Cinemagraphs vs. GIFs: Clearing the Air Once and For All

This is a revamped version of a past article published on the Flixel blog.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Cinemagraphs vs. GIFs: the debate need not rage on—cinemagraphs bear less similarities than meets the eye. Sure, upon first inspection, the only difference that’s immediately apparent is picture quality. But it’s so, so much more than that, guys. Consider the innate characteristics that make cinemagraphs what they are: mesmerizing, alluring, and highly-defined. Yup, that’s right—although it’s entirely possible to create an amazing cinemagraph using solely an iPhone (especially with the newer models), the most breathtaking pieces of work are typically captured through immensely powerful, HD or 4K resolution cameras. These are intricately detailed, utterly radiant, crisper-than-a-bowl-of-the-crunchiest-cereal kind of images. They snap, they crackle and boy do they sure pop.

Cinemagraph by DomQuichotte

But you know what doesn’t pop? A beautiful, 4K video that’s rendered as a GIF. Because GIFs are, for lack of a better word, ancient. Case in point: if I were to ask you to name the most iconic and formative action movie of the 1980s, without a doubt, you’d say Die Hard. It’s old, yeah, and perhaps a bit cheesy, but the Bruce Willis-starrer has become the touchstone of fast-paced, stunt-heavy, hero driven cinema. Heck, many of the conventions found in Die Hard are still widely used by filmmakers today. Then again, you know what’s not? The technology. And guess what? GIFs predate the film’s release. GIFs also predate Princess Bride, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the original RoboCop, freaking Predator—ok, you get the idea.

Point is, GIFs were invented in June of 1987, which makes them 30 years old. 30 years! In the digital space, what else has managed to survive that long? I mean, if one human year equates to seven in dog years, then for anything web-related, that number—at the very least—should be somewhere around five. By these estimates, GIFs are approximately 150 in web years. It’s remarkable, sure, but it’s time for them to retire.

Cinemagraphs Versus GIFs Living Photos

Indeed, GIFs serve a purpose in modern Internet culture. You know, to create memes, generate some laughs, and/or convey certain messages that cannot be adequately expressed through words. More than anything, GIFs are a tool we use to communicate—not express ourselves, creatively. And also, like I mentioned, they’re ancient. Truly, unequivocally, ancient. I’m not trying to throw too much shade here, but to employ the format as a means to showcase your work is not only foolish, but also unfair to you. It’s like going out of your way to voluntarily diminish the quality of your art. GIFs are far from crispy. If anything, they’re crusty.

Setting the Record Straight on Cinemagraphs vs. GIFs

Now that we’ve established the key, material difference in the cinemagraphs vs. GIFs battle, it’s time for some myth debunking. There is this weird, preconceived notion floating around our collective consciousness regarding the size and subsequent bandwidth use of GIFs. Despite an outward lack of picture quality and resolution, on the whole, a GIF file is much larger than it’s cinemagraph counterpart. And if you think I’m just waxing nonsense to mislead and bamboozle you into a spell of confusion so you’re left with no choice but to believe me, please refer to exhibit a.):


But how could that be? Cinemagraphs are composed of high-definition, 4K video, which has gotta be, like, a bajillion gigabytes for every second!

Ok, maybe that was a tad dramatic. But it’s a nice segue to my next point, which is paramount to this entire discussion: cinemagraphs can be exported in any number of ways. For starters, they’re embeddable—on websites, blog posts, etc.—thus ensuring the image quality is realized at its highest-possible capacity. I could dive a little deeper, but I shan’t bore you with the technical details. Let’s just say that the technology behind web-based, HD embeds is vastly superior to that of a GIF. It’s sophisticated, modern, and—owing to the hard work of countless web developers and computer scientists—constantly evolving.

Cinemagraphs Are Versatile

For whatever reason, if an embed is not possible, there are plenty of other options to choose from, including video formats such as MPEG-4 and MOV, as well as, yes, GIF. For all the criticism we’ve levelled at the 30 year-old file type, there is one circumstance in particular where it’s not only warranted, but encouraged: email campaigns. At the moment, media embeds are not possible via email, and video files are typically far too big, thus leaving us with GIF. Yup, a last resort, folks.

And that’s an important distinction to make: GIFs are merely one, singular format, whereas cinemagraphs are a versatile medium that can cater to the unique demands and requirements of each channel. Sharing on Facebook, Instagram or any other social media? Export the cinemagraph as a video. Thanks to auto-play and auto-looping, your work will display exactly how it should. Interested in replacing your header photo with a cinemagraph? An HD embed will more than suffice.

Cinemagraph by VirgoHaan

GIF Cinemagraphs Will Never Look Great

Do yourself and everyone else a favour and refrain from publishing cinemagraphs as GIFs (that is, with the exception of email). After all, a beautiful, living photo deserves an exposition that befits the time, energy, and effort put into crafting it. For instance, if you spent an entire afternoon preparing an epic turkey dinner for you and all of your friends, you wouldn’t cook it in the microwave, would you? And again, for the record, I’m not trying to belittle GIFs and the Internet’s community of zealous GIF creators. I, like most people, am a sucker for a good one every now and then, especially if it can make me laugh. But that’s just it: they’re nostalgic, somewhat chintzy, and often comical. And that’s why we love them—GIFs are not a serious format.

An HD embed or video is faster, cleaner, and yes, crisper than a bowl of Rice Krispies. Cinemagraphs are the medium of the future. Let’s treat them that way.

To check out some more amazing cinemagraphs, head on over to the Flixel Gallery. And if you’ve got anything you’d like to say or something to add, don’t hesitate to leave us a comment below.

This is the caption text

(Content Intern)

Peter flexes his fingers/writes copy at Flixel. His enthusiasm for content creation is only surpassed by the Oregon Dunes, as well as a lifelong goal to soar through the clouds on a blimp.


  1. Hello, thank you for this post. You said that we could use cinemagraph on facebook with the embed-code and change our header photo. Can you explain how ?

    • For Facebook you need to export to MP4 as Facebook will host it there and you can use for profile video (see this blog for more details - and business cover video (see this blog for more details For websites that's where you use the Flixel embed code but not for social networks like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter as it's best they host the MP4 file themselves and serve it. Since they all autoplay and autoloop video it will be a greater experience than GIFs which is lower quality than MP4.

  2. Thanks Peter.... well written and good explanations. I've been scratching my head as to why GIFs have made such a crazy comeback. Yes, was new and fun when first started with digital design (that 30 yr thing) and had forgotten all about them until they 'came back'. Flixel it.

    • Hi Michael—thanks for the kind words! And yes, I'm totally with you on that one. I suppose there's an element of nostalgia that some people are attracted to. It'll be interesting to see what happens to the format in the coming years. We'll do our best to Flixel it!

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