How to improve your live stream church services

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City Church Christchurch

Live streaming

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2 July 2020
By Evan O'Donoghue

The following guide is written for tech-savvy beginners and intermediate users who want to commence or expand their online service capacities.

Like countless other churches during the COVID-19 pandemic, we launched a live stream service on Facebook using the pastor’s iPhone. Yes, it was amateur, but it got us through the lockdown and we had fun doing it.

Realising the benefits of filming our services, we decided to continue live streaming after lockdown. The following is the culmination of our research to upgrade the quality of our broadcast on a very small budget. We hope it helps you and your church if you’re considering doing the same.

Total budget: NZD 5,000 (excluding GST)*

*Approximate:

  • AUD 4,700
  • USD 3,100
  • EUR 2,800
  • GBP 2,500

See current currency conversion rates.

Please note, all commentary, recommendations and pricing are based at the time of publication. Technology moves quickly and it pays to shop around for the best deals, software and device features.

In this article.

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Key components

Whether you’re live streaming using your smartphone or something more elaborate, there are three basic components to any online broadcast:

  1. Source: The device(s) that capture the video/audio (i.e. a camcorder)
  2. Encoder: Hardware/software that takes your source and prepares it for broadcast
  3. Destination: The online platform you wish to share your content (i.e. YouTube)

Your smartphone is a powerful device that can make these components feel one-and-the-same, but they are different.

In order to upgrade the quality of your live stream we need to consider these components separately, giving particular attention to the source and encoder.

Here’s a video that might help explain these different components.

Source.

Capturing (aka filming) your content.

Sony PXW-Z90

Sony PXW-Z90

Price: NZD 4,086 (excl. GST)
Did we purchase? Almost

The Sony PXW-Z90 is a beautiful 4K camcorder that has the ability to broadcast online (i.e. Facebook) via WiFi. That’s huge, as it can combine your source and encoder (like your smartphone) when used as a one-camera solution. This gives you the freedom to roam your church auditorium without cables if you intend to use audio direct from the device.

In our case, we considered live streaming to Facebook with the Sony PXW-Z90 via WiFi, hardwiring the audio through the sound desk approximately 6 metres away (20 ft). From the back of a 180 seat auditorium, its zoom, auto focus and low light capacity made it a very attractive option.

We explored other camcorders in this price range, but the Sony PXW-Z90 had the best features.

So why didn’t we purchase the Sony PXW-Z90? There were three key reasons:

  1. They were sold out across New Zealand. With a TBC backorder delay, we were forced to explore other options.
  2. For the price, we believed the Sony PXW-Z90 worked best as a one-camera solution. Over time, we’re hoping to build a multi-camera live stream which we can do for less using other hardware.
  3. The Sony PXW-Z90 takes great footage, but we ideally wanted the versatility of a DSLR/mirrorless camera to photograph events and other church activities (which we didn’t have at the time).
PTZ Optics x20

PTZ Optics 20x

Price: NZD 2,870 (excl. GST)
Did we purchase? Almost

The popularity of PTZ cameras has grown substantially over the last few years due to their compact design, image quality, price and ease of use. You can mount them high on the wall and adjust the shot remotely, which is a huge plus for a church like ours with limited floor space.

The PTZ Optics 20x was originally referred to us by a pastor who had just made a multi-camera purchase for his church. As he tested the product, however, he became increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the image in low light. Despite reading a number of reviews online which suggested otherwise, his feedback was enough for us to look elsewhere. Our church auditorium has limited natural lighting and we needed to be sure this wouldn’t be an issue.

Sony A6400

Sony A6400

Price: NZD 1,390* (excl. GST)
Did we purchase? Yes!
* Includes the price of the camera body only.

What can I say? We love the Sony A6400. Search online, and you’ll find plenty of reviews that agree.

The Sony A6400 is a versatile mirrorless camera that has been specially designed for vloggers. It offers exceptional film and photo image quality, even in low light, and the price makes it a very affordable option for small to midsize churches like ours.

I recommend pairing the Sony A6400 with a lens that’s right for your church. We chose the Tamron f2.8 28-75mm for three key reasons...

  1. With an f-stop of 2.8, it copes well in low light conditions.
  2. The 75mm zoom is ideal for shooting from the back of our church. You’ll need to consider this metric in relation to the size of your auditorium.
  3. At NZD 1,560 (excl. GST) it is about half the price of its Sony lens counterpart.

Total spend: Camera body NZD 1,390 + lens NZD 1,560 = NZD 2,950 (excl. GST)

If you’re not into Sony, I recommend shopping around for alternative DSLR/mirrorless makes and models (i.e. Canon).

Before you go out and buy a Sony A6400, there’s one more important component to consider...

In order to live stream, you will need to connect your Sony A6400 to your encoder (i.e. computer). There’s only one catch… the HDMI cable that connects to your camera is incompatible with the USB plugs on your computer. As a workaround, you’ll need to purchase an adaptor (aka video capture card).

The Elgato Cam Link 4k is a popular option that retails for about NZD 215 (excl. GST). It’s a simple plug and play device that’s compatible with Windows and Mac.

Alternatively, you can purchase a video mixer (like us) that has a built in adaptor. At NZD 540 (excl. GST), the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini might cost more, but it has additional features that can improve the quality of your live stream while saving you money in the long run. For example, you can plug up to four cameras into this device, which means you don’t need to purchase additional video capture cards.

Blackmagic Design ATM Mini

Due to high demand immediately following the COVID-19 lockdown, our Blackmagic Design ATM Mini is currently on backorder and video capture cards are in scarce supply. As a result, we needed a temporary solution in order to live stream our services using the Sony A6400. Fortunately, this can be achieved using a USB cable that connects to the charging port on the side of the camera (it comes in the box). This arrangement is unconventional and somewhat tricky to implement, which is why I don’t recommend this option as a viable long term solution.

Watch the video below for further details and setup instructions.

Camera accessories

Please remember to make additional allowance in your budget for these (and other) camera accessories, if they apply to you.

  • Camera stand
  • Carry bag
  • Lens protector
  • Memory card
  • Cables & apators
  • External camera mic

Encoder

Preparing your footage for broadcast.

What is an encoder?

Put simply, a video encoder takes the footage from your camera and formats it for online broadcast. This is usually a computer + software solution, but can be purpose built hardware (i.e. AJA HELO).

Why do I need an encoder?

Unless you’re using your smartphone to capture and live stream your footage (an all-in-one-solution), you’ll likely need an encoder to work with your camera to make this happen. Most cameras for the consumer market do not have this built in functionality (the Sony PXW-Z90 is one such exception).

What did we do?

Armed with an average Windows 10 PC, we installed OBS (free streaming software), plugged in our Sony A6400 and away we went. Yes, there was a learning curve, but overall it was reasonably easy to navigate.

I recommend researching OBS for more information.

Why did we do it this way?

For the most part, this solution was driven by price. We already had a spare computer and OBS is free. Together, it works very well.

Had we more money, we would probably explore an alternative solution (i.e. SlingStudio Hub).

Destination

Online platforms (i.e. Facebook) where you wish to share your content.

What destinations do we use?

After using the Sony A6400 for a couple of weeks and streaming live to Facebook with OBS, we decided to expand services to include YouTube and other destinations.

Streaming live to more than one platform is referred to as multi-streaming or simulcasting.

You can apparently multi-stream to a maximum of two platforms using OBS, though it is not recommended. Why? It places additional strain on your computer and network which can deteriorate the quality of your content.

For this task, it’s recommended you use a multi-streaming service (i.e. Restream).

These services allow you to upload your footage live to one location (i.e. Restream), which in turn multi-streams to other platforms (i.e. Facebook and YouTube). You get to choose which platforms are included.

After some consideration, we opted for Castr, but I recommend shopping around for a service that best suits your needs.

Conclusion

Upgrading your live stream capabilities can be a daunting and expensive task that requires more than a passing thought to grasp. We hope sharing our journey makes this process a little easier for you and your church.

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