Aligning images to make an animation (or an image stack) (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 04 Oct 2015

Aligning images to make an animation (or an image stack)

For the animations I made from the lunar eclipse last week, the hard part was aligning all the images so the moon (or, in the case of the moonrise image, the hillside) was in the same position in every time.

This is a problem that comes up a lot with astrophotography, where multiple images are stacked for a variety of reasons: to increase contrast, to increase detail, or to take an average of a series of images, as well as animations like I was making this time. And of course animations can be fun in any context, not just astrophotography.

In the tutorial that follows, clicking on the images will show a full sized screenshot with more detail.

Load all the images as layers in a single GIMP image

The first thing I did was load up all the images as layers in a single image: File->Open as Layers..., then navigate to where the images are and use shift-click to select all the filenames I wanted.

[Upper layer 50% opaque to align two layers]

Work on two layers at once

By clicking on the "eyeball" icon in the Layers dialog, I could adjust which layers were visible. For each pair of layers, I made the top layer about 50% opaque by dragging the opacity slider (it's not important that it be exactly at 50%, as long as you can see both images).

Then use the Move tool to drag the top image on top of the bottom image.
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But it's hard to tell when they're exactly aligned

"Drag the top image on top of the bottom image": easy to say, hard to do. When the images are dim and red like that, and half of the image is nearly invisible, it's very hard to tell when they're exactly aligned.

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Use a Contrast display filter

What helped was a Contrast filter. View->Display Filters... and in the dialog that pops up, click on Contrast, and click on the right arrow to move it to Active Filters.

The Contrast filter changes the colors so that dim red moon is fully visible, and it's much easier to tell when the layers are approximately on top of each other.

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Use Difference mode for the final fine-tuning

Even with the Contrast filter, though, it's hard to see when the images are exactly on top of each other. When you have them within a few pixels, get rid of the contrast filter (you can keep the dialog up but disable the filter by un-checking its checkbox in Active Filters). Then, in the Layers dialog, slide the top layer's Opacity back to 100%, go to the Mode selector and set the layer's mode to Difference.

In Difference mode, you only see differences between the two layers. So if your alignment is off by a few pixels, it'll be much easier to see. Even in a case like an eclipse where the moon's appearance is changing from frame to frame as the earth's shadow moves across it, you can still get the best alignment by making the Difference between the two layers as small as you can.

Use the Move tool and the keyboard: left, right, up and down arrows move your layer by one pixel at a time. Pick a direction, hit the arrow key a couple of times and see how the difference changes. If it got bigger, use the opposite arrow key to go back the other way.

When you get to where there's almost no difference between the two layers, you're done. Change Mode back to Normal, make sure Opacity is at 100%, then move on to the next layer in the stack.

It's still a lot of work. I'd love to find a program that looks for circular or partially-circular shapes in successive images and does the alignment automatically. Someone on GIMP suggested I might be able to write something using OpenCV, which has circle-finding primitives (I've written briefly before about SimpleCV, a wrapper that makes OpenCV easy to use from Python). But doing the alignment by hand in GIMP, while somewhat tedious, didn't take as long as I expected once I got the hang of using the Contrast display filter along with Opacity and Difference mode.

Creating the animation

Once you have your layers, how do you turn them into an animation?

The obvious solution, which I originally intended to use, is to save as GIF and check the "animated" box. I tried that -- and discovered that the color errors you get when converting an image to indexed make a beautiful red lunar eclipse look absolutely awful.

So I threw together a Javascript script to animate images by loading a series of JPEGs. That meant that I needed to export all the layers from my GIMP image to separate JPG files.

GIMP doesn't have a built-in way to export all of an image's layers to separate new images. But that's an easy plug-in to write, and a web search found lots of plug-ins already written to do that job.

The one I ended up using was Lie Ryan's Python script in How to save different layers of a design in separate files; though a couple of others looked promising (I didn't try them), such as gimp-plugin-export-layers and save_all_layers.scm.

You can see the final animation here: Lunar eclipse of September 27, 2015: Animations.

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[ 09:44 Oct 04, 2015    More gimp | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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