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Set up a webcam

Revised on 8 February 2009

A number of people have got in touch to ask how they can set up a webcam like mine here at GarySevenUK.com. So I've put together these pages with some information and tips. All equipment and software mentioned is for the PC.

WHAT IS A WEBCAM?

WebcamThese days the word 'webcam' means different things to different people. To some it's video-chat on MSN Messenger. To others it suggests 'streaming' video that goes from one person to an audience, runs at many frames per second, and is rather like watching TV.

But it's only as faster connections have become available and technology has advanced that moving video has become possible with a webcam. In fact, as I'll explain below, there are still substantial obstacles if you want to broadcast moving video to any more than a couple of people.

Traditionally, a webcam is a live video camera that captures a photograph every so often and uploads it to a web page. Depending on the subject, this still image may update every few seconds or just once a day. This is the type of webcam I have on my site and from now on I'll call it a 'still image webcam'. However much of the equipment suggested, and tips and techniques mentioned here, apply the same however you're webcamming.

SUBJECTS

The subject for a still image webcam can be anything that changes and that people will want to look at: a scenic view, an aquarium or pet, an office, a building under construction, or something rather more sexy and voyeuristic! Webcam

The first webcam was probably the famous one that watched over a coffee pot. Then, around 1998, the cam craze really began to take hold.

Since then, many webcam sites have come and gone and television got in on the act, with voyeuristic reality shows such as Big Brother.

EQUIPMENT

So, what equipment do you need to get started?

You may be tempted to rush down to your local computer store and pick up whatever 'webcam' package they currently have on offer. However, these can turn out to be poor quality, expensive and you may seriously limit your options unless you first consider exactly what you want to be able to do. The fact is, you may already have equipment (such as a camcorder) that you can use and which will give better results.

THE USB CAMERA

WebcamAt the computer store you'll see packages that include a little camera that sits on top of your PC. This will probably plug into a USB port. Others may come with a card that fits into a PCI slot inside your PC tower, though this is less common these days.

There are also inexpensive digital cameras that can double up as a webcam. Again, these plug into a USB port. Easy! But there are pros and cons...

WebcamThe USB cable can be highly restrictive on a desk-top PC, as it prevents you from moving the camera far. Think about it... Do you want your webcam to always show the area around your PC or would you like to be able to take it into the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom or the garden too? Long USB cables are expensive and there are limits on how long they can be.

This is not quite so much of a problem for laptops, when the entire system can be moved from place to place. But, even so, the laptop will need to be near a 'phone connection and power supply and it is much easier to have just the camera on a long cable.

VIDEO CAPTURE CARD OR USB DEVICE

An alternative is to buy a video capture card or a usb capture device. The card goes into a PCI slot inside your PC. The USB device plugs into a free USB port.

Then, using a cable, you connect the video output from a camcorder to the video input socket on the card/USB device. I seriously recommend this route if you have a camcorder or other suitable video camera that you can use.

WebcamI've had several video capture cards and two different USB capture devices. All cost around £40 ($70). The latest is a KWorld VS-USB2800D which I'm very happy with. I had to buy this to replace a Trust USB device which was also great, but wouldn't work with Windows Vista on my new laptop.

The sockets on the card/device will let you plug in ANY video device (such as a DVD or video player) that has similar standard sockets (see below). You can use inexpensive standard video cables of any length.

You can also use the card to record moving video: from a live camera, TV or tapes. So, if you wish, you can use this set-up to transfer your old VHS or camcorder videotapes into digital format. Though that is whole different how-to-do-it article in itself!

CAMERA QUALITY

When I first wrote this page a few years ago, USB PC cameras and inexpensive digital cameras gave relatively poor image quality. This was due to the inexpensive CMOS imaging devices they used to create the picture. Since then, big improvements have been made and some of the latest high-definition camcorders use CMOS imaging devices. Unfortunately, manufacturers continue to put poor quality CMOS devices into webcams.

MSI StarcamAs a result, in low-light conditions such as ordinary room lighting, many inexpensive webcams still give a murky picture with bad colour. Yet this is precisely the kind of situation in which many webcams end up being used most of the time!

There are exceptions. One is the MSI Starcam (shown left). This has a CCD device, quality glass lens and USB2.0 connector. It's designed primarily for low-light performance, can shoot in total darkness using the built in infra-red light or in very low-level room lighting thanks to its variable shutter. But it isn't suitable for use in bright daylight, as the light levels overwhelm the camera and colours are odd due to its infra-red sensitivity. Correct colours can be achieved indoors by lighting the room with low-energy lightbulbs.

ADVANTAGES OF THE CAMCORDER

A camcorder has many advantages: it gives a high-quality image with excellent colour (thanks to the CCD or high quality CMOS imaging device that it uses). It works well when the light is low. In fact some can operate in total darkness using a built-in infra-red light source. Focusing is automatic and the zoom-lens is useful for framing shots. For instance, you can point the camcorder out of the window and use the zoom to frame up on something in the far distance, instead of being restricted to just one angle of view.

The zoom-lens on a camcorder offers lots of different angles of view from just one camera position. This all helps to make the webcam more interesting. These two shots were taken from a window without moving the camera.

It's easy to add lens accessories to a camcorder. For instance, a wide-angle attachment will let you get more of the room in shot (the narrow angle of view can be yet another issue with some PC cameras). And a standard 'composite' video cable can be extended relatively cheaply (especially if you can handle a soldering iron!). So, you can get yourself 100 feet of cable and move the camera all over the house.

THE LOW-LIGHT ISSUE

If you're going to be on camera in ordinary room-lighting, then good performance in low-light is essential. Having to switch on extra lights soon becomes a pain and makes working at the PC less comfortable.

Compare these two images. This is in ordinary room lighting. The results would be more similar in bright daylight and I'm not saying all PC cameras would be quite this bad. But I have yet to find one that performs as well as a camcorder...

An image from a camcorder with a CCD imaging device. The only lighting was from a desk-lamp with a 60-watt bulb, which was turned towards a cream-coloured wall to give soft, shadowless illumination.
An image from a PC camera with a CMOS device. The lighting was actually brighter. There was the desk-lamp as before, plus a central ceiling lamp was switched on. Even so, the image was still too dark, so I had to boost the contrast and brightness in the software. This makes the image grainy.

In 2004 I bought myself a Canon G30Hi Hi8 camcorder. This was a great deal at just 200 ($350). It has an minimum light rating of 0.2 lux and I'm amazed by its performance in low-light. In near-darkness it can 'see' better than I can! Since then prices for budget MiniDV camcoirders have fallen even lower.

VIDEO PLUGS AND SOCKETS

These are the essential video input sockets to look for on a video/graphics card or external USB2.0 capture device. The yellow video in socket (called a composite or RCA phono) and an S-video in socket (sometimes wrongly called an SVHS in). The red and white sockets are for the right and left audio signal.

If your camcorder and card both have an S-video socket (far right in the picture above), then you should connect via these for the best picture quality. Otherwise, connect using the yellow composite sockets.

And here are the corresponding plugs. On the left is the S-video plug and on the right the composite (RCA Phono).

WORKING WITH A CAMCORDER

Unless you are actually going to set the camcorder recording, you must remove the cassette. This is because, with a tape loaded and the camcorder on record-pause, it may switch off automatically after five minutes. This is to prevent wear and tear on the tape.

Of course, we don't need tape for a webcam, we only want the 'live' camera image and, without a tape inside, the camcorder should stay powered-up indefinitely. Switch the camcorder to 'record' (rather than 'play') mode and a live image will be fed to the video card.

Remove the tapeI have one bottom of-the-range Sony camcorder which goes into a 'demo' mode if it is left switched on for more than ten minutes. It begins superimposing titles such as 'Happy Birthday'.

Sometimes these things can be turned off, but details of how to do it may not be given in the instruction manual! This is worth checking out if you're buying a camcorder. From much personal experience, I recommend Panasonic or Canon and not Sony.

If you're going to be running your webcam 24 hours a day/7 days a week, you may want to think twice about using your latest expensive digital camcorder. These things don't last for ever and it may be worn out after a year of constant use.

Almost any camcorder/video camera will do. Most improvements in recent years have been in the quality of the tape recording (which we don't need for webcam use). The live output is pretty much the same, whether the camera is a month old or ten years old. You may have an old camcorder that doesn't play or record any more, or maybe even a secondhand security camera would do...

SOFTWARE

There seems to be virtually no webcam software that is completely free. Almost all is shareware or commercial. WebCam32 is extremely popular (though not with me) and AT32 Comedy Webcam is a promising-looking new arrival. For something simpler, there is Spycam, which is easy to use and has the basics. Check out more freeware and shareware software at WebAttack.

To date, I've always used ChillCam, which is stable and has many features. You can switch between different Video For Windows input devices, superimpose various messages and images and set up any number of separate 'events'.

Chillcam

In other words, you can upload to several sites at once, with different messages and logos for each. You could create a page that shows the last five cam images (see the help files on the ChillCam site for details about this). There are various image effects too: colour the picture, rotate, crop or resize it (to create a thumbnail image for your front page). You can even snap and upload a screen capture or upload a set of existing jpg files -- which is useful for repeat webcam shows.

The latest version lets you schedule on/off times throughout the week. Though this assumes you have a permanent connection. A new version with streaming video and audio was released recently.

Although it's possible to use the trial version of ChillCAM 2.4 indefinitely, it is actually shareware. Normally I would say it is worth registering Chillcam, except that there do seem to have been some issues in the past, regarding supply of the software after registering. Also I'm not sure how good the support is... For several years now, the ChillCam website has been promising that the message board would be back 'online real soon'. It doesn't inspire confidence!

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