A long, long time ago (not that far away), I began one of my first jobs at a multi-campus college that launched one of the first full-time distance learning classrooms in the US. It was my job to manage setting up the cameras, document camera, microphones, and other equipment the teachers needed to transmit their class to the other campuses. I never imagined that experience would now apply to the entire world of education, but here we are. However, the technology has progressed so dramatically from old CRTs and dial-up Internet, that my old distance learning classrooms would be jealous.
Now, there are almost too many choices, making it difficult to narrow down the best camera for your remote education experience. While smartphones and laptop cameras have decent built-in cameras, they can be very limited in their options and quite expensive at the highest end. Let’s look at the two sides—the teacher and the class participants—and at what cameras work on a scale from budget-conscious to higher-end applications.
The largest amount of equipment will likely be needed on the instructor side, since most work and document sharing will require separate software elements. In terms of cameras, consider how much fine detail is needed to convey your lesson (higher resolutions offer a greater amount of detail), how many cameras you will need, whether you have any help in the classroom to switch cameras while you teach, and how much money is in the budget to achieve high-quality remote instruction.
First, gather a list of what you might need:
- A basic webcam or higher-resolution professional/“prosumer” camera for finer detail
- A separate blackboard camera or document camera
- A PTZ camera that can remotely pan, tilt, and zoom with a remote controller
- Will you need video or computer presentations to be cut in while you teach?
- Do you need a wide-angle lens on the camera to capture a large room?
- Do you have a dark environment that might need lighting, or a camera that has good low-light performance?
- Do you need a teleprompter?
Budget Instructor Camera Choices
For the budget conscious, there are numerous options such as the Microsoft LifeCam Studio for Business, priced at less than $100 but still able to provide high-resolution video with a compact form that can mount right on your monitor. For a little bit more, the Logitech StreamCam Plus provides a higher frame rate for crisper images, as well as a tripod and monitor mount, presenting different placement options.
If you need something more mobile, higher resolution up to 4K, even more compact, the GoPro HERO8 Black or the DJI Osmo Action can be mounted just about anywhere, providing stable images with a wide range of features and recording options.
Midrange Instructor Camera Choices
The Canon VIXIA HF R800 camcorder is a great choice that provides a built-in zoom lens to give you framing options, as well as optical image stabilization for smooth moves. It even comes in a home streaming kit that includes everything you need to get up and running with your broadcast, such as a microphone, tripod, video-to-computer converter, and carry bag. Kits are a great place to begin when you’re starting your instruction broadcast from scratch.
If you need a second shot—say a wider shot as well as a close-up on your subject—the Panasonic HC-WXF991K 4K Ultra HD Camcorder with Twin Camera provides two cameras in one. The standard camera lens captures one frame, and you can insert a picture-in-picture shot using the additional camera on the foldout screen. The HC-WXF991K also transmits via Wi-Fi so you won’t need too many cables.
If you have some help, a PTZ (pan/tilt/zoom) camera such as the HuddleCamHD 3X Gen2 USB 2.0 Conferencing Camera might be a great option for controlling remotely with a remote control, joystick, or even with software. It can capture numerous angles and generally incorporate wide-angle lenses to cover the entire room; it’s compact, and different models can connect seamlessly to your camera or network.
Higher-End Instructor Camera Choices
If you’re lucky enough to have a flexible budget or have a more complex instruction environment, higher-end cameras and systems might be required. The Canon XA40 Professional UHD 4K camcorder is a great option used in journalism for high-resolution 4K video, with SD card recording, XLR audio inputs for standard professional microphones, a 20x zoom lens, and HDMI output.
As mentioned above, PTZ cameras are available for higher-end production, such as the Panasonic 4K NDI Pro 12G-SDI/HDMI PTZ Camera with 24x Optical Zoom, and provide even higher resolutions and networking options such as NDI, which allows networked video with easy expansion. Check out our primer on PTZ networks with NDI and designing higher end PTZ networks for more information on these types of setups.
There are also all-in-one conferencing packages that allow you to use cameras that you may already own, such as DSLRs, camcorders, or smartphones, and include everything you need to capture your cameras, edit, record, and stream, such as SlingStudio and its components.
Most instruction involves presenting documents, making a document camera vital. There are basic and higher-end document cameras such as the basic HoverCam Solo 8 Spark that has a massive 80x zoom for high detail or the AVer U50 USB FlexArm that provides a compact, super-flexible camera. The higher end Elmo TT-12F Interactive 4K document camera provides a variety of connection options and an extremely high-quality 4K image and powerful 288x zoom to transmit the finest details.
Class Participant Side
Your students and class participants may not need as high-end equipment as you do, but they do need to be seen and heard. While many students may opt for their built-in laptop or phone cameras, some may opt for a separate, higher-resolution camera with additional features.
Basic considerations for student home cameras are:
- Cameras that deal with low light well, in case the environment changes or is dark
- Some kind of lighting other than the computer screen, even standard lamps and room lights
- Camera should mount on top of a laptop or monitor
- Suggestion is a minimum of 720p to see them clearly; 4K cameras aren’t needed if they aren’t presenting with high detail
- A decent microphone for their desktop or built into the computer
Some budget-conscious options include the Logitech C925e HD Webcam that includes a handy privacy shade, or the VDO360 2SEE USB HD Video conference camera that features a built-in microphone array. Both plug into your computer’s USB port.
Additional options include the Xcellon HDWC-WA101 Full HD Webcam with Lume Cube Webcam Light Kit that includes a handy light to add more than just room light, but remains compact. The Logitech BRIO Webcam adds recording and higher resolution but keeps it simple, compact, and mountable.
For those students with a bigger budget and a need for more detailed video presentations, there’s the Avaya IX Huddle HC020 Full HD Web and Video Conference Camera that provides USB and HDMI outputs, the ClearOne UNITE 20 1080p HD Wide-Angle Webcam that has superior low-light performance and a very wide angle of view, or the Huddly GO Camera with Mounting Bracket that is ultra-compact and has an even wider angle of view to capture a large room in one shot.
Switching, Converting, Audio, and Extras
Be sure to consider all the extras you’ll need, including cabling, SD cards, LED lights, mics to connect to your computer, speakers, and network accessories. If you’re using a camcorder, mirrorless, or DSLR camera, you might need to convert your signal by encoding or decoding the video before streaming. Some professors might also consider investing in a teleprompter if they read their lectures. Teleprompters are not just for TV studios anymore, and they can be used with a laptop, iPad, or smartphone, and all you need is some software and a simple reflector setup in front of your camera.
Also, if you are using multiple cameras, you may need a way of switching your cameras from one to the other to transmit to the Internet. Many software switchers include plug-in connectivity to Zoom, Microsoft Teams, YouTube, Twitch, and other services, so check out a few of those switches. Popular switching software includes vMix, Wirecast, and Livestream Studio, which can stream to multiple destinations to reach a wider audience.
There are also hardware video switchers that are small and manageable enough for home or classroom use, such as the ATEM Mini HDMI video switcher. When used with several Blackmagic Design Pocket Cinema 6K or 4K cameras, you can stream to a service directly from the switch, which can change cameras at the touch of a button. The Roland V1 HD also provides switching for HDMI cameras and can be controlled using an iPad.
Keep checking back with the B&H Photo website for more learning cameras, as more B&H and manufacturers continue to put together kits and solutions, or visit the B&H SuperStore when you’re in New York City. Be sure to let us know how your distance learning environment is progressing in the Comments section, below.