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 jumped on Zoom to record The Vergecast there would be only the slightest look of displeasure on his face. Dieter was too kind to address the large, camera-obscuring elephant in the room: how for several minutes, instead of my face, he would see a giant inverted Sony Imaging Edge webcam logo – a huge white W on an orange square against a not quite black background.

Finally, after at least four months of the big W, he politely asked, “Alex, what’s your address?”

“Why?”

“So I can send you an HDMI adapter.” He said it with that unique Midwestern clip that says, “I’m very polite and courteous, but you should know that I may also commit a murder in the near future.”

Dieter, and indeed all my colleagues from The edge, was forced to stare at that 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 capture cards and “HDMI to X” cables than I think Monoprice even knows; I was confident I could come up with a way to give my Zoom experience a wonderful boost with minimal cost. Who doesn’t want to control the ISO and aperture and ask all their colleagues why you’re in high definition when they’re firmly in the stand? While some of my colleagues may prefer to tinker with phone settings or CPU voltages, I could happily spend weeks — months — perfecting my Zoom look.

It should be easy. You buy a bracket for your camera. (Deputy editor-in-chief Dan Seifert recommended this $60 arm and $20 clamp, which worked just fine.) You download some software to your computer. You connect your big expensive digital camera to your computer and you have magic.

Sony’s A7 III had other plans for me.

In the early days of the pandemic, shortages of webcams led many people to request software that would allow them to use their expensive cameras as webcams. Camera makers liked to think about it. Sony was one of the last, but that extra time feels… bad spent. The Mac version, which launched in October 2020, is more driver than app. Sony’s software doesn’t do much more than tell my computer that my camera is a camera and throw up the W when the video feed isn’t ready. There’s no control over settings or other things that Sony’s tethering app, for example, can do (like ISO and aperture). There is just installation and prayers. You install it, restart your computer and pray that Sony Imaging appears in the camera picks for apps you use.

Importantly, you then have to open an app that uses your camera, then turn the camera on, and then wait for Sony Imaging Edge Webcam to start before your video actually appears on the screen. When you turn on the camera before for example, you open Zoom, you may get an error message that the camera is already in use. Only restarting the physical Sony camera itself will fix it – and while you’re busy fixing things, other people on the Zoom call (probably Dieter) are stuck looking at that big ugly W.

Controlling the order of operations is key. So remember to reboot it regularly during the day. When I walked out after a phone call and came back to make another call, I found myself staring at the W as the camera decided to turn itself off again.

In the end I did buy that adapter Dieter had been begging me to buy for months, and it instantly solved my awesome orange W problem. But it revealed that even though I blamed Sony Imaging Edge Webcam, the software didn’t deserve it all.

Not pictured: A viable power source for a webcam.

Those automatic shutdowns? Of course, with that big orange W looking at me, I’d have assumed it was a software problem. But my colleagues (and I) soon found out that it’s a… heating problem. The USB Powered Dummy Battery ($45.95) I used to overheat my whole camera, forcing it to shut down over and over.

I am now looking for an adapter that does not my whole camera overheating. But so far I’ve spent $80 on a stand, $46 on a battery pack, and $25 on an HDMI adapter. That’s $151 I had sunk trying to cheaply turn my DSLR into a powerful webcam. For the same price I could have bought a webcam from Newegg or Micro Center and the shame of the W.

And after spending all that money trying to have the very best faithful webcam, Opal launched the $300 Opal C1. My coworkers love it, probably because it does everything I spent $151 on, but in a small package that doesn’t require investing in an expensive camera as well. Trying to be a savvy tech shopper I rarely regret purchases, but reading Cameron Faulkner’s review of the C1 while my expensive and not-so-reliable webcam literally loomed over my head gave me a powerful regret.

The Opal C1 quietly mocks me.
Photo by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge

Shortly after, I edited Allison Johnson’s piece about refusing to give her webcam because she’s not interested in tinkering with that part of her work setup. I totally disagree with her (that’s okay! She likes Android phones too!) – a big reason I spent so much time perfecting this setup was because I wanted to tinker with it. I wanted to be picky and tweak things and produce the best image I could, even if it was only visible to Nilay, Dieter and Andru during a cast recording on Zoom.

I probably won’t get the Opal C1 or even a budget webcam at Micro Center. I probably shall keep renewing the Sony Imaging Edge Webcam page hoping for a better update as I buy and return dozens of USB dummy battery adapters while looking for one that doesn’t exacerbate the Sony A7 III’s known heating problem. I’ll keep tinkering even if Dieter’s eye twitches and I inevitably get roasted on Twitter.

Trying to turn a real camera into a webcam isn’t worth the money or time I’ve spent so far and probably will continue to spend. But one day I’ll have that perfect video quality and great satisfaction with all the effort I’ve put into this relatively unnecessary task. No one will acknowledge my webcam and I will feel immense pride.

And then I’ll probably start working on my Zoom background.

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