Pitching over Zoom? Try using an external camera to improve the image quality

I first planned to write about using tech to improve your TV/movie pitches over Zoom back in May, but then I asked myself “how useful will this post be in a month?” and I didn’t wind up writing it. Now here we are in July and, well…I should’ve written it then.

So here’s the basic gist — I actually don’t think you should be relying too much on technical gimmickry to gussy up your pitches. You don’t need on-screen graphics or green screen effects in a Zoom pitch any more than you need them in an in-person pitch, and the more tech you incorporate, the more things can go wrong. What you do want: The best possible presentation of you and your voice.

Others have written about the importance of lighting, so I won’t belabor that point. (The key advice there: Don’t sit directly in front of a light!) And, of course, it’s best to use headphones and an external mic — any regular old earbuds or AirPods will greatly increase your experience (for both you and whoever you’re video conferencing with). Those are the bare minimum things you should be doing anyway.

But if you really want to amp up your image quality in a quick & easy — and substantial — way, you can always try ditching your computer’s built-in webcam for an external camera. Like, say, a DSLR…

IMAGE A: This is what Zoom sees when using the camera built into my MacBook Pro.
IMAGE B: This is what Zoom sees when using my Sony DSLR as a webcam.

The two above images show the video preferences pane in Zoom, where it allows you to switch between cameras. Image A shows the front facing camera built into my 16 inch MacBook Pro that came out last November. Image B shows what happens when I use my five-year-old Sony DSLR (and its 35mm lens) as a webcam. The two cameras are the same distance from my face with the same exact (natural) lighting. If your laptop is older, the visual difference may be even more profound.

Built-in webcams — even on the newest laptops and tablets — have tiny lenses, tiny sensors, and are designed to flatten things out as much as possible while cramming as much into the frame as they can. With most built-in webcams, if you want your face to fill the screen, you have to practically lean over your keyboard. With a DSLR, you have much more control, especially if you have different lenses to choose from. DSLRs are also much more forgiving if you don’t have great lighting. In the above photos, I’ve got a big window to my right that overpowers all other lights in the room. The built-in webcam doesn’t like that. The DSLR doesn’t care. And DSLRs give you greater control over focus, too. You can get a nice background blur that is nearly impossible with a traditional webcam.

So how, exactly, do you use a DSLR (or other external camera like a GoPro) as a webcam that Zoom (or other video conference platforms) recognize?

If you have select Canon, Fuji, or Go Pro models, you can download free software that’ll do the trick. You just plug your camera into your computer via a USB cable, then follow the instructions in the software.

There’s also a paid software package called Ecamm Live that’ll allow you to use a number of high quality DSLRs as a webcam. If you’ve got a Nikon, Olympus, or newer Sony camera, then Ecamm Live might be able to help you. The catch? Depending on which teleconferencing platform you’re on, you might need to subscribe to Ecamm Live’s “Pro” level of service, which is $20/month, in order to connect Ecamm Live to it. (Zoom is one of those services, for example.)

Ecamm does offer a 14 day free trial, fortunately, so if you’ve got a big pitch coming up, that’s plenty of time to download it and try it out without having to subscribe. And if you ARE looking for a way to incorporate graphics and video clips into your Zoom pitch, Ecamm Live can do all that, too. So it may be worth the money for you if you plan to use all the other features it provides.

If you’re not too tech savvy, though, and would rather spend a reasonable amount of money for a one-stop solution, you should consider getting the Elgato Cam Link 4K.

This small device can turn any camera with HDMI output into a webcam.

The Cam Link 4K is a small dongle that converts the video signal from any HDMI source (i.e. from just about any digital camera) into a webcam signal that Zoom/Bluejeans/Webex/Google Meet/etc. can recognize natively.

In other words, you just plug your camera into the Cam Link, then plug the Cam Link into your computer, and that’s it. Next time you open your video conferencing software, you’ll see your DSLR as an option for calls. It’s not cheap at $130, but for many people the results are worth it.

(At least, it should be that easy. I actually had some technical difficulties with the Cam Link 4K, but I think those problems might’ve been unique to my computer, as its overall a very popular device with loads of a great reviews.)

Elgato makes a $200 adapter which is the one I use, but I think most people should be able to get away with just needing the less expensive — and easier to use — Cam Link 4K.

Note: These items are understandably VERY popular in the age of Covid, but Best Buy seems to do a decent job keeping them in stock periodically. You just need to check every so often.

I do want to stress that by no means should you run out to buy a DSLR or Go Pro because you want to use it as a webcam. This post is mainly geared towards people who already have an external camera handy. If you don’t have a stand alone camera but HATE the way you look on Zoom, there is one other thing you can consider: Using an iPhone as a webcam. Apps such as Camo will allow you to do just that. The rear-facing camera on just about any modern iPhone will blow away the front-facing camera on a laptop or tablet (even if it won’t equal the results of a DSLR).

Are their downsides to using an external camera? Yes. Even if it’s just “plug-and-play” it’s still one additional level of complexity to your set-up — i.e. one more thing that could go wrong (like sound getting out of sync). And if you’re using a still camera as a webcam, the battery might not be big enough to last for an hour long Zoom meeting (or heck, it might not even last 30 minutes), so you might need to buy a power adapter for your camra if it didn’t come with one. Oh, and all the high quality pixels in the world won’t make up for a bad internet connection, where everything might get compressed beyond recognition anyway. So there’s that, too.

And, then, even if you do wind up using a DSLR to create a broadcast-quality version of yourself for your pitch…you still gotta nail the pitch itself. No amount of image quality can compensate for a lackluster story.

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