Discovering a time lapse video in long exposure stills

One of the most important tools for creativity is keeping an open mind. While reviewing a photo shoot of long exposure still photography, I uncovered an even more fun project hiding among the images.

Finding an unexpected animation

I got together with some friends at night to experiment with long exposure light painting. I played with a flash with a blue gel on it, glow sticks, and with a headlamp set to its red LED. The exposures were 30 seconds long, which was long enough to experiment with both multiple flashes per frame and colored trails from moving light sources.

When I got back I did what any other photographer would do: dump the photos into the computer and look through them. For me, this means finding the best version of a picture by opening Adobe Lightroom and pressing arrow keys in the Library module to flip through picture after picture. As I did this, I noticed that the images formed a kind of animation. I didn’t expect this.

The shoot was supposed to be about creating multiple versions of an idea for a single still image. But when I shot multiple takes of a 30-second exposure, each take just happened to be about the same interval of time after the previous one. Although the even time spacing between frames was not intentional, that’s why the long exposure frames made visual sense as an animation when viewed one after the other.

Creating the video

Having discovered a potential animation in my images, the next step was to be more intentional about it and make it into an animation. I turned to Adobe Premiere Pro video editing software because I can edit quickly in it.

Premiere Pro doesn’t import raw files so I exported JPEG versions from Lightroom. I dragged the JPEG versions from the Lightroom Grid view and dropped them directly into the Project view in Premiere Pro, and Premiere imported the stills into the project. In the Project view you can arrange media before you create a sequence out of them. And when you use the Automate to Sequence feature, whatever’s selected in the Project window becomes a sequence and you can set the interval between still frames. Or you can just create a sequence and drag the stills into it manually.

Creating a sequence from still images using Automate to Sequence in Premiere Pro

In the timeline I adjusted the timing of the stills, and inserted cross dissolves between the frames to visually merge them together more effectively.

Sequence of still images with cross dissolves transitions

I liked how the stills looked when I played them forward and backward back in Lightroom, so after creating a sequence out of the stills in Premiere Pro I created another sequence, dragged the first sequence into it twice, and reversed the direction of the second instance. You see this in the final video where each short series of frames is played forward and backward, first slowly and then quickly. To achieve this I played with speed, forward/reverse direction, and repetition until I liked how the visual rhythm felt.

Creating the master time lapse sequence in Premiere Pro

My digital SLR camera is like most in that it shoots frames with an aspect ratio of 3:2, but I wanted to create a 16:9 HD video. While the building block sequences were made at the native 3:2 aspect ratio of the stills, the master sequence is set to 16:9 at 1920 x 1080 pixels for TVs and phones, with the 3:2 aspect ratio still sequences composed within it. By doing this I always had total flexibility to adjust the composition by scaling and cropping. If I had cropped to 16:9 from the beginning it would be much more difficult to refine the composition later.

I composed the music in Ableton Live and imported the track into Premiere Pro. I then exported the final video using a YouTube preset and uploaded that to YouTube.

Creating the animated GIF version

I thought this video would work well as an animated GIF image. But unlike a video, an animated GIF image has no sound and is often most effective if it loops. That means it’s usually best to edit the video for animated GIF viewing instead of simply exporting a video as an animated GIF. This was easy to do in Premiere Pro.

First I duplicated the master video sequence and renamed it as a master for the animated GIF image. I deleted the audio and edited down the sequence to be shorter and to optimize it for looping.

Creating an animated GIF sequence in Premiere Pro

Premiere Pro doesn’t export animated GIF images in OS X, so I exported an H.264 version and opened it in Photoshop, where the video appeared in the Timeline. From there I used the File > Save for Web command to tune the GIF color table, turn on looping, optimize for file size, and to save the final animated GIF image.

Exporting an animated GIF image from Photoshop

I posted the final animation to the Google+ social network, where many visual artists like to post animated GIF images. Animated GIF images don’t play on Facebook. [Update, 2015: Facebook now supports animated GIF playback, though apparently you have to upload the file to a hosting service other than Facebook and then post it to Facebook from there.]

Animated GIF image derived from video

Because I set the animated GIF to loop it didn’t seem appropriate to interrupt the loop with conventional titles. While I was still in Premiere Pro I removed the opening title and end credits that were in the original video, and replaced them with a constant faint watermark in one corner. The constant watermark helps ensure that attribution is present even if the animated GIF was hosted or shared far from its original site.

It was fun to discover the possibilities for video and animation in a project that was originally intended to produce still images, and this was a great exercise in efficiently re-sequencing stills for multiple types of motion media.


  1. Good morning Conrad,

    I absolutely love your articles and blog. Thank you for all of the useful and interesting articles.

    Have a great day! Gratefully, Donna

    Sent from my iPad


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