You’ve got a series of still photos that you want to turn into an animation. No problem. What you’re looking to make is an animated GIF. (Pronounced with a J sound, by the way, if you’d like to be pedantic.) What’s more important than the way you pronounce animated GIFs is the way you make them. And that’s easiest done in Photoshop with the help of one window and a few mouse clicks.
Animated GIFs are animated the same way as a traditional cartoon: replace one still picture with another and another, and do it quick enough to create the illusion of motion. What makes animated GIFs so special is they do it with very small file sizes, which made them a popular way to display moving pictures online in the days of very low bandwidth.
Animated GIFs are still popular, of course, and they allow for fun projects like turning a series of still photos into a movie. I’ve used a fast frame rate to fire off a burst of stills that, when turned into an animated GIF, become fun, stop-action style, quirky little videos. They are no replacement for 4K or high frame rates, but they fit their own charming niche in the world. And best of all they can be made from still photographs so you can always decide to animate a series of frames after you’ve captured them.
Regardless of why you want to animate your still photos, how you do it is simple. Start in Photoshop’s File menu under the Scripts heading, where you’ll choose Load Files Into Stack. Then from the popup that appears, choose Folder and then point to the folder containing the photos you wish to animate. (Alternatively, if you only want to use only some of the photos in a folder, choose Files and browse to their folder then shift-click to select the range of images to animate.) Click OK and Photoshop will load each image file into a single layered document, making a layer from each individual image. This is what will become the frames of the animated GIF.
Now, go to the Window menu and click on Timeline to open the Timeline. This window is the secret ingredient to super-simple animated GIFs from a series of stills.
With your image files in individual layers and the Timeline window open, look for the dropdown menu in the middle of the Timeline window. It will say Create Frame Animation or Create Video Timeline. If it says Create Frame Animation, click on those words and Photoshop will take the first step in making your animated GIF. If it says Create Video Timeline, click the arrow to the right of that button to pull up a short, two-item dropdown menu. From that, click the option for Create Frame Animation. The button will change to Create Frame Animation, which you’ll then click.
Now you’ll see that Photoshop has converted just one layer into a frame in your animation. To convert the rest of the layers into frames, look at the top right corner of the Timeline window, click on the three-lined menu icon, and choose Make Frames from Layers. Photoshop will now convert all those other layers into individual frames on the timeline. You’re 99% of the way to an animated GIF already. All that’s left is to fine tune it and save it correctly.
To fine-tune the animated GIF you’ll want to first ensure the frames are in the correct order. If they’re not, simply click and drag to rearrange. Next, choose how long each frame is visible. Trial and error is important here, but I find for a slow-speed stop motion effect, having each frame visible for half a second often works well. Sometimes I’m making a two-frame animation simply to show a client or colleague a Before/After comparison, in which case I might set the frame duration to be 1 second or more so they have time to see each image. Most of the time, though, I want the animated GIF to appear like animation, so a shorter duration (like .1 or .2 seconds) is appropriate. To change the amount of time a frame is displayed, click the time setting below each frame’s thumbnail. To set all of the frames simultaneously, click the first frame, then shift-click the last frame, then choose a single frame duration and it will change for the entire range of images.
Below the frames in the timeline you’ll also see the word Forever. This shows that the animation will loop, on repeat, indefinitely. You can change how many times it loops, or tell it to only play through one time. This is embedded in the file because the GIF won’t have any specific player controls when it’s eventually displayed, so its behavior is baked in at the time the file is created.
You can get a preview of your animation by clicking the Play icon at the bottom of the timeline, and when you’re happy with the timing and sequence, it’s time to output the timeline into the actual GIF file.
To save an animated GIF, you’ve got a couple of options. The official method Adobe prefers is that you’ll choose File>Export>Export As to open the export window and choose file format, sizing and the like. But I prefer the old-school approach—going to the File menu to choose Export, and then click Save for Web to bring up the legacy Save for Web window. It’s just a slightly different interface to get to the same end result. From this window you can change all sorts of things about the file, including its pixel dimensions, the quantity of colors it uses, and the quality (or amount of compression in the file). I usually don’t do much beyond choosing the file size and the the quality, but do verify the file type is GIF and if you’d like to experiment with quality-to-size ratios, or to change the looping from Forever to One-Time, there’s a menu option for that too, as well as plenty of opportunities to preview and compare settings. You can also choose a Preset to make things simple, and the GIF you see here was saved with the GIF 128 Dithered preset, with one slight modification. I opt for smaller file dimensions but with more colors (256 to be precise). This way you’ll throw out less image detail and have a better looking result. When you’re ready, click Save and Photoshop will output a GIF file that, when loaded onto a website (such as we’ve done here) will play like an animation even though it’s just a series of still photographs.