A Primer on Popular Image File Formats

The majority of your digital photos are stored in the JPEG format (also known as JPG), but when you download images from the Internet these days, they may use the more modern WebP format.

Also, you may be familiar with GIF animations, which might not be as recent as stickers and memes, but are becoming increasingly popular.

It is also possible to save a screenshot as a variety of file types simply by using Paint.

What’s the point of having so many types of files? In what ways do they differ, and in what ways are newer formats better? Let’s take a look at the most relevant and mainstream image formats, so you can gain a better understanding of what makes them so attractive.

GIF: web-friendly animations

Compuserve introduced Graphics Interchange Format in 1987 with an ambitious goal: make colored images more popular online. It was also possible to store several images in a single file, creating animation before it was possible to embed video on a web page.

What makes it so space-efficient? Because each image in a GIF file uses 256 colors out of the 16.7 million colors available in the RGB color space (even though the same file can contain images with different 256-color palettes).

Since 1989, the format has supported transparency, enabling non-rectangular logos to be used on different backgrounds.

Since videos are now easily available over the internet, GIFs have taken the place of words. Since 2015, Facebook has only officially supported GIFs, and Instagram stories have only featured them as stickers since 2018.

Two reasons make animated GIFs popular with users: first, they stand out in comment sections against still images and text. Secondly, conveying emotion via animation requires a lot less skill and work than using words or a single image.

GIFs are mostly used online to express feelings, as is evident by looking at Giphy’s “trending” section.

In fact, the GIF format is beginning to outlive its name, which is a true testament to its impact. GIFV files, for instance, are short, looped video files that can be used as GIFs (and can be viewed before the entire file is downloaded) as well as handling more colors than standard GIFs.

When you save a photo as a GIF, the colors will change abruptly, rather than rising and falling like they do in real life. In the case of taking a series of screenshots and sending them over the internet, GIF might be a good idea instead of PNG (read more below).

WebP: one format for all?

Google announced the WebP format in 2010, which would replace all GIF, JPEG, and PNG images with lossy and lossless compression algorithms, animation, and transparency. How well does it perform compared with the other formats?

In terms of lossless compression, WebP’s advantages over PNG are debatable, and for animated images APNG appears to be more efficient. The lossy compression algorithm of WebP, however, generates files that are often much smaller than their originals, with the noticeable differences hidden within the files.

AVIF: the future of images on the web?

AVIF was created in 2019 by the Alliance for Open Media on the model of the AV1 video codec, which is used by YouTube and Netflix on Android systems and is stored in the HEIF container.

It offers several features that WebP lacks, including HDR and wider color spaces. Mozilla is working on adding support to Firefox. Google Chrome already supports the format. The video platform Vimeo has already made AVIF its default image format on supported browsers, and Netflix has also announced that it intends to do the same.

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