What Is a GIF?

GIFs are often animated images that look like short videos, but without sound

What to Know

  • A GIF file is an image saved in the Graphical Interchange Format.
  • Your browser is the easiest GIF opener to use, but graphics programs like Photoshop and Windows Photos work, too.
  • Convert from GIF to MP4, PNG, JPG, etc., with Zamzar and other apps.

This article explains what a GIF is, how to open one on your computer or phone, how to make your own or edit an existing one, and how to convert a GIF to a different image or video format.

What Is a GIF?

A file with the GIF file extension is a Graphical Interchange Format file. GIFs (pronounced 'gif' or 'jiff') are typically small image files that most people use to create animated images to share on social media. However, a GIF can be used with large files as well.

How to Use Gifs

Although GIFs don't contain audio data, they're often seen online as a way to share video clips. Websites often use them, too, to display animated objects like buttons or header images. Because they're saved in a lossless format, image quality isn't degraded when used with GIF compression.

An image in GIF format.

How to Open a GIF File

Before you look into the programs mentioned below, first decide what it is that you're after. Do you want a program that can play the GIF like a video or image viewer, or do you want something that will let you edit the GIF?

On almost all operating systems, most web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, etc.) open online GIFs with no problem—you don't need any other program on your computer. Open local GIFs with the Open menu, or possibly with a drag-and-drop into the browser window.

However, with other applications like Photoshop, while the software can technically open the GIF like it can with other graphics, it doesn't really display the GIF as you'd expect it to. Instead, it opens each frame of the file as a separate layer. While this is great for editing the GIF, it's not so great for playing/viewing it with ease like in a web browser.

GIF layers in Photoshop
GIF layers in Photoshop.

Next to a basic web browser, the default graphics viewer in Windows, called Photos, is probably the easiest way to open them in that OS.

Some other programs for Windows that can open GIF files are Adobe's Photoshop Elements and Illustrator programs, CorelDRAW, Corel PaintShop Pro, and Canvas.

If you're using macOS, Apple Preview, Safari, and the Adobe programs mentioned above can work with GIF files. On Linux, use GIMP, while iOS and Android devices (and any desktop OS) can view GIF files in Google Drive.

Some mobile devices open GIFs in their respective default photo applications. It might depend on how old your device is or if the software is up-to-date, but most of them can download and display GIF files without having you install any extra apps.

Considering the number of programs that open GIF files, and that you might have at least two installed right now, there's a very real chance that the one that's set to open them by default (i.e. when you double-click or double-tap on one) isn't the one you'd like to use. If you find that to be the case, you can change that default GIF program in Windows.

How to Convert a GIF File

Converting a GIF file to a different file format is easiest if you use an online file converter. That way, you don't have to download a program just to convert a couple GIFs.

FileZigZag is a wonderful website that converts the GIF to image formats like JPG, PNG, TGA, TIFF, and BMP, but also to video file formats like MP4, MOV, AVI, and 3GP. Another online GIF converter like that one is Zamzar.

GIF conversion at FileZigZag
GIF conversion at FileZigZag.

The GIF viewers mentioned above might be some other options for saving the file to a different format. Most of those programs are image editors, so chances are you can actually use them to edit the GIF as well as save it to a video or image file format.

Most converters can do the opposite, too, and convert an image or video to the GIF format.

How to Create GIFs and Download Free GIFs

To make your own GIF from a video, use free online GIF-making tools. For example, Imgur makes GIFs from online videos by letting you choose which section of the video should be a GIF. It even lets you overlay text.

In addition to Imgur, GIPHY is one of the best places to find popular and new GIFs that you can then download or easily share on other websites. You can share the GIF to Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and several other places, plus download it for yourself and email the GIF. GIPHY also publishes a link to the HTML5 version of each of their GIFs.

As we mentioned above, Photoshop is another example of a program that can convert a series of images into a GIF file; our How to Make a GIF in Photoshop guide provides all the details. See our GIMP animated GIF tutorial if you'd rather use that free program.

The Workflow automation app available on iPhones and iPads is another easy way to create GIFs from your own photos and videos. We also have this list of GIF maker apps for your phone (including Android).

More Information on GIF Files

Parts of a GIF file can be transparent to reveal the background behind the picture.

Since GIF files are usually limited in the number of colors they can display (just 256), other graphic formats like JPG, which can store many millions of colors, work best for full images like those created with a digital camera. GIF files, then, are used on websites when there doesn't need to be a massive range of colors, like for buttons or banners.

GIFs can actually store more than 256 colors, but it involves a process that results in the file being much larger than it needs to be—something that can be accomplished by JPG without affecting the size as much.

Some History on the GIF Format

The original GIF format was called GIF 87a and was published by CompuServe in 1987. A couple years later, the company updated the format and named it GIF 98a. It was the second iteration that included support for transparent backgrounds and the storing of metadata.

While both versions of the GIF format allow for animations, it was 98a that included delayed animation support.

  • How do you make a GIF in Photoshop?

    To make a GIF in Photoshop, select File Import Video Frames to Layers and open the video you want to turn into a GIF. Select a portion of it using Selected Range Only, then go to Window Timeline to preview it or make edits.

  • How do you edit a GIF?

    Using the free online tool EZGIF.com, open the GIF you want to modify in the GIF Maker. Then you can rearrange the order of the images, skip images you don't want to include, resize the GIF, and more. Check out Lifewire's guide to editing a GIF without Photoshop for more detailed information.

  • How do you post a GIF on Facebook?

    Start a new post on Facebook, then navigate to the Add to Your Post section and select the More icon (three horizontal dots) > GIF. Pick from one of the recommended offerings or use the search bar to find a specific GIF to add to your new post.

  • How do you make a GIF from a YouTube video?

    Copy the link to the YouTube video you want to use, then go to GIFS.com. Paste the link in the required field and select Continue. Once the video uploads, use the sliders to choose the start and end times for your new GIF, crop it, add stickers or captions, or add some special effects like blurring.

  • How do you put a GIF into Google Slides?

    Select Insert > Image. You can choose to upload the file from your computer or search the web for a suitable GIF. Once you find the GIF you want to use and insert it into your presentation, you're able to adjust its size and position in the slide. See our guide on inserting GIFs into Google Slides for more help.

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