What is a Cinemagraph and How Do They Work?

Cinemagraphs are dazzling. They capture and hold our attention with their alluring quality. Not quite a photo, not quite a video, they trick the mind into thinking it’s seeing something magical. But, what exactly is a cinemagraph?

Cinemagraph created with Flixel Cinemagraph Pro

Cinemagraph created using Flixel Cinemagraph Pro by Philipp Frank

Maybe you just stumbled upon cinemagraphs; you want to figure out what they are, and how to use them as a part of your business. Or, maybe you’ve been creating these living photos for a while, but have a hard time explaining them to your clients. Whatever your reason, this post should give you some clarity about this fast-growing new medium, and why the cinemagraph has taken its rightful place alongside photography and video.

Let’s jump right into it.

What is a Cinemagraph?

Often described as Harry Potter-like moving images, cinemagraphs are a magical hybrid of photography and video. They contain subtle motion that plays in a short, never-ending loop, while the rest of the image remains still. The motion highlights a few seconds from the video, blending it seamlessly into the still photo.

By marius74

Since cinemagraphs are photos in disguise, they surprise the viewer when they come to life with hints of motion. This makes them a popular choice for advertisers trying to capture and hold their audience’s attention.

I know what you’re thinking. These sound just like animated GIFs — well, they aren’t.

While they both contain a loop, a GIF is a low-quality file format that dates back to the early 80s. Cinemagraphs are a medium, much like photography and video. You can save your cinemagraph as a GIF, but we wouldn’t recommend it.

Don’t believe me? We wrote a whole article about it.   

The History of Cinemagraphs

Many attribute the dawn of the cinemagraph medium to Fashion Week 2011 in New York City. It was then that a pair of fashion photographers — Jamie Beck and Kevin Burg — began crafting and sharing a series of moving photos, which spurred a great deal of curiosity and interest from the fashion community and the media.

Without an adequate term to describe these creative images, the fashion photographers decided to coin a new phrase. And just like that, the term “cinemagraph” was born. Mastering hard to use tools like Adobe After Effects, Beck and Burg would meticulously craft these beautiful living photos, sometimes taking up to a week to create just one.

Since then, photographers, marketers, designers and businesses have adopted the medium as a part of their visual storytelling, and have created millions of cinemagraphs.

How Do Cinemagraphs Work?

Cinemagraphs are now used everywhere, but people often don’t know what it is that they’re looking at. They are like a magic trick… they make the viewer think they’re seeing a living photo. In actuality, cinemagraphs are a harmonious marriage between photography and video, blending the two mediums together.

By LensOfAdventure

Cinemagraphs are shared as short looping videos, usually between 3-10 seconds in length. They’re created in a way that the viewer can’t tell when the video loop starts and finishes; it’s seamless. A single cinemagraph loop is traditionally very short, lasting only a few seconds in length. When sharing a cinemagraph, people will often loop the file a few times to get the desired length of video.

The highest quality cinemagraphs are often created from 4K, and sometimes even 6K video. Though cinemagraphs can be exported in multiple file formats, exporting as a video file keeps the quality very high, and ensures they’ll look fantastic. File formats like H.264, and the new high efficiency video codec known as H.265 are the most common.

Where Can I Use a Cinemagraph?

Like photographs and video, the use case for cinemagraphs is endless. Artists are flocking to the medium to leverage its novelty and challenge the way in which they can express themselves.

The combination of static and motion also make cinemagraphs a popular tool for digital marketing. Brands and organizations are creating cinemagraphs for all different types of their marketing content. More specific examples of how and where cinemagraphs can be used include:

  • Digital advertisements
  • Websites, landing pages, and blogs
  • Email/newsletters
  • Social media
  • Digital displays and billboards
  • Long form videos
  • Museum and galleries

By Apricot Berlin

Basically, anywhere you can display a video, you can now use a cinemagraph.

How to Create a Cinemagraph

It was Flixel co-founder Philippe LeBlanc who spotted these beautiful moving images by Beck and Burg when the medium first emerged in 2011. The only problem was… he couldn’t find a fast, intuitive way to create them.

Like many, Phil wasn’t interested in spending weeks trying to learn how to create cinemagraphs with animation software like Adobe After Effects or photo-editing programs like Adobe Photoshop. He imagined a future for cinemagraphs that would make the medium accessible to everyone; even for those that wanted to create cinemagraphs with just a mobile device, like an iPhone.

That idea inspired Phil to start Flixel and create software applications specifically for making cinemagraphs.

Flixel created Cinemagraph Pro, an easy-to-use cinemagraph app for iOS and macOS. The app makes the cinemagraph editing process both fast and fun. Apple even awarded Flixel an Apple Design Award in 2014 for Flixel’s breakthrough approach to cinemagraph creation. 

While the pair that coined the term “cinemagraph” would have you believe that cinemagraphs are still difficult to create, they’re really just a combination of photo and video. The hardest part is composing the shot, and deciding which motion you want to highlight in your living photo; coincidentally, this is also the most fun part of making cinemagraphs.

The best cinemagraphs are created using video that is usually recorded on a tripod or stable surface. After setting up your shot, and hitting the record button, it’s time to edit.

By Jimmy Cheung

When editing a cinemagraph, you combine the video with a still frame, masking out which portion of the image you want to see motion through. After that, you choose which type of loop you want the motion to contain: bounce, or repeat. You can make lots of other small adjustments — such as colour, speed, or crop — but really, the basics of creating a cinemagraph are just masking, and choosing a loop.

Alright, so I made it sound easy, and maybe you don’t believe me… take a look at the video tutorial below and see for yourself.

How to Make a Cinemagraph in One Minute

Cinemagraphs tell stories and grab attention in ways that still photos no longer can. They’re easier and cost less to produce than video, but have the same great results! Photographer, marketer, designer no matter who you are, cinemagraphs are an effective medium for your business.

(Flixel Marketing Manager)

When Cassandra was six, she was asked to share a story with her class…and hasn’t stopped telling them since. Now she does so through photography, video and writing, but with the same sense of wonder - and love for glitter - as her inner kid.

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