I just came across the following thing: I put multiple identical copies of a png image into a folder and then tried to compress that folder with the following methods:

  • tar czf folder.tar.gz folder/
  • tar cf folder.tar folder/ && xz --stdout folder.tar > folder.tar.xz (this one works well for identical images, however for similar images the gain is zero)
  • zip -r folder.zip folder/

When I checked the size of the .tar.gz, .tar.xz, .zip I realized that it is almost the same as the one of folder/.
I understand that a png image itself may have a high level of compression and therefore cannot be compressed further. However when merging many similar (in this case even identical) png images to an archive and then compressing the archive I would expect the required size to decrease markedly. In the case of identical images I would expect a size of roughly the size of a single image.

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    $\begingroup$ This behavior is only present with png files? $\endgroup$
    – pdexter
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 11:07
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    $\begingroup$ Not making this an answer as it answers an unasked question, but if you know you are going to be compressing lots of nearly identical images, you could always replace all images but the first with a binary diff against the first image. Assuming the image is not noisy, you will end up with very compressable outputs, and the original images will still be reproducible. $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ If you use uncompressed files (e.g. .bmp) the tar.gz file should be able to take advantage of the similarity. (At least if the similarity is a lot of pixels being identical) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know anything about it, but according to Wikipedia, the "ZPAQ" archive format supports deduplication, which I believe is what you're after. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZPAQ#Deduplication $\endgroup$
    – coneslayer
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ You are trying to compress something that is already compressed. See Here $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 20:05

7 Answers 7


Have a look at how compression algorithms work. At least those in the Lempel-Ziv family (gzip uses LZ77, zip apparently mostly does as well, and xz uses LZMA) compress somewhat locally: Similarities that lie far away from each other can not be identified.

The details differ between the methods, but the bottom line is that by the time the algorithm reaches the second image, it has already "forgotten" the beginning of the first. And so on.

You can try and manually change the parameters of the compression method; if window size (LZ77) resp. block/chunk size (later methods) are at least as large as two images, you will probably see further compression.

Note that the above only really applies if you have identical images or almost identical uncompressed images. If there are differences, compressed images may not look anything alike in memory. I don't know how the PNG compression works; you may want to check the hex representations of the images you have for shared substrings manually.

Also note that even with changed parameters and redundancy to exploit, you won't get down to the size of one image. Larger dictionaries mean larger code-word size, and even if two images are exactly identical you may have to encode the second one using multiple code-words (which point into the first).

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    $\begingroup$ A more accurate answer: gzip and zip use the same underlying DEFLATE codec, which is based on LZ77+Huffman theory. $\endgroup$
    – Nayuki
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 0:59
  • $\begingroup$ Yup! That's half of the story; see my answer for the other half, or Nayuki's great answer. $\endgroup$
    – D.W.
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 2:12
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    $\begingroup$ for posterity: archive formats that exploit redundancies among files by concatenating the files into a single blob and compressing that are termed solid. not sure if there are other terms for intermediate levels of 'solidity', etc. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 10:25

Why this happens. There are actually two different effects happening here:

  • Each file compressed independently. Some archive programs -- including zip -- compress each file independently, with no memory from one file to another file. In other words, each file is separately compressed, then the compressed files are concatenated into an archive.

  • Short-term memory. Some archive programs can use information about one file to help compress the next file better. They effectively concatenate the files, then compress the result. This is an improvement.

    See also Nayuki's answer for more discussion of this.

    However, there's a second problem. Some compression schemes -- including zip, gzip, and bzip2 -- have a limited memory. They compress the data on-the-fly, and remember the past 32KB of data, but they don't remember anything about data that occurred much earlier in the file. In other words, they can't find duplicated data if the duplicates occur farther than 32KB apart. As a result, if the identical files are short (shorter than about 32KB), the compression algorithm can remove the duplicated data, but if the identical files are long, the compression algorithm gets hosed and becomes worthless: it can't detect any of the duplicate in your data. (Bzip remembers the past 900KB or so of data, instead of 32KB.)

    All standard compression algorithms have some maximum memory size, beyond which they fail to detect patterns... but for some, this number is much larger than others. For Bzip, it's something like 900KB. For xz, it's something like 8MB (with default settings). For 7z, it's something like 2GB. 2GB is more than large enough to recognize the duplicated copies of PNG files (which are typically far smaller than 2GB). Additionally, 7z also tries to be clever about placing files that are likely to be similar to each other next to each other in the archive, to help the compressor work better; tar doesn't know anything about that.

    See also Raphael's answer and Nayuki's answer for more explanation of this effect.

How this applies to your setting. For your specific example, you are working with PNG images. PNG images are themselves compressed, so you can think of each PNG file as basically a sequence of random-looking bytes, with no patterns or duplication within the file. There's nothing for a compressor to exploit, if it looks at a single PNG image. Thus, if you try to compress a single PNG file (or create a zip/tar/... archive containing just a single PNG file), you won't get any compression.

Now let's look at what happens if you try to store multiple copies of the same PNG file:

  • Small files. If the PNG file is very small, then everything except for zip will work great. Zip will fail spectacularly: it compresses each file independently, so it has no chance to detect the redundancy/duplication among the files. Moreover, as it tries to compress each PNG file, it achieves no compression; the size of a zip archive will be huge. In contrast, the size of a tar archive (whether compressed with gzip, bzip2, or xz) and a 7z archive will be small, as it basically stores one copy of the file and then notices that the others are all identical -- they benefit from retaining memory from one file to another.

  • Large files. If the PNG file is large, then only 7z works well. In particular, zip continues to fail spectacularly. Also, tar.zip and tar.bzip2 fail badly, as the size of the file is larger than the compressor's memory window: as the compressor sees the first copy of the file, it can't shrink it (since it has already been compressed); by the time it starts to see the beginning of the second copy of the file, it has already forgotten the byte sequences seen at the beginning of the first file and can't make the connection that this data is actually a duplicate.

    In contrast, tar.xz and 7z continue to do great with multiple copies of a large PNG file. They don't have the "small memory size" limitation and are able to notice that the second copy of the file is identical to the first copy, so there's no need to store it a second time.

What you can do about this. Use 7z. It has a bunch of heuristics that will help detect identical or similar files and compress really well in that case. You can also look at lrzip with lzop compression.

How do I know? I was able to verify this by trying some experiments with 100 copies of a file containing random bytes. I tried 100 copies of a 4KB file, 100 copies of a 1MB file, and 100 copies of a 16MB file. Here's what I found:

Size of file      Size of compressed archive (with 100 copies)
                  zip  tar.gz  tar.bz2  tar.xz    7z
         4KB    414KB     8KB     10KB     5KB    5KB
         1MB    101MB   101MB    101MB     1MB    2MB
        16MB    1.6G    1.6GB    1.6GB   1.6GB  401MB

As you can see, zip is horrible no matter how small your file is. 7z and xz are both good if your images aren't too large (but xz will be fragile and dependent on the order in which images get placed in the archive, if you have some duplicates and some non-duplicates mixed together). 7z is pretty darn good, even for large files.

References. This is also explained well in a bunch of posts over at Super User. Take a look:

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    $\begingroup$ Might be worth keeping in mind too that the ZIP format was designed back around 1990 (PKZIP introduced the ZIP format in 1989 says Wikipedia, and DEFLATE was introduced in 1993). In this time period, a reasonably common PC might have been a 286 or 386 (the 486 was introduced in 1989, but as always, took some time to catch on) running DOS with maybe 2-4 MB of RAM, only maybe 400-500 KB of which was directly usable without clever programming (EMS, XMS) support for which was not guaranteed to be available. In that environment, a small compression window size was pretty much a requirement. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 9:50
  • $\begingroup$ "Each file compressed independently" -- This seems to vary wildly between standards and tools. My experience with Ubuntu's default packaging software is that it seems to decompress everything when opening an archive. I've often thought that it should compress every file independently, as the usability gains usually outweigh the compression drawbacks. $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ "100 copies of a file containing random bytes" -- what about "similar" files? (Towards the actual question, how similar are PNGs of similar images?) $\endgroup$
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 12:25
  • $\begingroup$ Raphael made a good point about this in his answer. Actually I have many similar (not identical) images that I want to store. Similar in terms of they show the same structure with slight variations (also with respect to intensity and background). However the differences are so small that they are hardly visible. I tried to tar them and then compress with xz (which worked very good for identical images) however in case of similar images the gain is zero. I tried with 71 images each having a size of ~831KB. $\endgroup$
    – a_guest
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ @a_guest - that's not going to go well. Similar-looking PNG images will have very different byte contents (due to PNG compression). See also superuser.com/q/730592/93541, superuser.com/q/418286/93541, superuser.com/q/893206/93541, superuser.com/q/921140/93541 - basically, there are no good solutions. $\endgroup$
    – D.W.
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 18:03

Firstly, note that the PNG image format is basically raw RGB pixels (with some light filtering) pushed through the DEFLATE compression format. Generally speaking, compressed files (PNG, JPEG, MP3, etc.) will see no benefit from being compressed again. So for practical intents, we can treat your PNG file as incompressible random data for the rest of the experiment.

Second, note that ZIP and gzip formats also use the DEFLATE codec. (This would explain why zipping versus gzipping a single file will produce essentially the same output size.)

Now allow me to comment on each test case individually:

  • tar czf folder.tar.gz folder/

    This creates a (uncompressed) TAR file that concatenates all your identical PNG files (with a tiny amount of metadata and padding added). Then this single file is sent through the gzip compressor to create one compressed output file.

    Unfortunately, the DEFLATE format only supports an LZ77 dictionary window of 32768 bytes. So even though the TAR contains repetitive data, if your PNG file is greater than 32 KiB then for sure the DEFLATE compressor cannot remember data far enough back to take advantage of the fact that identical data is recurring.

    On the other hand, if you retry this experiement with, say, a 20 KB PNG file duplicated 10 times, then it is very likely you will get a gzip file only slightly bigger than 20 KB.

  • tar cf folder.tar folder/ && xz --stdout folder.tar > folder.tar.xz

    This creates a TAR file just like before, and then uses the xz format and LZMA/LZMA2 compressor. I couldn't find information about LZMA in this situation, but from 7-Zip for Windows I know it can support big dictionary window sizes (e.g. 64 MiB). So it is possible that you were using suboptimal settings, and that the LZMA codec might have been able to reduce the TAR file to just the size of one PNG file.

  • zip -r folder.zip folder/

    The ZIP format does not support "solid" archives; that is to say, every file is compressed independently. We assumed every file is incompressible. Hence the fact that every file is identical cannot be exploited, and the ZIP file will be as big as the straight concatenation of all the files.

  • $\begingroup$ xz by default runs in xz -6 mode, which uses a 8 MiB LZMA2 dictionary. I couldn't immediately find in the man page available on my Debian system what the default window size for the compressor is. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 9:42
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer! For the second case I was actually doing the following: tar czf folder.tar.gz folder/ && xz --stdout folder.tar.gz > folder.tar.gz.xz without any effect (which makes sense according to what you explained). I guess I got a bit lost in all this compression stuff :D When using tar cf folder.tar folder/ && xz --stdout folder.tar > folder.tar.xz I actually end up with a bit more than the size of one image (which also makes sense according to the default dict window size of 64 MiB). I updated my question accordingly. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – a_guest
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @a_guest Okay so, your comment describes a different second case. The problem there is that in tar -> gzip -> xz, the gzip DEFLATE might compress each copy of the PNG data in a different way, so xz won't be able to detect the redundancies. $\endgroup$
    – Nayuki
    Commented Jul 17, 2016 at 6:23

The problem is, that (most) compression schemes lack the knowledge over the data you have. Even if you decompress your PNGs to bitmaps and compress them in the tarball, you would not get (significantly) smaller results.

In the case of many similar images, a appropriate compression scheme would be a video codec.

Using lossless coding you should achieve nearly the perfect compression result you are expecting.

If you want to test it, use something like this:

ffmpeg -i img%03d.png -c:v libx264 -c:v libx264 -profile:v high444 -crf 0 out.mp4


  • $\begingroup$ Good point using a video encoder! I'll try that out when I upgraded my Ubuntu cause 14.04 doesn't include ffmpeg by default. I guess this video encoder is using lossless compression or at least has a switch for that? Do you know? $\endgroup$
    – a_guest
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, the -crf 0 makes it lossless (or like mentioned in the docs -qp 0 does the same (-qp 0 is preferred)). trac.ffmpeg.org/wiki/Encode/H.264 $\endgroup$
    – Jonas
    Commented Jul 16, 2016 at 21:38

PNG is the combination of Filters+LZ77+Huffman (the combination of LZ77+Huffman is called Deflate) in that order:

step 1) if the filter is different from None, the value of the pixels are replaced by the difference from the adjacent pixels (for more details see http://www.libpng.org/pub/png/book/chapter09.html) . That increases the compression of images with gradients (so ...4 5 6 7 becomes ...1 1 1 1) and it may help in areas of the same color (...3 3 3 5 5 5 5 5 becomes 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 0 0). By default filters are enabled in 24-bits images and disabled in 8-bits images with a palette.

step 2) the data is compressed with LZ77 that replaces repeated (matches) strings of bytes with a tuple containing the distance to the match and the length of the match.

step 3) the result of step 2 is encoded with Huffman code that replaces fixed-length symbols with variable-length codes, the more frequent the symbol the shorter the code.

There are multiple issues:

A small change that affects few pixels will result in changes in the results from the 3 steps of png compression:

1) The filtered value of adjacent pixels will change (depending on the filter used). That will amplify the effects of small changes.

2) The change will mean that matches to that area will be different. For example changing 333333 to 333533 causes that another occurrence of 333333 will not longer match so it will select another match to 333333 with a different distance or it will select the same match but with a shorter length and then another match for the last 3 bytes. By itself that will change the results a lot.

3) The largest issue is in step 3. The huffman code use a variable number of bits so even a small change will result in that everything that follows is not aligned any longer. AFAIK Most compression algorithms can't detect matches that are not byte aligned so that will prevent (or at least reduce a lot) compression on the already compressed data that follows the change unless the compressor can detect matches that are not byte aligned.

The other issues are already covered by other replies:

4) Gzip uses the same Deflate algorithm with a 32KB dictionary, so if the png files are larger than 32KB the matches will not be detected even if they are identical. Bzip2 is better in that aspect as it uses a 900 KB block. XZ uses LZMA, which IIRC has a 4 MB dictionary in the default compression level. 5) Zip format doesn't use solid compression so it will not compress similar or identical files any better.

Perhaps compressors from the PAQ or PPMD family will compress better but if you need to compress lots of similar image files then you can consider 3 approaches:

1) Store the images uncompressed (with PNG -0 or in a format without compression) and compress with a compressor with a large dictionary or block size. (LZMA will work well)

2) Another option would be keep the filters but remove the Deflate compression from the PNGs. That can be done for example with the (AdvDef) utility. Then you compress the resulting uncompressed PNGs. After decompression you can keep the uncompressed PNG or compress them again with AdvDef (but that will take time).

You need to test both approaches to see which compresses the most.

3) The last option would be converting the png images in a video, compress it with a lossless video compressor like x264 lossless (taking special care of using the right color format) and then on extraction extract the frames to individual png images. That can be done with ffmpeg. You also would need to keep the mapping between the frame number and the original name.

That would be the most complex approach but if the pngs are all part of a animation it may be the most effective. However you will need a video format that supports transparency if you need it.

Edit: There is also MNG format would it is not used often.


When you have special datasets you use special algorithms, not multipurpose tools.

The answer is that your chosen lossless compressions aren't made for what you do. Noone expects you to compress the same image twice, and even if you do it (by accident) checking against all previous input would make your algorithm O(n^2) (maybe a bit better, but the naiv approach atleast would be n^2).

Most of your compression programms you tested on run in O(n), they emphazise speed over optimal compression ratio. Noone wants to run his computer for 5 hours just to spare a few mb's, especially these days. For larger inputs anything above O(n) becomes an issue of runtime.

Another issue is ram. You can't access every part of your input at any point in time, when the input gets big enough. Even disregarding this, most people don't want to give up their whole ram or cpu just to compress something.

If you have patterns in your files that you want to compress, you will have to do manuel operations on them, write your own compression or potentially use an "archive"-type-compression (nano). A compression for longterm storage, that is too slow for everyday use.

Another option potentially would be a lossless video compression.

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    $\begingroup$ Given that it is very common for directory structures to contain multiple identical files at different places, it would seem like a good zip-style utility should provide an option to check whether a file being added to the archive has compressed/uncompressed hash values and sizes that match those of an existing file. If both hashes and both sizes match, it would seem worthwhile to attach a second name to the data block associated with the first file. Even if ZIP can't accommodate that, it would seem a useful feature in any future formats. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 18:11
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    $\begingroup$ Your answer implies tar's compression algorithm is good for compressing out some kinds of redundancy, but not for the kind that occurs in the OP's scenario. You might want to describe what kinds of redundancy you think it is good for, since that's not at all obvious. To someone who's perhaps never used this compressor successfully, all they are seeing is that they tried it on something that's quite compressible in theory, it didn't work, so what the heck is this compressor good for anyway? $\endgroup$
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ @leftaroundabout: There's no way in any Unix I know of to use "copy-on-write" semantics with matching files. In many cases, redundant copies exist to deal with the fact that things which may be the same today, may not be the same tomorrow, and neither symlinks or hardlinks would seem appropriate in such cases. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ @supercat: with many of such files it's a perfectly good solution to use a symlink to one “official”, read-only version. If you then want to change your copy, replace the symlink with a physical copy. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @leftaroundabout: One thing I've sometimes thought would be interesting if one could reduce the danger of engineered hash collisions to an acceptable level would be to have a hash-based universal reference identifier, so that rather than symlinking to a "logical" filename one would create a link based on the hash. Archives would then store 256 bytes or so of hash in lieu of storing really big files. A variation of such an approach could also be used to enable caching of files that needed to be guarded against alteration. $\endgroup$
    – supercat
    Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 14:56

The PNG file format already uses the DEFLATE compression algorithm internally. This is the same algorithm as used by xz, gzip, and zip - just in some variations. tar.gz and and tar.xz take advantage of similarity between files, which zip does not.

So, in fact, you perform DEFLATE compression over DEFLATE compressed files - this is why the files keep almost the original size.

The bzip2 program (also a related algorithm) is better when it comes to (nearly) identical files.

# for i in $(seq 4); do cp test.png test$i.png; done
# tar -cjf archive.tar.bz2 *.png
# ls -l
-rw-r--r-- 1 abcde users  43813 15. Jul 08:45 test.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 abcde users  43813 15. Jul 08:45 test1.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 abcde users  43813 15. Jul 08:46 test2.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 abcde users  43813 15. Jul 08:46 test3.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 abcde users  43813 15. Jul 08:46 test4.png
-rw-r--r-- 1 abcde users  68115 15. Jul 08:47 archive.tar.bz2
  • $\begingroup$ PNG - please keep in mind that there are filters used, non-standard deflate (which one is standard anyway?) and you are right that running the same algorithm twice gives nothing (or at least it should not be beneficial), but running the same algorithm with different settings is not guaranteed to fail. Also there are differences between deflate32, deflate64, LZW, LZMA, you cannot just say that all of them uses same deflate. $\endgroup$
    – Evil
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 16:06
  • $\begingroup$ That is why I said "in some variations". Of course, DEFLATE refers to a kind of algorithm rather than a certain implementation. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 20:13
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    $\begingroup$ This misses the point as I understand it. Yes, one PNG file alone is already compressed so I wouldn't expect further compression of any kind to have much effect. But a concatenation of several identical PNG files (which is essentially the situation here) might be reasonably expected to compress down to not much more than the size of one of them. $\endgroup$
    – Don Hatch
    Commented Jul 14, 2016 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ Obviously, those compression algorithms miss that point. bzip2 catches it: tar -cjf archive.tar.bz2 *.png. Updated in my answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 15, 2016 at 6:48

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