The Beauty of Photo Sequences and Animated GIFs

The Beauty of Photo Sequences and Animated GIFs

Photographers spend a lot of time searching for the perfect shot, the decisive moment. In sports photography, you often hear of the perfect shot — ball on bat, the long bomb just an inch away from the fingertips of a wide receiver, the fist bump after sinking a winning shot. If you subscribe to the belief that there’s only one decisive moment in a sequence of photos, then you probably fall into the camp that thinks motor drives are a crutch for the inexperienced photographer.

But sometimes sequences can be pretty powerful, and sometimes they turn into Internet memes.

Although JPG is the dominant image format, there’s a lesser known format known as GIF (graphics interchange format) that was created by Compuserve in 1987 that has a limited 256-color palette. In 1989, they released a new version (89a) which also supported animation. The endless loops of fire and flags became quite prevalent in the prototypical 90s website. You know, like this:

The crude animations gave rise to equally low-fidelity animations using photos, but the use of animated GIFs went out of style — arguably as Adobe Flash became dominant. Limited frame animations were replaced by full motion video and the YouTube generation. But there is a difference between video/motion and a sequence of stills. A sequence of stills commands our attention differently than a continual 30 frames per second movie (or 24 fps, you film snob). It’s a distinction that’s hard to describe but everyone has experienced it.

There has been a resurgence in the use of animated GIF on the web in recent years. Often it’s presented as throwback-style Internet humor as in the very hilarious that combines animated GIFs with silly narratives. There is something comically funny about many of the scenes that artists choose to animate in this fashion.

Kids and babies freaking out always makes for a good animation.

And of course, the snarky-style commentary can add to the humor (or offensive) level:

Who doesn’t like a cat knitting a cat?

And as the excellent PBS Offbook piece on animated GIF explains, the form can become quite artistic as well, as illustrated by the lovely work by Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck’s Cinemagraphs which fuse motion in some parts of the frame with stasis in other parts. I love this one of Anna Wintour at NY Fashion Week, which reminds me of the [nerd alert] Star Trek episode “Wink of an Eye” with the time-accelerated aliens.

Some of their most effective work are the images that don’t have the jerkiness that reveals the loop. Hello, NYC.

Reed+Rader have been hired by many major fashion brands to create their own style of animation using custom photography.

The low frame rate combined with the infinite loop makes it somehow more than a photo, but not a video. It communicates in a way that neither a still nor full motion can. What’s art? I know it when I see it.

But if you think animated GIFs are silly, and not what serious photographers do, witness Magnum photographer Elliot Erwitt’s new book Sequentially Yours. The images are not animated, nor motor driven. They are simply a few points in time connected by the subject matter and the lapse in time. Erwitt’s sequences are atypical in that the time between images isn’t constant. He freely intermixed images shot at different times, and in different places to create narratives. I found this one of a woman visiting a gravesite to be particularly poignant.


Similarly, Heinz Kleutmeier’s sequence of Michael Phelps coming from behind in the last stroke in the 2008 Olympics Men’s 100m Butterfly heightens the drama in a way that a fast moving video cannot. It’s almost unfathomable to explain how he could accelerate into the wall and beat Cavic in the last meter. A single frame simply doesn’t communicate the story.

The photo sequence has been around for over a century. English photographer Eadweard Muybridge is renown for his pioneering work with animals, like this sequence with a horse.

And thanks to the animated GIF, we can turn “The Horse in Motion” into a horse in motion.

In more recent times, Robert Seale made an homage to Muybridge for Sports Illustrated with his sequence of pitcher Trevor Bauer.

I’ve even dabbled in the artform comedy. Here’s Andrew at our annual company BBQ enjoying the fruits of his labor.

And my friend Jordan dancing the night away.

But the reason I bring all of this up in the first place is to examine the cultural impact of photos on society. When photography was first created, it was so rare and unique. Subjects would have to sit still for minutes, then seconds, then milliseconds to be recorded onto glass, tintype, film and digital. The Internet and digital cameras made photos ubiquitous, and perhaps the average photo is less valuable because of it. But the animated GIF and sequences aren’t anachronisms of our time. On the contrary, I think we’re witnessing not only a new wave of creativity, but also a new desire for consumption of these images (whether for humor or otherwise). And in the case of the animated GIF, it represents a format that could only exist digitally. That’s exciting.


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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter. He co-hosts the "I Love Photography" podcast on iTunes.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Paul Williams at 2:19 am

    Thanks for a very well researched post and great thought provoking imagery. Its going to be difficult to decide whether to shoot HD video or animated gifs at 11 frames per second on the new D4!!! That’s if it ever gets released !! Animated gifs are certainly a more accessable way for clients to get moving images onto their web sites though with a lot lower bandwiths & load times and a universal format. Interesting.

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