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How to Use a DSLR as a Webcam

 

I know what you're thinking, and the answer is yes… I made that video with Soapbox!

Or maybe you weren't thinking that, and you have no idea what Soapbox is. If that's the case, check out our new webcam and screen recorder for Chrome, then come on back.

As soon as I started testing early versions of Soapbox, I was tempted to try an external webcam, rather than the built-in camera on my MacBook Pro, to improve image quality. I couldn't help myself—I'm a video nerd! I plugged in my Logitech c930e USB webcam and saw a modest quality improvement over the FaceTime HD camera.

But through my research into the best webcams available, I stumbled on an interesting piece of gear called the AJA U-TAP.

It's a little black box that converts any HDMI signal to USB 3.0. Not only that—the AJA U-TAP doesn't require any software or drivers. It essentially enables you to use an HDMI signal as a webcam.

A webcam for video nerds

Using the AJA U-TAP, you can turn your favorite video camera into a webcam. In order for this to play nicely with Soapbox, your camera must transfer audio with the video signal over HDMI. Not only that, it must output a "clean HDMI" signal, free from on-screen displays.

Using the AJA U-TAP, you can turn your favorite video camera into a webcam.

These factors mean that some cameras won't work well with the Soapbox setup. For example, the Canon 5D Mark III has clean HDMI output, but the audio doesn't transmit over HDMI, which renders it unfortunately unusable.

As a result, our camera of choice for this setup is the Canon 5D Mark IV (the newest 5D in Canon’s lineup). It checks all of these boxes and adds another killer feature—autofocus with facial recognition. This makes it very easy to keep things in focus, even if you move about a bit during the recording.

 

We're still in the early stages of testing a multitude of other camera options, but I can confidently say that along with the 5D Mark IV, the entire series of Canon Cinema cameras (C100, C100 MKII, C300, etc) will work perfectly.

The setup

Here's how to turn a Canon 5D Mark IV into a webcam:

1. Plug Mini-HDMI into 5D.
2. Plug HDMI into AJA U-TAP.
3. Plug AJA U-TAP into USB.
4. Select the U-TAP as the audio and video device in Soapbox or whatever webcam recording tool you're using.

Some additional tips for this setup:

  • On the 5D, shoot at 29.97 frames per second for smooth motion capture.
  • You'll be using camera audio, so you could plug an external microphone into the camera, such as the Rode Video Mic.
  • Consider using a basic tripod head on top of an apple box behind your laptop to make framing the shot easier.
  • We use the 24mm f/1.4 lens based on the camera placement. It sure is a wide lens, but it actually best mimics the characteristics and focal length of your laptop's built-in webcam.

Feast your eyes on this tripod head sitting atop an apple box.

Competing converters

You might be tempted to save some money and pick up the Magewell HDMI to USB converter, instead of the AJA U-TAP, but I promise you'll be disappointed. We tested it out, and while it does enable you to view HDMI on your laptop, it struggles with motion stuttering and sync issues.

Testing out the AJA U-TAP against the Magewell converter.

The AJA is worth the extra money in this case. It's held up to long periods of being plugged in, and it seems to be a reliable device so far in our testing! For the record, we have not been paid by anyone to make these claims, or given free product samples—this is just my genuine opinion regarding the best gear to use.

Using other cameras

We're on the hunt for a more inexpensive camera that would work with this setup. So far, we've found 2 cameras under $700 that check all of the boxes!

The first is the Sony Alpha a5100, which sells for around $550. It came with a 16-50mm zoom kit lens, has autofocus, and transmits clean HDMI output with audio. Watch a quick demo video we shot with Soapbox:

The $700 Panasonic GX85 is a 4K micro four thirds camera that also works with our Soapbox setup. This camera seems like a pretty versatile video camera to use with Soapbox and beyond! It features a 5-axis in-body sensor stabilizer, which helps keep your shot smooth when shooting handheld.

Any of these cameras are way overqualified to be used as a webcam. But if you're looking to tune up your Soapbox videos and shoot some other videos, it might just be worth the investment!

Do you know of other cameras that have clean HDMI out? Does audio follow the video over HDMI? Does it have facial tracking? If so, it might be an awesome candidate to use as a pro-quality webcam with Soapbox. Let us know in the comments!


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