3 Very Cool Ways to Bring Animation Into Your Photography

Maybe you’ve heard — the world is moving toward video, and you’re a still photographer wondering if it’s all going to pass you by like some crazy time lapse? Don’t worry, I’ve got some good news for all photographers: keep doing your thing but add some motion to spice things up and show the world you’re every bit as of-the-moment as that predator (producer+editor) running around with a rig.

Each of these three applications offer stunning effects without too much effort — and there’s plenty of online tutorials for all of them. I’ll just make some introductions.

(Also, apologies for the crappy animated GIFs as examples. Wanted to get you quick ideas of the product without uploading videos to Vimeo. They need to loop anyway, and a video doesn’t quite get it across.)

Cinemagraphs

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Cinemagraph (GIF captured off computer screen)

This one’s been around since about 2011, so you’ve probably seen a few already. It has all the properties of a photo except there’s always some little piece of it that seems to be magically moving. The technique for getting this effect is actually to take a little piece of video and then, using Cinemagraph Pro, mask out all but the bits you want to keep moving. The application loops it for you.

Things to Know

Bring a tripod. You want as much still in your video as possible for the masking to work well once it’s in Cinemagraph Pro.

Pick your spots based on BOTH composition and for some part of the scenery that’s moving in an interesting way. It’s a different way of looking, but just use your same instinct as a photographer, then look for the part that you can get looped in an animation within the scene. You’ll get used to it pretty quick.

The key to smooth Cinemagraphs is the smooth looping so that it feels endless. Keep in mind when shooting that you want whatever piece you plan on having loop return back to it’s original state, if possible. Otherwise, you’ll have to have the application fake it with crossfade. Not bad, but not perfect.

Learning Curve

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Cinemagraph Tutorial Screenshot

Medium. If you’re a still shooter and don’t use a tripod, there’s a few new elements here for when you’re out shooting. But the software has a very good intro video that walks you through every step of the process, of which honestly there aren’t many. It holds your hand every step of the way. The hardest part is just getting it to appear seamless and interesting. Most environments have a lot of moving parts, so even when you mask things out, stuff overlaps into the areas you’re trying to loop and creates some mayhem. The best folks at this kind of stuff are pro photographers with studios where they can set things up just right. Not that you can’t do it without that, but there’s just a higher level of complexity to the whole thing than you first imagine.

The Effect

Pro: This has the effect of making your still image come to life. It’s still a captured moment, but with just a bit more information for your viewer to hold onto. I find it to be very effective at grabbing your attention.

Con: I also find that Cinemagraphs experience comes at a slight cost. The effect creates a kind of hyper reality that can act as an offset to the other side of photography that seeks to simply freeze a moment in time. The idea that I can’t print it, for example, tends to move the needle on these kinds of images over to the “fun” or even “marketing content” side of the spectrum. But, when done right, you can’t keep your eyes off it.

Interested in getting into it? Check it out: here.

Plotagraph

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Plotagraph from their website. (GIF captured off computer screen)

At first glance, a Plotagraph (which is in essence a morphing technique) can seem a bit like a Cinemagraph. The difference is that with a Plotagraph, you start with a photograph, not a video. And instead of pulling piece of a video to use as animated parts, you’re actually making the animation out of your own image.

Things to Know

Seems complicated, but it’s not. The technique is simply to put anchor points where you want your image to remain stable and then plot points (hence, Plotagraph) where you want movement, and you can set the direction of the flow for some cool control over how things move.

Select shots based on movement. It’s simply an oddity of an effect unless it’s used to enhance something that has some flow to it already.

Learning Curve

Super easy. This, honestly, took me about 15 minutes to understand. I was surprised how easy it was. You just need to watch someone do it once and you’ve totally got it. Also, the Plotagraph software is specifically-designed for exactly this kind of morphing, so you’re not hacking an old face-morphing program to get the effect. Everything about the interface is designed to get you on your way. Just import, plot your points and preview it. Export. That simple.

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Plotagraph Interface

The Effect

Pro: Very unique movement to an image, specifically around the flow of a specific area that you control. And the effect is a constant morphing that has a very real look to it, so the movement of clouds, water, smoke and other things are mind-blowingly cool. An easy way to do what looks like very high-end animation. And the creative possibilities are seemingly endless with it. It’s practically like painting with motion on top of your image.

Con: It’s easy for the effect to take over the experience of your image. It seems more likely that, in any given image, the reaction will be “aw, cool!” rather than whatever it is about the scene that drew you to it to begin with. But adding it to your arsenal is a must.

Want to get it? Check it out: here.

Photoshop Timeline

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I saved the best for last. A lot of people don’t realize that Photoshop has allowed you to import and work on video for five years. The reason this is so great is that Photoshop is a much more intuitive, and deep, program for us photographers (being called “Photoshop” and all). We’re already used to doing our masks, layers and retouching in it. So, putting a bit of motion into an image using their Timeline feature feels much more intuitive than going into After Effects, or the like. And whereas the other two applications mentioned here give you some specific kinds of animation techniques, Photoshop’s possibilities are quite a bit farther reaching.

Things to Know

Importing a video is easy and goes straight into a timeline that sits on the bottom of the screen which you can access through your Windows menu, as well. It sits as a layer, just like any other layer, which means you can change the layer properties and mask out parts you don’t want in much more nuanced ways — just as you would an image layer.

In the above example I did with rain, I brought in a video file that had been created with rain hitting a black surface so that I could change the layer to “Lighten” and only the drops showed up on top of the layer below it. This is just how you would do a layer effect on a still image, making it very intuitive. I also masked out the left side of the image, but in a jagged line to match the design — easy with the selection tool. Again, just like I would with an image.

You can find royalty free video (and many that already have transparency masks) both on YouTube and on many stock video sites. Just need to do a little hunting.

This is also not limited to just video inclusion. You can also use your timeline in Photoshop to create simple animations, too. Say, for example, you wanted some blinking lights in a building — you could create those with your image by creating separate layers with on and off states of those lights, bringing them into your Timeline and using keyframes. (More on that here, if interested.)

Learning Curve

Medium-to-hard. Mixed bag here — on the one hand, it’s the application you already know, so most of the tools should already be second nature to you. On the other hand, if you haven’t used it before, you’re adding a timeline to your whole environment, with its own set of features to understand. If you’ve never used a time-based, or editing, application before, be prepared to watch a lot of tutorials and look things up. All the answers are online, you just have to probe around. This one took me the better part of a day to really get into and learn. I looked at a lot of YouTube videos and then, once I got it, I haven’t had any problems since, though I still look things up all the time when I’m using it. Give yourself some more time on this one. It’s a more powerful tool than the above two, so it’s worth the effort.

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Photoshop with Timeline feature opened

The Effect

Pro: With an endless amount of control, especially with color adjustments, masking, animation and layer effects, Photoshop Timeline can create any number of effects. But the main thing I see this useful for is establishing your own territory for where and how movement interacts with your image. If you wanted to have a TV playing in an otherwise still image, for example, this would be the place to do it. Clouds moving in the reflection of a car window, same. A teeny little movement in someone’s eyeball… you get the idea.

Con: Because it’s Photoshop, and because most photographers see Photoshop for a specific part of their workflow, the idea of getting into video on it just seems hard. Also, it leaves so much up to you: sourcing video content to use, figuring out what you want to do with it and then working it into your image. It’s not necessarily hard work, but it’s work. Unlike the other two, where you can kind of get in, do it, and get out — this one will take more time and energy. But the results will be far more your own, for the effort.

Ready to really get into it? Start here.

Hope you enjoyed the article. If so, please love it up. And don’t forget to follow along on my daily photo postings at: @joshsrose

Written by

A deep dive into photography, with professional photographer, artist and director, Josh S. Rose. Top Writer: Photography and Creativity.

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