The best document cameras are the modern-day equivalent of a device some older lecturers (and their students) may remember: the overhead projector. The document camera certainly helps in the classroom, but that’s just one of its applications. By allowing you to display live footage of paper, books, or small objects using the display equipment in your classroom (or conference room), a document camera can help beat PowerPoint fatigue in all kinds of presentations. Whether your presentation is educational or commercial, it’s well known that a more active connection with your audience yields better engagement; indeed these cameras are often know as visualizers.
A live video feed also makes tweaking your presentation on-the-go easier than with presentation software, helping you stay with the room so an unexpected question can lead to an interesting experience for everyone rather than an ill-prepared mess. These cameras can slot into video conferencing and distance learning setups, recorded or live.
If they are high enough resolution, they can also be used as a convenient document scanner. The overhead mounted camera is also an alternative to the flatbed scanner. Some are supplied with software which will sequence pages automatically, and the resolution is often good enough for emailing contracts. Archivists will also appreciate the ability to capture uneven documents – handy for running OCR (Optical Character Recognition) on bound books.
When choosing the best system for you, you need to look at where you will be displaying your image. In cases like video conferencing it’s more convenient to use USB, so it appears like a webcam in the software. This is great for software like Zoom which allows for second webcams in video conferences. Some conference and classroom setup are better equipped for connecting using HDMI, which can be plugged straight into a video projector with no logging into computers or admin passwords.
Like any camera, size and resolution play a part. To capture a larger document, the lens typically needs to be higher up, and to get the same detail you’ll need more megapixels. On the flip side, smaller cameras can be more portable, so it’s a decision you’ll need to assess for yourself.
Best document camera in 2021
With a flexible gooseneck arm beneath a 5-megapixel CMOS camera, this U50 still has more than enough resolution for delivering high definition video occasionally boosted by up-to 8x digital zoom (though, as ever, it’s best not to use the full range of a digital zoom). Still, at the wide angle, this is as good as significantly more expensive cameras, and simple to connect via USB (not least because that’s the only option available). On the plus side, the camera and 6-LED lamp array can draw their power via the USB lead so you really are looking at a very convenient device. Moreover, while you might imagine the flexible head is a little inconvenient, the weighted base has been designed with a recess around it. Using it, you can place the arm and camera around the base, so the whole device ends up about the size of a thick textbook when you’re not using it, making it easy to move about. Despite the relatively low cost, the quality is still good, and AVer’s software is stable.
This 2020 model from Ipevo is designed for simplicity and portability. A key attraction with this document camera is its great looks and functional design. It has a neat cable store within the hinged mechanism that ensures it folds away neatly; it also comes with a minimalist protective cover, secured with a stylish band. This is a USB affair that offers plug-and-play operation with a laptop – although this uses a standard USB-A socket, so if you use a MacBook, say, with USB-C sockets you will need an adaptor.
The supplied software is very clean, so it takes a little while to explore, but offers an extensive range of features.
The 8-megapixel camera itself has a button that allows you to flip the picture with one press – allowing you to quickly switch from the Do-Cam functioning as a document camera, to being a regular webcam. This is a really neat device - and if you want something that makes even more of a statement on your desk, opt for the yellow Creator's Edition (although this costs more).
InSwan have stepped up to take on the other budget brands with what could easily be a knock-out product, offering as it does spectacular eight megapixel video at 30fps shared with your online teaching platform via Inswan’s Documate app. Rather than letting the device down, the tool is fully-featured and better realized than many in much higher price brackets, allowing live annotation during teaching.
So long as the camera head is at least 10cm (just under 4 inches) away from the surface, the camera’s autofocus is quick and the Sony CMOS seems to get adequate light even from just the small LED in the head. With its Anglepoise-like design, it does not fold completely elegantly, but it is still very portable and can also be used as a web-cam with in-built tripod & light; not at all bad for versatility, especially if you’re teaching from a new (or temporary) location.
Not the cheapest but certainly one of the most adaptable, this camera can be used on its own or with a Mac, Windows computer, Chromebook, iOS or Android device as well as via direct HDMI link. It can even be paired with an Apple TV. That is enough to put it top of many people’s wish list, but the feature list goes on; wi-fi helps reduce the clutter when pairing with these devices (though USB is still on offer).
The supply of buttons on the column is also much to be appreciated – it’s a simple task to zoom, or operate (or lock) the focus using the physical buttons. The exposure compensation buttons are also useful, and there is even an adequate microphone built in.
If you’re not tempted by Wi-Fi setup, the IPEVO VZ-R provides a cheaper edition with that feature stripped out.
Epson has been in the document camera game for some time, and while it has not refreshed their products for a couple of years, you could argue that’s because they have little need to. Their ELPDC21 (the top of their line) has a 1 / 2.7” CMOS sensor which can capture a full A3/tabloid area. More significantly, the device has been built with clear thought to usability, right down to the stand-out autofocus button. The remote offers manual control. Capture and Record buttons are also on hand, and a 12x optical zoom (further boosted, if possibly needed, by 10x digital) provides very close detail when needed. As a solidly-built product, this isn’t the most portable on this list, but at over 5lbs (over 2.5kg), and with a Kensington lock, it should survive a variety of classrooms.
It is Mac and Windows compatible, and will fit into classrooms with all manner of displays, and can present split-screen content. Traveling presenters might notice the weight, but that is off-set in part by an excellent travel-case included with the unit.
ELMO has created a system they call ‘Stem-cam,’ which layers their own software styling atop Android (just as phone designers do). This gives them the chance to add touch-screen controlled annotations, zoom and other features, as well as including software and stored videos and images (internal memory or via SD card).
Pre-loaded are QR-Code readers, a browser (Chrome, of course), Miracast, and a countdown timer to give an exam a suitably ominous note. Every unit comes with the STEM game Scottie Go (a modern-day ‘Logo’ for BBC Micro fans), in which kids build a simple computer program by arranging cardboard pieces on a board, the ELMO MA-1 camera can watch the student’s arrangement then perform the actions they represent on its local screen, and relaying it to the classes digital whiteboard too.
It’s also possible to add your own apps – Google Translate works via the camera, should you install it, which feels very science fiction. Connectivity is usefully modern; there is still VGA out if needed, but there is HDMI in and out so you can use it as a switching box, and the device can also act as a webcam.
Look for the ELMO MO-2 if you don’t need the screen, and want a less expensive Stem-cam option.
This is a specialist device for a specialist purpose, and the designers have taken it and run with it, so this will not be useful for you in a classroom or live presentation, but if you’re archiving a large collection of print documents you have definitely been shown some love here. This scanner’s raison d’etre is to overcome the book’s reluctance to open and lay flat, which traditional scanners have a strong preference for. Here a combination of the manual (clipping a page open) and high tech (a laser scanner taking 32 measurements of the book’s curve) allow the scanning software to take on a bendy hardback no problem. The included USB foot pedal can trigger the scan the moment your hands are outside the camera area, all with the goal of helping you scan a book in minutes (though the quoted 7 minutes for a 300 page book is still wildly optimistic). The document lights are cunningly positioned to the side to reduce reflections, which the 16-megapixel camera makes good use of. The software works on Mac and PC and supports OCR, which performs better than most – presumably because of the laser flattening. To avoid using a computer, the built-in TFT screen above the camera helps clarify you’ve got the right light, but seems an awkward place for the monitor for shorter users.
A flexible gooseneck design might make a 13-megapixel document camera a little trickier to get horizontal, but is very useful with non-flat subjects. The Ladybug-inspired looks stand out in a classroom of drab equipment too, and it’s a refreshed version of a popular design bringing with it the choice of 4K HDMI or USB output; There is also pass-through for the HDMI so you can share your screen quickly and easily. The older Lumens DC170, which offered XGA pass-through and a light on a separate stalk can still be found, but needed a refresh after half-a-decade.
The USB connector can also play video and stored images directly, or to record your lesson (to a computer or up to 256GB drive). It can also be used to connect to a mouse so you can use teaching tools without needing a separate computer; highlighting, image rotation, highlighting etc. are all there. The camera also sports an ‘Auto Tune’ button, which isn’t for karaoke fans but automatically adjusts focus and contrast.
With an image sensor of 1/3.06” CMOS and 8-megapixels, this is a high quality and pleasingly compact (when folded) document camera which is boosted by some extra thought for teachers & presenters. If you flick through a book on camera, the 60fps will ensure it looks smooth; if you’re teaching card tricks (or spotting scams) this could come in very handy! That pixel count also affords decent digital zoom (though to be fair the 20x available is probably pushing it). An especially nice touch is that a USB mouse can be plugged directly into the device’s socket to add annotations on the presentation screen, no computer needed; shade and thickness of drawing line can be adjusted too.
The base is weighted, so the camera is unlikely to topple, and the camera can be rotated 180 degrees so it’s easy to get your subject in shot without obstruction. The device can also record video up to 120 images internally, though you’ll want to add a MicroSD card to beat the 2MP resolution. There is an embedded LED lamp and built-in microphone, though if you want portable power you’ll need a USB power bank.
If it falls on you to organize a large-scale switch to remote learning, then you’ll certainly have to provide equipment for users who don’t own – or have the means – to equip themselves with even the more modest priced document cameras in our list.
IPEVO’s Mirror-Cam offers a solution you can buy in batches and ship out to those who need it; a clip on mirror which re-directs the webcam downward. For a bit of show-and-tell the connected student can then simply rest their contribution on their keyboard for a moment. IPEVO also provide a keyboard cover and whiteboard and their Visualizer software will work though you shouldn’t expect too much of high-res dependent features like OCR. That’s because laptops don’t all have great webcams; Apple only offers 720P on their in-no-way-cheap MacBook Pro, for example. Users also need to position their laptop screen to a quite specific angle and, of course, can’t use the webcam at the same time!