What Is a GIF File?

How to open, edit, and convert GIF files

GIF Files


A file with the GIF file extension is a Graphical Interchange Format file. Though GIF files don't contain audio data, they're often seen online as a way to share video clips. Websites often use GIF files too, to display animated objects like buttons or header images.

Since GIF files are saved in a lossless format, the image quality isn't degraded when used with GIF compression.

While there are two ways "GIF" can be pronounced when spoken as a word (which is how the file type is normally mentioned), the creator Steve Wilhite says it is to be spoken with a soft G like jiff.

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?

Lots of programs exist across several operating systems that will open GIF files but not all of them will display the GIF like a video.

For example, on almost all operating systems, most web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, etc.) can open online GIFs with no problem — you don't need any other program on your computer to do that. Local GIFs can be opened with the Open menu or possibly with a drag-and-drop into the browser window.

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

Next to a basic web browser, the default graphics viewer in Windows, called Microsoft Windows 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, ACD Systems' Canvas and ACDSee, Laughingbird's The Logo Creator, Nuance's PaperPort and OmniPage Ultimate, and Roxio Creator NXT Pro.

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

Some mobile devices can open GIF files 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 third-party 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.

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 can convert the GIF to image formats like JPG, PNG, TGA, TIFF, and BMP, but also to video file formats like MP4, MOV, AVI, and 3GP. Zamzar is similar.

PDFConvertOnline.com can convert a GIF to PDF. When we tested this, the result was a PDF that had a separate page for each frame of the GIF.

The GIF viewers mentioned above might be some other options for saving the GIF file to a new 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.

How to Create GIFs & Download Free GIFs

If you're wanting to make your own GIF from a video, you can use any number of free online GIF making tools to do so. Imgur, for example, can make 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. GIPHY also gives out a link to the HTML5 version of each of their GIFs.

The Workflow automation app available on iPhones and iPads is another easy way to create GIFs from your own photos and videos.

More Information on GIF Files

Parts of a GIF file can be transparent to reveal the background behind the picture. This can be useful if the GIF is being used on a website. However, the pixels have to either be entirely transparent or fully opaque, or visible — it can be faded like a PNG image can.

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 more colors (millions), are usually used 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.

GIF files can actually store more than 256 colors but it involves a process that results in the file being much larger in size 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 of 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.