Capturing animation has traditionally involved using some sort of camera. With inexpensive stop motion animation software, it is possible to simplify the process of building an animation by capturing the frames via software, combined with a computer and a connected camera, or to use a handheld digital still camera to capture individual frames and have software combine them into an animation.
Which is better for stop motion animation? A webcam with a computer, or a still digital camera without a computer? The answer, of course, is ‘it depends”. The advantage of using a webcam with a computer is obvious; you have instant feedback as you capture frames. You can go back and re-do a frame easily. But a handheld digital camera is mobile; it can capture some kinds of stop motion that a webcam/computer setup can’t well, such as large scale animation (a whiteboard) or people . A still camera is going to have better picture quality. With careful use a digital camera can give great results.
USB Web Cameras
The most common and cheapest cameras that are used with desktop animation software. The majority come with fixed optics (no zoom) and auto focus and exposure. The term “UVC Compliant” means that the camera will with drivers supplied by the operating system itself (plug and play). This is true for Windows Vista, Windows 7, Mac OS 10.5 or greater and some flavors of Linux. Additional manufacture supplied software may extend functionality of the camera. Resolution is a nominal 640×480 and on up. Currently 720P (1280×720) is very common.
Older tape based digital Camcorders often sport a connector called “Firewire” or “iLink”. With a firewire port equipped computer and a cable, these cameras can be used with animation software. The upside is the exposure and autofocus functions may work better with these cameras, plus the optics allow for zooming in on a subject. The resolution of these cameras is 480i (720×480).
Digital Still Camera
For stop motion, the necessary features for using a simple point and shoot camera are few. Being able to lock exposure and focus are both very desirable (and arguably necessary). Fortunately this is a very common feature. Frame resolution is not a large concern; a 3.2 Mega Pixel Camera is more than adequate for use with stop motion. All digital cameras feature a screen on the back panel for framing shots and playing back. Using play back with the frame advance function can act as a rough preview of captured animation.
Tethered Digital Still Camera
Some digital still cameras (typically more expensive digital SLR models) can be used to capture still frames under the control of a computer when used with stop motion software. The advantages are a combination of the ease of use of a USB web camera combined with the image quality of a still digital camera. Support is not universal; some cameras work, some do not. Refer to the support web site for the particular stop motion software that is being used or considered for purchase.
Most web cameras use auto focus, which is great for chatting online, but can be a problem for capturing still frames. It is important to pay attention to ensure the webcam hasn’t decided to focus on some other stray object. The majority of webcams on the market have their focus controlled by the camera. However, with still digital cameras, it is important to make sure to enable “Lock Focus” on the camera when using it on a tripod or other mount. Most digital cameras have this feature, which prevents the camera from refocusing once you have it set the way you want it.
Exposure is the amount of light that is being sent to the camera sensor; this is handled automatically with most Web cameras. In some cases, the camera can also be controlled via software to a modest extent. Hand held digital cameras often have manual exposure controls, or at least, exposure lock. This prevents the camera from changing exposure settings while it’s being used to capture frames of animation. In both cases, having control over exposure is important because shifts in exposure show up as lighter or darker frames. Lighting plays a key role here as well, for having managed lighting will help the camera capture images with good exposure.
It is important to have the camera mounted in some way to keep it steady, so a tripod is a good first choice. It isn’t that important that it be expensive, but it must be steady and easy to adjust. Two different type of camera mounts exist; a ball head is a simple mount that allows a camera to be positioned quickly, and a pan head is designed for more control when repositioning the camera.
However, this same immobility that makes a tripod useful can sometimes be a hindrance to getting the right shot. A top down shot can’t be accomplished easily; instead the camera is pointed down at an angle on the subject. Tabletop bendable tripod stands can be really handy, but also possibly tricky to control well.
An inexpensive camera stand can be fashioned out of a desk lamp. The parts used in this video are an “On Stage CM01 Portable Recorder Mount Adapter” and a “TM02B Flange Mount” for mounting microphones. An alternative to dismantling a desk lamp is to use a boom mike stand for floor or desktop use. These types of mounts are best for lightweight digital still or web cameras.