Bringing online lessons to life with Canon livestreaming cameras

Students now regularly access learning from home, so filming lectures in an engaging way is crucial. Veteran filmmaker and lecturer Tania Hoser shares her advice for livestreaming educational content that makes viewers feel as if they're in the room.
A Canon PTZ camera against a dark background.

Lecturer and cinematographer Tania Hoser uses Canon's 4K PTZ (pan, tilt and zoom) cameras to livestream her presentations, enabling her to connect directly with each viewer and hold their interest throughout. "You can keep the attention on the person or the subject you want it to be on," she explains.

The world of education is changing. Lessons and seminars that used to take place in physical classrooms are now also being broadcast to computers around the world.

The practical challenges of teaching remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic has only accelerated that transformation. For educators, the ability to livestream content changed from a nice-to-have to a must-have almost overnight.

Colleges and universities quickly got to grips with the new technologies, though, and the expectation now is that livestreamed events should be controlled and polished. Students are beginning to appreciate the benefits of this way of learning too, not least the chance to be taught by educators on the other side of the world.

Tania Hoser's teaching career has taken her all over the world, from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates and Barbados to her hometown of Canterbury in the UK. She shares her experiences working as a cinematographer with budding filmmakers, invariably streaming her presentations using Canon's PTZ (pan, tilt and zoom) cameras. She incorporates the skills she's learnt shooting feature films, TV dramas, commercials and documentaries to create engaging online lectures.

"The core of the issue is how to hold the attention of the people who are learning from you," she explains. "Drama and documentary makers combine different shots, audio, images and music. If you're going to deliver more widely through online teaching, you have to make the effort to hold the audience's attention because you don't have the subtleties of body language that you have in a classroom. By using these cameras, you can replicate that, and that's why they are so good."

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A woman in a green cardigan sitting in a lecture hall.

Preparing your livestreaming setup

A rudimentary setup, Tania explains, involves filming a lecture from three angles – typically, a camera to either side and one straight on, all set to 25fps (frames per second). One of the main aims is to isolate the speaker from the background and prepare close-ups. "The sound can go into the cameras directly through a 3.5mm jack or an XLR, but often when I present, other people record the sound separately."

Lighting is also a key consideration. "Is the viewer's attention being drawn to where you want it to be?" asks Tania. "That can mean avoiding distracting backgrounds or zooming in a bit. You can also help draw attention by turning off the room lights and having just a few lights on the person who is speaking."

After considering backgrounds and sound, you can make more detailed preparations. Canon's PTZ cameras, such as the CR-N500 and CR-N300, can be controlled using pre-set angles that can be defined in advance and prompted while the presentation is ongoing. With a little preparatory work, up to 100 angles can be pre-set for each camera.

"Find a shot where you or the lecturer will be speaking and assign it a number, then pan the camera around to another position – you might zoom in a bit – and assign that shot a different number," Tania explains.

Investing time in creating a series of presets can create a polished demonstration that will maintain viewer interest. "It's a huge benefit from a tiny amount of learning," she says. "Educators ought to be able to control a camera sufficiently so their learners see what they want them to see. In exchange, the educator gets a record of what they've done. It's a worthwhile cost-benefit in terms of time."

Canon's free PTZ software controller enables you to operate up to 20 Canon PTZ cameras from your PC or Windows tablet, nine of which can be shown as a live preview at any one time on the user interface.

To complete the setup, Tania recommends a trial run. "If you can, do it a few minutes before – if you do it the day before, something will have changed."

An operator using the Canon RC-IP100 remote camera controller, with two Canon PTZ cameras either side of the table at the back of an auditorium.

"As well as being a standalone camera, a PTZ camera can be optimised when used as part of a wider system," explains Canon Europe Product Marketing Specialist Jack Adair. "It can be involved in a wider infrastructure of integration around the university campus." © Andrew Magurran

The benefits of camera technologies

With cameras in place, presets ready and the right lighting, what influence will a large sensor or a reliable autofocus have? "If you're zoomed in with a Canon PTZ camera, it's easier than with other brands to get a shallow depth of field, so the subject is in focus, but the background isn't,” Tania explains. "And when the light levels in the lecture hall or theatre have been dimmed, these cameras work particularly well."

Canon Europe Product Marketing Specialist Jack Adair says this feature is one on which Canon prides itself. "Our PTZ cameras have very good image quality, especially in low-light conditions, which is due to the sensor."

The Canon CR-N500 features a 1.0-type 4K UHD sensor paired with a DIGIC DV6 processor to deliver 4K UHD/30p image quality as well as upscaled full HD/60p images. And to ensure the image remains in focus, Canon's remote cameras rely on autofocus (AF) systems that are as dependable as they are fast.

"For high-end autofocusing, Canon developed Dual Pixel CMOS AF, which is industry renowned for being very sharp and very fast," Jack explains. “You'll find this system on the CR-N500. There is also a hybrid AF system in the Canon CR-N300. When you're using these cameras remotely and you want to recompose the image, having a reliable AF system is crucial."

"One thing people usually experience is losing focus, especially if you're using a shallower depth of field," says Tania. "But that's just not a thing with the Canon cameras. The autofocus capabilities of these cameras are just so good."

Jack also highlights the benefits of an extended zoom range for filming in an educational setting. "A good zoom range comes into its own when your cameras are positioned at the back of a large lecture theatre or hall," he says. Isolating the speaker from so far back requires a flexible range, which is covered on the CR-N300 with a 35mm equivalent of 29.3-601mm and 25.5-382.5mm on the CR-N500.

Elsewhere in Canon's professional camcorder range, the 4K UHD 1.0-type CMOS sensor in the Canon XA75/XA70 camcorder is partnered with a 15x zoom lens, while the 1/2.3-type CMOS sensor in the Canon XA65/XA60 comes with a high-quality 20x zoom. "The Canon XA75/XA70 and the CR-N500 both have 15x optical zooms," says Jack. "The Canon XA65/XA60 and the CR-N300 actually have longer zooms because they feature slightly smaller cropped sensors."

While the Canon XA75/XA70 and Canon XA65/XA60 have their DNA firmly in the world of video capture, they have been developed with livestreaming opportunities very much in mind.

A Canon CR-N300 PTZ camera on a tripod, with a desk full of other AV equipment in the background.

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A man stands at a desk covered in electrical equipment, looking at two large monitors and with one hand on a controller in front of him. Two Canon PTZ cameras are on tripods, facing forwards from him.

"Online learning has changed the way we teach – but it's not just about delivering the old format with new technology. How can we use those new tools to teach in a better way?" asks Tania.

A large room lined with biological specimens and skeletons. In the middle are curved rows of seating, and above these is a curved bar holding lighting and filming equipment.

"The concept of using flexible, controllable high-quality cameras in an educational environment has got a lot more scope than simply filming a lecture from three different angles," says Tania.

Using PTZ cameras for livestreaming

While livestreaming might initially seem daunting for some, it also offers a host of possibilities. "When we livestream, we record simultaneously in 4K," says Tania, "That means you can livestream in HD or lower resolution if the bandwidths aren't good enough, and also record in 4K so the material can be edited after the event.

"In my experience, you tend to output in HD in education and very rarely in 4K. But if you want to create a glossy version – effectively a brochure for the university or the educational institution – you can use the 4K footage."

For cameras designed with livestreaming in mind, innovations such as USB-C outputs and OSD recording have further simplified the process. But this is just skimming the surface. The principle of making things simple continues with support for a wide range of control and streaming protocols, including RTMP/RTMPS, NDI|HX, RTP/RTSP, SRT, FreeD and Canon XC protocol, which are provided with each Canon camera. "All of our protocols are included free of charge out of the box as standard," Jack adds.

This package of protocols – the technical processes that facilitate the transfer of video files – also influences how Canon's cameras integrate with other systems. "We include standard protocol, which is what a lot of people use,” Jack explains. "That means Canon cameras can fit into third-party systems, so if a university already has an existing non-Canon system but requires new cameras, it can integrate Canon cameras into its workflow. That workflow element is very important."

With high-quality images, extended zoom ranges and the latest innovations and protocols as standard, Canon's livestreaming cameras are at the forefront of education's venture into a brave new world. It is a venture that could shape the sector for years to come. "Institutions, as well as educators, need to get up to speed on this," Tania concludes. "The institutions of the future, the ones that survive, will be the early adopters of this kind of technology."

Mark Alexander

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