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Choosing Cameras and Lighting for Single-Speaker Webinars

Are pro video cameras overkill for single-speaker webinars? What's the best type of camera these ever-more popular productions, and what kind and how much lighting do you need to pull them off? We set up some common scenarios, ran some tests, and here's what we found out.

Optimal Lighting: Embedded Webcam to Inexpensive External

The first test compared the embedded webcam to the C615 (Figure 4, below). While the colors were a bit oversaturated with the C615, the image is sharper and has more contrast, and smoother during live playback. As mentioned earlier, I captured audio from the C615 microphone for multiple tests, and found the microphone superior to the embedded microphone on my HP.

Figure 4. The small external camcorder produced higher-quality audio and video than the embedded unit. Click the image to see it at full size.

Overall, these results made me resolve never to produce a webinar with the embedded webcam of any notebook. While fine for Skype and personal calls, you should spend $40 and make a better impression. The only thing I didn’t like about the C615 was that the video picture controls on the Mac were very primitive, lacking picture adjustments of any kind. On my Windows notebook, I had complete control over gain, contrast, brightness, hue, and color balance, which made a significant difference. Before buying any webcam, you should check the controls enabled under the operating system that you’ll be working on.

Optimal Lighting: Inexpensive External to High-End External

Figure 5 (below) compares the full-screen image produced by the C615 and the Broadcaster, and highlights one of the key issues regarding many webcams; the lack of an optical zoom for framing. Since the Broadcaster is designed for use without a computer, it’s not designed to sit atop a monitor; instead, it was positioned on a tripod on the other side of the table the monitor was on.

The C615, and most of Logitech’s other webcams, are designed to securely sit atop a monitor, which is typically the perfect distance for a webinar, producing a nice medium shot from the armpits up. To achieve this same framing with the Broadcaster, I would have had to use digital zoom, which obviously would reduce sharpness. If you’re buying a webcam for webinar production, make sure it can attach security to a monitor or notebook screen.

Figure 5. Inexpensive webcam compared to expensive webcam. Click the image to see it at full size.

Other than framing, in Figure 5, you can see that the Broadcaster outpaced its less expensive sister product in every relevant metric. The image is sharper and shows more accurate color and white balance, particularly in skin tones. Throw in the microphone port, which lets you use a cheap lavaliere to improve audio quality, and the video light on front, and you’ve got a significant boost in A/V quality while retaining the inherent ease of use of a webcam. Granted the Broadcaster is Mac-only, but I’m guessing it’s safe to interpolate the results to similarly sized and priced Windows-compatible units. Quality usually relates to the size of the glass, and more is definitely better.

High-End External vs. Consumer Camcorder

Again, webcams are easy; you plug them into your serial port (generally) and go. With cameras, you need some gear to connect them to your computer, whether an external capture unit or internal card like the Decklink. So ease-of-use goes way down, though you get a much bigger device with features like optical zoom and a simple switch for backlight compensation. And, since you probably already have a camera and some way to connect it to your computer, you don’t have to spend any cash at all.

How does quality compare? First, I was able to zoom in for the desired medium shot because the Vixia had optical zoom. Second, though it’s tough to see in the Figure 6 (below), the Vixia delivered both better detail and contrast, as well as superior white balance, as the blue background wall is blue, not gray. Overall, to me it looks like a subtly superior image, but that’s me as a video quality snob; I can’t imagine that any webinar viewer would notice the difference.

Figure 6. Broadcaster vs. Vixia; a pretty close comparison. Click the image to see it at full size.