Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

Summary: Virtually none of the modern, under $1,000 camcorders currently in production can be used as a webcam. Here's one camera that will work.


There has always been a general rule of thumb when it comes to video quality and webcams. If you want the highest video quality, don't use a webcam, use an actual camcorder.

The reason, of course, is that most camcorders have higher quality optics and sensors, which makes sense if you think about it. Even the most expensive webcams cost around a hundred bucks, while good camcorders range in the $500-$1,000 range and higher.

The Skype Studio is a project I've been working on since March. It'll be one of the main DIY-IT projects I discuss over the course of many posts to come. I know I haven't fully defined its purpose, but stay tuned. I'll reveal all soon enough.

One thing I'll tell you now about the Skype Studio project is that one of my goals is to provide near broadcast quality video and audio. I do a lot of network TV interviews and one of my main reasons for doing this project is to avoid having to drive to Miami or Orlando to do interviews via satellite feed. Meeting producers' video requirements means I need to be able to provide a high quality image to them over Skype.

So, when I set out to buy a camera for my Skype Studio project, I needed a high quality image, and so, therefore, I decided I'd get a camcorder rather than a webcam.

An unexpected challenge

To my surprise, finding a suitable camcorder proved to be far more of a challenge than I expected. This is because camcorders have undergone a generational change in the last three years or so.

Up through about 2008, most good consumer-grade camcorders recorded to disk or tape (mostly tape) and used a FireWire interface to send video to a computer. Yes, of course, some camcorders had a USB interface and others recorded on other media, but the standard middle-of-the-road device was the tape/FireWire variety.

One of the tricks you could do with this standard camcorder was hook the FireWire cable from the camcorder to your computer, and instantly, your camera would act as a webcam. Most Windows and Mac machines would identify the camera at the other end of the FireWire cable as a webcam, and all the drivers would also generally work and recognize the camcorder as a webcam.

Today in 2011, however, most middle-of-the-road consumer-grade camcorders use flash memory and USB. Virtually none of the modern, under $1,000 camcorders currently in production can be used as a webcam.

Crazy, huh?

Experimenting with webcams and DSLRs

For the record, I did try to use a higher-end webcam with my Skype Studio project. I ran down to my local Best Buy and bought the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C910. When it worked, this camera had great video quality.

Unfortunately, it rarely worked. The problem was two-fold. First, it was far to smart for its own good. It would decide to auto-focus or auto-color correct on its own, which meant that part of a video would have one color cast, and another part of a video would have another. Or, if I shifted position in front of the camera, it would suddenly decide to change the focus -- and not change back.

The C910 also had terrible driver support for the Macintosh. For reasons I'll discuss in a future article, my studio computer is a Mac mini (there's a certain, highly useful piece of video software that only runs on a Mac), and although Logitech claims the camera supports Macs, its discussion boards are filled with unhappy Mac customers complaining about the terrible driver and software support.

Since I couldn't turn off the auto-focus and auto-correct features, the C910 was essentially unusable. Back to the store it went.

I also decided to try using a DSLR as my studio camera. Unfortunately, I ran into some serious problems capturing live video from the DSLRs I tried (I tried using the monitor feeds) and couldn't get the setup to run reliably enough for my studio needs.

Reliability is an important attribute for me. I often get very little notice about going on a broadcast. I often get a call right after some news breaks, and the producer calling wants me on the air within the next hour or so (and sometimes immediately). My studio needs to work and work reliably, repeatably, and without too much futzing each time I get in front of the camera. So everything has to be reliable as well as do the basic job.

The solution

So that brought me back to the quest for a simple camcorder. As it turns out, there was another generational change in camcorders: the switch from SD to HD. Most tape/FireWire camcorders produced before 2008/2009 were SD. Most flash memory-based camcorders (the ones that won't work as webcams) have HD capability.

My overall budget for the Skype Studio (including facilities, lighting, computers, etc.) was $5,000. That meant I couldn't just go out and spend thousands on my camera. My top-end budget limit for the camera was $1,000.

As you know, there's almost an infinite supply of camcorders out there, but as far as I can tell, there is no 2011 model camcorder that's able to feed live video to a computer, is HD, and costs under $1,000.

Panasonic does offer the HM-TA1, but it's one of those tiny pocket cams that's not much more than a webcam itself. Plus, when CNET did the review, they called it "lame". Although it was cheap, it clearly was not going to be able to meet my needs.

CNET: Panasonic TA-1 review

Fortunately, an episode of Leo Laporte's provided a clue (sorry, I don't remember which episode). He and some guests were talking, and they said they'd used some Canon VIXIA HV40 camcorders for live video production. I quickly looked up the camera, which turned out to be a 2009 model. It was one of the last of the old tape/FireWire models, and it also happened to have HD support (yay!).

A search on Amazon turned up a few of them left on sale, and I was able to pick up a nicely discounted unit from an Amazon reseller.

The HV40 turns out to work pretty well. At some point I may pony up the bucks for a wide-angle lens. Right now, because my studio is only 9-foot square, there's only enough distance for the camera to capture my head and upper torso, so I can't do any hands-on demos or anything that requires a table or work-surface.

But the camera works. I can feed live video into the computer, run it through my various video filtering programs, and get something out the other end.

Here's a short video I shot demonstrating that.

The need to restore the live video feature

What worries me, though, is that if this camera ever breaks down in the coming years, there may not be a substitute solution. It's really weird that flash-based camcorders just don't support live video, especially given how popular Skype and other live video services have become.

See also ZDNet's Digital Cameras & Camcorders blog

If you're a camcorder manufacturer, please add live video as a feature to your device. Feel free to let me know if you do, and I'll be sure to tell our readers here on DIY-IT.

I expect TalkBacks for project articles to be different from the tone on ZDNet Government. Please post constructive comments and helpful information only. Feel free to rant on my opinion pieces, but let's try to keep these project discussions useful and information-packed.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Hardware


David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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  • Just One Question ?

    Why ?

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    Alan Smithie
    • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

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  • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

    Here is one that looks pretty good. Used, but for the money seems like a pretty good option.
  • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

    That probably works great for a Mac. Not so much in Win7. I previously had my Firewire Sony HDR-HC1 connected via Firewire and using a driver interface to make the apps like Skype think it was actually a USB device. I downloaded the DVDriver from and it loads great but won't initialize the Sony.

    On the bright side, the driver does a MUCH better job of using my crappy webcam. So much so that I think I can use it as a decent quality cam rather than dealing with the Sony/hi-def.
  • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

    Hi David,

    Thanks for sharing this information.

    Although the solution is above your budget, I think you should look at a software solution. If you purchase a program like Vidblaster you are able to push the video out as a webcam stream. This stream can be selected in Skype.
    You can use it as a multiple camera solution (webcam's, IP-camera's) and switch between them on the fly. Don't hook up to many as your processor capabilities will run out. The software gives also the possibility to show pre recordered video files, photo's, documents, screensharing, etc...
    You might have although a problem with the latency in your situation. There is a free version to test at so you can check if it works for you.

    If this is working, then there might also be a good solution for your camcorder, if you purchase the broadcast version of vidblaster (+/- $1.850,-) AND you purchase a teradek cube encoder (+/- $1.000,-). I know it is far out of budget :-)
    You can connect the video output of any HDMI or HD-SDI camera to a cube. The cube encodes it (H264) and streams it WIRELESS over WiFi as video input in Vidblaster.

    We are not using skype. We are using this set up to stream directly to our website (via an wowza-server) for online sales presentations. Our webstudio uses vidblaster, a cube220, a sony HDR-CX550VE camcorder, an iris2iris, a logitech 9000 webcam and a PH-2500 presenter from Osoto in one set up.
  • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

    Hello David,
    could you please describe me your setup exactly? By the way, do you use another software and hardware to get the stream except the canon camcorder? Is it possible to use the zoom-function of the camera in your setup?
    I have been working for a couple of weeks, finding a solution of getting a video-stream to skype with the possibility of zooming. I would be glad if you would be so kind to tell me about your experiences.
    I?m looking forward to receiving your response.
    Best regards
  • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

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  • RE: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect

    So how's it working for you? Is Skype reliable enough for real time TV production? I think MS acquired Skype to compete with Google voice, so it should be around unless MS kills it to focus on something else similar. One thing i love about Skype is easy to setup real time video conferencing at affordable prices vs the old h.323 systems that cost more and are more difficult to setup.
    I see terrible quality video on TV news occasionally and think wow this just would not have been possible or acceptable 10 years ago but now everyone is used to low quality video, thanks to and lots of people not knowing how to set their encoder settings to a higher quality. Processor technology has improved so encoding hd is common and many streaming videos are HD ... even 480p looks pretty good on my monitor full screen It???s looks almost dvd quality. The trend seems to be toward streaming content that is instantly accessible from any device, mostly phones and tablets. Have you thought about an iphone or android based device with a high quality camera? I think the quality would be pretty good but not sure how much control you would have over the lighting adjustments, my guess is that android would be more friendly in allowing a program to access and manipulate the video chip to suit your needs and you can use a better microphone than the built in one. I agree that camcorders have better optics and would give you overall better quality for your TV interviews. How much that will cost you in the long run is unknown since as you say modern camcorders aren't allowing the interface to be accessible and reliable like good old 1394 firewire used to be at reasonable prices, and that is a decision the manufactures have made and partly due to the higher quality lower cost of webcams. I will be trying out my old Canon HV20-A (HDV) since I have it lying around. I'm more interested in the streaming side of it than the camera so an HD webcam is probably what I will end up using most of the time, and I love the simplicity of using an android phone/tablet so I will definitely try that too. I'll post back my results. Thanks for sharing and please update if you haven't already. I used to watch and love Tech TV it's good you mentioned Leo Laporte he is a great resource for online broadcasting.
  • Skype won't accept HD video from a camcorder

    I've been struggling this this topic for several years now, and I've looked at various solutions on how to use a higher-end HD camcorder or even an HD studio camera as a video source for Skype. The trouble with what your method is doing is that if you're coming out of your Vixia via Firewire, you are most likely coming out as a DV stream, which is not HD but rather standard def 640x480. There are some camcorders like the XDCams that can output via firewire in HDV, but Skype will not 'see' this device when in the HDV setting. One can use an HD video capture card like an MX02 from Matrox or a BlackMagic Intensity Pro, but even with these, although your computer will be receiving true 720 or 1080 HD video, when selected as video sources in Skype, they will be squashed down to 640x480 SD. I suspect there is a software solution here.. something that could force Skype (or some other perhaps better desktop videoconferencing software) into streaming in HD as opposed to switching it to SD. This is how it works with HD webcams like the Logitech C910, anyway. Sorry to tell you that your solution is just not HD, but I'd love to hear of a way to do this with a good camcorder if possible.
  • Any Progress?

    Since this article is about a year and a half old, is there any progress on this issue? I'd love to get a camcorder working with Skype.
  • A video dapture device might be a solution

    During my investigations on high quality video conferencing systems using Skype, I came across video frame grabbers. There seems to be a promising solution with which you could turn any HDMI input signal to be used as video for Skype or other instant messaging systems. I know there are a lot of cheap video grabber around, but these are not the devices I am talking about. There is a Canadian company called Epiphan Systems Inc. which produces high resolution VGA, DVI and audio video capture, encoding, recording and streaming hardware. The DVI2USB product line seems to provide the solution to use HD cameras for Skype. Unfortunately my budged didn't allow yet to try it out by myself. But if you find it a helpful hint and want to give it a try, I would be interested in the results.
    Robert Birkenheuer
  • A video capture device is the solution as of now

    I think, the best would be if camcorder manufacturers would bring back this feature into their products, but as of now, the a video capture device could solve the problem. The Epiphan products are suitable for the task but they are quite pricey.
    Looking for a solution myself, I ran across the Avermedia Live Gamer HD capture card, which costs $178 at Amazon. I have not yet tried it myself, but will surely do soon.
    The downside of this solution is, that it cannot be used with a notebook, since the card cannot be installed to it.
  • Video capture solution - 2014

    Here is an update to the subject close to a year later.
    I have been using consumer web cam HDMI output (1080p) and the capture device from Blackmagic Design (thunderbolt output) with success from my Mac (Camtwist, Wireframe).
    Recently I as well bought the Magewell XI100DUSB-HDMI HDMI to USB 3.0 Dongle via SabrePC. This is a fantastic piece of hardware. I will let you choose any output resolution!
    Combining with any consumer / pro-consumer grade camcorder that output HDMI, this will provide you all output option, including 720p (whitch I couldn't do with my Panasonic SD90 + BMD combination).