After Effects tutorial: Animate a 3D camera move

Sam Hampton-Smith shows you how to give your still images the appearance of motion using After Effects’ lighting tools

When you’ve only got a still image to work with, it can be tricky to create a sequence that feels compelling. This is especially true with archive material, where there’s no opportunity to revisit the scene and no video footage. One commonly used solution is known as the Ken Burns effect: it’s a pan and zoom across the image that creates movement. This gets tiring pretty quickly, however, and if you try to use more than a couple shots in quick succession you risk losing the attention of your audience.

In this tutorial we’re going to look at alternative approach that goes much further. Instead of zooming and panning around the still image, we’ll project it onto a series of 3D layers to add depth and allow us to recompose in 3D space. This technique works on photos with people just as well as on a landscape image – once you know what you’re looking for, you’ll often see the effect used on documentaries to help bring still images to life. The end result is a pseudo-3D environment that you can use for surprisingly sophisticated effects.

Software used

Adobe After Effects

Time taken

1 hour


Create a new composition in After Effects. We’ve opted for a 720p project at 25fps, setting it to five seconds long.


Drag your image from the Project panel into the composition and resize it to fit. This will act as your placeholder reference image, so rename the layer ‘Ref’ by clicking on the layer name, pressing Return and typing the new name. Duplicate the layer (Cmd/Ctrl + D) and rename the duplicate ‘Projected’.

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Create a new Light by choosing Layer > New > Light. Choose a Point Light type, and set the intensity to 100%. Set the colour to white, tick the Casts Shadows box and set Shadow Darkness to 100%. Finally, make sure that Shadow Diffusion is set to 0px.


Create a new camera using the 35mm preset. With the camera layer selected, hit P to open the Position properties. Copy and paste the Position properties to the light and ‘Projected’ layers. Move the ‘Projected’ layer slightly forwards on the Z axis so that it sits in front the light, then set the material options so that Light Transmission is at 100% and Casts Shadows is set to Only. Turn off the visibility for the projected layer.


Create a new white solid, make it 3D and apply the grid effect to it (Effect > Generate > Grid). This will help you align the layer to the perspective of the projected image. Rotate the solid on the Y axis and push the layer down to align with the ground in the photo. Extend the layer to cover the entire ground area.

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Repeat this process for the other planes in your image. If necessary, add masks to your solids to create smaller planes. Once you’ve created an open box covering all parts of the image, turn off the grid effect on all the solids. Set the material options for each solid to Accept Lights: Off.


You can now move your camera using the camera tools and observe your scene in a pseudo-3D environment. While you can’t do everything you would with a true 3D scene, there’s enough scope to move your camera around and create crane shots, in particular.


The resolution of the projected image is currently very poor so choose Composition > Composition Settings, then click on the Advanced Tab. Click Options and change the Shadow Map Resolution to 4,000. Hit Render (Cmd/Ctrl +Shift + /) and you’re done.

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