What Happened to the Cinemagraph?

The cinemagraph was introduced over 10 years ago when I was in college. It offered an amazing new set of creative possibilities, and world-class artists were creating mind-blowing moving still images. Where did they go?  

There are still a few world-class photographers using cinemagraphs as a differentiator, but I think it's something most photographers have forgotten about or at least have failed to explore. Here are five reasons you should consider adding the cinemagraph to your repertoire.

1. Cinemagraphs Are Eye-Catching

Our audiences are very used to seeing still images. They are so ubiquitous that people don't even think about where images come from or realize just how many people make a living taking photos. Seeing good photographs is as commonplace as dirt. They're everywhere. People don't expect photos to come to life. You might say: "well, we've had motion pictures for over a hundred years." You're right. We're used to seeing those too. And technically, a cinemagraph is a video. But there is still a distinction between photo and video in the mind of the viewer, and that expectation can still be subverted. When a beautiful photograph surprises you with one or two subtle moving elements, it keeps you looking just a bit longer. It's strange and unexpected. As a commercial photographer, the ability to pull someone into my images and get them to stop scrolling is crucial to selling products for my clients.

2. Cinemagraphs Demonstrate Versatility

In order for a photographer to create a cinemagraph, he or she must have a particular set of skills. Planning is required. Because so much work can go into each cinemagraph, as opposed to some other work where hundreds of photos are shot at once, each image is usually carefully planned with a great concept, creative execution, and complex post-production. It's necessary to understand the interaction between still images and video shot of the same subject and seamlessly combined.  

Demonstrating these abilities is invaluable if getting hired for complex work is something you're interested in. Video has become a required or highly desired skill for photographers to possess, and this trend will continue.  

3. Cinemagraphs Set You Apart

There are many ways to differentiate yourself to create value and draw potential clients to you.  Cinemagraphs are a great one. So few photographers and videographers bother to explore this art form that doing so is immediately unique and interesting to clients. In the commercial world, it's well known that video typically has a higher conversion rate in ad placements, meaning that customers tend to click on and buy more often from an ad containing video than ads with still images. Cinemagraphs can occupy both spaces as an animated GIF or as a video file, with the beauty and aesthetic of a still photo but with a touch of the engagement of a video. Your prospective clients want to stand out from the crowd. If they see you as doing that, they'll be attracted to the idea of working with you.

4. Cinemagraphs Have Audio

If you go to film school, you'll learn that audio makes or breaks any production. A beautifully shot film can be unwatchable if the audio is terrible. A poorly lit, grainy film can be a masterpiece if the audio is professionally captured. Audio has impact. Cinemagraphs, if exported in a video format, can carry audio. Your photo can have music behind it. It can have the sound of birds chirping or waves crashing. There are possibilities here that haven't been fully explored. 

5. Cinemagraphs Will Make You Think In New Ways

How many times have you shot with a model in a milk bath? How many times have you taken a photo of a bride smashing cake in a man's face? How many times have you shot a mountain with sunbeams on it? If you ever find yourself in a rut, or after 10 years of shooting full-time you're starting to feel like photography is a little bit easy and predictable, try something new. Shooting a cinemagraph with stretch your brain. You'll have to solve new problems. You'll have to think in terms of motion and figure out how to make it work with your still. It can be complicated. It can be fun, like photography used to be when you were a beginner.

I think it's a shame that more people haven't taken up the cinemagraph as a tool in their belt. After centuries of brave explorers sailing the oceans and traversing new landmasses with GPS, satellite imagery, and ground-penetrating radar, it seems there's nothing left to explore on Earth. Sometimes, photography feels a bit like that too. Here's an area that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Here's the deepest part of the ocean. It hasn't been mapped. It's not fully explored.

What do you think about cinemagraphs? A pointless novelty? A forgotten gem of recent photography history?

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7 Comments

Robert Edwardes's picture

Turn it into a gif and you have something

Chris Fowler's picture

Cinemagraph = video clip, or am I missing something?
They didn't die, they just became GIFs or moved to social media in the form of Instagram/Facebook stories and the like.

If I were to buy into this romanticism, which I don't, I'd say the problem is display: a photograph can be printed and a video needs a monitor and power source. For some reason, electronic picture frames didn't catch on as well as I think we all expected. IF they had, maybe the cinemagraph might have had a chance.

Jim Cutler's picture

Cinemagraph is a specific thing that isn't just a gif. You ask a valid question. Aren't comment sections great.

Michael Comeau's picture

It felt more like software companies sponsored photographers to make it seem like a big trend.

C Fisher's picture

I have an app called Vimage that does something like this, inserts motion clips into your pictures. You could add steam to a cup of coffee, smoke to a chimney, stuff like that.

Andrew Pollock's picture

I think the answer is simple and two-fold: 1 - originally, these were quite hard to do and were time consuming to create; 2 - video software has moved forward to make these, now, easier to create but interest has waned. The images in the above examples are not the best as so much of the model side of the images is static. Using a simple tool like HitFilm or any other video editing software allows a mask to be made on the water side and then drop in ANY video file on those sides. The hair moving, simple again, mask and leave the rest a still image. I seem to remember better examples of this technique when they first came out, now, not so much.