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PTZ cameras in HOWs

PTZ cameras in HOWs
Figure 1 – a Datavideo PTZ camera

PTZ cameras in HOWs

Are PTZ cameras the right choice for your house of worship?

A house of worship planning on recording or playing back moving imagery in one form or another has several levels of equipment choices at its disposal; options that differ greatly with capability, but often more importantly with price.

Cameras come in all shapes and sizes, but there are only a few that will be relevant for the worship setting. Unless your HOW is working on big-budget Hollywood productions, it is unlikely you will need to consider high-end film cameras designed for cinema. Likewise, unless you plan to be out in the field and require a quick portable set up, then DSLRs, GoPros and gimbal-based handheld devices are probably not what you’re after either.

The Sony PTZ camera at the Drive Methodist Church can barely be seen by the congregation
The Sony PTZ camera at the Drive Methodist Church can barely be seen by the congregation

A lot of the more elaborate video production setups are never going to be found at smaller worship venues, as most of the gear would be overkill. Yet any house of worship employing video is likely to have at least one or a few PTZ cameras in its arsenal. Traditionally, they have been a great entry point – able to produce decent-quality video but often at a fraction of the price of proper professional cameras.

What makes a PTZ camera a PTZ, and why might one appeal to your congregation?

PTZ stands for ‘pan-tilt-zoom’. That is, a PTZ camera is typically capable of performing remote-controlled directional and zoom control. However, this is a very broad definition and has led to the use of several techniques to achieve the same purpose. There are many types of cameras that can be panned, tilted and zoomed, and there are also add-ons than can make any normal camera pan and tilt-able. As far as the industry is concerned, PTZ cameras are of the type found in Figure 1: a fixed position, all-in-one unit.

The video control room with PTZ remote camera control and a Blackmagic Atem 1 M/E switcher
The video control room with PTZ remote camera control and a Blackmagic Atem 1 M/E switcher

‘PTZs are the most flexible at every camera position, and the performance of single-chip cameras has taken huge strides to close the gap between affordable and high-end cameras,’ explains Marshall Electronics’ director of Pro-Series cameras, Tod Musgrave.

At the introductory end, the PTZ part of the equation lies in the camera itself, i.e. the camera has control capabilities built in and just needs an operator or controller interface to function. At the top end of the scale, PTZ-type solutions are still widely used by ministries using full-blown television broadcast production; however, these setups are far more likely to enlist traditional broadcast video cameras that have been adapted to accept remote input – not what our industry typically considers to be a ‘PTZ camera’. These types of systems are commonly referred to as robos, an abbreviation of robotic camera.

‘Many HOWs use robotic-controlled cameras, generally of a simple type with limited “on-air” movement,’ says Shotoku sales director, James Eddershaw. ‘A pan and tilt head is required for each camera, along with a suitable lens control interface and an operator control panel.’ The benefits of this approach are achieving optimum recording quality, maximising flexibility of movement and allowing cameras to be used for multiple purposes. Unless you already own the cameras, however, the financial considerations cannot be overlooked.

This has often been the way to get full pan/tilt functionality while retaining the image quality and all other professional features of standalone cameras, but the price implications were severe and completely unnecessary for all except the largest ministries. Yet, as technology continues to improve, even these dedicated systems are beginning to find themselves replaced with the cheaper and nimbler integrated type.

By far the biggest change for PTZ cameras in recent years has been the increase in picture quality. Resolution, as one of the most important attributes governing image quality, is typically the major consideration for buyers. Be wary, however, that manufacturers have a habit of misleading customers when it comes to resolution. Bigger is only better up to a certain point and, after that, attributes such as the sensor size and sensor type (CCD or CMOS) begin to take priority. Specifications such as the sensor size also indicate how the camera might behave in sub-optimal environments, such as low lighting.

‘First and foremost, choose a camera that provides the best video-quality performance within the budget expectations. Essentially, make sure to maximise your ROI to make your money go as far as possible,’ notes Musgrave. ‘Second, make sure to choose an adequate focal range or optical zoom range that will do the job determined by the size of the space and the distance the camera is installed from the shot. Can you zoom all the way in to achieve your goals?’ he asks. ‘Third, I would strongly advise you to demo cameras anywhere and everywhere possible for evaluation prior to purchase.’

Rear-wall fixed Epson EB-Z10000U WUXGA projectors and Datavideo PTC-150 HD PTZ cameras
Rear-wall fixed Epson EB-Z10000U WUXGA projectors and Datavideo PTC-150 HD PTZ cameras

While a lack of budget is a common complaint in houses of worship, Musgrave sees this as a positive in this instance, explaining that one of the biggest purchasing mistakes he sees churches making is the assumption that price drives quality, without even evaluating lower-priced alternatives. ‘At this point, there are PTZ cameras for every budget and, while you want to get the best ROI, don't let price drive the entire decision,’ he furthers. ‘Evaluate camera alternatives at every price point; the lower the price, the more camera positions you can install. Just make sure to install cameras that will bring you the best video-quality expectations.’

Nowadays, a HOW should ideally be looking for full 1080p HD resolution or higher, even if other existing equipment isn't up to standard. There are plenty of affordable HD PTZ cameras available and, thanks to the proliferation of ever-higher resolutions in consumer technologies, it won't be long before your congregation demands it.

It’s easy to presume image quality is the be-all and end-all of video camera concerns. It is massively important but it's also extremely easy to evaluate. Features that are often overlooked can cause some big headaches down the line. For example, how smooth is the panning mechanism? Many PTZ cameras are designed for the security market as they are low-cost, can be remote-controlled and remotely viewed – some attributes that make them appealing for HOWs. If the mechanism isn't smooth, camera movement could send the resulting image jumping across. How loud is the operating noise? Traditional congregations are likely quiet environments and any camera noise must not be audible over the background noise.

A PTZ camera controller in operation
A PTZ camera controller in operation

As you can see, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to PTZ cameras, but the features themselves are reasonably self-explanatory. A thorough understanding of what needs to be achieved will lead to the right solution. Research is key but evaluation is paramount. Ask friendly congregations what solutions they use, or alternatively look at renting various units so you can ‘try before you buy’.

While it’s not the case anymore that traditional production cameras vastly outpace PTZs in terms of image quality, PTZs do tend to be more expensive than similar-quality studio cameras. After all, a PTZ is a combination of camera, motors and electronics. Add in a high-quality control interface and the numbers increase. There are entry-level models, but movements from entry-level PTZs can seem robotic and jerky. For a camera that produces smooth movement, that's designed for live video production, don’t expect to be saving vast sums of money by opting for PTZ over production cameras.

Of course, there are other benefits. For many churches, PTZs will be the logical choice due to space constraints and, likewise, if you struggle with volunteers and people to man cameras. One person can run multiple PTZs, and multiple camera angles and positions provide more compelling viewing.

’Be sure to leave enough in your budget to be able to add at least a few more camera points of view,’ suggests Musgrave. ‘Static position shots can get boring so make sure to vary PTZ camera positions and add several low-priced cameras to get additional POV shots.’

Having a single camera operator run two or more tripod-mounted cameras is difficult, if not impossible. Switching between control of multiple PTZs is often a flick of a switch or a press of a button. Furthermore, getting a reaction shot can be easier with a PTZ, too. If someone turns around and points a big camera at someone, the motion will often distract from the service. If, however, a small PTZ camera silently turns around during a prayer, people in the congregation may not notice at all.

The most important thing to remember is that the market is always changing. If you explored PTZ cameras several years ago and discounted them for one reason or another, now might be the right time to reassess.

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