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More details emerge of the simple yet clever tech behind Live Photos [Poll]


One of the novel features Apple added to the iPhone 6s to distinguish it from its predecessor was Live Photos, where every photo you take is effectively a very brief video, capturing the movement and sound as the photo was taken. The feature is unique to the 6s as it’s activated by a 3D Touch. Today, we’ve learned a little more about the simple yet clever technology behind it.

As you may already know, existing iPhones start taking photos the moment you open the app. This is how Apple provides the camera with the ability to take photos instantly, with none of the delay (‘shutter lag’) you see with some digital cameras. The camera has already taken and temporarily stored a whole bunch of photos, and it simply keeps the last one taken as you press the button and discards the rest … 

What Live Photos do is save enough of these before-and-after photos to create a 1.5-second animation. It’s not video, it’s just effectively an animated GIF in JPEG format – a similar approach to Motion JPEG. Audio is recorded separately and then attached to the animation. The animations can be set as your iPhone wallpaper.

Details of the file format were tweeted by Daniel Matte after speaking with an iPhone product manager, and are consistent with a brief description in Apple’s iOS Developer Library.

Apple said in the keynote that Live Photos were very space-efficient, and TechCrunch reports that Live Photos only take up around twice as much storage space as standard photos. This is likely because little will change between frames, so each subsequent photo file saves only the differences from the previous frame.

What’s your view of Live Photos – a novelty that will quickly wear off, or a feature you’ll really appreciate? Take our poll and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Via MacRumors


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  1. John Branum (@JDLBB) - 8 years ago

    Seems dumb to me. If you want to capture movement you use video and photos for stills. Live photos are basically just a thumbnail preview of a very short video.

  2. MattR - 8 years ago

    How much different is this versus Lumia’s Living Images? They seem the same to me?

    • Zachary Clariday - 8 years ago

      Apple’s is actually slightly better because of the way it takes the photo. The function and quality seem to be similar, but the delay on the Lumia’s capture is upsetting.

  3. degraevesofie - 8 years ago

    I’ll decide when I try it (which I’m eager to do).

    Every time I see it, it reminds me of pictures in the Harry Potter world…

  4. Leonson Stapleton - 8 years ago

    i think this is a pretty amazing idea. some may see it as a gimmic, but look at the technology. how many cool gifs can we create from these. random innocent moments with kids. something so simple yet amusing when utilized. i am excited for this feature since i love taking pictures.

  5. Live photos to me is very Star Trek. There is an episode in the 7th season of DS9, where Ezri is investigating the mysterious murder of someone abooard the station. She’s going through her quarters looking for evidence, picks up what looks like a normal photoframe on the table, taps the screen and the photo comes alive for just a couple of seconds of movement. This is what I thought of when I saw Live photos. I loved it in Star Trek, and I think it’s a great addition to the iPhone.

    My co-workers (not Apple fans) had 2 questions: How much storage space will be consumed by this, and what happens when you try to send the photos on to some other device or service that isn’t an iPhone with support for live photos? I think both questions have been answered. The storage space is only nominally more, because of good delta compression. My guess on the second question is that it’ll “flatten” the primary image when posting it to some other service. However, what will happen when it syncs with Photos for Mac? What happens when you text a Live photo to another iPhone via iMessage? Not sure.

    • iphonery - 8 years ago

      The answer to your co-workers question was covered in the keynote. It’ll play across OSX, iOS9 and watchOS. I’m guessing apps like IG, Facebook, etc. will incorporate it in and treat it like a video.

    • airmanchairman - 8 years ago

      There’s also a Stargate episode where a crazy scientist trying to resurrect his dead wife with dangerous Ancient technology plays a Live Photo of her to the Stargate team.

      Also, in Sci-Fi writer Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” series, members of a royal family have a set of portrait cards called Trumps which, when drawn and gazed at, animate and raise the attention of the pictured member, who can extend a hand and draw the viewer through space and time (“Shadow”) to their current location. That’s a fair number of centuries away, though… :-)

  6. 1sugomac - 8 years ago

    I hope there is an option to remove it for specific photos. Sometimes I need to take photos of mundane things like price tags and receipts. I don’t need those coming to life.

    • Ilko Sarafski - 8 years ago

      As far as I remember, the option stays on top of the Photos app. Also, Schiller said that it’s always on which means that you can turn it off. I am 99.99% sure that they won’t just include it without giving us an option to turn it off! :) P.S. Same goes for me (and millions of people I am sure) and the price tags, etc.

      • What he meant was to remove the live photo frames AFTER the photo has been taken. Makes sense, because I would always keep live photos on, but then I randomly shoot stuff like documents every now and then. The idea is to keep the option on all the time, without having the need to fiddle with it. Set it and forget it.

  7. Toro Volt (@torovolt) - 8 years ago

    HTC has this feature more than a year ago. They called it Zoe.
    Some Canon Powershots have hst it for years.
    Apple made an adqui-hire of some programmer who had an App that was doing ultrafast bursrt shots. This Live Pics feature is probably why they hired for.
    I think is a cool feature to have and more likely they are using H264 compression to keep the file size down.

    • PhilBoogie - 8 years ago

      But the HTC doesn’t run iOS.

      What Canon did was record a video which ended in a still since the user at that moment pressed the shutter. The result is completely different; it’s more like an edited video, which emphasise on the still frame as you first see a video. It’s great fun, for sure.

      H.264 has nothing to do with it. These are photos, which are compressed by the jpg algorithm.

  8. Gary Dauphin - 8 years ago

    Its a neat gimmick, but if they don’t get FaceBook or Twitter to support the format, it will quickly fade into oblivion….

  9. galley99 - 8 years ago

    Live Photos was obviously inspired by the animated headstones in the film Serenity.

  10. I think it’s a total gimmick and Apple shouldn’t have released it. Take real videos if you want things to come alive, not those crappy low framerate GIF like things. Apple’s hardware and software features are at their best when they seem inevitable and essential. Live Photos seems like a feature for the sake of being a bullet point on the feature list.

    Speaking of such features, why release 4K video recording if it can’t do 60fps? Why 12MP and decrease the pixel size? If they would improve their JPG compression, the 8MP photos would look even better, especially sharper. Even if these smaller pixels were as good as the 1.5micron ones in the iPhone 6, I’d prefer a smaller 8MP sensor that allows for a camera that doesn’t protrude.

    • How can you add more pixels to a fixed-size sensor without decreasing their size? You can’t exactly put a 4/3 or APS-C sensor behind the tiny lens at the back of the iPhone, let alone in a case show shallow.

    • PhilBoogie - 8 years ago

      It’s not their compression technique so they cannot ‘improve’ on it; it’s from the JPEG (Joint Picture Expert Group). Hence its name.

    • tigerpork - 8 years ago

      The photos that Apple showed during the event were really good. Apple said they were straight from the phone and unedited.

  11. davidstewart01 - 8 years ago

    I understand that only the new 6S phones can take them but can other iPhones use them? I would love to have one as my lockscreen wallpaper.

    • Olivier Pilon (@froli13) - 8 years ago

      I don’t know if you could see it if someone how own an iPhone 6s sends one to you. But I’m pretty sure you couldn’t set it as a live lockscreen wallpaper since it doesn’t move until you force touch it.

  12. ziongpham - 8 years ago

    How anyone could think that it’s a gimmick? I always wanted to view photos, like real, film photos like that. It’s how would I want photos to be. It’s feels like that’s what photos are supposed to be.

  13. ziongpham - 8 years ago

    On the plus side (from my other comment), this feature makes live photos natural, unscripted, because you don’t think of it when you take a picture. And also surprises you when you look back at it for the 1st time (that’s my guess)

  14. The feature will work fine/well so long as it’s an open standard that’s easily read and written. Put support immediately into Safari, send it to the W3C, update the entirety of iOS and OSX to support it, including in bundled and other Apple apps. Get Adobe on board to read and write it in their software platforms.

    There have been a lot of great formats that have taken too long to adopt or haven’t been adopted at all. Look at the long road behind PNG. JPEG2000 anyone?

  15. 1. Way better than video since each frame is a 12 megapixel image.
    2. If you can select which frame you want, this would greatly help missing the perfect shot – Especially with kids
    3. Facebook will support it natively… Without that, it would have been a novelty…
    4. Even though apple is not the first to attempt it, i bet you will see this on every device in the next few years…

  16. sjogro - 8 years ago

    It’s another one of those situations where Apple ignores a living, inferior standard and singlehandedly tries to standardize a superior technology by (ab)using the size of their userbase. It could be interesting as a hi-res replacement for GIFs. But they shouldn’t have made them ‘the standard setting’ in the camera app: It’s a disrespect to photo’s as still images. Photo’s can be powerful and iconic because they are a frozen and isolated moments. Photography is a creative field, an industry, an important part of journalism and therefor has a rich and important history. ‘Animated moments’, I’m not sure. I think a slideshow of animated holiday photo’s could either be really cool or really annoying. It’s a wonderous move no one has asked for, and personally I can’t imagine it would work well for the average shots I take, but who knows. The ability to easily customize your phone with animated wallpapers is very welcome, other than that, we’ll see!

  17. Frans Albertus Hanekom - 8 years ago

    I think this is absolutely the best thing ever! You take a photo to remember that moment, but you can still have a vine-like clip to remember that moment you took the photo. There where moments in life where I wish I could have captured more of a moment rather than one still image. This is good because I don’t even have to think about it when taking photo’s.

  18. seventhndr - 8 years ago

    Depends on what I can do with them. If apple lets me split them (its essentially a bust shot anyway, why not get that use from it) or convert them to a GIF for other uses, it’d be very useful.

  19. alp//ozen (@alpozen) - 8 years ago

    what is the file format for live photos ? that will stop the fight whether its photo or video.

  20. BFSEsq - 8 years ago

    Is the motion JPEG format what Twitter uses to convert animated GIFs into tweets? I know that you can upload GIF format animations to Twitter but that Twitter actually converts them into a non-GIF, which is why you can’t save them from someone else’s tweet.

    I wish there was one standard. I have fun with the novelty of animated GIFs but I wish it weren’t hard to figure out which apps support it and how. (ie Facebook Messenger supports importing standard animated GIFs from Camera Roll; the Big Blue FB app doesn’t, the link must be copied and pasted.)


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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