Run length encoding

Run length encoding is the simplest form of compression, in fact it's so simple that doesn't even need proper introduction. We can avoid discussing what kind of data we want to compress and we don't have to introduce new concepts like entropy. If you ask a layman how compression works, his answer will probably be some sort of RLE method.


Let's jump right into it. We can replace any repeating occurances of a letter with its repeat count, which means instead of lots of repeating characters, we'll have only two: the character itself and the count. For example this:

turns into that:

You can see it in action below. Can you break it?

Compressed text:

Decompressed back:

So, this method has a critical flaw, when you enter a numerical digit as input, it will be interpreted as a number in the decompression phase and will mess with the repeat counts. We haven't specified that our input can't contain any numbers, and we shouldn't: compression methods will likely be used on binary data, where every byte can have a value from 0 to 255. So what can we do to fix this?

Repetition count zero

We can see that the repetition count of zero has no use in the previous examples. How can we use this extra value? We can store an extra repetition count, or maybe more in the last case. As the compressed version of CCCCCCCC (8 times C), instead of CCC8, we can write CCC5 (5 = 8-3). This way we can save a few bytes for longer counts.

Binary RLE

If we restrict the range of values to two (so instead of letters and numbers, we'd only be dealing with 0s and 1s, for example), we can simplify the matter quite a bit. An example of this is black (0) and white (1) pixels on a faxed image.

What this compression method does is that instead of storing the values themselves, it assumes that the data will start with a white pixel, and only stores the number of repetitions until a black pixel comes. If we follow the example above, the first number would therefore be 3. The next number will simply be the amount of black pixels, then the amount of white ones, you can probably see the pattern by now. If our data starts with a black pixel, we simply put a 0 as the first number, showing that there are zero white pixels at the beginning.

You can see this below on a black and white image encoded in row major order (). Click on the tiles to change their values.

A concrete example: the TGA format.

RLE has its use in real world applications as well. Even if you haven't heard about the TARGA format, you probably had used JPEG in the past, which also utilizes some sort of RLE. Here's an example file to show how it's done.

I'm not going to delve deep into the TGA specification, but here are the most important bits of the header (first 18 bits in this case):

hexdump -C -n18 smiley.tga

00 00 0A 00 00 00 00 00 00 00 40 00 40 00 40 00 18 20

After the header comes the image data. As you can see the image has parts with large patches of a single color, and gradients where the neighboring colors all differ from each other slightly. So, how does our compression handles this?

The method is similar to PackBits. Basically we sacrifice one bit from our count byte in order to indicate compression. If that bit is active, it indicates compression, the next byte (19) must be repeated 5 times. Otherwise, the next five bytes must be interpreted as raw values.

Of course we are dealing with pixels now, so instead of the next byte, we'll use this for the next 3 bytes. Let's read the next line (skip the first 18 bytes then read 57):

hexdump -C -s 18 -n57 smiley.tga

97 66 44 22 0f 7a 53 41 9c 5b 75 b5 54 98 c5 48

af d1 3b bf d8 34 c7 da 30 cc db 2f cc da 30 cb

d8 34 c8 d4 39 c3 cd 41 b9 c2 4c ab b2 58 93 9a

5f 71 79 55 3f 97 66 44 22

The first byte 97 indicates compression (0x97 = 0x80 + 0x17) and that the next three bytes must be repeated 0x17 = 23 times. Or actually 24 times, since the repetition count zero indicates one repetition and so on. The following three bytes specify the pixel in BGR order. The 0f byte tells us no compression and that the next (0x0F + 1) * 3 = 48 bytes must be interpreted as raw pixel data. Finally (97) we have the same 24 pixels as in the beginning.

Also note how the tracking of repetitions stopped at the end of the line, even though we could have continued with the next, as it had the same deep blue color. This behaviour is specified (albeit kind of vaguely in the TGA specification.


We saw how RLE compression works, but also that we have to be careful how we represent our data. For texts should we store them as plain bytes, Unicode characters or raw bits and compress the ones and zeros? For images, should we parse them in row major or column major order, or maybe in zig-zag? Should we compress the red, green and blue channels separately? For these purposes there are more sophisticated and more universal compression methods, but they require some groundwork.


  1. TGA File Format Summary
  2. Murray, James D. , Van Ryper, William Encyclopedia of Graphics File Formats, 2nd Edition
  3. David Salomon Data Compression The Complete Reference Fourth Edition