Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Stop-Motion Animation Primer Part I: Cameras

I've been dabbling in stop-motion animation recently, which for me means spending just as much time (if not more) researching the subject. Jumping right in is easy however, as digital photography simplifies the process tremendously compared to film techniques of the past. Still, new endeavors can be daunting, so I wrote these articles to let other people benefit from my experiences.

In this article I discuss camera options for stop-motion animation. I also mention the choices I made when starting out, to give an idea of the sort of personal considerations you might have to make when selecting a camera for yourself.

Cameras for Stop-Motion Animation

These days, all you really need to start making your own stop-motion animations is a webcam. In fact, most any digital camera will work, but certain camera types make the process much easier than others. For the best results you'll want a camera with full manual control (of focus, aperture and shutter speed) to ensure that your settings don't fluctuate from shot to shot. A camera with live view capability can also provide a great advantage, allowing you to control your camera with a stop-motion program. Practically any camera can benefit from a digital workflow however so long as you have the right setup.

Cellphone Cameras

Although cellphone cameras aren't robust or flexible enough for professional stop-motion work, some are more than adequate for practicing animation or making videos for the internet. Stop-motion apps like GorillaCam can be used to quickly assemble and preview your animations right on your phone. iStopMotion, software for the Mac, can even turn your iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch into a remote capture device.

The following article provides a good in-depth example of how a cellphone camera may be used for stop-motion animation: How to Turn Your iPhone Into a Stop Motion Camera.

In general, cellphone cameras share many of the same limitations as webcams however, which are discussed in the following section.


Cheap and easy to use, most webcams can be accessed directly by stop-motion software, allowing you to preview your animations and capture the exact image you see on screen. In fact, some webcams come bundled with software such as Claymation Studio. You can even create high-definition animations in 1080p with higher-end webcams like Microsoft's LifeCam.

Like cellphone cameras however, webcams lack flexibility. The lenses used in webcams are usually fixed at a wide-angle, meaning you'll need to have the camera close to the action to fill the frame. This can be inconvenient while animating and increases the chance that you'll bump the camera while working. Most webcams also lack full manual control of such features as aperture and shutter speed, which allow you to vary the depth of field in your shots (the range which appears in focus).

Webcams have other advantages however, including the ability to act as a video-assist to other cameras. Basically, you can use a webcam to interact with your stop-motion software, letting you preview your animation, while you use another camera to capture your final high-resolution stills (I'll expand on this in the following sections). Due to their light weight, webcams are also easy to manipulate, allowing for interesting camera moves. For instance, you could mount your webcam on a modified swing-arm lamp to create a camera crane.

Overall, webcams present a good, inexpensive way to start experimenting with stop-motion animation.

Low-End to Mid-range Digital Cameras

Low-end 'compact' or 'point-and-shoot' cameras offer good image quality and high resolutions, but rarely allow full manual control of their features. Mid-range or 'bridge' cameras (cameras positioned between amateur and professional cameras) allow more control but share some of the same limitations as compact cameras when it comes to interfacing with stop-motion software.

Unlike webcams, most digital cameras are not designed to be operated when connected to a computer, and thus cannot be utilized directly by stop-motion software. In order to use such a camera, either a video-assist camera is required (such as a webcam or the camera itself via a video-out cable) or the software must be able to acquire stills from the camera (by automatically scanning a directory or by manually importing the stills).

Using a video-assist camera such as a webcam lets you preview your animation in a stop-motion program while you capture the final high-resolution stills with another camera. Of course, for every shot you take with the video-assist camera, you will also need to take a shot with your primary camera. After you've finished capturing all of your frames, you can import the images to assemble the final animation. Some cameras can be used as their own video-assist camera by utilizing a video-out cable. This allows the stop-motion software to use the low-resolution preview from the camera's viewfinder. A USB video adapter may be necessary for this setup, however (I discuss this more in my Case Study below).

Directory scanning, available in programs like Dragonframe and Stop Motion Pro, continuously scans a directory for new images and imports them automatically. This will work if your camera has remote control software which will automatically transfer your images to your computer, or if you're using an Eye-Fi SD card, a special memory card which can wirelessly transfer images to your computer. Although directory scanning will not provide a live feed while you are working, it can ease the process of importing your final images while you work with a video-assist camera.

For tips on manually importing your high-resolution stills, see my Case Study in the next article (Part II: Software), in which I personally deal with that issue.

Compact and mid-range digital cameras generally require more effort to use for stop-motion animation than webcams or professional digital cameras. For this reason, it is hard to recommend them unless you already own one (as was my case, which I detail in my Case Study below).

For more information on directory scanning and using the Eye-Fi SD card, see this tutorial on Stop Motion Pro's website.

Video Cameras

Video cameras generally have little trouble interacting with stop-motion software so long as you can output the video signal from your camera to your computer. This may require a USB video adapter for cameras with an A/V out or a Firewire cable and conversion card for Firewire DV cameras. HD video cameras may require an HDMI conversion card or decoder software for HDV Firewire cameras. As with all digital cameras, full manual control over features such as exposure and focus will yield the best results.

For more information on using video cameras, see the following tutorials on Stop Motion Pro's website: 
USB Video Adapters
Firewire Cameras
HD Video Cameras

DSLR Cameras

DSLRs or 'Digital Single Lens Reflex' cameras represent one of the best choices for stop-motion animation. Aimed at professional photographers and hobbyists, DSLRs provide the best image quality, full manual control and interchangeable lenses. Some DSLR cameras with live view capability, like those made by Canon and Nikon, also provide easy integration with many stop-motion animation programs. The live view feature on these cameras allows you to connect your camera to your computer, enabling you to preview your shots and control your camera with your stop-motion software.

If you are serious about stop-motion animation, then upgrading to a Canon or Nikon DSLR with live view should be a consideration.

For a list of Canon and Nikon live view cameras, see Dragonframe's supported cameras page.

Film Cameras

If you are determined to try the traditional route, film cameras can benefit from stop-motion software by using a video-assist camera, as described in the 'Low-end to Mid-range Digital Cameras' section above.

If you need to manually import your shots after developing and scanning your film, see my Case Study in the next article (Part II: Software) for tips on how to utilize the edits you made with your stop-motion software.

Camera Accessories

Certain accessories will make your work more enjoyable after you've selected your camera. A tripod, for instance, is practically indispensable. For smaller cameras, such as webcams and cellphones, a stack of books or a small table tripod like a GorillaPod could suffice. Or, as mentioned before, you could mount such a camera to a swing-arm lamp to allow for more creative camera moves. Larger cameras may require a full-size tripod to let you position the camera far enough away to work comfortably. You might even consider getting one with a geared head to allow for precise pans and tilts.

An AC power adapter made for your camera is also worth getting. Otherwise, you may have to move the camera to recharge the battery. And don't forget to buy extension cords (USB, firewire, etc.) if you want to position your camera far from your computer.

A remote shutter is a consideration if you'll be manually taking shots with a digital camera. Without a remote shutter you risk moving the camera whenever you take a shot. Or, if you don't mind the delay, you can try using the timed shutter release built into many cameras. A timed release will allow your camera to settle back into position after you engage the shutter.

And, last but not least, keep in mind that many digital cameras do not include a memory card.

Case Study: My Personal Experience

When I started out in stop-motion, I had two cameras at my disposal: a Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 HS and a Sony DSC-F707. The Elph is a point-and-shoot camera and doesn't allow full manual control, leading me to eliminate it fairly quickly. The Sony, however, has full manual control but dates back to 2001. Still, the Sony has a high enough resolution to allow for 1080p animations so I kept it in mind while I researched my options.

I thought about buying a Microsoft LifeCam Studio since it received praise on Stop Motion Pro's website, but the inability to adjust the webcam's focal length led me to ultimately decide against it (I envisioned having the camera behind me, out of the way). DSLRs were an attractive option but I knew I didn't want to spend too much money before finding out if my interest in stop-motion were just a passing fancy.

Eventually I learned about USB video adapters and figured out that I could use one to turn my Sony into its own video-assist camera, since the DSC-F707 has a video-out port. Deciding on a video adapter proved difficult however, as many of the inexpensive adapters on Amazon sounded hit or miss. I ended up taking a chance on the Mygica EZgrabber2 and fortunately had little difficulty setting it up. I already owned a tripod and a nice geared head for it, but also decided to purchase a remote shutter and USB extension cable (I knew that I would have to offload images from my camera fairly frequently since the maximum capacity of the camera's memory stick is a whopping 128 mb).

Luckily my research paid off and most of the stop-motion programs I tried recognized my camera's output. Eventually I created my first stop-motion animation and discovered two inconvenient shortcomings: (1) the camera's viewfinder preview is very low-resolution (I knew this going in but decided to live with it anyway), and (2) the camera reset the lens's zoom and focus every time I plugged it into my computer to offload the memory stick. Still, after much effort (see the Case Study from Part II), I eventually managed to create a decent animation with some trial software (you can see it here).

Happy with my overall experience, I decided to upgrade my camera to a DSLR. After comparing the live view capability of Canons to Nikons on the Dragonframe website, I decided to get a Canon DSLR. The Canon EOS Rebel T4i (with 18-135mm EF-S IS STM lens) ended up as my final choice for the following reasons:

- The T5i had just been released but with nearly identical features, so the T4i's had dropped in price.
- The T4i is capable of recording video in 1080p, in case I want to try my hand at movie-making (or integrating video with my stop-motion animations).
- The STM lens was a newer lens and features quiet auto-focus (I had already experienced how noisy auto-focus can be during video recording with the Canon Elph I own).
- The T4i features stereo microphones (the previous model, the T3i, and the higher model, the 60D, only featured mono recording).
- I did not need any of the features of the higher models, such as fast continuous shooting.

If I had not been interested in shooting video in stereo sound with quiet auto-focus, I could have bought the T3i or a lower model and saved some money. In fact, the T3i actually has a larger live view preview than the T4i. Or I could have bought the T4i with the older 18-55mm lens kit. In addition to a quiet auto-focus however, I figured that the newer lens might reduce potential flicker problems in my animations.

So far, I'm happy with the choice that I made, and bought an (admittedly overpriced) AC adapter for the camera as well.

A Closing Thought

Before buying a camera to use for your stop-motion animations, familiarize yourself with the various stop-motion programs available. I cover the most popular ones in my next article.


  1. I saw your stop-motion animation videos on YouTube and they are vey well made! I myself am have just started to use Dragonframe. The quality of your animation are very remarkable! I wish I can learn the technique that you use in eliminating any light flicker in your takes. I tried everything (I have all setting in manual) but I still get light flicker. Kudos to your workmanship!

    1. Thanks Randy! Other than strictly controlling the lighting and making occasional adjustments in Photoshop, I haven't had to deal with too much flicker. I know that some flicker can be caused by the camera itself, especially ones which adjust the aperture the moment you take the shot (even if you're shooting manually, most digital cameras will keep the aperture wide open while you're composing the shot).

      I know that the makers of Dragonframe recommend using Nikon manual lenses on Canon bodies to avoid potential flicker problems (again, caused by the aperture stopping down differently each shot). I remember reading that most people have fewer problems with the newer Canon lenses though.

    2. By the way, here's an Adobe blog post that deals with the problem (also linked from the Dragonframe website: http://blogs.adobe.com/aftereffects/2012/07/reducing-flicker-for-stop-motion-animation-and-time-lapse-photography.html