Depending on your online habits, you may have seen a great many animated GIFs over the years, or perhaps only a few. While in the past they tended to show small, tacky rotating 3D logos and buttons, in recent years they’ve transitioned to more of a short, silent movie. There’s more than one way to make an animated GIF, but today we’ll work through a common Photoshop workflow — turning a series of still photos into one animation.
Taking just one photo at a time was once the norm. When photos came in rolls of 36 (plus a couple more if you were lucky) we certainly didn’t waste them, at least not if we were paying for our own development and printing. But nowadays, what used to be exclusive to sports photographers is now mainstream. Any DSLR, any iPhone, and many other cameras besides can all take advantage of continuous shooting.
On a Canon EOS, this is what the option looks like.
To get your feet dirty quickly, pull out your iPhone, head to the Photos app, point the camera at something interesting that moves, then hold down the shutter button. iOS calls this Burst Mode, and you’ll see a counter quickly ramp up showing how many photos you’ve just taken.
On an iPhone it’s called Burst Mode, and this is what it looks like in action.
On an iPhone in particular, most of the photos in a motor drive session like this will be hidden. To see them, you’ll have to edit the photo and choose your picks. However, if you import them to your computer, they’re all still accessible.
A quick way to import all the images is to use Image Capture, a little-known app that lives in your Utilities folder. It does a similar job to iPhoto, but is more bare bones. In particular, it’s great at pulling photos off an iOS device quickly, and it’s also good at deleting them.
Launch Image Capture by clicking on the Spotlight magnifying glass in the top right of the menu bar, then typing “Image Ca…” until the app name appears. In Yosemite, this will be a floating box in the middle of the screen; in previous versions, just below the spotlight icon.
Image Capture is a handy app indeed — good for deleting, copying and defining what happens when you insert a particular device.
In Image Capture, find your fresh Burst Mode photos, then click the first, Shift-click the last, and drag them to a folder where you can edit them. If you’re working with a DSLR, just find the files on the SD card (somewhere in the DCIM folder, probably) and copy those instead.
Easy: make sure Photoshop is running and with no other images open. Next, select all the images in the Finder, then drag the lot together onto the Photoshop icon in your dock.
When they’re all open, it’s time to Photomerge!
This is the interesting part, and a rough equivalent to image stabilization. Choose File > Automate > Photomerge. In the dialog that pops up, press Add Open Files to add all the documents you’ve got open in Photoshop, then choose Reposition on the left side (to let Photoshop move the images to match) and uncheck Blend Images Together at the bottom. Press OK and wait for the magic to happen.
Here are the Photomerge settings you’re looking for.
This function is normally intended to unify panoramas, and so the resulting Photoshop file is called “Untitled_Panorama1”. On these settings, you’ll also need to crop the image slightly to hide any ugly edges, so grab the Crop tool and trim away. It’s also a good idea to make sure that every image fills the frame, so Option-click on each layer’s visibility eye in turn. Option-clicking hides all other layers, showing you each at once. It’s entirely possible that some layers are skewed, blurry or simply ugly, so throw them away.
Can’t beat a classic Curves adjustment layer.
Select the top layer, then use the yin-yang-black-and-white-cookie menu at the bottom of the Layers panel to add a Curves adjustment layer. In the Properties panel, add an S-curve for some contrast. We’ll leave this adjustment layer on for all the images in our resulting GIF. Also, before we continue, it’s a good idea to Save this file as a PSD.
Choose Window > Timeline to bring up the Timeline panel, and press the Create Frame Animation button in the panel.
Getting started with a timeline.
Make sure that your frames are in order, as it’s easy to get one out of sequence. Next, head to the Timeline panel submenu and choose Make Frames from Layers.
And with a few frames to play with.
Each frame in the Timeline panel represents a layer state. Changing the visibility of layers in the Layers panel only affects the currently selected frame, so be careful. You’ll likely need to select each frame in turn, then make the adjustment layer visible. Once each frame is set up correctly, you can use the playback controls at the bottom of the Timeline panel to play the movie, or to step and forth through it.
Playing the movie through should now show typical GIF-like stuttery playback. Still, you may find that some of the frames in your movie aren’t necessary. Maybe you moved the camera and it became blurry, or skewed with rolling shutter, or the second half of the movie simply isn’t very interesting. Whatever the reason, feel free to find any frames you don’t want, then press the Trash button at the bottom of the panel to delete them.
In this animation, deleting most of the frames produced a smoother animation.
It’s also possible to change the speed of the animation, by inserting a delay on any or all frames. Select all the frames by clicking on the first and Shift-clicking the last, then choose 0.1 seconds from the pop-up menu underneath any of the frames, next to where “0 sec” is shown. You can set the speed to whatever you like, or simply pause for a few seconds at a particular frame.
Once the speed is set, you may wish to make the GIF play repeatedly, by choosing “Forever” from the drop-down menu that currently says “Once”.
A simple File > Save for Web is all you need to start with. First, scale down the GIF with the Image Size section at the bottom right.
Save for Web, the old standby, also exports animation.
Next, choose one of the GIF presets at the top right, and experiment with the number of colors and dithering to balance quality and file size. You can also preview playback here. Press the Save button, give it a name and location, and you’re done.
While it’s not your average day in Photoshop, creating an animated GIF here does give you a heap of flexibility. If you want to add a title to a specific frame, go ahead. Want to retouch something out? No problem. And sure, while GIFs don’t have sound, or smooth modern codecs, or high definition, they do play everywhere, and can be fun. Embracing limitations can sometimes produce magic. Enjoy!
The finished result — imperfect, clunky, but fun.
Watch n' Learn more about Photoshop here.