Image Compression for Web Developers

Simplistically, larger pages inevitably take longer to load. There’s an unending body of research that shows that users of slow sites, spend less time on the site, click through less, click fewer ads, and spend less. Small sites, like AutoAnything, cut their load time in half, and saw revenue grow by 13 percent. And large sites, like Amazon have shown that for every 100 milliseconds of slowdown, they experienced a 1 percent drop in revenue.


Types of compression algorithms

There are generally two stages in an image compressor, a lossy phase, and lossless phase.


Lossy compression algorithms will modify the source stream such that you lose information that cannot be restored upon decompression. Most lossy algorithms in image compression take advantage of how the human visual system works, often removing information that we really can’t see, and in the process, saving bytes. For example, limiting the colours used in an image; fewer colours means there’s less data to run around. Generally, when you save an image in a format supporting Lossy compression, you’re asked what “quality level” you’d like for the image, effectively, what you’re choosing is a scalar value which trades file-size for image-quality. Savvy web developers realize that there is a sweet-spot for images, such that the quality level is high enough, and the file size is low as possible.


After a lossy compressor, a lossless variant is then applied, that is, the data, once uncompressed, is restored to it’s exact state, before compression. These are typical compression algorithms that allow the source stream to be recovered directly without any loss of precision or information. In Images, popular Lossless codecs include LZ77, RLE, and Arithmetic encoding. Lossless compression algorithms are the backbone of compression, often squeezing out the last percentages of data from your content, constantly struggling with information theory to reduce your data sizes.

Image Formats

An image format typically chains together various lossy + lossless algorithms to grant compression savings. There’s multiple formats adopted by web browsers, each with different features and performance trade-offs. To be clear, there’s not a “one size fits all” format for the web (currently). Different types of images should be encoded into different formats depending on what type of image it is, what the browser supports, and what needs the page has.

There’s typically three decisions that go into the choice of an image format for a web developer.

  • Does it need transparency?
  • Does it need animation?
  • Does it need high quality data?


PNG is a simple format that supports transparency and lossless compression. It allows you to define an alpha channel for your image, to mask out transparent areas, as well as an option to enable a lossless Deflate compressor on the data. (Deflate is a combination of two lossless compressors, LZ77, and Huffman). Because compression is lossless, image quality remains identical to the source image, this causes issues however, in that the file sizes tend to be quite bloated, and not as small as they could be.


GIF is another format which supports transparency, alongside animation. The GIF format contains two stages of compression, a lossy palletization step (restricting the entire image to only 256 colours) followed by a lossless LZW compressor. The process of quantizing the colours of the image down to only 256 provides an aggressive quality reduction at the benefit of better compression sizes, which tends to produce better compression from the LZW end of things.


If you’re looking for more of a ‘one stop shop’ for your image format, then WebP should be on your radar. The format boasts not only superior compression quality/size, but also transparency and animations as well. It uses both a lossy and lossless compressor combination, and much like JPG, will allow you to define your quality level vs. file size. Of course, this new image format hasn’t been adopted across all browsers just yet, so web developers who’ve adopted it are currently in the early phases of working through usability issues. Although a 30% savings over JPG, alongside increased server-side adoption prove that WebP is a dominant format for any sites dealing with image bloat problems.

Compression Lossless Lossy Transparency Animation
PNG Good Yes No Full No
GIF OK Yes Yes Binary Yes
JPG Good Yes Yes No No
WebP Great Yes Yes Full Yes

Trading Quality for Size

For those image types which have a quality setting that you can adjust, it’s worth noting that the biggest wins you can get is by hand-optimizing the quality setting to get the smallest file.

Video: ways to test quality against your image, and how to test perception properly

Useful Tools

Read More on this topic from HTML5 Rocks

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