7 Cameras for Online Workouts

Music & Video

You want to stream your workouts online, and now you’re figuring out the tech.  Here we’re going to talk about camera options to give you more of a professional feel for your workout.

First, some questions:

  1. Will you have a production team?  Most fitness studios and coaches don’t - it’s a solo affair.
  2. Will you have anyone at all to help get the session going?  Again, for most the answer is no - Zoom has taught the fitness industry that one person can do it all.
  3. Are you going to move around a lot (like a HIIT workout) or are you going to be reasonably static for the majority of the time (like a spin workout)?
  4. What streaming platform are you going to use?  Zoom, Vimeo, YouTube, or Tribe’s own platform designed for fitness classes?
  5. Will you have a laptop there?  Or are you hooking directly to the streaming service from a smartphone or an encoder box via a protocol like RTMP (may services use this)?

Some big headline things to think about:

Focus

This sounds easy, but there’s nothing worse than a coach keeping going in and out of focus while teaching a class.  Or the camera focuses on the wall behind the coach and not the coach.  A super quick piece of theory on focus.

This image for Wikipedia is a great illustration of what “Depth of Field” means - the depth of the video that’s acceptably in focus for the shot:

As the f-number increases (the f-stop), a greater range of distances from the camera remain in focus.  But here’s the rub - as the f-number for the camera increases, the aperture (size of the hole) gets smaller, which means there’s less light getting inside the camera, and a higher chance of poor quality image or graininess.  Laptop webcams often have tiny apertures and sensors with high f-stops, and that’s one of the main reasons why Zoom videos of workouts can often end up looking kind of m’eh.

For lower f-numbers where the image quality is better but the depth of field is kind of short, technology is getting better and better at autofocus, using artificial intelligence to pick up the person’s face and eyes to figure out where to focus.  If you were doing a cooking show, focusing on the eyes all the time doesn’t work (when you want to close up of chopping that carrot), but in general in fitness workouts you want the focus on the coach’s face the whole time, so the AI doesn’t have to figure out “oh quick, focus on the hands, she’s cutting a carrot!”.

Of course if you have a live camera operator this is less of an issue, but very few trainers, coaches and local studios can support this cost.

Tracking

If you're sat on a spin bike for the whole workout, you’re going to be in the same place, so the camera doesn’t need to move to follow you.  If you’re bouncing up and down then lying on the mat doing scissor kicks, and your camera isn’t moving, either your shot will look more like CCTV than a professional fitness video, or you going to disappear altogether from camera in some of the poses.

Here again, a mix of emitters (like beacons) and increasingly artificial intelligence are riding to the rescue.  These technologies move the camera lens so that it can track the subject (in this case, you as the coach or instructor).

Again, if you are lucky enough to have a live camera operator, they can sit there and track you - but that adds a lot of cost for something that in the end technology will likely do a “good enough” job of for most fitness workouts.

Lighting

If your lighting sucks, it doesn’t matter as much how good your camera is, the video is still likely going to suck as well.  You need strong lighting, because then the camera is going to receive more light into its lens and sensor, so the video will look less grainy.  The fancy way of saying this is maximizing the signal to noise ratio.  In many cameras you can turn up the ISO which is like turning of the gain on your microphone, but when you do that, you hear every truck that drives by and next door’s dog barking.

The go to’s for lighting in videos are soft boxes and ring lights.  Essentially you want a large and preferably diffuse light source - the opposite of a torch, that will create strong shadows on your face.  The good news is that you can pick up decent video lights these days on Amazon starting at $50.

iPhone 12 Pro

OK - enough with the theory, on to the cameras!  We all know that smartphones like the iPhone are getting better and better at photos and video, the latest iPhone 12 Pro is kind of a tour de force of camera technology (the iPhone 12 Pro Max is even slightly better).  Some of the bells and whistles:

  1. HDR-enabled (Dolby Vision) sensors mean more of the video is well exposed - this is more important if areas of your studio or shot have different lighting (like windows).
  2. Bigger sensor - it’s larger than the iPhone 11 and XS sensors, and that means more light gets in so less graininess.
  3. Color and skin tone rendering are pretty good.
  4. Autofocus is decent, keeping shots in focus even as you move around.
  5. LiDAR laser system (distance sensor) helps autofocus keep you in focus as they move around (it’s that funny circle next to the camera lenses).

If you didn’t know this, phone cameras are fast exceeding laptop webcams in quality, because taking better photos and videos these days is likely one of the top 3 reasons why people upgrade to the latest and greatest smartphones.  So we didn’t even bother listing a standard embedded laptop webcam in this - if you’re serious about image quality for your online workouts, don’t use the embedded laptop webcam.

The iPhone 12 Pro isn’t quite up to the same standard as mirrorless and DSLR cameras, but with each generation of iPhone it gets closer, and for outdoor video footage it can be hard to see the difference now.  Also the iPhone 12 Pro can run apps and will see regular updates from Apple, so it’s artificial intelligence will only get smarter.

If you’re looking for the budget option to do single camera workouts kind of ad hoc, the iPhone 12 Pro can be a great answer.  If you’re going to set up a fitness studio or dedicated space to film workouts, you’d be better off going for a dedicated camera (or several of them) over an iPhone or similar smartphone.

The iPhone 12 Pro also does a ton of other stuff that a mirrorless or DSLR camera can’t do, and while they list at $999, there are great deals to be had with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile that can make it feel like a free upgrade.

Sony ZV-1

The Sony ZV-1 is one of the best examples of a new breed of cameras designed for vloggers (the selfie and live streaming generation).  It’s a mirrorless camera designed to be as automated as possible so that its owners can focus on what they are trying to say or capture versus fiddling with the camera.

The Sony ZV-1 uses artificial intelligence to figure out a face and eyes in the frame, and focus on that.  This allows you to have a lower f-stop, a narrower depth of focus, more light in the camera - all without looking blurry.  Put simply, for a more autonomous camera to shoot your workout, the ZV-1 is a serious contender.  Also because it’s intended for vloggers, you can flip the camera screen round and use it like a selfie monitor screen.

The ZV-1 can’t track a person, moving the camera to follow you when you’re leading a workout, but it can Pixio from Move 'n See that can do that in a motorized mount (though the mount costs about the same as the camera).

Remember - there’s no point having a fancy DSLR camera if you won’t have anyone sat behind it making sure the focus is set, and it can’t figure out focus for itself.  Some of the Canon DSLR cameras have al-servo focus to follow something once you select it on the digital screen, but who’s going to be pushing on the screen when you’re supposed to be standing in shot?

The Sony ZV-1 lists for $799, and it’s available from Amazon, B&G Photo Video and tons of other places.

Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III is a similar camera in concept to the Sony ZV-1 - it’s designed for vloggers.  A few key differences from the ZV-1:

  1. It allows different lenses, whereas the ZV-1 has a fixed lens on the camera.
  2. The Olympus looks like a classic SLR shell, though it’s actually mirrorless like the ZV-1.  The inner workings probably don’t matter to you that much.
  3. The image quality is likely a little superior to the ZV-1, as the Olympus has a larger sensor.
  4. Video auto-focus isn’t as strong as the ZV-1, which is really the best in class for that feature, but the ON0D E-M5 Mark III does do facial detection for focusing.

The Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark III is $899 list price.

Osbot

Osbot gets kind of an honorable mention here.  They brought out the Osbot Tail and are now on the verge of shipping their Osbot Tiny model.  The Tiny is really designed to be a better webcam for your laptop (if you really want to run your workout from you laptop).

The primary unique trick that the Osbot cameras bring is Pan, Tilt and Zoom (PTZ) that tracks the subject (you) using artificial intelligence.  And it’s really quite good at it for a very affordable price - take a look at the videos from this review.  It’s like having someone sat behind the camera moving it to follow you through your workout.

The Osbot cameras don’t yet have an HDMI output, which is kind of disappointing, but it reflects the future of where some of these cameras will go, given the growth of the live streaming community.

The Osbot Tail retails at $589, and the Osbot Tiny retails at just $199 - super affordable as an upgrade to your laptop webcam.

AViPas AV-1560

The AV-1560 camera is an example of a Pan, Tilt and Zoom (PTZ) camera that has a big optical zoom (20X), and it’s functionally similar to the broadcast PTZ cameras that Peloton uses in its studios.  PTZOptics also makes similar cameras, and likely has better support, though they cost a little more.

You can place a camera like this at the back of your studio, and it can still get a high quality close in shot of you leading a class, even though it’s quite some distance away.  If you have a big studio and want to do hybrid physical and digital classes, a camera like this can be really great - especially if you don’t move much during the workout (like spin classes).

The nirvana of course will be when cameras like this have the artificial intelligence smarts of the Sony ZV-1 and Osbot Tail - so they can find your face in the shot and track it as you move around (as well as keeping you in focus).  We aren’t quite there yet - but we’re getting there - you can be sure there are companies with this working in their labs.

The AV-1560 is $1,150 at Amazon.

DJI Pocket

The Osmo Pocket is a quite unique little camera in that it is tiny and it has a powered gimbal built in.  A gimbal lets you hold the shot steady and look professional even as the camera is moving around - it’s far better at this than the image stabilization in phones and GoPro cameras, because the powered gimbal actually moves the camera lens independently of the handle that someone’s holding.

The original Osmo Pocket and the new DJI Pocket 2 have subject tracking (ActiveTrack 3.0) to follow you as you move around, though it is not as good as the subject tracking in the Osbot Tail.  Also the DJI Pocket 2 adds in HDR video, which is similar to the new Dolby Vision features in the iPhone 12 Pro, helping to improve the picture exposure when you have extremes of light and dark in the same video.

The image quality is not as good as what you would get on a mirrorless camera like the Sony ZV-1, and it doesn’t have an HDMI out option, which is rather annoying (though ironically with accessories it can stream to YouTube, Twitch and our own Tribe platform using RTMP).

This might not be your primary camera for live workouts, but it’s really good for shooting library shots or if you do have a live camera operator, and they are also just great fun cameras for using in normal life if you have an active lifestyle.  Classpass has been shooting a ton of their digital content with a single camera person with a gimbal.

The Osmo Pocket has now been marked down to $249, with the DJI Pocket 2 now available at $349.

Panasonic LUMIX BGH1

The Panasonic LUMIX BGH1 is a relatively new type of video camera - a box camera.  It forgoes many of the buttons and look and feel of a traditional video camera, and instead packs all its smarts into a digital back.

In terms of raw image quality, the BGH1 is likely going to shoot the best video of any in this list - it has the largest sensor, and it’s also the most expensive camera (it doesn’t even come with a lens).  However, for a typical fitness coach, the autofocus on the BGH1 is not going to be as good as the Sony ZV-1, which is specifically designed for automation with nobody behind the viewfinder.

The BGH1 does of course have HDMI out, and also will support live streaming via a firmware upgrade.

The BGH1 is priced at $1,999, and if you are setting up a Pro studio with several cameras and at least one person making sure it all works, this type of camera might be worth a look.

Conclusion

There are so many options in cameras, and artificial intelligence is seeing fast gains in autofocus and tracking.  Broadly speaking, we would suggest the iPhone 12 Pro or iPhone 12 Pro Max if you want to shoot workouts from your smartphone, and the Sony ZV-1 if you want to upgrade to a dedicated camera.  If you are in a much larger space and need to combine live and online workouts, a PTZ camera with a powerful optical zoom like the AViPas AV-1560 may also be worth a look.

Justin Marston

CEO
Thinker, writer, innovator, runner, Star Wars fan

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