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How to create animated 'Cinematic' photos in Google Photos

If you want to give your photos a bit of 'life', the Google Photos app has a fun feature that helps you create animated images.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Pixel 7 Pro closeup
Jason Cipriani/ZDNET

Static images are passé. People want movement, they want "life" in their images. When you view an image from social media or one that was shared via text or any other messaging platform, you want to feel like you're right there. Movement gives us immediacy and the ability to feel immersed in an image.

Even if the movement is only slight, it gives a certain dimensionality to an image. You go from feeling as though you're staring at a flat, two-dimension image to something with a bit more depth. 

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Google is no stranger to this concept of movement, so they've added a very cool feature to the Photos app that allows you to create Cinematic images from any photo in your gallery. These Cinematic photos have a 3D feel to them. Google Photos accomplishes this by using machine learning to add the slightest bit of movement to the image, to make the central subject 'pop' from the background.

That leads me to one important point regarding Google Photos' Cinematic photos. This feature works best if there's a clear distinction between subject and background. Because Photos uses machine learning to isolate the primary subject from the background and then animate the background, if you attempt to use this feature with a photo that doesn't have a clear definition between subject and background, the effect doesn't work nearly as well.

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The other thing to understand is that the Cinematic photos are saved as MP4 files, which means the platform you share them with must support the file format. That issue shouldn't be a problem, since most social networks and operating systems have built-in support for such files. 

Of course, the feature also means that -- unless the person viewing the image has autoplay enabled -- they'll have to tap to play the image, which also means they'll have to know how to do that. As ever with technology, there are always pesky caveats.

So, how do you create a Cinematic photo from an image saved to your Google Photos app? Let me show you.

How to create a Cinematic photo

What you'll need: To create a Cinematic photo, you'll need Google Photos installed on a mobile device. I'll be demonstrating the feature on a Pixel 7 Pro

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If you're using a different device, you should be aware the steps might vary, depending on the manufacturer and OS. You'll also need a photo with a subject that is clearly defined from its background. 

With those things at the ready, let's create.

1. Open Google Photos

Unlock your mobile device and open the Google Photos app.

2. Open the Utilities feature

Tap Library at the bottom right of the Photos app. From within this section, tap Utilities.

The Library section of Google Photos on Android 13.

The Cinematic feature is found within Utilities on Google Photos.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

3. Open the Cinematic photo tool

Scroll down in Utilities until you see the Create New section, where you'll find an entry labeled Cinematic photo. Tap that entry.

The Cinematic photo entry in Google Photos Utilities section.

You can also create animations, collages, and movies here.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

4. Select the photo to be used

Scroll through the photo picker until you find the photo you want to turn into your Cinematic masterpiece. 

Also: How to set up a locked folder in Google Photos on Android

Once you've selected the photo, tap Create in the top-right corner of the window. Google Photos will then apply the effect and then present you with the results.

The Android 13 photo picker in Google Photos.

A few vacation photos, as well as images I've taken for ZDNET articles.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

5. Save your photo

If you like what you see, tap Save. Once the photo has been saved, you can then share it with whoever you want.

The Cinematic photo viewing window in Android 13.

A vacation photo of me and my wife in San Diego.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

The Cinematic tool is a great way to give your photos a bit of life. Google's machine-learning technology is remarkable in its ability to distinguish the subject from the background and then apply a bit of magic to the image.

Give Cinematic photos a try and see if you don't come away impressed.

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