Robotic PTZ Cameras

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Why use robotic PTZ cameras instead of traditional manually-operated cameras?

Unless you have a dedicated video staff, your organization probably relies on either volunteers or existing staff within your organization pulling double duty as an adjunct to your normal production crew. This is fine as long as you have enough people to match the number of cameras you have and they actually have some affinity (or talent) to provide satisfactory camera operation. However, you will usually find you only have one person, or at most two people that can operate a camera properly for acceptable video and if they are volunteers, they may not always be available when you need them. Even the most basic cameras require an operator with some operation skills to provide useable video. Following the action, framing the shot, panning and zooming smoothly, can make or break a shot. In situations where there is not a lot of movement going on onstage (or on set) you want to be on top of things should the situation suddenly change. We’ve heard of camera operators getting bored and falling asleep on the job. Don’t laugh, it happens! Remotely controlled robotic PTZ (pan-Tilt-Zoom) cameras can resolve these issues and then some.

PTZ cameras reduce the manpower requirements by allowing a single operator to control several cameras at once. You will only need one operator with the skills necessary to provide usable video from all the cameras he or she can control. Manpower reduction also reduces your costs of production, especially if your crew is being paid to perform as camera operators. This also eliminates some of the infrastructure normally required when working with multiple operators. For example, an intercom system for the director to communicate with the camera operators is no longer necessary; cameras with expensive sophisticated rear lens controls and heavy duty tripods (such as studio configured cameras) are not required either. The elimination of all this reduces the cost of production each time you do a shoot. With robotic cameras, it is common for no more than two people (a switcher/director and a remote control camera operator) to be all that is required for a shoot. And many shoots can be done with a single operator by taking advantage of presets. More on that later.

PTZ cameras for a given quality level are actually less expensive and less complex than a comparable quality conventional camera manned by an operator. Less complexity means less to go wrong, which improves their reliability. PTZ cameras generally are also much smaller and less obtrusive than a camera with an operator manning it; this can be an important factor if there is an audience behind the camera’s location and their view is partially blocked by the camera and the operator. In permanent installations (such as a church, city government, school or conference room) the cameras can be mounted either on the wall or ceiling depending on the particular installation and desired angle. PTZ cameras can even get shots from angles conventional cameras could never dream of: you can put one right down on the floor aiming up at the action or mount a PTZ camera from the ceiling for instance whereas you’d need a heck of a lot of insurance and a daredevil camera person to do that with a traditional camera.

At a wedding, you would be able to put a PTZ camera up front behind the Clergyman and get close-ups of the bride and groom during the ceremony and mask the cameras position from the audience with a flower stand or place it so the bride and groom block it from the audience. When videoing a seminar you could place the camera close to the edge of the stage (or even onstage) without obstructing an attendee’s view. In those situations, a camera operator would be most distracting, but the PTZ camera alone is hardly noticeable. Modern PTZ cameras are also very quiet; unless you are very close to them you cannot hear a sound from them.

PTZ cameras have a couple of functional advantages that even individual camera operators cannot perform.

Presets

All PTZ cameras on the market today offer some number of position presets. They range from 6 presets up to 255 presets. The presets allow you to set the camera’s pan, tilt and zoom position and store that setting to be recalled later for fast switching between camera shots. Even an inexperienced PTZ operator will be able to control the PTZ cameras and recall the presets as needed in no time at all. While an experienced operator can probably go to a particular position over and over, they would likely be unable to jump to a given camera position as fast as the PTZ cameras can and not as precisely. So if you had three cameras with six presets per camera that would give you 18 presets that you can have setup for the different shots you will require during the shoot. Of course, you can still follow the action with the joystick controller as needed. The advantage here is huge, with the primary one being consistency.

Finally and maybe most importantly, most PTZ cameras have incorporated the functionality of camera control units (CCUs) built into them. This capability adds to the value considerably as you would have to spend several thousand dollars to add this capability to conventional cameras. The CCU function allows a single camera operator the capability of setting up each individual camera from their one location. This is most important when you have multiple cameras and you need to set them up to match, so when you switch between the different cameras, the video looks the same coming from each camera. Unless you purchase professional or broadcast grade conventional cameras you will not be able to get CCUs that will allow the same functionality. There are aftermarket devices that will allow you to connect the video output of your cameras and allow adjustment of some of the qualities of the video signal, but these do not actually control the cameras, they merely process the video signal coming from the cameras. While these devices have their place, they will still cost several thousand dollars to add them to your video system as the inexpensive units start at around $1,500.00 each and you will need one for each camera being used. PTZ cameras have this functionality already built in.

In summary, PTZ cameras offer a wealth of advantages over traditional video cameras. As with anything, you get what you pay for. The least expensive PTZ cameras do not give you the same image quality, features or functionality as the more expensive models but may be adequate for a number of needs where stellar image quality is not necessarily required (corporate video conferencing for instance) Conversely the best units are quite capable of delivering excellent image quality for broadcast use. The good news is this: since the advent of CMOS technology the prices of higher end versions of these types of cameras has come down dramatically over the last few years and are now affordable to almost anyone who is interested in doing multi-camera productions.

If you think that PTZ cameras may be right for YOUR production needs, check out our offerings here and remember that you can always give us a call if you have any questions!

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