GIF: The Ultimate Guide to GIF File Formats

While most people are familiar with GIFs because many smartphone keyboards include an option to easily send these animated files and GIF databases abound, fewer people understand the technology behind GIF files or how long this image format has existed. GIF stands for “Graphics Interchange Format” and was created by computer scientist Steve Wilhite in 1987.

Because the first word uses the hard “g” sound, many people pronounce it like “Gift” without the “T.” However, you’ll also hear plenty of people pronounce it as “JIF”—and many more who argue over which is the correct pronunciation. Regardless of how you say the word, GIF files serve the same purpose.

What is a GIF file?

GIFs are animated files that consist of multiple frames, each of which can use up to 256 colors. The limited colors ensure that GIFs are smaller than other images, including JPEGs or PNG files. In addition, GIFs are further compressed with a lossless compression technique to shrink their file size.

A GIF file cycles through each frame to create an animation. Depending on the images used for each frame, the effect can be subtle. For example, you can add a sparkle, move an arm, or create the appearance of a chest rising and falling as someone breathes with GIFs. Similarly, transition effects can morph one frame into the next. However, you can also add completely different frames to a GIF, which creates a more abrupt change.

Sometimes people create single-frame GIF files because they want to set certain elements of the image to be transparent. Although the format supports it, unlike with JPEG images, PNG files also support transparency and allow for more colors and information to create a higher-quality image.

Are GIF files dangerous?

This file format is not dangerous by default. Because of their compression, GIF files are not good candidates for hiding viruses or other malicious code. Of course, you can scan any file with your antivirus program before opening it just to be safe.

How to open a GIF file

Because a GIF is an image, you can usually open it in your device’s default image viewer or photos app. You can also easily view a GIF file in your browser, and many social media and messaging programs will show a GIF file’s animation within the app. You can also open GIFs with Gravit Designer. Note that you can open GIFs in most image editing programs. However, if the app cannot handle animations, you will typically only see the first frame and can potentially overwrite your GIF file.

Fortunately, there are many options to make or edit GIFs, including desktop programs such as CorelDRAW and Corel PHOTO-PAINT. You’ll also find mobile apps that let you create and share GIF files right from your phone. For example, GIF database Giphy has its own app for iOS and Android. Coub is another good option that includes clips to add to your GIF files. Your phone’s camera software may even let you create a GIF out of existing photos or video footage, but Gif Me! offers similar features if it doesn’t.

Finally, several websites provide options to create, edit, or upload GIF files. The previously mentioned Giphy is one such option. You can upload GIF files directly. The site also lets you create animated GIFs from videos or static images. Finally, GIFRun is dedicated solely to creating GIFs from video files. Simply paste a video link into the form, generating a GIF.


Long before they were used to express emotion or make jokes over messaging apps, GIFs have allowed people to create animations that work across operating systems and devices without a large file size.  However, those features have contributed to the extended polarity of GIF files.

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