Jeff Smallwood Photography
Burst Mode - Not Just for Breakfast Anymore
Jul 13, 2012


Taken at midnight under full moon light, motion in the waves crashing on the cliffs.

24 burst images, 96 frames

 How was the image above created? I'll explain below and include a link to a larger copy of the image so you can see more details.


1) A midnight bike ride to the top of a cliff
2) A full moon to illuminate the scene
3) A strong wind bringing in waves from the Atlantic
4) Tripod and camera on burst mode
5) and a little bit of magic :)

Most people use burst mode to capture the exact moment something happens in a flurry of activity. That split second when the baseball player hits the ball, the exact moment you friends jump in the air, the perfect shot when your child blows out the candles on their birthday cake. All of those scenarios have one thing in common: Burst mode was used to capture one moment in a sea of many. You're likely to only keep 1 or 2 photos from the burst of shots.

Burst mode can be used to capture the motion in a scene with an entirely different spin.

The best results come from a scene that is cyclical. Water going over a waterwheel, waterfalls, tall grass blowing in the wind, etc. Anything with a natural, repetitive motion works because you can loop your resulting animation to continuously play and it'll feel natural. It is also good to choose a scene where only part of the image is in motion. A mixture of static and moving elements can be very pleasing.

So how did I go from this


 to this

 to the final animated image?

 I'm not going to cover every single step in excruciating detail. In addition, you don't need to use the exact tools I use here. There are plenty of other image processing tools that will get you the similar results. I encourage you to Google any term or concept I mention that you're unfamiliar with.

Gathering the Images

For the midnight waves crashing, my on-location shots were taken on a tripod with cable release. The camera was set to manual exposure and focus. Each shot was RAW (you'll want to shoot RAW or set a manual white balance to avoid small differences in each shot), 0.6 seconds, f/2.8, 18mm, and ISO 2000. I knew all the shots would be underexposed, but that's about as far as I felt comfortable pushing the exposure because I wanted to limit noise and an exposure longer than 0.6 seconds would blur the motion too much.I figured I would just adjust them in post-processing.

After you've taken the shots in the field, the first step is to decide which images you want. Look for a starting and ending image that are very similar as that will allow the animation to loop from start to end to start in a natural feeling way.


Selecting the candidate images in Lightroom 4. Click for larger view.


After I selected the RAW images I wanted, I exported them as TIFs to a working folder where I could manipulate them in bulk separately w/o messing with the RAW images in my source folder. I exported them in a reduced size for two reasons: 1) The final animation was never meant to be super large, only meant to be seen on the screen and 2) opening 20 or more full resolution 16-bit images as layers in Photoshop would hammer my computer memory! I moved to the exported folder in Lightrooom and opened one of the images in Develop mode. I modified the development settings to my liking. Once that single image was done, I selected all the images in the filmstrip and synchronized the development settings across the entire set (using CTRL-SHIFT-S). This makes every candidate image expose with the exact same settings.

My final development settings for the candidate images. Click to see larger.


Next, select all the images and use Edit In - Open as Layers in Photoshop. If you using another tool, do whatever is required to open your images in that tool.

Open the developed candidate images as layers in Photoshop


Once in Photoshop (or whatever animation/editing tool you're using), you'll want to make a separate frame for each image. This is accomplished easily in PS using the "Make Frames From Layers" option in the Animation window.

Easy way to convert Photoshop layers to animation frames


If the animation frames come out in reverse order (i.e. playing backward), just use the same menu and choose "Reverse Frames".

This is also when you need to decide whether you want to edit the images further. In this case I chose a creative, paintography look and treated each layer image with Adobe's Pixel Bender Oil filter.

If you want to blend the images to give a soft transition between them, select the images in pairs and use the "Tween" option to add blended frames in the middle. I added 3 tweened images between each of my shots for this animation. 24 source images * 4 (1 original + 3 tweened) = 96 images total. You can see the resulting animation stage below. Depending on how quickly the scene was moving, you need to adjust the timing of each frame. I used 0.15 seconds per frame for this one. One last thing is to set the animation to play the loop forever. The default will likely be to play it once, but since we chose a starting and ending point that are similar with the purpose of making a loop, we need to make sure we set it to loop forever.

Resulting animation frames in Photoshop. Click for larger view.


The next step is to export the image as an animated GIF. Use Photoshop's "Save for Web & Devices" option (CRLT+SHIFT+ALT+S). Make any final tweaks here but pay close attention to the areas I highlighted below which are:

  • Make sure the file size is reasonable. This is done by controlling colors and dimensions
  • Make sure the export type is GIF
  • Adjust colors as needed (lower # of colors = smaller file size, but you also sacrifice quality)
  • Adjust size on the bottom right, either by exact pixels or by %

When you're ready, save the image. Save your Photoshop (or similar) file in case you want to go back and tweak it, and you're done!

The image below was my first attempt for this series of shots before I adjusted tweening, timing, and used the Oil plugin to smooth it all out.

My intermediate attempt, w/o the final timing and image manipulation


Go out and use burst mode and see what you can create!


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