File Handling in Pillow

When opening a file as an image, Pillow requires a filename, pathlib.Path object, or a file-like object. Pillow uses the filename or Path to open a file, so for the rest of this article, they will all be treated as a file-like object.

The first four of these items are equivalent, the last is dangerous and may fail:

from PIL import Image
import io
import pathlib

im ='test.jpg')

im2 ='test.jpg'))

f = open('test.jpg', 'rb')
im3 =

with open('test.jpg', 'rb') as f:
    im4 =

# Dangerous FAIL:
with open('test.jpg', 'rb') as f:
    im5 =
im5.load() # FAILS, closed file

The documentation specifies that the file will be closed after the Image.Image.load() method is called. This is an aspirational specification rather than an accurate reflection of the state of the code.

Pillow cannot in general close and reopen a file, so any access to that file needs to be prior to the close.


The current open file handling is inconsistent at best:

  • Most of the image plugins do not close the input file.
  • Multi-frame images behave badly when seeking through the file, as it’s legal to seek backward in the file until the last image is read, and then it’s not.
  • Using the file context manager to provide a file-like object to Pillow is dangerous unless the context of the image is limited to the context of the file.

Image Lifecycle

  • called. Path-like objects are opened as a file. Metadata is read from the open file. The file is left open for further usage.

  • Image.Image.load() when the pixel data from the image is required, load() is called. The current frame is read into memory. The image can now be used independently of the underlying image file.

  • in the case of multi-frame images (e.g. multipage TIFF and animated GIF) the image file left open so that seek can load the appropriate frame. When the last frame is read, the image file is closed (at least in some image plugins), and no more seeks can occur.

  • Image.Image.close() Closes the file pointer and destroys the core image object. This is used in the Pillow context manager support. e.g.:

    with'test.jpg') as img:
       ...  # image operations here.

The lifecycle of a single frame image is relatively simple. The file must remain open until the load() or close() function is called.

Multi-frame images are more complicated. The load() method is not a terminal method, so it should not close the underlying file. The current behavior of seek() closing the underlying file on accessing the last frame is presumably a heuristic for closing the file after iterating through the entire sequence. In general, Pillow does not know if there are going to be any requests for additional data until the caller has explicitly closed the image.


  • TiffImagePlugin has some code to pass the underlying file descriptor into libtiff (if working on an actual file). Since libtiff closes the file descriptor internally, it is duplicated prior to passing it into libtiff.

  • decoder.handles_eof This slightly misnamed flag indicates that the decoder wants to be called with a 0 length buffer when reads are done. Despite the comments in ImageFile.load(), the only decoder that actually uses this flag is the Jpeg2K decoder. The use of this flag in Jpeg2K predated the change to the decoder that added the pulls_fd flag, and is therefore not used.

  • I don’t think that there’s any way to make this safe without changing the lazy loading:

    # Dangerous FAIL:
    with open('test.jpg', 'rb') as f:
        im5 =
    im5.load() # FAILS, closed file

Proposed File Handling

  • Image.Image.load() should close the image file, unless there are multiple frames.
  • should never close the image file.
  • Users of the library should call Image.Image.close() on any multi-frame image to ensure that the underlying file is closed.