Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Brief Explanation of Gifs

A gif is an image format for digital media (the web!) GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format. (Don't worry, you'll never need to remember that.)

This word is pronounced like "gift" with a silent "T." Or like "gin" with an "F" instead of an "N. It is not pronounced like "Jiff," despite the delicious quality of peanut butter.

Other formats include JPG, PNG, and TIFF. (Old People: stick to JPGs and GIFs.) For the purposes of this lesson, there are two "types" of gifs. Still images, and animations.

A still gif is... pointless. (Unless you need transparent pixels. Pixels are the "points" in the image. The pixels make up the image. We can talk about that in another lesson.) Gifs are lossless. This means they don't store data well--an image saved as a gif is going to be less attractive and valuable than a JPG, which is lossy. Lossy images hold on to more data and compress better.

An animated gif is also lossless, which is to say it still has an inferior quality to a jpg. It has potential, however, to be totally awesome. A gif will require less data and information than a movie file, and are easier to share than a flash file. That's important--you can share a quick, soundless, clip without wasting time or memory.

Wikipedia agrees!
  • 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.
  • GIFs can 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 JPEG.


As a result, gifs are a big part of Internet-based pop culture. They spread across blogs and message boards, often bringing joy and hilarity. I do this myself, turning YouTube videos of my niece into an endless loop of hilarity. She is forever dancing, drinking tea, and rocking in her father's chair. Have a look:

I know. She's hilarious and brilliant, right?

In review: GIFs can be unattractive, but are easy to make, and share. They can be used as mini-videos without sound.


Additional Resources:
Graphics Interchange Format, Wikipedia
GIF, Dictionary.com

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