How to Make a GIF Part 1, Using Still Images

GIFs are an ubiquitous part of today’s Internet, and I know that I myself can’t remember seeing one for the first time. But, just in case you don’t know what one is, it’s an image format (like JPEG) but one that can include several images that change over time, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly — i.e. they are animated. I know that GIFs are often used for silly purposes, see GIF archive website Giphy for examples, but they can be useful for the academic as well.

Making a GIF is pretty easy, if you have the right ingredients and the right tools. In this post, I’ll tell you some reasons why you might, as an academic, make a GIF, and also how to make a GIF from still images. In an upcoming post, I’ll show you GIF-making version 2.0, which is making GIFs from video.

This GIF, which I made from Rocky IV, a late cold war movie if there ever was one, emphasizes the mechanized way that the Soviet figher Drago (Dolph Lundgren) trains.

I made this GIF from a tiny piece of the training montage in Rocky IV (1985), a late cold war movie if there ever was one. The GIF emphasizes a match-on-action cut that the filmmakers used to compare the mechanized way that the Soviet fighter Drago (Dolph Lundgren) trains with high technology as opposed to Rocky’s (Sylvester Stallone) pioneering American low-tech training methods.

Why Would I Want to Make a GIF?

There are lots of reasons that you might want to make a GIF. The “Academic GIF,” a blog post by Instructional Technologist Jim Groom over on bavatuesdays, has outlined some of those. He’s worked alongside a Chinese history professor at our neighbor the University of Mary Washington to create a “GIFiculum” that has integrated GIF-making into a film class. Take a read over at his blog — he has some really compelling stories about using GIFs in the classroom.

I think that any course that investigates films or other moving images would benefit from some GIF-making. Creating a GIF requires focusing on minutia of the movement of an image, and this required eyeballing of moving image media can help students (or yourself!) notice things that you’d never noticed before. The GIF you create also lets you watch a moment over and over, rather than the way that moments in film usually slip by in their temporally linear fashion. Along those lines, GIFs can also let you slow down or speed up a collection of frames from a moving image source, or give movement to a series of still images. I believe strongly in the power of learning by doing, and making a GIF is easier than, say, video editing, though it can help to develop the same eye for the animated.

From a less cultural critiquing angle, GIFs can be used to make tutorials for students, have students make to explain something to other students. You can add subtitles to them, or make them from a screen capture. On a practical note, GIFs also take up far less hard drive space than a video clip. So, if you want to share something with students or other academic community members, making a GIF of a video can be just the ticket to reduce your file size but still retain the crucial elements of said video. There are lots of reasons why making GIFS is a useful skill for the academic, whether it is a skill to be passed down to students, used for your own research or presentations, or to help you create e-learning materials.

And, as I’ve said above, it’s so easy that there’s really no reason NOT to learn how to do it. Read on for the ingredients and tools needed for GIF making, then I’ll give you a step-by-step tutorial on making a GIF from still images using application GIFfun.

GIF Ingredients

You need one of two “ingredients” to make a GIF. You either need at least two still digital images (like JPEGs or PNGs or what have you), more if you want to use more in your GIF, or you need a video file. Programs that make GIFs will either take frames (i.e. still images) out of a video file and assemble them into a GIF for you, or the program will take still images that you give it, and assemble those into a GIF. I use both methods for making GIFs depending on what I want to use the GIF for.

But where to find these ingredients? With still images, you can get those from all the usual places: your own digital camera, the internet, screen captures (what I usually do), or even scans of analog images that you have laying around. If you can make a JPEG of it, you can make a GIF of it.

With video files, you can get those from anywhere you get a video file from, though arguably these can be a bit harder to nab than still images. But, making a GIF from a video is one of the marvels of modern technology, and well-worth the additional effort to get your hands on a video file. You can grab clips off of a DVD (or, if you’re up to the challenge, a Blu-Ray disc), you can download them from YouTube, you can shoot video with a digital video camera/iPhone.

If you’re planning on using video, make sure that it’s of high quality to start with, because you can always downgrade it but you can’t make it higher quality later. (Despite what criminal procedural shows would lead you to believe with the magic their technicians perform with surveillance camera footage.) This goes double if you are interested in taking a very short clip and making a great number of frames from it, for example if you want to re-create a moment from a film in super slow motion. If you try to do that with a lower quality video clip you’re going to not be very impressed with the results.

GIF Tools

After you’ve got your ingredients, you’ll need your GIF-making tool of choice.  There are a few options:

  • A web-based tool, like Make a GIF, will work regardless of whether you have a Mac or PC, and you can make a GIF from a variety of sources, including still images, a YouTube video, a pre-existing GIF, uploading a video file, or a webcam. Phew! That’s a lot of choices! The downside of this is that often web-based GIF making applications will put a watermark on your GIF, or your GIF is housed on their server somewhere. But, if you just want to make one quickly with no fuss, this is the way to go.
  • You can use the Adobe suite of software to make a GIF, but since I don’t have a subscription to Adobe’s software, I haven’t tried this method and can’t vouch for it. I do think that it’s a bit overkill, like using a sledge hammer to put up a picture-hanging nail, but if you do have Adobe access, and you want to do some poking around in it to make a GIF, go for it! Here are some instructions [warning: link has an autoplaying video] on using layers in Photoshop to make an animated GIF.
  • You can also download a standalone GIF-making application. This is my preferred method. I use GIF Brewery for OS X, I bought it in the App Store for $4.99, and I love it. I use this for making all kinds of GIFs from video. The beta of the upcoming version also allows GIFs based on screen captured video, so there’s nothing that I can’t make a GIF of, if it’s a video. For making a GIF from still images (GIF Brewery doesn’t do that yet), I use GIFfun, a free, no-frills application.

So, now that you have your ingredients and your tools, I’ll show you how I make a GIF with still images! I’m going to use GIFfun for my GIFs, since that’s what I usually use, but the basic principles are the same regardless of your method of choice.

Making a GIF from Still Images

So, I’ve got three NASA images from the first American spacewalk that I want to make into a GIF:

upside-down-above-earth earth-horizon gold-umbilical

They should all be the same size, and make sure that they are the size that you want the final GIF to be before plonking them into GIFfun. Like I said, GIFfun is no frills, that means no cropping or resizing of your images from inside the application. I use Picasa for all of my cropping and resizing needs.

Open up GIFfun, and you’ll see a “tray” for your image files on the left, and your controls on the right. Go ahead and drag your images into the tray, but do them one at a time. You can also do “Load Folder” in the File menu to bring in multiple image files at a time. Here’s what my window looks like now:

My GIFfun window after putting in my images.

My GIFfun window after putting in my images.

You can move the images around in the tray so that they are in the order that you want them to appear in while your GIF is animating.

Once you have your order set, now you need to know what kind of delay you want for your GIF’s frames. This means how long you want each image to appear before it changes to the next image. GIFfun measures this in 1/100 of a second, and my default is set to 50 (you can change the default in GIFfun’s preferences). This means that my images will change every half of a second. That’s pretty fast for a three-image GIF, so I’ll change it to 100, which means that my image will change every second.

The image delay variable is really up to you, and depends on your GIF and what you’re using it for. Remember that a typical movie runs at 24 frames per second (about .042 seconds per frame), which is a speed that is indistinguishable to the human eye. Most stop-motion animation aims for 12-14 frames per second, so keep that number in mind too. Most people aren’t looking for or expecting really smooth animation with GIFs, but if you are hoping to use a GIF as a video clip replacement due to its smaller file size, you’ll want to keep an eye on the number of frames per second.

So, then I click on the “Make GIF” button and my GIF will open in my preferred web browser. There you can download it or drag it to your desktop and voila, you have a GIF!

Neat! The picture is changing!

Neat! The picture is changing!

Now this GIF is fairly large, dimensions-wise, for a GIF, but since it’s only three images, it’ll still be a fairly small file size. Checking it reveals that it’s only 216 KB, which is not too bad. To give perspective, the blogging platform Tumblr, which is where a lot of GIFs live, has a GIF file size limit of 2 MB. If your GIF is more than 2 MB I would say that it’s probably too big, but you can change that through making your starting images’ dimensions smaller, using fewer images, or changing the quality of your images.

Enjoying Your GIF

If you’re on a Mac, you might open your GIF and be a little sad because it’s not moving. If you want to look at it, either select it in your Finder and hit the spacebar — this will let you “preview” it, or control-click your image and open it in your web browser.  If you try to open it in the Preview application, it will open it as the series of images that makes up your GIF, rather than animating it for you. This can be useful if you want to, say, delete a couple of frames out of your finished GIF, but that seems to be a little bit buggy at this time.

GIFs can also be enjoyed on WordPress sites and on the above-mentioned Tumblr. In fact, if you’re planning on using GIFs in a class, having a class Tumblr would be a great way for everyone to share their GIFs, plus Tumblr could be accessed via any computer and pulled up onto a classroom projector in a jiff (giff?)! Keep in mind, though, that GIFs do not play well with Facebook, so if you want to impress any Facebook friends with your GIF-making abilities, you’re going to have to put it online somewhere else, grab the link to your image, then share the link on Facebook.

That’s all for now; time to go out and impress your friends and colleagues! Next time, I’ll show you how to make GIFs from videos, which is even more fun than making them from still images.

About Kim Mann

Kim Mann is the editor and a writer for the Academic Technology Blog. She earned her BA in English from the University of Minnesota in 2003 and her MA in American Studies from William & Mary in 2009, and her PhD in American Studies at the College in 2014. Her research is on technology, the interface, and the body in mid-twentieth century science fiction.