Cameras, even those in phones, brag about megapixels and lens specifications — but laptops? Not so much. There’s a reason computer companies don’t say much about the webcams that come built into the bezels of their screens. Most of these cameras are low-quality, with tiny sensors and cheap lenses. Sure, they work for basic videoconferencing, but they aren’t very impressive and certainly leave us wanting something more.
While you could just buy a stand-alone webcam that connects over USB, to really take production value up a notch, you can opt for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. You’ll need a few workarounds to get this type of camera to be recognized as a webcam by your computer, but the trouble is worth it for the higher resolution, much better low-light performance, and cinematic background blur.
To accomplish this, you’ll need some specific hardware and/or software to get your camera and computer to play nice. Fortunately, with the right tools, using your DSLR or mirrorless camera as a webcam is a straightforward procedure. With major camera manufacturers like Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus, and GoPro recently building a webcam option into their software, the odds are now pretty good that you can modify your current camera to use as a webcam, for free.
The hardware solution
Most computers cannot natively read the video coming from a camera’s HDMI output. If your computer has an HDMI port, it is likely itself an output port. And while cameras have USB ports, they generally do not send a clean video signal through them.
You’ll need a device that converts your camera’s HDMI feed to a USB output that your computer will think is a connected webcam. The beauty of this setup is that you can generally use any HDMI source as the input, from a camera to a game console to another computer, and the output can be used however you’d like, from video conferencing to livestreaming or recording.
The quality of the video that your computer receives is limited by the device. Even if you have a camera that can shoot 4K video, the USB adapter may only support 1080p output. Given that most livestreams and videoconferences are reduced to 1080p (or even 720p) anyway, this probably isn’t a huge concern.
There are a number of different products for achieving this. Some of the top-ranked ones include:
The last one on this list is actually a four-input HDMI switcher. It allows you to connect multiple cameras or other HDMI inputs and select which one to output to your computer, which will see it as a simple webcam. This allows for advanced livestreaming setups with different angles, sharing a screen from a tablet or phone, or even printed material via an HDMI document camera. Sure, you don’t need that for your average Zoom meeting, but the ATEM Mini has much more flexibility than a simple HDMI to USB adapter — and it’s not even that expensive.
The next step is to make sure your camera is outputting a “clean” signal, called a clean HDMI output. Otherwise, you’ll stream everything you see on the camera screen, including the user interface overlays, like exposure settings and focus indicators. Each camera’s menu settings will be different, but look for an option for “output display” or “HDMI info display.” Consult your camera’s user manual if you can’t find those settings.
Note that while clean HDMI output has become a more popular feature, it is still not found on every camera and is typically reserved for midrange and high-end models.
Next, set your focus. If your camera has face-detection autofocus (or, better, eye detection), this is a great feature to turn on, as it will take all of the guesswork out of focusing. If your camera doesn’t have this feature, you can use standard continuous autofocus (C-AF), although this may not be reliable. You can also manually preset the focus, but you’ll need to make sure you don’t move during the video.
Finally, tell the video chat platform that you want to use a camera besides the built-in webcam by going to the settings inside the webconferencing app and switching to the camera you connected. (Here’s how to change the camera in Zoom and Skype).
The software solution
Some software programs can grab the video feed from a camera that’s plugged directly into the USB port without bothering with HDMI at all. These software solutions are less universal than video cards, however. Third-party software is available, but as 2020 made working from home a necessity for many, several manufacturers launched their own native solutions. Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus, and GoPro are all integrating a webcam feature into native (and free) software. Most of these programs are recently launched beta options but provide users a way to use their camera as a webcam without buying any additional accessories.
Whether you use manufacturer software or third-party software, you will need the USB cable that came with your camera. Cameras should also have a full battery, while long live-streams may require an AC adapter to keep the camera fully juiced. Unlike using HDMI, USB doesn’t provide access to the camera’s microphone, so these software tools will still require you to use your computer’s built-in mic or an external one (plugged into the computer, not the camera). A safe place to mount your camera, like a tripod, is ideal. And while not required, you’ll also get better results with a video light and an external microphone.
Exact set-up depends on the software that you’re using, but, in general, you’ll connect the camera to your computer using the USB (make sure that the camera is powered on). You’ll need to launch the webcam utility software and follow any steps there, and inside the app you plan to livestream with, you’ll need to go into the settings and choose your camera instead of the default built-in webcam. Just like using an HDMI video capture device, you will still need to set the focus on your camera.
Canon is offering a public beta of its new EOS Webcam Utility app that lets you use a camera as a webcam over USB. Initially available for Windows only, a MacOS version was recently introduced that allows the cameras to be adapted to both operating systems.
Nikon, the latest company to add a webcam software, recently launched the beta version of Nikon Webcam Utility for Windows 10, with a Mac version expected to be announced at a later date. The app works with Nikon Z cameras, as well as recent DSLRs, including the D6, D850, D780, D500, D7500, and D5600.
Fujifilm has also jumped on the bandwagon with Fujifilm X Webcam. The app, available for Windows and MacOS, works with several high-end Fujifilm mirrorless cameras, including the X-T2, X-T3, and X-T4, as well as all medium-format GFX models.
Fujifilm also released firmware updates for the entry-level X-A7 and X-T200 on June 22 that allow the mirrorless cameras to be used as stand-alone USB webcams without the need for special software. The cameras will show up in any videoconferencing app on MacOS or Windows as a selectable webcam. However, most camera settings — including exposure — will be locked on automatic, although you can use exposure compensation to make the image brighter or darker.
Panasonic Lumix Tether for streaming is a new beta program that allows some Panasonic Lumix mirrorless cameras to be used as webcams on Windows. The program is similar to Panasonic’s earlier tethering program, but strips the overlays (such as focus boxes) from the image, giving a clean output suitable for use in videoconferencing.
Olympus also added a native webcam option with OM-D Webcam. This beta software is compatible with Windows 10 and needs one of five more advanced OM-D cameras to work, including the E-M1X, E-M1, E-M1 Mark II, E-M1 Mark III, and the E-M5 Mark II. After installing the software and connecting the camera, users can select the camera as a device option in their video conferencing software of choice.
While an action camera won’t give you the background blur of using a mirrorless or DSLR, the GoPro HERO8 Black can also now be used as a wide-angle, 1080p webcam. To adapt the action cam for webcam use, the HERO8 first needs to have updated beta firmware on the camera itself. Then, install the beta program on your computer, and connect the GoPro with USB. The software is compatible with Mac OS, and a Windows version is in the works.
The above programs are, of course, designed to only work with cameras made by their respective brands, and even then, some older or budget models may not be compatible. As video conferencing grows, other camera manufacturers will likely follow suit with their own programs to adapt cameras to webcams. Sony, for one, plans to introduce webcam support for its ZV-1 vlogging camera in July.
There are also third-party options. SparkoCam is a Windows program that allows Canon and Nikon DSLRs to work as webcams without any special hardware (check for full compatibility with your camera first). The program is free to try but starts at $50 to remove the large watermark. Unfortunately, it isn’t available for Mac.
Ecamm Live is a Mac option for live streaming that’s compatible with several camera brands. With tools like multi-camera switching, picture-in-picture, and screen sharing from a Mac or an iPhone, the software is a more advanced option for serious users. Once you finish streaming, Ecamm Live can also save the video file to your hard drive. The save feature is handy in various scenarios, but especially for anyone who’s recording footage they plan to edit.
There are also some free hacks to get a camera to work as a webcam without a capture card. But in most cases, the setup isn’t exactly seamless. If you want to save, edit, or re-watch your video, a capture card is necessary anyway.
Other accessories you may need
You probably can’t mount your camera directly to your monitor without blocking it. So although monitor mounts may have their uses, you’re going to need some kind of tripod. For videoconferencing, a compact tabletop tripod is probably the best way to go. We’re fans of the Joby GorillaPod series and the Manfrotto Pixi tripods. You’ll find both options among our picks for the best tripods.
While you’re upgrading your video quality, it’s probably a good time to take a look at your audio quality, too. Adding an external USB microphone to your computer is a surefire way to improve the sound of your voice. Sound quality (and reduced echo and background noise) can make a difference for your video calls. Especially in professional meetings, background noises can be workplace hazards. Besides, getting with the times means upgrading your streaming situation. For some inspiration, see how Digital Trends producer Dan Baker set up his home office for live streaming.