Why Are Webcams So Lousy?
The COVID-19 pandemic has us all meeting virtually, leading more people to ask: why are webcams so lousy? Reincubate, makers of the Camo software that turns an iPhone into a webcam (see “Turn Your iPhone into a Powerful Webcam with Camo,” 24 July 2020), has a blog post by our friend Jeff Carlson that shows just how bad even “high-end” webcams are. To add insult to injury, the pandemic has made those webcams both harder to find and much more expensive than in the past. The economics are so absurd that you may be able to buy an outdated iPhone to use as a webcam, get a better picture than any dedicated webcam, and save money doing so.
Webcams may, or may not, be lousy. What’s typically lousy is the lighting. When participating in a video call make sure your face is evenly lit from both sides. If your face is only lit on one side - the opposite side will be dark/shadowed. Webcams may (or may not) have an ability called HDR (High Dynamic Range) that allows them to adjust the exposure and make up for some of those shadows but that’s not a given.
For my work, I participate in numerous video conferences on a daily basis. I work from home, in Israel, with colleagues from Australia, Hong Kong, Europe, and the US of A. I got myself a couple of LED light panels, which I placed on both sides of my screen pointing back to the white-wall so the light is dispersed and reflected back on my face without pointing straight at me. Even a lousy camera such as the 720p cameras on the mac does a much better job given proper light.
Jeff’s illuminating article echoes much of the experience in this household over the past year. We’ve purchased three 920s and a Streamcam for the home offices, the Mac’s internal camera being beyond redemption (it seems their R&D only went so far there.)
For most, the 920s are fine they’re pleased to be off the internal cameras but I am less than happy with the outcome given all the outlay.
Part of the issue is the pipeline. There are apps like iGlasses and others that can take the feed and act as virtual cameras for Zoom, Teams and the like (depending on updates, Teams just kicked them off again, you have a set of Terminal commands to re-instate with each update…), These virtual cameras permit you to adjust exposure, highlights and shadows etc. Somewhat of a compensation.
The Logitech app offers some controls but perhaps more is possible here.
Are most people who are bothered by web cam image quality using their webcams for personal/family use? I use mine essentially only for work (meetings). I’m always a bit amazed how much of big deal people make of this. Personally, I could often use better sound quality (and gosh, is mute that hard to operate?) and I’d really appreciate if some people got decent home internet (and stopped using 9 point font for their Zoom presentations), but I have never thought to myself, heck I’d like to see his face in better lighting, or hey, is that a zit on her face right there?
I use it mainly for teaching, and I do demos, my wife too, and my son is an artist/filmmaker, the video quality matters to us. I’ve hooked up my ILC but it’s overkill in general and not something I’d leave hooked up. Never thought of dedicating an old iPhone, it may be what I end up doing, will need a clamp for it though.
That’s interesting, @tommy. What kind of teaching if I may ask (purely out of curiosity)? I teach over Zoom, but it’s mostly to college age people learning about Maxwell’s Equations and their consequences, so although seeing people’s response can be important, particularly good image quality is not required. Do you teach to younger kids? Or something related to drama/expression?
I teach photography and film to fine art and performing arts students, College level. And digital media to writing students. Image matters generally, mainly from my aiming at my camera or sketching out diagrams or paging through photobooks.
I teach and conduct meetings for a few nonprofits via Zoom, don’t really have to look great for any of it (the documents I’m sharing take priority), and have lighting that isn’t very good for video (single 11w LED in a lamp off to one side). All I really wanted was for my video not to be overly distracting, so I tried Camo when the previous article came out. With my iPhone XR and a stand like the one Reincubate suggests on its website, it has exceeded my needs and expectations in every way, especially in terms of making my comfortably-lighted space look like I went out and spent money on lighting. (The folks that actually pay me asked how much I was going to need to be reimbursed for ‘getting all the stuff’ to make my video so noticeably better.)
As ssteiff notes, lighting is a huge factor, and does improve the quality somewhat… but I found you really have the blast light at yourself to really take advantage of it, so the cameras can operate at their potential.
I don’t do every call with a well-lit setup, but sometimes you do want to present a better image. Especially if you need to do presentations or teach, having a better-quality image really does go a long way. But if you do just one thing, for heaven’s sake, put your camera about eye level! I really don’t want to see another person’s ceiling and just the top third of their head.
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