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 in to the bezels of their laptops or all-in-ones. 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.
Option 1: A USB capture card
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.
A capture card converts the video from your camera’s HDMI output into something the computer is capable of reading in real time and sends it out via USB. In this setup, any HDMI source can be the input, from a camera to a game console, and the output can be used however you’d like, from videoconferencing to livestreaming and recording.
A USB capture card is a small device that plugs into the USB port to convert that signal. The quality of the video that your computer receives is limited by the USB capture card (and your camera). If you have a camera that can shoot 4K video but uses a 1080p capture card, the best streaming quality you’ll get is 1080p.
There are a number of different capture cards from different brands. Some of the top-ranked capture cards include:
A more advanced solution is a livestream switcher, which allows you to plug in multiple cameras (or other HDMI devices) to switch between different views. The Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini is a highly ranked option that doesn’t cost much more than some basic capture cards.
Once you have your USB capture card plugged into your computer, connect your camera using an HDMI cable. Depending on the capture card you purchased, you may need to install software or a driver — follow the instructions that come with the capture card.
The next step is to make sure your camera is outputting a “clean” signal. 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 higher-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 and switching to the camera you connected. (Here’s how to change the camera in Zoom and Skype).
Option 2: Software
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. Canon has a beta program to plug-and-play a camera as a webcam, but, of course, it only works for Canon cameras.
SparkoCam is a Windows program that allows Canon and Nikon DSLRs to work webcams without any special hardware (check for full compatibility with your camera first). The program is free to try but starts at $50 to get the software’s large watermark removed from the video. Unfortunately, it isn’t available for Mac.
There are also some free hacks to get a camera to work as a webcam without a capture card, although the setup isn’t the most seamless.
Just like the hardware method, you’ll need to tell the video chat program that you are using a camera other than the built-in webcam. The camera also won’t provide the audio, so you’ll need to use the computer’s built-in mic or an external mic.
Other accessories you may need
Since you probably can’t mount your camera directly to your monitor without, well, blocking it, 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, both of which you’ll find listed among our picks for the best tripods.
And 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. For some inspiration, see how Digital Trends Producer Dan Baker set up his home office for live-streaming.