Choosing a Camera for Stop Motion

written by Mike Brent & Eric Scott

This is a very in-depth and complex subject, and I don’t intend to cover everything... I don’t think that’s even possible! This is just a basic primer, to get you started. Armed with this information, you should have a decent idea of how to continue your research.

 

GENERAL REQUIREMENTS

No matter what kind of camera you use, it needs to meet these basic requirements in order to be able to shoot decent stopmotion with it. Keep in mind that the ideal solution would be to have rock solid control over each frame so as not to introduce inconsistencies.

 

FULL SCREEN RESOLUTION

Well, this one really only applies to the webcams... the rest are going to be full screen by default. many webcams can’t do full broadcast resolution (640x480). If it doesn’t then you won’t be able to watch the resulting animation full screen on your tv or computer later- it will just be a little window in the center. This would be acceptable if you only intend to put small videos on the web, but for anything else you’ll want broadcast resolution.

 

MANUAL FOCUS

You DON’T want your camera auto-focusing... it will change focus every time something moves in it’s field of view. Not very pleasant, I can assure you! A zoom is a nice additional bonus, but not necessary. You only want optical zoom, not digital... the way digital zooms work is by enlarging the pixels themselves, so the image loses resolution and gets blocky as it zooms in.

 

MANUAL IMAGE CONTROL

Features you should be able to manually override include gain, exposure (sometimes called iris) and white balance. Some cameras offer additional manual controls, like color saturation or hue. These are just bonuses, and not necessary since these things can be much better controlled in post production using a program like Photoshop, Quicktime Pro or After Effects.

 

WEBCAMS

This is the cheapest and simplest way to go, and to cinch the deal, webcams will work problem-free with a framegrabber program. Unlike film cameras, you don’t have to wait until the entire roll of film is exposed and developed to see what you’ve got... in fact you can stop at any point along the way and watch what you’ve already shot, then pick up right back where you left off animating. I always recommend that beginners start out with a webcam and a framegrabber... it’s a great way to get some experience at animating while doing research toward the bigger better camera you’ll spend your hard-earned cash on in the future. To be completely realistic about this, a lot of people get all fired up about stopmotion and buy expensive cameras and equipment, and after a while realize they just don’t have the patience or the drive to stick with it. In the event this happens, you’ll only be out a hundred dollars or less. And, once you’ve got a camera and can start doing some animation, the pressure is off. What I mean is, if you’re reading all the great forums here on the message board, and you’re dreaming up fantastic ideas you can’t wait to put on screen, the tendency is to jump the gun and just buy the first halfway decent camera you run across... it’s like doing the grocery shopping while you’re hungry (never a good idea). So, think of a webcam as a good nutritious snack that can keep you going till dinner. And actually, a good webcam like the Unibrain Fire-i (Firewire) or the Logitech Quick-Cam Pro 4000 (USB) will give excellent results that are full broadcast resolution and look great. Most of the tests on my site were shot with my little Unibrain: http://www.darkstrider.net/table1.html

PROS
Webcams are cheap, they work flawlessly with a framegrabber system and with the right webcams you can get good broadcast quality animation. And you get instant feedback... you can watch what you’ve shot immediately, even in mid-shot.

CONS
The lenses aren’t great, they can’t be interchanged for better quality lenses, and it can be hard to attach a webcam to a stable tripod. Some do have tripod mounts, including the new model of the Unibrain, and I believe the Quick Cam Pro 4000 as well.

 

FILM CAMERAS

Yes, film is still viable, even in this digital age. And the great thing is, a “vintage” camera made as much as 50 years (or more) ago is still perfectly good today, assuming it’s in decent condition. With digitals, three or four years can make them obsolete.

There are 3 formats of motion picture camera that can be used for stop motion... super-8, 16mm, and 35mm. There are actually a few more, but these are the common choices that are within the budgets of an amateur filmmaker (well, maybe 35mm is outside that range for most). The really old, regular 8mm cameras might still function, but nobody is making film for them anymore, and they’re simply not as good as super-8, which replaced them.

What you need to look for in any kind of cine camera is a single frame feature of some sort. Sometimes there’s a button near the trigger, or more often there will be a socket that you need to screw a remote cable into. If a camera doesn’t have a single-frame feature, you can’t accurately shoot individual frames with it. Harryhausen started out with a 16mm camera that didn’t have this feature, and he would tap the button as fast as he could, hoping to only get one frame each time, but would usually get 2 or even 3. Makes for some very jerky animation. Of course, if you get your footage transferred to video and imported into your computer you can edit out all the unwanted frames, but that’s time consuming and will give you a massive headache.

Of the film cameras, the super-8s are the least expensive, as is film and processing for them. Step up to 16mm (for a more professional look) and expect to pay twice as much on average for film and processing. Many 16mm cameras have a spring drive device that can be hand wound, but this can result in uneven exposure, so for these cameras it’s recommended to get what’s called an animation motor. Not every 16mm camera will take a single-frame motor... it has to have a special kind of shaft to fit. Make sure you’re getting one that will accept an animation motor. 35mm cameras are beyond the price range of most beginners, and I don’t know much about them anyway, so I’ll leave off here for film cameras.

PROS
Film looks great. In fact, people are always asking how they can get “the film look” shooting on digital video. Most film cameras have quality optics and many allow for swapping lenses. Cine cameras offer timed exposure, and film can be backwound to create in-camera dissolves, double exposures, and matte effects. Most of these effects can be quite nicely duplicated in the digital realm however through software applications (for digital cameras).

CONS
Film will cost you, as will developing. The bigger the film format, the more it’s going to cost. Also you have to wait for it to come back from the lab to see what you’ve shot.

 

CAMCORDERS

You can use ANY camcorder for stopmotion, assuming you use it properly. Now, to qualify that statement, NO camcorder (with the exception of the Sanyo IDshot) will shoot single frames. You have to use them in conjunction with your computer, running a framegrabber program to ‘capture’ images from the live video feed. And yes, you can even use your old analog camcorder that’s been gathering dust since you bought it in the 80s. For that you’d need to get an analog/digital signal converter. Canopus makes a good line of these at affordable prices, some are cards you insert into your computer and some are standalone devices like the ADVC-100 (Analog/Digital Video Converter).

If you get a DV camcorder then you won’t need a converter. But in either case, you need to make sure your computer has either Firewire or USB ports (whichever the camera or digital converter has).

When using a camcorder for stopmotion, you DO NOT use any tape or record anything with the camcorder itself... you only use it to provide a live video feed to the computer for a framegrabber to capture images from. Many camcorders will automatically shut down (losing all your stored setting) after 5 minutes if there’s a tape in the deck... what you want to do is take the tape out, and if it still wants to shut down, simply open the tape deck and keep it open while you animate. Don’t run it on batteries... an animation session can go for many hours, and you’ll go through a lot of batteries. Get an AC adapter and plug it into the wall.

PROS
Instant feedback and flawless interfacing with framegrabbers, same as webcams. But with camcorders you get better optics (they cost more).

CONS

In order to get the full user control described above, you pretty much have to opt for a “pro-sumer” level camcorder, which start at around $2000. Most ordinary consumer models are “point and shoot”, meaning they do the focusing and adjusting for you.

But John Edmark has provided this information: Panasonic's PV-GS series of camcorders all seem to have these necessary manual controls. Several of these are older models, now discontinued and available on eBay. For example, the PV-GS19 is regularly selling for ~$150. John was able to test it out with both StopMotionPro on a PC and iStopMotion and FrameThief on a Mac. It worked great with all of them. The manual controls operated exactly as advertised. I assume the same will be true of the GS 59, 19, 35, 15, 65, etc (based on the description of their manual controls at CamcorderInfo.com)

(Thanks John, reader feedback is always appreciated)

DIGITAL STILL CAMERAS

(EDIT 14 July 2012: Live view is pretty much standard on many of the DSLRs and can easily be used with some of stop motion software available today. Flicker can be avoided by using manual lenses or if need be, fixed with post-production software)

The newest thing on the stopmo horizon now is the use of Digital Still Cameras (DSCs) to capture frames. On the plus side, they offer killer resolution, far better than you’ll get with anything short of a prosumer HD camcorder, and you can adjust exposure times (which you can’t do with camcorders). On the minus side, they generally don’t offer a live video feed, so can’t be used with a framegrabber, and there are sometimes light flicker issues.  All of this can be worked around with some patience and perseverance. However, I would not recommend a beginner buy a DSC to get started.... it can be difficult and finicky to get them set up right. There are many threads on this site where people have spent a lot of time and effort trying to get their cameras to work flicker-free (or work at all). So approach this one with caution and before making a decision like this, DO YOUR RESEARCH. In the event you already have a digital still camera on hand and want to try it out, make sure it meets the requirements listed above or you’re going to run into problems.

Usually people who shoot animation with a digital still camera (or with motion picture cameras) will use a security cam as a video feed, to run through a framegrabber just so they can check the animation as they go. The way it works is, you set up the security cam (can be b&w or color, doesn’t matter) either beside your still camera or so it is looking through the viewfinder. You capture a frame using the framegrabber, which will be a low-res image, but good enough to check your animation. Then, when you’re satisfied that you’ve moved everything just right, go ahead and snap off a full res frame on the still camera. 

You might have to keep the images stored in the cameras memory to be downloaded to the computer and edited into animation later, unless you have a camera that accepts some kind of remote capture software. Many camera manufacturers offer this software. It has many functions... sometimes you can control the image functions through it, sometimes not, but what it should allow you to do is snap a frame without having to touch the camera, which would cause a jiggle in the animation. And sometimes the remote capture software will also allow you to instantly download the images to your computer hard drive, so no need to store them on the camera memory module itself.

Here's Lionel Ivan orozco's very informative page about Digital Still Cameras:
Stop Motion & Digital Still Cam Overview

PROS
Massive resolution! Easily the best image from any digital camera. Good enough for a film transfer or for high def video. Good optics. The better DSCs allow for lens interchange.

CONS
Won’t work with framegrabbers unless you rig up some kind of video feed with a security cam or something. There’s also a well-documented flicker issue. I don’t know a lot about it, but there are threads where it’s gone into in great detail. There are workarounds, but it’s tricky to fix. Flicker can be to some extent corrected with a program like After Effects.

OPTICS
One of the most important parts of a camera is the lens. That’s the biggest drawback to using webcams or cheap cameras, they just don’t have great lenses. A good zoom lens is a lot more versatile than a non zoom, but professionals generally stay away from zooms and go with manual focus lenses that have an adjustable iris to control exposure. The best cameras will allow you to interchange lenses in order to frame the shot exactly the way you want. But these cameras (not to mention the lenses) tend to be more expensive.

 

ALTERNATIVE CAMERAS

There are a few types of camera that are less well known, but will work for stopmotion. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but I’ll list some of them here.

Sanyo IDshot
This one is in a category by itself. It’s essentially a DV camcorder that also shoots high res stills, and permits a live video feed for a framegrabber. Apparently it includes some kind of simple frame-flipping feature, so you can theoretically do animation without needing to connect it to your computer. I know nothing else about them... for more information check LIO’s site: http://www.stopmotionworks.com/stopmosoftwr.htm 
Scroll to near the bottom of the page, and look for “DV Camcorder & Still Cam with Animation Feature:”

MACHINE VISION CAMERAS
In effect, these are high-end webcams with quality optics. The most inexpensive one I’m aware of is the Unibrain Fire-i 400 Industrial at around $500. This is a firewire camera that takes C-mount lenses and uses a single CCD chip. It only shoots at regular broadcast resolution, but will give a good crisp image you can’t get with those tiny webcam lenses. There are many machine vision cameras ranging into many thousands of dollars. Some use a single CCD chip and some are 3 chip models, which allows for much better color depth and image quality.

ANALOG BROADCAST CAMERAS
These are the cameras used in television studios, so obviously they deliver great quality optics, though they’re limited to broadcast resolution (that’s not a bad thing unless you plan to transfer to film or work in HD). They must be used in conjunction with an analog/digital converter. They take C-mount or CS-mount lenses and some utilize 3 ccd chips for better imaging quality. The only model I’m familiar with is the Hitachi HV-C20, which is the one I’m using in my studio. Brand new, these cameras run around $3000, but you can easily pick one up used on ebay for under $500.

I have more information on my site:

The Perfect Camera?


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