I do a lot of webcasts and training videos (here’s an example), so I wanted better quality video. Sure, MacBooks come with a built-in webcam, but it’s over the laptop display, and that doesn’t really help much when I’m using a desktop monitor. I’ve tried USB HD webcams like the Mac-friendly Logitech C615, and the results were okay, but not amazing.
After a lot of experimenting, here’s what worked well for me:
- Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Mini Recorder (around $150)
- Canon Vixia HF R400 HD camcorder (around $300)
- Apple Thunderbolt Cable (around $40)
The UltraStudio Mini Recorder converts an HDMI input to Thunderbolt. If you’d rather take a USB 3.0 approach, try the Blackmagic Design Intensity HDMI-to-USB3 capture device. I preferred the Thunderbolt Mini Recorder because it’s cheaper, smaller, and I have more free Thunderbolt ports on my Mac than I do USB.
The Mini Recorder does not make your camcorder a USB webcam – life is not quite that easy.
Step 1 – Plug everything in.
The UltraStudio is powered by Thunderbolt, but you’ll want to plug your camcorder into an electric outlet if it’ll be running for hours on end.
Step 2 – Turn Off the Canon’s Output Displays.
By default, the camcorder’s HDMI output shows things like the time and the recording status onscreen. That’s ugly. Go into the Canon’s onscreen menus where it says “Output Onscreen Displays” and turn that off:
Step 3 – Set the UltraStudio Mini Recorder defaults to HD.
After installing the Mini Recorder’s drivers, it defaults to standard definition video. I know, right? Go into Apple, System Preferences, Blackmagic Design, and change the input to HDMI video:
If you don’t do this, the Mini Recorder just outputs a black video stream.
Step 4 – Fire Up Your Webcam App.
In Google Hangouts, for example, when I go to choose a camcorder, Blackmagic is listed as one of the input sources. You have to know the exact resolution, frame rate, and color depth of your input device (camcorder), and choose that from the list:
The Canon Vixia HF R400 outputs 1080i 59.94 in 8 bit color, so when I choose that from the dropdown list of capture devices, I see my camcorder’s output. Same thing with WebEx:
Unfortunately, not all apps offer native support for video capture devices.
Skype’s camera list just shows “Blackmagic” as an input device, with no resolutions or color depths, and it just displays a useless black screen. It appears to be application-dependent – for example, earlier versions of Skype worked, but the current (6.14 as of March 2014) version doesn’t, as shown at right.
Here’s the apps I’ve tested the UltraStudio with on OS X 10.9:
- Google Hangouts – works.
- Screenflow v4.5 and v5.0 – works.
- Skype v7.6 – works.
- GoToMeeting v7.1.5 – doesn’t work.
- GoToWebinar – doesn’t work.
- Cisco WebEx Meeting Center v29.13.4 – does not work.
If you want to spend even more money (around $500), and you’re willing to put up with high CPU usage, check out Telestream Wirecast. It takes takes the Blackmagic UltraStudio’s input and acts like a USB webcam for most software. It’ll even let you add additional effects live, like removing backgrounds or overlaying text. Unfortunately, during my testing, it constantly used 100% CPU of one core, and I don’t like having my laptop fan going while I webcast.
I’ve also tried a few other software products that purport to do the same thing, like Camtwist and Manycam, but I’ve had really bad stability results. The software has been buggy and crashtastic – the one thing I can’t have when clients are paying me for webcasts.
For now, I still end up with two cameras – my Logitech C615 for GoToWebinar, and the Canon/Blackmagic combo for everything else.
About My Office Video Setup
If you read this far, you’re probably interested in the other gear I use:
Blue Yeti USB Microphone – big, heavy $100 microphone with great audio quality. Don’t bother with the Pro version unless you’re hooking it up to a mixer. Appears as just a regular USB audio device to the computer with no drivers required. On the back side of the microphone, set the pattern so that it focuses on the audio coming from in front of the microphone, not behind it.
Cowboy Studio lighting kit – just $60 for 3 lights, tripods, and umbrellas. They’re not spectacularly robust, but I don’t take them out of the house, so it’s not a big deal. I put one on either side of my desk, and then when I’m doing green-screen techniques, I use one to light up the wall and reduce shadows.
LimoStudio 85W CFL bulbs – the bulbs included with the Cowboy Studio kit are alright, but in my new condo, I’ve got one wall of windows in my office. Despite thick blinds, I couldn’t light my office evenly, and these monster bulbs make all the difference. They don’t get hot when they’re on, either.
Rosco DigiComp Blue paint – I used to hassle with a green screen curtain, but taking it up and down was a huge hassle, and it was ugly as hell. When we moved into a new condo, we just painted my entire office wall with this chroma key blue paint instead. The blue is way more attractive than chroma key green, and it works just as well for casual training use like mine. The best way to explain the paint is that it’s incredibly non-reflective; it makes the entire wall look like a very deep sponge, as if you could push it in with your fingers. When I add a chroma-key filter with Screenflow, the wall simply disappears, no tweaking required. (Despite lots of tweaking with the green screen curtains, I had a really tough time getting it to disappear.)
Dolica tripod – gotta set the camcorder on something. This one has easy-to-crank height adjustment so I can quickly switch back and forth between standing and sitting. When I do demos, I sit in front of the keyboard, but the rest of the time I like to stand.
Why go to all this trouble? Well, here’s an example end result. Good stuff.