My day job is as a TV writer/producer, which is one of the reasons I don’t post as often I used to (the other reason: three kids 6 years old and younger).
As Hollywood has shifted to virtual meetings, I’ve been looking for ways to improve the Zoom/Bluejeans/Google Meet experience. When I pitch a project to potential buyers, I want to put my best foot forward. Now, I can’t change how I look, but I can change how they see me. The easiest way to improve the quality of your image? Don’t use your laptop’s built-in webcam!
If you’ve got an external camera — a DSLR, camcorder, action cam, etc. — you can totally use it as a video conferencing camera and the quality will be LOADS better than the tiny lens built-in to your display. I happen to have a nice DSLR (a Sony A7 II) with some great lenses, so I figured why not put it to some good use?
The trick is getting your teleconferencing software to recognize the camera as an “official” webcam, and the absolute easiest way to do that is a with one of El Gato’s line of HDMI to USB converters. For $125 (not cheap, but actually a good price for what it purports to do), you can get the Elgato Cam Link 4K.
The Cam Link takes just about any HDMI signal and turns into it a live stream that Zoom (and other virtual meeting services) can recognize natively — i.e. no plug-ins or special software needed. You literally just plug your camera into the Cam Link, then plug the Cam Link in your computer, and that’s it. Easy peasy!
At least…it should be.
When I first got the Cam Link 4K and plugged it into my 2019 MacBook Pro 16″, it didn’t work. It didn’t work in Zoom, and it didn’t even work in Elgato’s proprietary software for streaming HDMI video from cameras. All I got was a black screen and an error message that read “no signal.”
I searched the web and found nothing but glowing reviews talking about how the Cam Link 4K just works. Maybe mine was defective?
So I tried a second unit. Same problem.
Since the Cam Link 4K has a USB-A male end (i.e. the old kind of USB) and my MacBook Pro had a much smaller USB-C female end (i.e. the new kind of USB), I needed to use one of Apple’s USB-A to USB-C dongles. So maybe the dongle is the problem?
The Elgato support site stresses that if you use any kind of USB adapters, dongles, or hubs to attach the Cam Link 4K to your computer, everything in the chain must be USB 3.0 compatible. If any part of the chain doesn’t support USB 3.0, you’ll see an error that looks like this:
You’ll note that is not the error message I got with my Cam Link 4K. Also, according to its tech specs, my Apple-branded USB-A to USB-C dongle does support USB 3.0.
[Okay, if you’re not well-versed in the intricacies of the USB tech standards, this is probably very confusing. Just know this: The letters after USB, like A & C, refer to the physical size of the port. The numbers, like 2.0 and 3.0, refer the tech INSIDE the gear that affects how fast it is and whatnot.]
So the Apple dongle SHOULD work. It just doesn’t. Just in case, I also tried a different (allegedly) USB 3.0 compatible hub and I got same “No signal” message.
Over at the Elgato support site, they recommend a specific third-party adapter made by a company I’d never heard of — Nonda.
It was just $9, so I ordered one and tried it out and… my Cam Links still didn’t work.
Before I got the Cam Link 4K, though, I also ordered an Elgato Game Capture HD S+, which is very similar to the Cam Link 4K. It, too, can turn your DSLR into a webcam with plug-and-play support in most virtual meeting apps like Zoom.
The main difference between the devices? About $60. The Cam Link 4K is designed just to be an intermediary between your camera and your computer. The HD60 S+ is designed to do that AND also pass through your HDMI signal to an external display. It’s made for gamers who want to split their game’s video out to both a television and a computer (for streaming on the internet) at the same time. So for $60 more you’re basically getting HDMI pass thru support which for Zooming isn’t all that important.
I actually only ordered the HD60 S+ because the Cam Links were initially out-of-stock. It’s only by a freak of UPS scheduling that I got the Cam Links BEFORE I got the HD60 S+. When the Cam Links arrived first, my plan was to just return to the HD 60 S+.
(Fun Fact: I didn’t intentionally order two Cam Links. The Best Buy app froze up while I was buying one, and it didn’t look like the order went through. So I ordered it again…only to find out later that I had two orders, neither cancellable because they were prepared for shipment like the second I ordered them. Okay, maybe that fact wasn’t very fun.)
But here’s the thing, the HD60 S+ just friggin’ works! Right out of the box. It works with ALL my USB to USB-C hubs and adapters. It works with Elgato’s streaming software AND it works with the native Zoom app just as it should.
Since I’ve tried two different Cam Links and still had a problem, that leads me to believe the problem COULD just be something on my computer, likely something software related.
So I hooked the Cam Link 4K and my Sony camera up to my wife’s nearly identical MacBook Pro 16″ and… it works! It even worked with the Apple dongle! So the problem is definitely something about my computer — but it’s a stock configuration. After zapping the PRAM and resetting the SMC I can get the Cam Link 4K to occasionally function on my laptop, but not with any regularity.
Now, other tech reviewers have said GLOWING THINGS about the Elgato Cam Link 4K. So it must work for them, too, without issues. And it very well might work for you, too. But all I know is that I can’t get it to work reliably in my set-up, so I can’t give the cheaper Cam Link 4K a full-throated recommendation. Searching the web, other people seem to have similar issues the Cam Link 4K — it inexplicably just not working, even when you’re doing everything right with it.
This is another reason why I got out of the tech reviewing game — even when you’re doing just as the manufacturer recommends, things still might not work, and you frequently have no idea why.
Anyways, I’m returning the Cam Links and keeping the more expensive HD60 S+, as it’s worth the additional $60 to at least have something that works every time I plug it in. So that’s my official recommendation if you’re also a newer MacBook Pro user definitely wanting to use a DSLR or other camera for your virtual meetings: Get the Elgato HD 60 S+.
Note: Elgato makes both an HD60 S and an HD60 S+. The one with a “+” is the one that works with Zoom (and other software) right out of the box. So make sure you’re getting the right one.
Oh, and to get Zoom to see the DSLR as a camera, all you have to do is navigate to the PREFERENCES > VIDEO > CAMERA menu option in the Zoom program. Other teleconferencing services should have a similar preference, though there are some exceptions, like FaceTime, which don’t let you use ANY external cameras.
Note: Over on my more writing-centric blog, I’m planning to write more in depth about the process of using tech to improve my pitches...
Gear mentioned in this post:
Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2019) – Great computer, love it.
Elgato Cam Link 4K – Other people love it, but it never played well with my gear.
Elgato Game Capture HD S+ – Worked super well for me, right out of the box. Designed for gamers looking to stream on Twitch, but it’ll definitely get the job done even if you just want to use a DSLR as your camera during Zoom meetings.
Apple USB to USB-C – Still handy to have, even if it doesn’t work with the Cam Link 4k.
Nonda USB to USB-C Adapter – This is the adapter that Elgato recommends for use with their products, to hook them up to newer Macs. Still didn’t work for me, though. Maybe I’m just unlucky?
Elgato Game Capture – This is Elgato’s software that allows you to live stream from your DSLR to any number of live video sites (Youtube, Twitch, etc.). Not needed if you’re just going to use the Zoom app, but it’s free and useful for troubleshooting.
Full disclosure: Clicking on links to products I mention could earn me a commission on the referral…