Video chat is big right now. Everyone is teleconferencing, and many companies are completely rethinking their stances on working from home. You still want to look your best in a video meeting, and that goes beyond showering and getting dressed. What you really need is a decent webcam.
If you have a laptop, you already have a webcam. It probably isn’t a very good one, though. Small lenses, skewed colors, awkward exposure, and grainy indoor video are just some of the problems with might experience with cheap, built-in webcams. A good dedicated webcam will solve those problems, and give you the flexibility to aim it wherever you want without wrestling with your laptop. It’s a worthwhile investment if you’re planning to spend a lot of time on calls, recording vlogs, or doing anything else with video.
Here’s what you need to know when shopping for a webcam, along with some models worth considering.
Webcam Resolution and Frame Rate
This is pretty obvious. A webcam can only get as sharp as its sensor can resolve pixels. 1080p is a fairly standard resolution for a decent webcam, but if you really want to up your picture quality (or be able to crop your frame and keep it sharp), you want a 4K webcam.
Frame rate also affects how smooth your video looks. A 60fps webcam will give you a much more realistic and natural video feed than a 30fps webcam will, so be sure to pay close attention to the specs before buying.
Webcam Lenses and Exposure
The lens on a webcam is just as important as the sensor, and generally bigger is better. The lens determines how much light reaches the camera sensor, which affects how you’ll look if you don’t have good lighting. This is known as the aperture size, and is measured as f/(number) for most types of cameras, with the lower the number the wider the aperture and the more light that gets in. Webcams don’t often advertise their aperture sizes, but they generally range from f/2.0 to f/2.8.
The lens also determines the camera’s field of view, and that’s important when considering framing. If you want to capture only your face and cut out your messy bedroom, you want a narrow field of view (or a high-enough resolution that you can crop the frame). If you want to record an entire conference room, you want a wide field of view. A webcam’s field of view will typically range between 65 and 90 degrees, with 78 degrees as a common middle ground.
Inexpensive webcams are fixed-focus. This means their lenses don’t move to adjust the picture, and are simply set to capture you within a wide enough range of distance that you’ll show up clearly. They work fine if you’re just sitting directly in front of the camera a few feet away, but it’s easy to get out of that sweet spot of focus and become blurry (especially if you want to show something up close).
More expensive webcams typically have autofocus, which means their lenses will adjust to make sure you’re clear at any distance from the camera. This is obviously preferable, since you don’t have to worry about being just the right distance away.
Some higher-resolution cameras have what’s called AI autofocus, which combines autofocus with digital zoom to center the frame around your face as you move around within the camera’s field of view. This is a handy feature, but it can’t replace properly framing the shot.
You aren’t going to get amazing sound from your webcam’s mic or mics. Sometimes you can find a webcam with a mic that sounds pretty good, but the acoustics of your room and the simple distance between the webcam and your mouth means there’s a limit to how much clarity you’ll get in your voice.
With this in mind, some high-end webcams like the Dell UltraSharp Webcam and Elgato Facecam are foregoing microphones entirely. These webcams focus only on video quality, and assume that you’ll use a dedicated USB mic or gaming headset with a boom mic, either of which will provide better sound than any webcam mic. We actually recommend using a USB mic or headset if you’re serious about recording, streaming, or any video calls that might get captured for future use. They’re an extra expense on top of the webcam itself, though.
Turn Your Canon DSLR Into a Webcam
Do you have a Canon SLR camera? Good news! You can use to (potentially) get far better picture quality than any consumer webcam. Our guide to setting up your Canon DSLR as a webcam will walk you through using Canon’s EOS Webcam Utility to start recording and streaming from your favorite camera.
Turn Your Smartphone Into a Webcam
Alternatively, if you have a desktop and haven’t decided on a webcam, you can try using your smartphone. Check out our guide to turning your phone into a webcam with some free software.
Is a $17 No-Name Webcam on Amazon Any Good?
There’s no shortage of cheap, no-name webcams available on Amazon. We bought six of them ranging in price from $13 to $59. Here’s how they fare against pricier cameras from Logitech and Razer. When it comes to webcams, do you get what you pay for?