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Do You Really Need a 4K Camera for Live Streaming?

For those in a hurry, let’s get to the question at hand: Should you shoot in 4K or 1080p for streaming? The answer is subjective, but in general, 4K cameras are probably best for streaming if the best quality of video will directly impact the content you make, like makeup tutorials or visual arts, or if your face is the focus, like chats or vlogs. For less visually-focused streams like gaming or ASMR, where ultra-sharp camera quality isn't essential, standard 1080p resolution works great.

In the rest of this post, we’ll break down the differences between 4K and HD cameras for streaming, what types of content benefit most from 4K and some recommendations for both types of cameras. 

WHY AN EXTERNAL CAMERA IN GENERAL?

First things first—why would you even need an external camera when your laptop has a perfectly functioning camera? While that’s true, even the fanciest and most advanced built-in cameras have trouble competing with external cameras. Computer cameras are certainly convenient, but manufacturers need to sacrifice lens size, focal distance and circuitry to fit them in such tiny spaces. 

Not only do you get better image quality with external cameras compared to computer cameras, but you also have a lot more control over image settings, framing and camera angles. Plus, an external camera isn’t limited to use on a single device, so you can be ready to record or stream whether you’re using your office monitor, home laptop, or any other device. 

Now that the “why” is out of the way, let’s get into the “what.” Specifically, what the heck is 4K video, and is 4K video necessary?

WHAT IS A 4K CAMERA?

The term “4K” refers to a digital image’s pixel resolution––the more pixels a video or picture has, the more detailed and “true to life” it will be. That’s why early YouTube videos recorded in 360p or 240p, the resolution limit at the time, look so grainy and pixelated compared to more recent videos filmed in 720p or 1080p. 

4K resolution contains 3840 x 2160 pixels, which is a significant bump up from the next best resolution, the more-common 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixels, also known as Full HD or 2K).

4K PROS AND CONS

4K'S high-quality resolution obviously brings its share of benefits:

  • You’ll get sharper, more detailed videos in 4K.
  • There’s no loss of detail when zooming, panning or cropping 4K media, making for incredibly flexible editing. 
  • 4K video even looks crisp and detailed when screenshotted, so you can potentially get some high-quality photos straight from your video feed. 
  • Stabilization processing looks much smoother in 4K compared to lower resolutions, so you can worry less about getting every shot perfectly if you’re shooting on a budget.
  • It’s a lot easier to downscale your resolution versus upscale, and since 4K is one of the highest resolutions you can buy, you have plenty of headroom to downscale if needed. 
  • You’re “future-proofing” your setup: As technology improves and 4K becomes the norm, you’ll already be ahead of the curb and will have to make fewer technical upgrades.

On the other hand, there are also some disadvantages to consider before jumping onto the 4K bandwagon and never looking back.

  • Monitors that don’t support 4K automatically compress and downscale media to 1080p (or even lower if you’re using old tech). Since 1080p is still the norm, most of your viewers might not even see your 4K streams in their full, uncompressed glory.
  • Streaming in 4K requires a lot of bandwidth to work, both from your and your viewers’ end. 
  • Filming in 4K uses tons of memory space and processing power, potentially giving you full memory cards and computer crashes. 

WHICH RESOLUTION DO YOU NEED FOR STREAMING?

With all of that said, back to the main question: Is a 4K camera necessary for streaming? Like we said in the introduction, unless your content would benefit from the best visual quality possible, then you’ll be fine with an HD camera. 

Streaming in 4K won’t make a huge difference for most of your viewers compared to a 1080p camera, since some monitors and websites max out at 1080p support and will automatically downscale 4K. 

However, it’s worth noting that a downscaled 4K video will still have slightly better quality than regular 1080p video, and that bump might be worth it if your content benefits from having the best and most detailed visual quality possible, like makeup or visual arts streams. Plus, 4K monitors will become more common as technology improves, and websites like YouTube already support 4K resolution. 

On one hand, 4K makes a big difference if you like to post edited clips from your streams. As mentioned above, 4K is a super versatile resolution that still looks clear and smooth zoomed in or cropped, so editing will be a breeze. 

On the other hand, a 4K camera probably isn't worth the price and processing load if you’re not on camera, or if you’re not the main focus. On a gaming stream, for instance, the game is what your viewers are watching, and you might be just a small screen in the corner of the broadcast just so people can see your reactions. In that instance, it’s worth putting more effort into streaming your gameplay with as high resolution as possible (which is a whole different process). 

Above all else, don’t feel like you need to get a 4K camera just because it’s the hot new tech on the scene––just ask yourself if detailed video quality makes sense for your type of content, and base your decision on that. 

BEST HD AND 4K CAMERAS FOR STREAMING

Now that you know what to consider when camera shopping, here are some 4K and 1080p camera options for live streaming. 

4K Option: Logitech 4K Pro

The 4K Pro may look like a typical plug-and-play webcam, but it comes with a few extra goodies: 4K visuals, super-smart light adjustment technology and dual omnidirectional mics. 

1080p Option: Logitech StreamCam

Not only does StreamCam upgrade your computer with HD visuals, but it also includes helpful and nifty tools like auto-focus, auto-zoom and smart light exposure. Plus, the included Logitech Capture software gives you pinpoint control over your image settings so that you can have the perfect shot in seconds. 

4K Option: Logitech Rally

Similar to Mevo, the Logitech Rally includes RightSight camera control, which automatically zooms, pans and tilt according to what’s happening on camera. While you’ll most likely find this camera in conference rooms or meeting spaces, it has enough versatility to work in a wide range of settings.

1080p Option: Mevo Start

Whether you’re streaming from a desk, a stage or even in the great outdoors, Mevo Start will send HD video directly to major streaming platforms without ever plugging into a computer. All you need is the Mevo camera and app for easy touch camera controls, multicamera support and even an AI director mode, which intuitively zooms, pans and switches cameras automatically.

No matter which type of camera you choose, remember that there are always other ways to improve your stream’s image quality outside of resolution, like video settings, background lighting, and even your outfit. For info about setting up live streams, building a career online and more, check out our latest posts on the blog.