With the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, Apple has launched a new type of moving media called Live Photos – and we’ve got the lowdown.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, does a Live Photo represent a whole novel? Or just a novelty? Opinions will be split on Apple’s new imaging format, but before you make up your mind let’s take a look at what exactly a Live Photo is and whether or not they’re here to stay.

Live Photos? What’s that?

Live Photos are a brand new type of image that can only be recorded on Apple’s latest iPhones. A Live Photo looks like a regular photo, but hides a special power – it can move, showcasing the brief moments before and after the photo was taken. Apple describe Live Photos as “unforgettable living memories,” which sounds a bit over the top – but we get the point. They can enhance a landscape as rivers trickle and birds flutter, bring the atmospheric hustle and bustle of a cityscape to life, or capture the mood of a party as friends jostle into position for the camera.

The feature has been compared to the moving pictures seen in the Harry Potter films, but the reality is a little less magical. Each Live Photo is simply a three-second video clip (with sound) wrapped around a regular photo. Essentially a high-class animated GIF. To keep the file size low the video is shot at the relatively low frame rate of 15fps – making any significant movements look jittery and surreal, like a stop-frame animation.

So how do I take a Live Photo?

Live Photos are taken automatically when you snap regular pictures, so long as the feature is activated. You can toggle it on or off by tapping the concentric circles icon top and center of the Camera app. Bear in mind it won’t be an option from non-standard photo modes – unfortunately you can’t capture a Live Panorama or even a Live Square Photo. When you come to scroll though your pictures later you’ll notice a split-second of movement as each Live Photo comes onscreen – currently this is the only way to differentiate them from regular snaps. Deep press the photo with 3D Touch to see it animate, or long press to view it from an older device.

Although Live Photos are taken automatically, it does take a little forethought to take a good Live Photo. It’s important to keep the camera relatively still and to remember to hold it in position for a moment after hitting the shutter button. Putting the camera down too soon can result in a nausea-inducing end to your otherwise great photos. It’s all too easy to end up with a camera roll full of shots of your pocket. Apple say they’re working to address this by automatically trimming a clip if it detects too much movement.

How does it work?  Should I be worried about storage?

In order to display a real-time preview onscreen, the Camera app is actually capturing a constant stream of images, only saving them permanently when you hit the shutter button. This has always been the case, but now the iPhone can also save a handful of extra before-and-after frames – just enough to create a three-second Live Photo. It’s not dissimilar from the familiar Burst Capture mode that snaps a series of stills in a short space of time.

Despite the fact that a Live Photo comprises three seconds of video and sound, they only take up the space of around two regular 12-megapixel photos. Still, even twice the space can quickly add up to a significant amount. Those with bigger iPhones or premium iCloud storage plans shouldn’t notice a problem, but if you opted for the entry-level 16GB iPhone 6s, you may want to consider having Live Photos off by default and only using them when you particularly want to.

Will Live Photos affect the quality of my still images?

Generally speaking, no, although some iPhone users from Reddit have discovered that the camera’s performance in low-light situations suffers when Live Photos is activated. It might be worth toggling the feature off if you’re shooting in a dark or poorly-lit space to get the best pictures.

Another thing to bear in mind is that Live Photos can’t be cropped or otherwise adjusted like a normal photo. If you try to edit one the Photos app warns you that doing so will turn off the ‘live’ functionality of the picture and turn it back into a regular dull-as-dishwater still photo. You know, like cavemen had.

This sounds familiar. Is anyone else doing it?

Unsurprisingly, Apple isn’t the first company to come up with the idea of moving photos. Nokia phones have actually had ‘live images’ for a while now, but by comparison they last less than a second and don’t include audio. It’s fair to say they’ve not really taken off. Some Lumia smartphones boast a similar feature called ‘living image,’ but Microsoft is typically a little less eloquent than Apple, awkwardly describing the feature as “great for capturing kids.”

We’d be very surprised if a few Android phones don’t jump on the bandwagon with their own versions of Live Photos. After all, Huawei and other manufacturer are already experimenting with pressure-sensitive screens in the wake of Apple’s Force Touch and 3D Touch. It would be interesting to see if Apple allow other manufacturers to adopt the format if it really kicks off, but for the time being we see Live Photos as a strictly iPhone-only feature.

Is this going to catch on?

It’s hard to say how successful Live Photos will be in the long term. Currently they’re only viewable on Apple devices running iOS 9, Macs with the latest version of OS X (El Capitan) and the Apple Watch. Until the format is more widely compatible the only realistic way of sharing them is through iMessage. That’s pretty limiting, but we expect it to improve soon. The first step would be to define a standard for Live Photos to be compatible with web browsers.

Meanwhile, Apple is already in talks with Facebook to help make the format easily shareable online, which would be a massive opportunity to reach a wider audience. Especially considering that Facebook owns Instagram. If those two social networks embrace Live Photos with open arms, people will start to notice.

So? What’s the verdict?

Live Photos aren’t a replacement for video, and compared to GIFs they’re pretty restrictive. We don’t think Apple are trying to replace those formats though – Live Photos are marketed more as an upgrade to regular photos. An extra flourish to help capture the moment in fun and unexpected ways.

Some are calling it a gimmick, and in a way it is. But that hasn’t stopped millions of people who picked up a new iPhone recently from enjoying the feature. Apple will be hoping the format can ride through its honeymoon novelty period and become a normal feature that people use without thinking twice – but the online sharing issue really needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

The real challenge could just be getting people outside of Apple’s ecosystem to care. No brand has yet popularized this kind of feature, and despite the success of the iPhone 6s in terms of sales there are still vast swathes of consumers with no clue that Live Photos even exist. Time will tell to what extent Live Photos catch on, but Apple certainly has the drive to succeed where other companies have failed.