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The Basics of Capturing Video for Streaming

video capture - the basics for video streamingSo you want to jump on the video streaming bandwagon? Have you decided on what equipment and software you’ll use? Did you even know that video capture requires equipment or software?

While it’s true you can use your mobile, built-in webcams, and bundled software you’ll probably find out that they may not be the best choice. It all depends on what you want to do.

To help explain why that is and what you need to know, I’m going to get into the basics of video streaming, with a focus on how the video is captured.

What is Video Capture?

Before video can be streamed or recorded, it needs to be captured. No, it doesn’t mean we take it prisoner. Instead, the use of the term “video capture” stems from the following definition from Oxford: Record accurately in words or pictures.

Today, Oxford also includes a definition specifically for our modern usage: Cause (data) to be stored in a computer. Initially, video was captured from analogue sources like video cameras and then translated into digital. But you can also capture a digital source as well.

What all that means is,  video capture is just a technical term used to describe the action of recording or streaming video.

Devices That Capture Video

As I mentioned, your smartphone captures video when you use its video camera. Web cams capture video as well because they can either stream or record (or both) video.

Of course there are also dedicated video cameras, camcorders, or digital cameras with limited video capabilities that all capture video. Even older style video cameras capture video when they record onto the magnetic tape (yes you can still find these if you look around).

I should mention that some, but not all, of these will capture audio as well. Though often a dedicated microphone is better for capturing audio.

If you are interested in vlogging (video blogging) you will likely want to use your smartphone or a webcam depending on whether you’re active or sitting in front of your computer.

But if you’re an extreme sports person wanting to stream your latest exploits, you’ll definitely want to look into something like a GoPro camera. These are durable video cameras designed especially for active people.

Professional production companies will use video cameras and separate devices to capture the video and audio. The capture device is usually a computer built for that purpose. The video camera and audio feed are sent to the computer through a wire, or wirelessly, from the camera. The computer then “captures” the signals by storing them onto a hard drive, or streaming across a network.

Who Needs a Capture Card

If you’ve read this far, I’ll assume you aren’t a professional production company person. You’re probably looking for some basic understanding of the terms and the options for streaming.

But professionals aren’t the only ones that need to have a separate capture device. Video gamers can also benefit from a setup similar to a professional. And they aren’t that hard to acquire or setup.

Video game streaming is one of the most popular activities on YouTube, and Twitch was founded on it. Gamers playing on their PC just need to install some software to capture their games. This is because the software can intercept, record, or “capture” the video signals being sent to the monitor.

But gamers that want to record or stream from a gaming console have a problem. Not all systems come with an option to record, and even then, only the latest generations offer it. So generally speaking, you’ll need to use a capture card to record video games from a console or handheld system.

You can find USB capture cards that sit between your game console and TV. Depending on the game, these might work ok. But USB has inherent latency, so the signal from the game system will be delayed on the way to your TV. If the game doesn’t require timing, you’ll probably be ok. If you need fast reflexes, a USB solution might not be for you.

Instead, you can purchase a capture card that sits inside a computer. The console is then hooked up to the capture card and the game is displayed on a monitor or TV via HDMI (usually). This solution doesn’t introduce latencies, but does require a decently powered computer and capture card. If you’re recording, you’ll want a large hard drive too.

And in fairness, I have to add that many PC game streamers use two PCs. One for playing the game, and a second one to capture the game and stream online. This is because capturing HD quality video uses a lot of resources. A single computer trying to both play a high resolution game and capture the video could get bogged down and fail at both.

Other uses

Besides video gamers, anyone that intends to include multiple external sources in their videos could probably use a computer system with a capture card. Or they could choose one of the many systems sold just for capturing and streaming video (basically computers, but built just for that purpose – no games allowed!).

A quick example is many of the artists that I’ve seen streaming while they work. They often have cameras pointed at their art, as well as on them, or their cats, or all of them. The more video sources you use, the harder your computer will have to work, so a separate video capture option makes sense in some of these cases.

Video card and video capture technology changes all the time too. Companies release new versions and updates more frequently that Apple announces iPhones. If you’re interested in what the best recommendations are for video streaming, you’ll want to take the time to ask people who will know. Find a community that is involved in streaming what you want to stream, and start asking questions. Most people are happy to share what they know.

Oliver Burt