The camera you may already own and the Panasonic AW-HN38 are two interesting options for bringing next-level video to your remote office.
Image: Patrick Gray/TechRepublic

In the pre-pandemic era, upgrading your appearance could be as simple as a new haircut or accessory, or as complex as a complete wardrobe overhaul with professional consultation. For leaders, professional service providers, or those simply looking to make a good first impression, an investment in one’s appearance was a fairly simple upgrade to one’s working life.

With remote working now the norm for many of us, the quality of one’s video feed is becoming the equivalent of a designer suit, or a rumpled shirt with a mustard stain. I previously wrote about some basic video conferencing upgrades one can borrow from the game streaming community, and an obvious upgrade you may be considering is to your video.

The built-in camera on your laptop, even if it’s a rather expensive MacBook, is likely substandard at best. For a relatively small investment, an upgrade to something like the Logitech C920 can enhance your video and audio quality. However, if you want to significantly upgrade your video quality and use that as a differentiator, here are two “next level” options: A high-end digital camera and a broadcast-grade IP camera that allows full pan, tilt, and zoom functionality.

The digital camera option

If you’re like me, you may already have a digital camera that’s been sitting in a drawer not fully earning its keep. Interestingly, most of the major camera manufacturers have released software that effectively turns your digital camera into what your operating system perceives as a USB-connected webcam.

In my case, a quick Google search for “Fujifilm webcam software” resulted in a small download that allows me to connect my Fujifilm X-T3 to my Windows and Mac computers. After some minor fiddling with the software and adjustments to my camera settings, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and my other video conferencing software now had a Fujifilm option in the list of available cameras.

As one might expect with an actual camera, you can adjust exposure settings, focus, aperture, white balance, and any other setting that can be tweaked for taking photographs or video and now broadcast that video feed using your software of choice. The video quality is shockingly improved, although not unexpectedly when using a lens that’s several multiples more expensive than even a high-end webcam.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend running out and buying an expensive camera and lens like my Fujifilm, if you already own a digital camera from a manufacturer like Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, or a similarly large company, a free download might be all that it takes to turn your disused camera into a significant video upgrade. Adding a simple tripod like a GorillaPod makes for a great setup that’s fairly portable and uses the tools you already have.

Some cameras may require an additional power adapter cable so you’re not constantly changing batteries, and in some cases, require an HDMI converter that allows your computer to capture the HDMI signal from the camera on your computer. For my Fujifilm, the USB-C cable supplies both power and the video signal, making for a simple one-cable solution.

The broadcast option: Panasonic AW-HN38

Panasonic loaned me one of their broadcast PTZ (Pan, Tilt, Zoom) broadcast cameras, the droid-like AW-HN38. These cameras were originally designed to be used in environments like stage performances, lecture halls, and houses of worship. While not designed specifically for remote workers, these cameras present some unique possibilities for those willing to spend some time working through the more technically complex setup.

Assuming your network provides power over ethernet, the camera only requires a single cable, and can be set up anywhere you can run an ethernet cable, allowing for more interesting possibilities than a camera that’s tethered directly to a computer. As is unfortunately the case with most “enterprise grade” products, excellent technical capabilities are marred by a complex and disjointed user experience. For the Panasonic camera, one needs to first install the EASY IP Setup software to find the camera on the network, and then install the PTZ Control Center application. Several key functions, like powering the camera on, are performed from the camera’s internal web server, so you’re frequently bouncing between the PTZ Control Center and web interface.

Panasonic provides a webcam software package, although it’s Windows-only and my Mac is my primary video conferencing platform. However, the camera provides configurable video streams using the RTSP protocol. This stream can be fed to any number of video applications. I was able to use the free Open Broadcast Studio software to ultimately get video from the Panasonic camera into Zoom on the Mac.

If you’re thinking that this sounds a bit complex, you’d be correct; however, there’s a key benefit to the Panasonic that could make the cost and complexity worthwhile in a remote work situation: The PTZ function. One can use the Control Center application to move the camera nearly 360 degrees, up and down, and zoom 22X. The video feed is smooth as silk while performing these operations, and an operator can use the somewhat clunky Control Center application, an Xbox Controller, or a dedicated hardware controller from Panasonic.

You can also set a multitude of presets that adjust the PTZ settings of the camera to a pre-defined setting. For a remote worker, you could have a setting for a typical conferencing shot, a setting that adjusts the camera to where you could deliver a standing presentation, and a setting that zooms in on a whiteboard in your office. With a quick tap you can replicate the functionality of multiple cameras. Since control and video are both delivered over a standard IP network, you could also send a “traveling camera” to key executives and act as a remote broadcast operator to up the quality of key executive presentations. Intriguingly, the NBA used similar cameras to do exactly that–essentially setting up remote broadcasting capabilities in the NBA Bubble during the 2020 season.

At a retail price around $2,000, and requiring some video, networking, and technical knowhow to get working, something like the AW-HN38 may seem excessive. However, that $2,000 is equivalent to a few designer outfits, and the ability to deliver broadcast-grade video of multiple locations could be a game changer for remote workers who need more than a stationary webcam.

It might seem a touch narcissistic to spend large sums of money and time on setting up a high-end video feed for the seemingly mundane task of working from home, but just like the power suit, it may be the visual “exclamation point” to your message that wins the deal, convinces the board, or just gives you that extra bit of confidence.