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Photography

How to Shoot Images for a Stop Motion Animated GIF

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GIFs have a bit of a low brow reputation from being deployed on silly websites in the 90s, but they can be used for more sophisticated purposes. Our GIF will show the unwrapping of a gift, and could be used in an online ad. After I show you how to set up the shoot and capture the necessary images, one of our resident Photoshop experts will teach you the process of animating the image sequence into a GIF.


Before You Begin

This is a two part tutorial. Once you've learned how to make images for a GIF, head over to part two to learn how to animate everything in Photoshop.


1. What is a GIF?

GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. It's a very early lossless-compressed web image format for displaying simple graphics. As the pixels are only eight bits of data, GIFs display only up to 256 colours, saved into a colour lookup table within the file, from the 24-bit, 16.8 million colour spectrum.

Limited colour palette and clear banding in the GIF export preview window
Limited colour palette and clear banding in the GIF export preview window.

Probably its most popular property is that it can save animations, and as of the second revision (GIF89a, 1989) the delay in milliseconds between frames could also be designated on a per-frame basis, as well as looping commands (transparency was also supported with this revision). Each frame within the animation can use a different colour table too, so a wider spectrum of colours can be displayed over the course of an animation.

The cadence of GIFs usually isn't very smooth. Cadence is the rhythm or pace of movement in the frames. In other words, the position of moving objects in a GIF jump from one frame to the next, instead of moving smoothly like they would in actual video.

This is due to the low frames per second rate. Most browsers support only up to 19 frames per second at full speed, after which they slow the animation down. This tends to give them an endearingly jerky quality, like old hand-cranked film footage, adding to their simplistic appeal.


2. What Is Stop Motion Animation?

Recording moving images in real time means capturing still frames of live action in the range of 15-60 frames every second. High-speed, slow-motion capture can go up to several thousand frames per second.

Stop motion animation flips this on its head, being the process of taking a long series of still images over any time frame, simulating live action by moving the subject just a small amount between successive photographs.

Its most popular iteration has generally been "claymation," or using miniature sculpted clay models in place of actors. Cel animation is similar, where each individual frame is hand-painted on acetate, before being photographed a frame at a time to become the motion picture. In its heyday, like the traditional Disney animations, the cels would have been shot on a film camera capable of shooting a single frame at a time (a popular feature for budding filmmakers on 8mm Bolex-like cameras).


3. Why Should a Photographer Make Stop Motion GIFs?

Nowadays, stop motion is seeing a revival as short-form creative video becomes an artistic and commercial outlet in its own right. Whether you're helping your own or a client's branding, being able to shoot for GIF output is becoming increasingly relevant.

Just like filmmaking a few years ago and 3D design in the coming years, it's likely that this will be a necessary skill to add to the roster in order to stay competitive. Vine, Instagram and TwitPic all support video and/or animated content, and are rapidly becoming the social outlet du jour for brands trying to connect with fans in fun and unusual ways.


An example of creative stop motion by markitube94. See more of his work at www.cool-dose.com.

Besides the potential commercial benefits of stop motion, it's actually really fun. You can do anything: full-on claymation, bringing inanimate objects to life in a short story, a quick humourous unboxing video, little behind-the-scenes snippets using motordrive, whatever you can think of.


4.  Festive Promo, for Photographers or Clients

A gift unwrapping animation like I'm doing works as a festive promotional image for anyone's social media use. It could even be adapted and lengthened to show something inside the box, if you wanted to promote a specific thing, say a photo book for wedding photographers. Or perhaps a comedic version could be created with multiple nested boxes inside the box, revealing something much smaller.

It's simple, fun, and slightly hypnotic. It's perfect for keeping viewer's eyes where you want them. Offering it to a client you're already working with for social holiday imaging could be quite a coup, offering value exceeding expectations.

So, we know what it is and why it's good, so how do you do it?


5. Base Materials

This is fairly straighforward. Obviously you'll need your box. If it's to be opened, make sure it looks nice inside, or use an actual gift box. If it's for a client, you could use their standard shipping packaging. Then you'll need wrapping paper, and some kind of complementing ribbon to untie. That's it!

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For shooting, you'll need a sturdy work surface that won't get easily knocked out of place, and if you're doing it against a white background like me, some form of white seamless paper and supports. This doesn't need to be the expensive 2.7m (9ft) wide stuff unless your box is big enough for a person (another idea!), half width (1.35m/4.5ft) seamless paper is pretty cheap in short lengths.

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Once you have that, it's just the usual camera and lighting gear. This is what I'm using, for a fairly flat light:

Working out how to make this fit together in the space available took a while
Working out how to make this fit together in the space available took a while.

Just make sure your camera platform is good and sturdy. Everything except the ribbon needs to be kept in place for the animation, or there may be a lot of tedious alignment in post. In some cases it won't be possible to correct unintentional movement after the fact, so it's best to keep everything as locked down as possible.


6. Build Your Set

Because I'm just doing this from a fixed position on a white seamless backdrop, there isn't really much in the way of set-building to do. If you were to do a more advanced GIF, with motion or focus pulls or anything like that, or if you're doing something with more narrative, then a "real" set would be useful.

I've filled the box with 18lb of cast weights, to ensure it doesn't move if the crepe ribbon catches on it.

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Once I've taped these inside, I can wrap it up.

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My wrought iron dining room table is a fairly solid surface, around which I set up my backdrop, light, reflector and camera. I'm using just one light, an Einstein, on colour mode to ensure frame-to-frame consistency. If you use a speedlight, you need to make sure you let your flash fully recharge its capacitor between frames.

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The only addition I've made to the "set" is to add four body caps under the corners of the box, which will allow me to pull the ribbon around underneath without moving the whole box.

Very glad I thought of this beforehand and not afterward
Very glad I thought of this beforehand and not after starting.

Camera Settings

Much like shooting a time lapse or panoramic, you want to keep each photo as consistent as possible. You need to flip your camera to manual mode. Pick your aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and keep them locked down throughout the shoot. You'll also want to lock down your focus. You can use manual focus, or just make sure your setting doesn't allow the camera to refocus between shots.

Finally, you'll want a consistent white balance. I'm suggest picking a manual colour temperature to match your flashes. However, doing a preset white balance would also work.


7. Cadence and Shooting

I'm using wireless triggering because I can use the same transceivers to remote-trigger the camera as well. All I'm touching is the ribbon as I move it between frames.

I'm aiming for a final frame rate of about 17fps. For it to last around four seconds, with half of it being a reverse-playback to its starting frame for smooth looping, I'm looking at shooting about 35 frames.

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Before starting, I have to break these 35 frames down into sections of action and determine how long each section should be. For this example, they would be "untying", "ends out", looping under", "twisting", "pulling away", and "leaving the frame".

This is six sections, but they may not break down into an even six frames per section. Some might be quite fast, like "ends out", and some may be slower with intermediate steps, like "untying". How many frames each of these sections lasts determines the speed of motion, or how far I should move the ribbon between frames. It needs to be fairly uniform in order to maintain a smooth cadence.

I'm planning carefully so that it can hopefully go off in a single take, without having to reset. That would be a hassle on a project like this, even more so with crinkly paper and heavy weights rolling around.

That said, instead of trying to get it perfect in-camera just for a demo, I'm going to apply the above sections in post. The actual action will be slower and more methodical, moving around an inch per frame, and then parts can be sped up by dropping frames as necessary. This seems to be a more reliable method, if a little extra work.

Now it's time to start shooting, so let's capture our first frame.

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I started at about one inch movement intervals, so the second frame wasn't too different.

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I continued this way until the bow was completely untied and I was getting into the actual ribbon. Here it was going very slowly due to the length of the ribbon, so I started moving it around three inches between frames. This seemed to progress much more smoothly, until the twist underneath the parcel snapped due to the friction between the fragile ends of the crepe ribbon. Here's a pro tip: use real ribbon if you're duplicating this project.

I thought this might be a deal-breaker, but continued for the rest of the take until the ribbon was completely out of frame. It turns out that it didn't ruin anything. Now that I have a sequence of RAW images, what next?


8. Batch Processing

Since we need to keep all of the images as identical as possible, the solution to processing and exporting a large number of files in exactly the same way to the same place is, of course, batch processing. For me, this consists of three distinct steps.

Process

Process the first image in the sequence in Camera Raw or Lightroom. For me, that was ensuring the contrast was sufficient and saturation levels, particularly in the red channel, were under control.

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A little auto lens correction and mild white vignetting to bring up the background, and I'm done. Since I'm in Camera Raw and don't need to bring the image into Photoshop proper, I can just hit Done.

Bridge

Now I need to duplicate all of these processing settings to the rest of the sequence. So I fire up Adobe Bridge, right click on the image that I've just processed, and select Develop Settings > Copy Settings.

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I can then select all the other images in the folder (except for the first one), then go to Develop Settings and hit Paste Settings.

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Organisation is the key to smooth processing of bulk files. In Adobe Bridge, I can quickly batch rename the images, so it's easier to see what's going on during animation than with, say, "_MG_5937". So I highlight all the images, go to Tools > Batch Rename, and set up the new filenames and a folder for them to go into. I used a simple "Frame_XX.CR2" syntax.

Scripting

Next I need Photoshop to open those CR2s, convert their colour profiles and bit depths from my usual defaults, and resize them before outputting as JPGs. This is quite simple with a custom action and the Image Processor.

First I create my action. I open one of the frames at random, and then go to the Actions Palette, create a new action and hit Record. First, I go to Edit > Convert to Profile and set up a conversion from AdobeRGB, which I usually shoot and process in, to sRGB, the default colour space of JPG.

Then I go to Image > Mode > 8 Bits/Channel, which converts it from a 16 bit RAW import to the 8 bit colour of JPG. Then I hit Ctrl-Alt-I to resize, and for this I'm going to resize to 600 x 400 pixels, for reasonably quick load times of the final GIF. Then I hit stop in the actions palette.

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Now I have my action, I close the file without saving and go to File > Scripts > Image Processor. Here I set it to open the CR2 files, and output them as JPGs at 10 quality to a subfolder within the folder they're currently in. At the bottom under preferences, I get it to run the custom action I just created, and then I just hit Run.

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9. Final Results

Once image processor has done its thing, I have a folder full of processed, resized JPGs that can be used for the final animation.

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I can quickly check the general look of them by simply previewing the first frame in Adobe Bridge, and holding the right arrow to fly through them.


10. Creating the Animated GIF

That's all from me! To learn how to put all your photos together and create the GIF file, head over to the second part of this article, How to Create a Holiday-Inspired Animated GIF Using Stop Motion Photography.

If you do make an animated social media "card" this holiday season, please share it in the comments so we can all be inspired!

And, as always, questions or thoughts? Hit up the comments below!

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