creating. Performance, dance, or even lecture-performances benefit from autotracking, allowing the subject to move around a space without ever leaving the frame. Gaming or confessional-style livestreamers may not need this option but might want PTZ and preset capabilities to give them multiple shot options from a single mounting position. Any serious streamer will want fine-tuning capabilities, allowing them to optimize white balance and maintain a consistent look for their content. When a customer says they want a camera for livestreaming, take an interest! Find out as much as you can about what kind of content they produce before making a recommendation.
Presentations and Product Demos
Product demonstrations, unboxing videos, and reviews have become an important content marketing strategy for many dealers – and a popular hobby or even profession among thousands of consumers as well. Creators are advised to select a camera with an ultra-high-definition capture card to create video content of this nature. These videos are likely to be edited after the fact, which means the user should start with the highest possible quality so that even cropped or filtered shots can be streamed at crisp high definition.
Fine-tuning capabilities such as the ability to adjust white balance, iris aperture, and shutter speed are also important for this use case: If any part of the video needs to be reshot, the user will want to recreate the appearance of the original lighting conditions and image as closely as possible.
For sophisticated users, ePTZ presets are a must. This feature allows the user to establish multiple shots – like a wide angle and a close-up – and toggle between them with a single remote button-press. Users can instantly zoom in on a product, then switch back to the demonstrator, creating a professional multicamera effect with a single webcam.
Living Room Conferencing
The world’s largest tech companies are betting that videoconferencing is going to move into consumers’ living rooms. New displays from Amazon, Samsung, and Google come with support for Zoom or Google Duo built-in, as does the latest model of Fire Cube. For families who’ve grown accustomed to connecting via videoconferencing over the past two years, conferencing-enabled TVs could offer a richer and much more comfortable experience than huddling around a phone or computer. Consumers must install a webcam to access this feature, though, and a standard device just won’t do.
Consider the typical distance between a user and their laptop screen or computer monitor. Now, think about the distance between a television and the couch. A normal webcam mounted on a television screen is going to capture way too much of the room; the people on the couch will make up a tiny fraction of the frame. Ideally, the subjects’ heads and shoulders should be visible, with about 10 to 15 percent clearance between the top of the subjects’ heads and the top bezel of the screen. Achieving that framing in a living room context requires a webcam with zoom capability.
Video conferencing services typically transmit video at a 1080p resolution. That means that a 4K webcam with ePTZ capabilities can zoom electronically up to 4X without any loss of signal quality for a 1080p conference. Of course, if you’re looking for a truly crisp image – or if the customer has a fairly large living room – you can achieve truly lossless capture at greater distances with optical zoom.
If you’re meeting one-on-one, you’re likely better off doing so using your computer or mobile device; the primary use case for a living room webcam is family videoconferencing. Participants are unlikely to sit tightly packed together, holding still in a single position. Kids will bounce around the room, and family members may enter and leave throughout the conversation. In a room with multiple seating options, even a single participant is unlikely to sit in the same position every time. For this use case, users will want the ability to not just zoom, but reframe – without having to manually adjust the webcam’s position. The user should be able to reframe any camera with PTZ or ePTZ capabilities using a remote, but presets – or better yet, autoframing – make this process a lot more convenient.
Cameras are becoming a more central part of consumers’ professional and family lives. Dealers pay a key role in helping them choose the right camera for the right application – and in the process, establish themselves as trustworthy experts for the customer’s next video venture.