Are Apple’s Live Photos a gimmick or a game-changer?

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Live Photos bring a little life to your still images.
Live Photos bring a little life to your still images.
Photo: Apple

A few extra megapixels is always welcome, but if there is one feature of the new iPhone 6s camera that gets us to say “Wow,” it is Live Photos.

The new Live Photos technology actually captures a brief moment before and after your snap, giving the subject in a finished picture motion and a bit of life. After seeing it for the first time, some said, “Wow, that’s cool!” And others said, “Wow, that’s nothing new.”

Apple continues to be a disruptive force in photography and the iPhone 6s introduced at the company’s annual fall product reveal yesterday in San Francisco is just another step in its evolutionary advancement.

The camera now boasts a 12-megapixel sensor (up from 8), a more sophisticated flash, 4K video and the Live Photos function. In Apple’s demo of the new feature, a photo of a smiling child comes to life with a long tap, showing her head and fidgety hands flitting about in a moment before and after the snap.

Apple sees Live Photos as being able to capture a true moment, the spirit of which can be missed or understated in a two-dimensional picture.

“Some people are going to react with, ‘Why would I do that, why can’t I just take a Vine or a video?” TechCrunch editor in chief Matthew Panzarino said in a video on his website. “For a parent? I can tell you Apple did not demonstrate it with a kid on accident. I think it’s really neat.”

The face that first introduced us to Live Photo.
The face that first introduced us to Live Photos.
Photo: Apple

Travel photographer Austin Mann, who uses the iPhone for both stills and videos in a lot of his assignments, was also enthusiastic about the potential for Live Photos. Mann had several images included in Apple’s Shot on iPhone 6 advertising campaign.

“It’s yet another tool in the tool bag for creating deep, more intimate connections between subject and audience,” Mann told Cult of Mac. “Though it may seem small in a demo, I think this little feature will profoundly impact the way we shoot and share the experience online.”

But some in the tech press dismissed Live Photos as a gimmick, seeing it as nothing more than a GIF-maker or video clipper that will only suck up storage on your iPhone.

Panzarino gave the best explanation on how Live Photos works, saying the finished file will only take up the equivalent of two 12-megapixel images.

“It doesn’t actually take a bunch of pictures,” Panzarino said. “When you raise your phone to take a picture, it’s already recording and it records the picture when you press the button. (The iPhone) buffers a set of images so that when you press it you are getting an instant fire. So now all they are doing is taking that sidecar data, the data on either side of the image, and recompiling that into a motion format.”

Still, not everyone is impressed. Other phone manufacturers and app developers have brought movement to still photos.

The example most pointed out was HTC’s Zoe.

Kyle Wagner, a writer for The Concourse, called Live Photos a “sorta-new thing.”

“Shut up, nerds, it’s compressed video,” Wagner wrote. “This is marginally cool and also a tremendous waste of dozens of engineers’ time and something you’ll maybe use now and then, but probably not. Also, Windows Phone has had this for years, but no one cares, because what is a Windows Phone?”

Casey Berner, a photographer and contributing writer for photography site Fstoppers, takes a kinder view of Live Photos, though he is adamant about it not being groundbreaking or new. Berner points to Cinemagraphs and Flixel and, of course, GIF files, that proceeded Live Photos.

Berner said Live Photos can only live in the Apple ecosystem and remains limited unless social media and other devices adopt the technology (Facebook is said to be working on eventually accommodating Live Photos).

“But Apple does have a way of knowing the trends of technology early on,” Berner told Cult of Mac. “We saw that with TouchID, the exodus of optical drives and now their attempt at USB with USB-C.

“What makes Live Photos exciting is more about the users. Again, it’s a gimmick, but if some creative people out there really make something of it, it could be a great new way to share moments.”

Radu Rusu, of startup company Fyusion, which brought motion to photos with an app called Fyuse for both iOS and Android, was excited by Apple’s announcement of Live Photos because Cupertino’s brand has the kind of clout to bring the technology to devices and platforms for everyday use.

“I am amazed by so many innovations but in terms of the way we capture visual data,” we’re still a century behind,” Rusu told Cult of Mac. “This expands the definition of photography. We love the fact that companies are taking a step toward breaking down 2-D imaging and video. The hardest thing we have to do is tell the world that something else is possible.”

Rusu said Fyusion (so named because the technology represents the fusion of stills and video) saw heavy use of its app only two months after launching in December. He has seen Fyuse used by artists, chefs and car dealers, who can use the technology to quickly show the space around a subject without having to slog through a slideshow or video.

The Fyuse files look very similar to Live Photos. Fyuse users share the files with friends, who can experience the motion with the swipe of a finger and don’t need a special app to make the pictures move. (Check out a gallery of Fyuse files here.)

Rusu sees great potential for editorial and advertising applications for technology like his and Live Photos, but believes Apple was focused solely on the average person who gets frustrated by not being able to capture the moments that lead up to the frozen image.

Is a person better off taking pictures or recording video? Now there’s something in between.