The trials and tribulations of turning a real camera into a webcam
My colleague Dieter Bohn is one of the nicest people I’ve met, but every time I hopped on Zoom to record The Vergecast there would be just the tiniest, tiniest twitch of displeasure on his face. Dieter was too kind to address the big elephant obscuring the camera in the room: how for several minutes, instead of my face, he saw a giant inverted Sony Imaging Edge webcam logo – a huge white W on a orange square against a not quite black background.
Finally, after at least four months of big W, he politely asked, “Alex, what’s your address?”
“So I can send you an HDMI adapter.” He said it with this unique clip from the Midwest that reads, “I’m very polite and courteous, but you should know that I might also commit murder in the near future.”
Dieter, and in fact all my colleagues from The edge, had been forced to look at this ugly W because I wanted to convert my very expensive Sony A7 III mirrorless camera into a webcam. I was feeling frugal, and had already collected more “HDMI to X” capture cards and cables than I think Monoprice even knew existed; I was sure I could find a way to give my Zoom experience a wonderful boost with minimal cost. Who doesn’t want to control ISO and aperture and see all their colleagues asking why you’re in high definition when they’re firmly standard? While some of my colleagues might rather tinker with phone settings or CPU voltages, I could spend weeks — months — perfecting my Zoom look.
It’s supposed to be easy. You are buying a mount for your camera. (Associate Editor Dan Seifert recommended this $60 arm and $20 clamp, which worked very well.) You download software to your computer. You plug your big, expensive digital camera into your computer and you have Magic.
Sony’s A7 III had other plans for me.
Early in the pandemic, webcam shortages led many people to request software that would allow them to use their expensive cameras as webcams. Camera manufacturers have thankfully obliged. Sony was one of the last, but that extra time seems… ill-spent. The Mac version, launched in October 2020, is more of a driver than an application. Sony’s software does little more than tell my computer that my camera is a camera and throws the W whenever the video stream isn’t ready. There’s no control over settings or any of the other things that, say, Sony’s login app can do (like ISO and aperture). There is simply the installation and the prayers. You install it, restart your computer, and pray that Sony Imaging shows up in the camera choices for the apps you use.
Importantly, you then need to open an app that uses your camera, then turn on the camera, and then wait for the Sony Imaging Edge webcam to start running before your video finally appears on the screen. If you turn on the camera before you open, say, Zoom, you may be faced with an error message that the camera is already in use. Only restarting the physical Sony camera itself will fix the problem – and while you’re busy fixing things, other people on the Zoom call (probably Dieter) are stuck staring at that big ugly W.
Mastering the order of operations is essential. So remember to restart it periodically during the day. When I left after one call and came back to make another, I found myself staring at the W because the camera decided to turn off again.
Finally I did buy that adapter Dieter had been begging me to buy for months, and it instantly solved my big W orange problem. But it revealed that while I blamed Sony Imaging Edge Webcam’s feet a lot, the software didn’t deserve it all.
Those automatic stops? With that big orange W staring at me, I naturally assumed it was a software issue. But my colleagues (and I) quickly learned that it was a heater problem. the USB-powered dummy battery ($45.95) I used to overheat my whole camera, forcing it to shut down over and over again.
I am now looking for an adapter that not overheat my whole camera. But so far I’ve already spent $80 for a stand, $46 for a battery, and $25 for an HDMI adapter. That’s $151 that I’d gobbled up trying to cheaply turn my DSLR into a high-powered webcam. For the same price, I could have picked up a webcam from Newegg or Micro Center and avoided the shame of the W.
And after spending all that money trying to get the best fidelity webcam, that’s when Opal launched the $300 Opal C1. My colleagues love it, probably because it does everything I spent $151 on, but in a tiny package that doesn’t require investing in an expensive camera either. I try to be a savvy enough tech shopper to rarely regret my purchases, but reading Cameron Faulkner’s review of the C1 while my expensive and unreliable webcam literally loomed over my head gave powerful regret.
Shortly after, I edited Allison Johnson’s article about refusing to bother with her webcam because she has no interest in tinkering with that part of her work setup. I totally disagree with her (that’s to be expected! She loves Android phones too!) – one of the main reasons I spent so much time trying to perfect this setup was that it was something I wanted to tinker with. I wanted to be picky and tweak things and produce the best image possible even if it was only visible to Nilay, Dieter and Andru during a Edgecast Zoom recording.
I probably won’t get the Opal C1 or even just a budget webcam at Micro Center. I suppose will be keep refreshing the Sony Imaging Edge webcam page Hoping for a better update, while buying and returning dozens of USB dummy battery adapters as I search for an adapter that doesn’t aggravate the Sony A7 III’s well-known heating issue. I’ll keep tinkering even though Dieter’s eyes are twitching and I’m inevitably getting roasted on Twitter.
Trying to turn a real camera into a webcam won’t be worth the money or time I’ve spent so far and will likely continue to spend. But one day, I will have this perfect video quality and great satisfaction with all the effort I put into this relatively useless task. Nobody will recognize my webcam and I will feel immense pride.
And then I’ll probably start working on my Zoom background.