Baked into every iPhone is a neat trick – one that combines the serendipity of photos with the magic of video to produce a Live Photo. These aren’t the same as normal photos, but they’re not exactly videos, either.
Live Photos are images that can be edited, adjusted, and shared just like any other image. But they are also tiny video clips: each contains three seconds of video showing a brief moment right before, during, and after you take the picture.
To learn more about Live Photos, including how to use and edit them, keep reading!
What are iPhone Live Photos?
First introduced in the iPhone 6s, Live Photos are a great way to add a bit of context to your iPhone pictures.
Instead of just taking a picture of your kids, you capture the photo – but you also get a brief clip of them running and laughing. Rather than photographing only a flower, your iPhone captures the flower, but it also displays the wind, moving insects, and background noise. A snapshot of your friend holding a freshly caught fish becomes a short clip where you can see the fish wiggling and flopping free.
These short bits of video might not sound like much, but they can go a long way toward bringing a still scene to life. A simple Live Photo can trigger emotions and memories years later that you never knew you wanted to save. The best part about Live Photos is that you don’t have to do anything to create or view them – they’re captured automatically by your iPhone unless you turn the option off manually.
That said, despite the prevalence of Live Photos, there’s still a great deal of confusion among iPhone users. For instance, how do you use Live Photos? How do you edit and share them? What are their benefits and drawbacks? That’s what I aim to cover in the rest of this article.
How to use Live Photos
As with a lot of things in the Apple ecosystem, using Live Photos requires almost zero effort. Any time the camera interface is open, there is an icon in the top-right corner that looks like three concentric circles (pictured below). If there is a line through the icon, Live Photos is turned off. If there is no line, it means Live Photos is enabled. Tap the icon to switch between On and Off.
When Live Photos is enabled, you don’t have to do anything different when you take a picture. Any time you press the shutter button, your iPhone automatically captures the picture and a bit of video. It’s almost like a short animation, or like a moving picture you might see in one of the Harry Potter movies.
If you don’t want to toggle the Live Photos setting every time, navigate to Settings and then choose Camera>Preserve Settings. If you have Live Photo checked, the camera app will remember whether you had Live Photos enabled or disabled the last time you used it. That way you won’t have to click the Live Photos icon every single time you want to take a picture – it will be enabled or disabled depending on your previous settings.
Once the Live Photos setting is enabled, all you have to do is snap a picture and your phone takes care of the rest. There are no parameters to tweak, no options to configure, and no changes from one iPhone to the next. Every time you take a picture, your phone automatically saves a Live Photo.
What can you do with Live Photos?
Apple cofounder Steve Jobs once said that people don’t know what they want until you give it to them. Live Photos are kind of like that, in that they give you a tiny glimpse into the context of your images.
People take pictures with their phones every day, but those images are devoid of the audiovisual context that Live Photos provide. Live Photos aren’t life-altering or world-changing, but the few seconds of video alongside each photo is so nice that it’s hard to give up once you’re used to it.
In fact, the real benefit of Live Photos isn’t readily apparent until you start scrolling back through images from months or years ago. You see a picture of a parent, child, or loved one – and you suddenly realize you also have a few seconds of their voice and past life. That’s when Live Photos become indispensable.
Personally, I don’t find Live Photos to be particularly useful for landscapes, animals, or everyday objects, but it’s those images of the people in my life that make me glad to have Live Photos as an option.
How to view Live Photos
While taking Live Photos is easy, viewing them can be a bit confusing. As you scroll through your photo library, there aren’t any indicators that separate Live Photos from normal photos. And when you tap on a Live Photo, all you see is a still image.
Viewing a Live Photo sent by someone else can be tricky, too, because it looks like any other picture.
The key to viewing Live Photos lies in the key to operating your phone: You have to use your fingers. So to view a Live Photo, whether in your own photo library or one sent to you in a text message, you have to press and hold. The pressure will activate the Live function and start playing the video.
(Note: If you are viewing Live Photos on a Mac computer in the Messages or Photos apps, you have to click and hold on with the mouse cursor.)
Viewing Live Photos is one thing, but what about finding them in the first place? With scant visual clues to separate Live Photos from normal images, locating them can be confusing. Fortunately, you can use the Media Type option in your iPhone photo library to show all Live Photos; this eliminates the need to scroll through all your images in the hopes of randomly stumbling across a Live Photo.
There are also a few hints embedded in every Live Photo to help you know what you’re looking at: Every Live Photo has the word “Live” in the top-left corner, along with the Live Photos bullseye icon. And when you receive a Live Photo over text message, you won’t see the word “Live” – but you will see the Live Photos icon, which means you can tap and hold to view the clip.
How to edit Live Photos
One of the most compelling features of Live Photos is how they can be edited and tweaked just like any other image.
You can use the iPhone Photos app to crop, adjust color, change brightness, add a vignette, and even use filters such as Mono, Silvertone, Dramatic, and more.
You can also change the Key Photo – the image that shows up when you first view a Live Photo (before video playback begins).
I’m a fan of Live Photo editing capabilities; they reinforce the idea that Live Photos aren’t to be treated differently from any other picture. Editing prohibitions or restrictions would be a big drawback – but at present, the only thing you can’t do with a Live Photo is use markup effects to draw on it.
(If you do want to add markup, the Live Photo is discarded and you’re left with a still image. It’s not necessarily a bad tradeoff, just something to keep in mind.)
Apple also gives you some fun ways to edit your Live Photos that go beyond what you can do with normal images. When viewing a Live Photo, you can tap the Share button to save it as a movie, which can then be sent to anyone for viewing on any device – iPhone, Windows computer, etc. You can tweak things even further with some fun effects, too.
For instance, tap and hold on a Live Photo, then – without letting go – swipe upward. This brings up an Effects menu, where you can make a Live Photo loop, bounce back and forth from the end to the beginning, or create a long exposure that blurs all the frames together. These can be shared like other Live Photos, exported as movie files, or uploaded to websites like Giphy.com, which can turn the content into animated GIFs.
If you have your iPhone pictures synced to your Mac via iCloud, you can even separate a Live Photo into its component parts: a single HEIC image file and a QuickTime movie file. (HEIC files are similar to JPEG files, but they offer more color information and better compression.) You can then edit and share each file individually, or you can use software such as iMovie or Adobe Premiere to stitch multiple Live Photo QuickTime movies into a single video.
Drawbacks to Live Photos
There are a few caveats to keep in mind when using Live Photos.
For one, while Live Photos are a great way to add a bit of context to your memories, they do take up more storage space than traditional photos. The exact file size varies, but Live Photos are generally about twice as large as normal photos. Even if you have 256 GB or 512 GB of storage space, Live Photos can eat through this pretty quickly.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take Live Photos; just be aware of your storage limitations.
Also, Live Photos exist only within the Apple ecosystem. Other Apple users can see the entire three-second clip – but if you send a Live Photo to an Android user, they’ll only receive a single JPEG image. There is a process you can use to export a Live Photo as a movie clip or animated GIF file, but those extra steps are an obvious inconvenience.
And Live Photos offer no customization options, which might bother folks who enjoy tweaking things to fit their own preferences. Every Live Photo is exactly 3 seconds – no more, no less. Every Live Photo is also shot at the same resolution and quality settings, and these limits can be somewhat frustrating. It would be nice if Apple had the option to shoot longer Live Photos, but I wouldn’t count on that changing anytime soon.
iPhone Live Photos: final words
Live Photos are a great way to get more enjoyment out of everyday images.
While drawbacks exist, the benefits mostly outweigh the negatives – and it can be incredibly rewarding to look back on these brief video snippets years later. You will find yourself enjoying your images in a whole new way, and the creative sharing options might open up new doors you never knew existed.
Now over to you:
What do you think of iPhone Live Photos? Do you plan to use them often? Do you prefer them to still images? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Live Photos FAQ
With your camera app open, tap the little bullseye icon in the top-right corner. If the icon is yellow, then Live Photos are enabled. If the icon is white, Live Photos are disabled.
As a rule of thumb, Live Photos are about twice the size of a normal image. Most Live Photos are about 6-7 MB in size, though this varies depending on the subject you’re shooting.
When you tap the Share button, use the “Save as Video” option. This will convert your Live Photo into a movie file, which you can send to an Android phone (or share with someone who uses a Windows computer).
Your iPhone can’t do this by itself, but you can save a Live Photo as a movie and then upload the movie to a GIF website such as Giphy. The GIF website will convert your movie into an animated GIF, which you can share with others.