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GIF: Graphics Interchange Format

Updated on January 3, 2017

What is a GIF?

Need a transparent background?

Want some animation?

After a small file size?

Then the Graphics Interchange Format could be the right 'man' for the job!

Read on and discover more on how the GIF works and its interesting history.

Image Credit: Image made by me using Photoshop


The creators of the format pronounced GIF with a soft "g", as in "George". However, many people pronounce GIF with a hard "G", as in a 'gift' reflecting the way it is pronounced in its own acronym (Graphics Interchange Format). According to the creator of the GIF format, Steve Wilhite, the pronunciation deliberately echoes that of an American peanut butter brand, Jif, and the employees of CompuServe would often say "Choosy developers choose GIF", spoofing this brand's television commercials. This pronunciation was also identified by CompuServe in their documentation of a graphics display program called CompuShow. Both pronunciations are given as correct by the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary.

Some people pronounce it "jiff", others "giff". The file extension is .gif.

Biography of the GIF

The GIF image is a popular type of image file format used on both Internet and offline setting. They were the first graphic type to dominate the world wide web. And they were available in two types – static as well as animated.

GIF images support 256 colours at its maximum. So they are not suitable for photographic images, they may look too grainy. Sure you can get away with it to some extent, though the file size will be considerably larger than if you used a JPEG, but while it looks okay on a monitor, it will look even worse when printed.

The essential feature of GIF image is the ability to compress colours and pixel areas of a given image in accordance with the large pixel area of that particular image.

One of most important characteristics of GIF image is its ability to become transparent, that is, it synchronize smoothly and perfectly with the background colour irrespective of its fore-colour.

Another important characteristic is its ability to interlace which enables the image to load faster.

A GIF handles flat-color images better than a JPEG file. A JPEG displaying a logo with solid colors may look too fuzzy in comparison to the GIF, which does the job to perfection.


Sometimes it is obvious that a graphic on someone's web page was saved in the wrong file format. Photos may look too grainy, or flat-color images may look too fuzzy.

  • GIFs are suitable for sharp-edged line art (such as logos) with a limited number of colors. This takes advantage of the format's lossless compression, which favors flat areas of uniform color with well defined edges (in contrast to JPEG, which favors smooth gradients and softer images).
  • GIFs can also be used to store low-color sprite data for games.
  • GIFs can be used for small animations and low-resolution film clips.
  • In view of the general limitation on the GIF image palette to 256 colors, it is not usually used as a format for digital photography. Digital photographers use image file formats capable of reproducing a greater range of colors, such as TIFF, RAW or the lossy JPEG, which is more suitable for compressing photographs.
  • The PNG format is a popular alternative to GIF images since it uses better compression techniques and does not have a limit of 256 colors, but PNGs do not support animations. The MNG and APNG formats, both derived from PNG, support animations

GIF is an 8-bit color format, which means that it can save up to 256 different colors. The GIF format compresses large areas of solid color while preserving detailed areas. This fact, plus the 256-color limit, make GIF a good format for line art, logos, or type. It is not so useful for photographs, which have many more than 256 colors and which have smooth color transitions rather than sharp edges.

GIF uses a "lossless" compression method patented by CompuServe. This means that no information about the graphic is discarded in the compression process. However, if you begin with a graphic that has more than 256 colors, you will lose color information if you save it as a GIF. (ImageReady lets you add lossy compression to a GIF file, in order to reduce the file size even more.)

GIF supports animated images, background transparency, and background matting (blending edges with a web page background). The GIF format is supported by all graphical web browsers.

The Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) is a bitmap image format that was introduced by CompuServe in 1987 and has since come into widespread usage on the World Wide Web due to its wide support and portability.

The format supports up to 8 bits per pixel, allowing a single image to reference a palette of up to 256 distinct colors chosen from the 24-bit RGB color space. It also supports animations and allows a separate palette of 256 colors for each frame. The color limitation makes the GIF format unsuitable for reproducing color photographs and other images with continuous color, but it is well-suited for simpler images such as graphics or logos with solid areas of color.

GIF images are compressed using the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) lossless data compression technique to reduce the file size without degrading the visual quality. This compression technique was patented in 1985. Controversy over the licensing agreement between the patent holder, Unisys, and CompuServe in 1994 inspired the development of the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) standard; since then all the relevant patents have expired.


An animated GIF file is a graphic image on a Web page that moves - for example, a twirling icon or a banner with a hand that waves or letters that magically get larger. In particular, an animated GIF is a file in the Graphics Interchange Format specified as GIF89a that contains within the single file a set of images that are presented in a specified order. An animated GIF can loop endlessly (and it appears as though your document never finishes arriving) or it can present one or a few sequences and then stop the animation. Animated GIFs are frequently used in Web ad banners.

Java, Flash, and other tools can be used to achieve the same effects as an animated GIF. However, animated GIFs are generally easier to create than comparable images with Java or Flash and usually smaller in size and thus faster to display.

Have you ever made an animated GIF?

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