Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Exploring H.264. Part 2: H.264 Bitstream format

In previous topic I wrote about color models and how pixel color data can be stored. Now it is time to go deeper in H.264 bitstream format and find those pixels data.

Obviously, the decoder operates with a sequence of bits received in a specific format. The binary stream is structured and divided into packets. On the upper level, there is separation of the stream on NAL-packets, and the stream has approximately the following form:

Figure 1. Stream separation on NAL-packets

The abbreviation NAL stands for Network Abstraction Layer. The packet structure is shown in Figure 2.
The first byte of a NAL-packet is a header that contains information about the type of packet. All the possible packet types are described in Table 1.

Table 1. NAL types
Type Definition
0 Undefined
1 Slice layer without partitioning non IDR
2 Slice data partition A layer
3 Slice data partition B layer
4 Slice data partition C layer
5 Slice layer without partitioning IDR
6 Additional information (SEI)
7 Sequence parameter set
8 Picture parameter set
9 Access unit delimiter
10 End of sequence
11 End of stream
12 Filler data
13..23 Reserved
24..31 Undefined

NAL-type defines what data structure is represented by current NAL-packet. It can be slice, or parameter set, or filler and so on.

Figure 2. NAL-packet structure

As can be seen from the figure, the payload of NAL-packet identified as RBSP (Raw Byte Sequence Payload). RBSP describes a row of bits specified order of SODB (String Of Data Bits).
So RBSP contains SODB. According to the ITU-T specification if SODB empty (zero bits in length), RBSP is also empty. The first byte of RBSP (most significant, far left) contains the eight bits SODB; next byte of RBSP shall contain the following eight SODB and so on, until there is less than eight bits SODB. This is followed by a stop-bits and equalizing bit (Figure 3)

Figure 3. Raw Byte Sequence Payload (RBSP)

Now let’s look closer to our bitstream:

Figure 4. Detailed H.264 stream

Any coded image contains slices, which in turn are divided into macroblocks. Most often, one encoded image corresponds to one slice. Also, one image can have multiple slices. The slices are divided into the following types:

Table 2. Slice types
Type Description
0 P-slice. Consists of P-macroblocks (each macro block is predicted using one reference frame) and / or I-macroblocks.
1 B-slice. Consists of B-macroblocks (each macroblock is predicted using one or two reference frames) and / or I-macroblocks.
2 I-slice. Contains only I-macroblocks. Each macroblock is predicted from previously coded blocks of the same slice.
3 SP-slice. Consists of P and / or I-macroblocks and lets you switch between encoded streams.
4 SI-slice. It consists of a special type of SI-macroblocks and lets you switch between encoded streams.
5 P-slice.
6 B-slice.
7 I-slice.
8 SP-slice.
9 SI-slice.

Looks like table 2 contains some redundant data, But that is not true: types 5 - 9 mean that all other slices of the current image will be the same type.

As you noticed every slice consists of header and data. Slice header contains the information about the type of slice, the type of macroblocks in the slice, number of the slice frame. Also in the header contains information about the reference frame settings and quantification parameters. And finally the slice data – macroblocks. This is where our pixels are hiding.

Macroblocks are the main carriers of information, because they contain sets of luminance and chrominance components corresponding to individual pixels. Without going into details it can be concluded that the video decoding is ultimately reduced to the search and retrieval of macroblocks out of a bit stream with subsequent restoration of pixels colors with help of luminance and chrominance components. This is how single macroblock looks like:

Figure 5. Macroblock

Here we have macroblock type, prediction type (which is the subject of the next article), Coded Block Pattern, Quantization Parameter (if we have CPB) and finally – data: the sets of luminance and chrominance components.

That is all for now. Next H.264 topic will be definitely dedicated to the macroblock prediction.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Feel free to comment or ask any questions. Good luck.


  1. thanks for the explanation, it means a lot!
    btw, can you give me tips for parsing slice header to get slice type and how to get slice data?

  2. I'm glad this information helped you in your research. H264 research is really challenging and provides a lot of fun :)

    I can't give you some specific tips at this point, but you can always dig Annex B of H264 standart. And there are a lot of custom parser implementations all over the internet.

    Here are some usefull links for you: - this is not open source, but helps in h264 bitstream research - some info about decoders

    Good luck, and feel free to ask questions :)

  3. Hi Denis,

    Thank you for this great post!

    Could you tell me how the NAL header changes if we use SVC?

    1. There are a bunch of changes and i'm not very familiar with this part of h264 specification. You can check out the 6190 rfc ( and we can discuss it.

    2. Hi Denis,
      very good explanation.
      How do I extract only I frame data from bit-stream?
      What will be the start point and end point for I frame in h264 bit-stream?


    3. Hey, Mor
      thats a big question and i'm afraid i cant give you the exact answer like "start at 0x.... and stop at 0x...." :)

      To get the frame you need to find all the frame slices (one or more) so basically in your case you have to parse the bitstream, fetch the I-slices, check the frame number in slice header and decode the slice.

      I understand, this is not a good answer and i feel really sorry for that. I'm not working with video decoding at the moment and it's been a while. But still i'll try to help.

      Buy the way, there is a good tool for analysing h264 stream - H264Visa. It will show all the necessary information about the file.

    4. Thank you Denis for information :) It will help!

  4. Thanks for the information..Denis. But how do I go about finding the bit-size of a particular macroblock in H.264 (CABAC) bitstream (like those of H264Visa etc.)? I am using FFmpeg. I posted a question at Any encouraging thoughts?

  5. Thanks Denis, I am looking for a way to configure some of the parameters in H264 for a client server application. Right now we are getting some delay in the stream, any suggestion to reduce latency will be of great help. I have selected baseline profile, disabled the Deblocking Filter. I am trying to change the resolution of motion prediction to 1/2 rather than 1/4 but I am not able to locate the exact place where I can do this. Other than this can you please suggest how reducing the bitrate will effect the performance. I am a beginner in this subject so please forgive me for any naive errors

  6. Dear Denis,

    will you be interested in application development for a video demux application?If yes,please contact me

    1. I'm not interested at the moment, but thanks for the suggestion.

  7. So types 5 - 9 means that the current Frame ist a single Slice and 1 - 4 would be a multislice type?

    1. Honestly, It's been a while and I don't remember. I believe types 5-9 only tell you that all the other slices have the same type, not necessary that there is only one slice of this type per frame.

    2. Thanks for the answer. I think/hope I found it. It seems that a single slice always use the "slice_layer_without_partitioning_rbsp" Struct. Also the sliceTypes are always in the rage of 5 to 9. Four und lower are reserved for following slices of the same type.

  8. Thanks Dennis, It´s a great post but, You could give me the reference that you used please , thanks so much.

  9. Thanks Dennis, Nice article.. helped me to get quick idea about H264 for my work.

  10. Hi Denis,
    I am converting H.264 packetized stream to Bytestream so that I can feed it to the decoder(MediaCodec in android).

    I have a question related to the expected packet format. Please let me know if the below format is correct or not.

    {0x00000001, {NAL_header(PPS)}{NAL_payload}, 0x00000001,{NAL_header(SPS)}{NAL_payload}, 0x00000001,{NAL_header (normal)}{NAL_payload}...

    What i mean is the first byte(after 0x00000001) of the byte stream format is always a header, even for the PPS and SPS and for all other formats.. Please clarify..

  11. Really thankful for the useful information on h264.
    Can you post on h264 macroblock prediction, since I have no idea how to do it.

  12. can anyone tell for 480x640 picture, how much size of slice and macro-block should I have? and How many slices and micro-blocks will be there?