An I‑frame (Intra-coded picture) is a complete image, like a JPG or BMP image file. I‑frames are the least compressible but don't require other video frames to decode.

In the field of video compression, a video frame is compressed using different algorithms with different advantages and disadvantages, centered mainly around the amount of data compression. These different algorithms for video frames are called picture types or frame types. The three major picture types used in the different video algorithms are I, P and B. They are different in the following characteristics:

  • I‑frames are the least compressible but don't require other video frames to decode.
  • P‑frames can use data from previous frames to decompress and are more compressible than I‑frames.
  • B‑frames can use both previous and forward frames for data reference to get the highest amount of data compression.

Three types of pictures (or frames) are used in video compression: I, P, and B frames.

  • An I‑frame (Intra-coded picture) is a complete image, like a JPG or BMP image file.
  • A P‑frame (Predicted picture) holds only the changes in the image from the previous frame. For example, in a scene where a car moves across a stationary background, only the car's movements need to be encoded. The encoder does not need to store the unchanging background pixels in the P‑frame, thus saving space. P‑frames are also known as delta‑frames.
  • A B‑frame (Bidirectional predicted picture) saves even more space by using differences between the current frame and both the preceding and following frames to specify its content.
  • Pictures/frames

While the terms "frame" and "picture" are often used interchangeably, the term picture is a more general notion, as a picture can be either a frame or a field. A frame is a complete image, and a field is the set of odd-numbered or even-numbered scan lines composing a partial image. For example, an HD 1080 picture has 1080 lines (rows) of pixels. An odd field consists of pixel information for lines 1, 3, 5...1079. An even field has pixel information for lines 2, 4, 6...1080. When the video is sent in an interlaced-scan format, each frame is sent in two fields, the field of odd-numbered lines followed by the field of even-numbered lines.

A frame used as a reference for predicting other frames is called a reference frame.

Frames encoded without information from other frames are called I-frames. Frames that use prediction from a single preceding reference frame (or a single frame for prediction of each region) are called P-frames. B-frames use prediction from a (possibly weighted) average of two reference frames, one preceding and one succeeding.


In the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC standard, the granularity of prediction types is brought down to the "slice level." A slice is a spatially distinct region of a frame that is encoded separately from any other region in the same frame. I-slices, P-slices, and B-slices take the place of I, P, and B frames.


Typically, pictures (frames) are segmented into macroblocks, and individual prediction types can be selected on a macroblock basis rather than being the same for the entire picture, as follows:

  • I-frames can contain only intra macroblocks
  • P-frames can contain either intra macroblocks or predicted macroblocks
  • B-frames can contain intra, predicted, or bi-predicted macroblocks

Furthermore, in the H.264 video coding standard, the frame can be segmented into sequences of macroblocks called slices, and instead of using I, B and P-frame type selections, the encoder can choose the prediction style distinctly on each individual slice. Also in H.264 are found several additional types of frames/slices:

SI‑frames/slices (Switching I): Facilitates switching between coded streams; contains SI-macroblocks (a special type of intra coded macroblock).

SP‑frames/slices (Switching P): Facilitates switching between coded streams; contains P and/or I-macroblocks

Multi‑frame motion estimation (up to 16 reference frames or 32 reference fields)

Multi‑frame motion estimation increases the quality of the video while allowing the same compression ratio. SI and SP frames (defined for the Extended Profile) improve error correction. When such frames are used along with a smart decoder, it is possible to recover the broadcast streams of damaged DVDs.

Intra-coded (I) frames/slices (key frames)

  • I-frames contain an entire image. They are coded without reference to any other frame except (parts of) themselves.
  • May be generated by an encoder to create a random access point (to allow a decoder to start decoding properly from scratch at that picture location).
  • May also be generated when differentiating image details prohibit the generation of effective P or B-frames.
  • Typically require more bits to encode than other frame types.

Often, I‑frames are used for random access and are used as references for the decoding of other pictures. Intra refresh periods of a half-second are common on such applications as digital television broadcast and DVD storage. Longer refresh periods may be used in some environments. For example, in videoconferencing systems, it is common to send I-frames very infrequently.

Adapted from content published on wikipedia.org
Last modified on February 27, 2020, 6:00 am
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