I’ve had quite a few inquiries about using web cameras to record video for e-learning purposes. On the face of it, it seems to be an easy way to record high definition video very cheaply. In this article, I’m going to talk about what’s available at the moment and what you can realistically expect from an HD web camera.
Several HD (high definition) web cameras have appeared on the market recently promising to record up to 1280×720 pixel resolution video at up to 30 frames per second for an outlay of around €100 or less. The specific webcams that I’ve seen are the “Logitech Quickcam Pro 9000“, the “Microsoft LifeCam Cinema” and the “Creative Live! Cam Socialize HD“. Although these cameras are capable, in theory, of the claimed results, it’s important to bear in mind what else is necessary to achieve them. Unfortunately, the average PC or Mac on sale today does not have the processing power required to compress and record a high resolution video stream. Only the Microsoft product information appears to be completely open and honest about this, recommending an Intel Dual-Core 3.0 GHz or higher CPU and at least 2GB of RAM. Less powerful computers will struggle with high resolution video streams and usually compensate by automatically reducing the frame rate from 30 frames per second to as low as four frames per second, hence the words “up to” next to the frame rate you’ll see in manufacturers’ descriptions.
High definition blur
The effect of a slow frame rate on video is quite noticeable: if anything in view moves, it gets blurred. This really defeats the whole point of high definition which is clear, sharp image quality. To see this in action, have a look at the many web camera reviews posted by users on YouTube.com and look for anyone who moves their head or hands in front of the camera. You can then compare these with reviews of 3CCD high definition camcorders to see the difference.
Also, you’ll need to acquire software that is capable of compressing and recording the webcam video stream to a high quality format, the best one being MPEG -2 (DVD quality). If the video stream is compressed too much, for example with H.264 (MP4 or MOV), any subsequent editing or recoding that you do will substantially reduce the image quality.
To be honest, you’d get better results from getting a “normal”, cheaper PC and spending the money you’d save on an MPEG-2 high definition video camera. It’d be a lot more flexible and easier to shoot on location plus you’d get the added benefits of decent optical zoom and no PC fan noise in the background to deal with.