This tutorial will demonstrate how to use PTZOptics robotic cameras for live productions with the NewTek TriCaster Mini. Pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras are having a renaissance right now with the advent of smaller, more sensitive HD imaging sensors, and PTZOptics is riding that wave with some of the best and most affordable PTZ cameras on the market.
In this tutorial I’ll demonstrate how, with just a few PTZOptics cameras and a NewTek TriCaster Mini, you can get your live event onto the internet with ease. The PTZOptics cameras also integrate easily with Wirecast, vMix, and other popular streaming solutions, such as the Epiphan Pearl.
To demonstrate this workflow in real-world use, I took the gear to a local church that already has a great broadcast setup. This system consists of a TriCaster Mini, two PTZOptics Full HD cameras, and a PTZOptics Hardware Controller (Figure 1, below). The beauty of having a TriCaster in the system is that the TriCaster software can control the PTZ cameras in case you don't have the optional hardware controller.
Figure 1. Components of the PTZ capture, control, switching, and streaming system. Click the image to see it at full size.
I'll demonstrate both setups—with and without the hardware controller--in this tutorial.
For smaller churches, using PTZ cameras instead of a traditional camcorder workflow helps by eliminating the need for camera operators at each camera position. Plus, you can install these compact cameras in hard-to-reach or line-of-sight locations without affecting the audience experience.
For this setup, I placed one camera about 50 feet from the TriCaster. The other camera was mounted near the back of house. NewTek offers an HDMI cable that will run a rock-solid signal up to 100 feet.
Controlling the PTZOptics cameras is as straightforward as it gets. There’s a standard joystick for moving the camera. In the center of the controller, you can use optional buttons to operate iris, focus and zoom. There are additional buttons for functions and programmable presets (Figure 2, below).
Figure 2. Controlling the cameras with the PTZOptics controller and joystick. Click the image to see it at full size.
If you opt to control the cameras with the TriCaster, simply select the gear icon on the camera feed, navigate to the PTZ tab, and choose the appropriate input for your cameras (Figure 3, below). The PTZOptics cameras use the Sony RS232 configuration. Now you can use the PTZ tab in the TriCaster interface to set up preset camera positions that can be quickly accessed by a single operator.
Figure 3. Controlling the cameras with the TriCaster. Click the image to see it at full size.
Shop carefully, not only for resolution, remote controls and fluidity of motion, but also for the right control protocol. The choice of control protocol may make the difference between a system that’s a delight to use and one that no one wants to....
Adding A/V equipment to an existing building can be a challenge. Will the screens cover up stained glass or a cross that “my granddaddy donated”? Where do you put the tech booth and how do you get cabling from that location to speakers and projectors?
When you add live streaming in to the technical mix, things can get even more complicated. Where do you put the cameras? How many do you need? Do you have room for a platform with an operator behind a tripod? Naturally, a lot of congregations will be drawn to the idea of using small robotic or PTZs (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras.
On the surface, PTZs may seem like a great alternative. You put a fairly small device on the wall, column or small tripod where no one will notice them, and where they don't take up seats. In the end, you get cameras and fewer objections.
They're a win/win, right?
In certain circumstances, PTZs are exactly what you need. In others, they're not. Before you make the decision, consider the following information to see if they're right for you.
PTZs tend to be more expensive than similar quality studio cameras. While a camera operator needs a tripod and an intercom (comm) system to get the right shot, a single PTZ is a combination of a camera, a control system, with motors and electronics. However, adding a high quality control interface for the cameras can get pricey fast.
If your congregation is thinking that a camera should cost $1,000 or less, you're going to be surprised when you try and find PTZs for that price. Sure, there are entry-level cameras to be had for that price, but for a camera that produces smooth movement, that's designed for a live video production, you're going to need to spend more -- potentially a lot more.
From an artistic perspective, movements from entry-level PTZs can seem robotic and jerky, not subtle and organic. Jerky camera movements are distracting. More expensive systems are better. Even so, it takes practice to use them well. Imagine the kind of movements you see in video games; when you first start playing a new one your movements are inconsistent and exaggerated.
Remember to shop carefully, not only for resolution, remote controls, fluidity of motion, but also for the right control protocol. Not all methods of control are equal. Serial control may be very reliable, but has distance limitations. IP control may seem like a good solution, but pay attention to how much latency will be introduced in your system, in particular. While many people are comfortable with IR or RF control, they can both be susceptible to interference. The choice of control protocol may make the difference between a system that's a delight to use and one that no one wants to touch. Do your homework and choose carefully.
Getting the best results.
The professional remote cameras you see during sporting events work better because they're both more expensive and staffed by professionals with years of experience.
If artistic shots aren’t just added flavor, but a requirement of your technical ministry, PTZs might make them harder to do.
The easiest way to overcome these problems is to start with a mixed environment. If your church can't have two or three camera platforms, perhaps you can put one in the back and supplement it with PTZs. That way, for subtle movements or when something happens outside of the view of the camera lens, a person can take up the slack.
Also, make sure that you have multiple operators who practice using your PTZs a lot. What might seem robotic and jerky at first, could become smoother and more subtle with practice.
Finally, start off your live streaming efforts with static shots that your operator acquires before the shot is taken on the switcher. Only add in camera movement as operators gain proficiency.
Avoid the temptation to shop on price alone.
Include potential operators in buying decisions, especially for the controller, and see if you can test one out in a real-world application before you buy it. If you save 10% on the price of one system over another, but the less expensive one is difficult to control, you haven't been a good steward; you've just replaced a monetary cost with a cost in frustration.
Along these same lines, shop for value, not cost, in every area. Think forward 5 or 10 years and consider if the system you're proposing today will be antiquated tomorrow, and how long before you can replace it. It's easy to upgrade to faster internet, but getting the budget committee to drop more money on new equipment too quickly again may be impossible.
Now for the good news.
PTZs aren't without their advantages, though. One person can run multiple PTZs. Having a single camera operator run two or more tripod-mounted cameras is difficult, if not impossible (I speak from experience). Switching between control of multiple PTZs, though is often a flick of a switch or a press of a button.
PTZ stands for “pan/tilt/zoom” and denotes robotic cameras that typically (though not always) have integrated pan/tilt motors and zoom lenses. The Sony EVI series cameras are popular examples. Pan/tilt/zoom cameras may look like outsized surveillance cameras, and in many ways, are like them. They are designed to be installed permanently and can be enclosed in dome housings for protection or aesthetics. However, the benefits of PTZ cameras are that one operator can control multiple cameras, whereas non-robotic cameras require a separate operator for each camera; and they can achieve camera angles not possible with conventional tripod setups.
PTZ cameras are commonly found in settings such as academic lecture halls and houses of worship. They are sometimes employed for video conferencing where camera control or multiple camera angles are required. PTZ cameras are also a great option for live events in venues where cameras can be permanently installed or where mounting spots are available. This last factor will be our focus here.
The operation of PTZ cameras used in a video production environment can be broken into two concerns: camera control and video switching.
Although PTZ cameras are regarded as “robotic,” they are not autonomous—they cannot (yet) track a subject all on their own. You will need a controller along with a way to monitor video from each camera. Different camera systems use different control protocols, though VISCA is one of the most common. This is a serial-based protocol that is typically carried over an RS-232 or RS-422 interface. Many camera systems allow for “daisy-chaining,” such that only a single “home run” connection is required back to the controller. Alternatively, one can follow the so-called “star pattern,” where each camera is independently linked to the controller. Daisy-chaining enables more cameras to be connected to a single controller but may or may not result in simpler cabling, depending on relative camera placement.
The controller itself features a joystick for panning and tilting, as well as a zoom toggle, in some fashion. In addition, and where supported, other camera parameters such as focus and exposure can be adjusted remotely, on the fly. Some systems even offer CCU-style camera setup controls to make calibrating all cameras to match easier.
Keep in mind, PTZ cameras aren’t motion control rigs. You may not achieve the finesse of feathering or control precision a good fluid head tripod provides, so it’s best to align your shot before cutting to that camera and keeping the camera “locked off” while it is live.
Live video switchers will often provide a quad- or multi-view split screen output so you can view all the video sources on a single monitor. One option for monitoring is to let the PTZ operator tap this feed. Since non-PTZ sources may be included, doing so may be non-optimal for larger productions. A dedicated multiview to combine the PTZ images may be preferable. In addition to the multiview, you may want a full-screen preview of a single camera. A low cost “hard-cutting” switcher may be all you need for this purpose. However, with such a switcher there will be a momentary loss of signal, so it should not be used where rapid on-they-fly switching is required. This is especially true with HDMI signals.
For best practice, ensure the signal going to this switcher is downstream from any appliances—such as the live switcher—that may be broadcasting live video. With SDI, your best signal choice for live broadcast, the video signal is easy to split or route, so the best plan is to split the camera feeds before they reach either the live switcher desk or the camera controller’s desk. This way, a fault on the live switcher’s end won’t mess up the camera operator while a fault on the camera operator’s end won’t mess up the live feed.
Since PTZ cameras typically feature standard video outputs, which may include SDI, HDMI/DVI, or legacy composite video, they will hook up to a live video switcher just as a non-remote camera would. SDI is your best bet. HDMI/DVI-based PTZ cameras are often lower cost than their SDI equivalents while outputting the same video quality. Unfortunately, HDMI is not accommodating when it comes to long cable runs. In addition, the handshake procedure HDMI requires increases latency when using it in a live-switching context. Analog is friendly for long cable runs (assuming you use baluns, discussed below) and boasts low latency since there is no handshake or other digital processing in the pipeline, but the quality is inferior and few switchers offer analog inputs these days, though mini converters are available.
The choice of live production switcher will depend on the camera signal as well as other factors; the PTZ camera is a video source just like any other. You will need to think about the number of cameras, as well as other video sources, such as computer graphics, that you may wish to integrate into the program. Also, PTZ cameras rarely feature microphones or even the ability to pass audio, so you will need a separate audio source, such as a tap from the venue’s PA system, to include an audio element in your program.
One of the biggest virtues of PTZ cameras is flexible mounting. Basic installation requires a flat wall mount. Many models can be inverted for “upside-down” ceiling mounting directly to a junction box. (Ensure when installing the camera, it is set to the correct mode, as accessing it later to “flip” the picture may be challenging.) Additionally, there is a wide variety or arms, domes, and other mounting solutions that are available. Some mounts even thread onto standard NPT 1.5" pipe, allowing you to repose projector and AV mounts. Weatherized housings or even weatherized cameras are available for outdoor use.
Apart from the mount, you will have to think about cabling. Generally, there will be a separate connection for video, control, and power.
Because of the distances involved, more than just a simple cable may be required to get the video and/or control signal from A to B. Cables act as antennas; the more radio interference they pick up, the more noise gets introduced into the signal. With analog signals the quality simply degrades, but with digital you will experience much less tolerable dropouts and, finally, complete signal loss. The most popular remedy is the balun. Baluns are essentially cable adapters that convert an unbalanced cable—for example, RG-6—to use as a balanced cable, usually Ethernet/CAT5 (some systems require CAT6 or CAT7). Baluns are available for basically every video signal type out there, as well as serial control signals such as RS-232 and RS-422. Since digital video, especially HD and high-resolution digital video, requires a high bandwidth, an alternative to use where baluns provide insufficient length is fiber optic.
While baluns take care of video and control, there is still the matter of power. If an AC outlet is nearby, you may find the best option is to plug the camera directly in with an AC adapter. In many cases, however, you will need an electrician to run some custom wiring for power, as well. Some camera systems, especially those that are network controlled, support POE (Power over Ethernet), in which case the control and power will share the same connection.
By the way, one can also place a PTZ camera on a tripod for a non-permanent solution that enables remote camera control.
An important factor to consider when selecting a camera is lens characteristics. Just as video projectors have different throw ratios, PTZ lenses have different angles of view. Most PTZ cameras are fixed-lens, which means you will be stuck with the lens that comes with the camera. Based on where the camera will be placed, ensure the lens is wide enough to give you sufficient coverage when zoomed out, while telephoto enough to get the close-ups you want when zoomed all the way in. There is a variety of lens calculator apps available that can help you make this determination.
One paradox you will encounter is that higher-end cameras tend to feature longer zoom ranges. This is because lower-cost cameras have smaller image sensors. Saying that, a magnification more than about 10x is pushing the limits of what you are likely to get away with. Any vibrations or imperfections in the camera’s pan/tilt servo motors will be very apparent at such magnification. It will also be very hard to track a moving targe treliably. If possible, opt for closer camera placement rather than greater magnification, to achieve tighter shots.
To simplify the complexity a PTZ system entails, an option to consider is Vaddio’s WallVIEW series. Built around proven PTZ cameras, such as Sony’s EVI series, WallVIEW adds modifications that adapt power, video, and control to use Ethernet cables to greatly reduce installation headaches. In addition, the system optionally adds CCU control. Rack-mountable base units provide terminal points for all the cables, CCU operation, controller input, as well as video output.
Some live video production switchers, such as Sony’s Anycast, incorporate PTZ control. The Anycast works with VISCA protocol cameras, like its own EVI series. This is a great option for small productions with limited crew.
Surveillance cameras are very like PTZ cameras and may be tempting as a low-cost alternative. Unfortunately, surveillance cameras probably won’t work. They are typically self-contained systems that don’t facilitate connection with third-party video equipment. In addition, they often feature low frame rates, which reduces bandwidth and storage space. All you need to ID a shoplifter is a freeze-frame, but this won’t cut it for live video.
Motorized pan/tilt heads can be a way to adapt a regular video camera for remote operation. This may be a consideration if you need true broadcast performance or are looking for a more flexible solution than a dedicated PTZ camera. If you plan to go this route, ensure the camera functions you need can be controlled remotely and the control and video connectors can be secured so that they don’t come loose during production.
PTZ cameras are great for venue settings, such as concert halls, lecture theaters, or houses of worship, because they can be installed nearly anywhere while remaining out of the way. Video content from PTZ cameras can be integrated into a live broadcast just as any other video source. Since they are robotic, unless the camera is left completely stationary, you will need a camera controller and an operator to line up the shots remotely. As with other AV equipment, you will need to consider the logistics of wiring up the cameras. In many cases, baluns and Ethernet cables can be used to provide an extensible cabling solution and offer longer cable runs compared to conventional video and serial cables.