Your Old iPhone Makes an Amazing—and Free—Webcam

It’s way better than any 'real' webcam

  • Even after an update, Apple’s Studio Display still has a terrible picture. 
  • Your old iPhone or Android phone has a much better camera than any webcam. 
  • Reincubate’s Camo app turns old phones into amazing webcams.
Someone using a smartphone mounted on a tripod as a webcam with their laptop computer.

Reincubate Camo

The Apple Studio Display’s webcam is an embarrassment, so why not use an old iPhone as a webcam instead?

As promised, Apple has updated the software behind the soft, washed-out video from the $1,600 Apple Studio Display’s webcam, and the results are in: It’s not really any better. The main problem is that the camera itself isn’t up to the task, as we shall see. But if you have an old iPhone lying around doing nothing, it's easy to use it, or an old digital camera, as a permanent webcam.

"The cameras in iPhone comprehensively outperform every webcam on the market. Unlike webcams, iPhones can truly achieve broadcast quality, which is why people you see some music videos and films shot with them," Aidan Fitzpatrick, creator of Camo, an app that turns phones and cameras into webcams, told Lifewire via direct message. 

Bad Apple

The Apple Studio Display is a beautiful monitor, with adequate speakers, and a terrible webcam. After early reviews called out the poor quality image, Apple promised a software update to fix it. That update is now available in beta, and while it helps, it can’t fix the fundamental problem—too few pixels. 

Like recent iPad models, the Studio Display features Center Stage, a neat trick that makes the camera seem to follow you as you move and to zoom in and out as more people join and leave the conversation. It does this by using an ultra-wide camera to take in the entire scene, then cropping a section and blowing it up to fill the screen. The problem is that the camera only has 12 megapixels, and by the time it has cropped the frame, you don’t have enough pixels left to make a good image—even in excellent light. 

To fix this, Apple would have to swap in a new camera. The good news is, you can do this yourself. 

Money Shot

Mac and iOS app developer Simon B. Støvring doesn’t use a Studio Display, but when he needed to add a webcam to his cam-less monitor, he turned to Fitzpatrick’s Camo. This app connects to your iPhone or Android device and uses its camera as a source for video calls. It doesn’t work with FaceTime, but it works with Zoom and most other apps that let you choose the camera input. Camo is free to use, and you can pay for advanced features. 

Støvring had an old iPhone 6, which he pressed into service. The iPhone 6 has a 1080p HD video-capable rear-facing camera—and that’s the first bonus. You can use the proper camera on the back of the phone, not the front-facing self-cam. This also means that you get autofocus, which none of Apple’s built-in webcams can do. Another great feature is that you can disable the iPhone’s camera just by letting it sleep or disconnecting it. 

Camo Studio in Dark Mode

Reincubate Camo

"Once the Camo app is launched on the iPhone, it will keep the iPhone awake, even if the camera is not in use or the video feed has been paused from the Mac app," writes Støvring on his personal blog. "I like to manually lock the iPhone when I'm not using the webcam. This will prevent the Camo Mac app from having a connection to the iPhone app and using the camera. That's the equivalent of using one of those webcam covers.”

Upcycle

Old phones are uniquely great for reusing as webcams. While you can use Camo with a mirrorless camera, it’s a pain. 

"Using a mirrorless as a webcam brings challenges around cabling, dummy batteries, mounting, lens selection, HDMI converters, and in some cases overheating. When it works, it's a great—if complex—solution, but it's not worth doing with a lower-end mirrorless," says Fitzpatrick. 

An iPhone, however, is self-contained, is constantly powered via its single USB connection, and stays cool. Støvring even set his up to launch directly to the camera app whenever he wakes it from sleep and disables the passcode. And finding a permanent mount is easy

In short, if you are disappointed in the quality of your webcam, or if you don’t have one at all, then try using an old phone. It’s free and guaranteed to be better than whatever you’re using now.

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