What is the difference between git diff and git diff-tree?

When working with the version control system, Git, two commands that might come up quite frequently are git diff and git diff-tree. Though both of them are used for comparing changes, they serve slightly different purposes and operate in different ways. Understanding the difference between git diff and git diff-tree can help you navigate and manage your repositories more efficiently.


git diff

git diff is one of the most commonly used commands in Git. This command shows the changes between two states of a project. It allows you to see what has changed between two commits, between your working directory and the staging area, or between the staging area and the latest commit.

For instance, if you have made some changes in your working directory, but you haven’t staged them yet (i.e., you haven’t used git add), you can run git diff to see those changes. This is essentially showing you the differences between your working directory and the staging area.

If you have staged some changes (with git add), you can use git diff --staged (or git diff --cached) to see what’s different between your staging area and the most recent commit.

If you want to see changes between two commits, you can do so by specifying the two commit hashes like so: git diff <first-commit-hash>..<second-commit-hash>.

git diff-tree

On the other hand, git diff-tree is a lower-level command, mainly used internally by Git or for scripts. It’s used to compare the tree structures pointed to by the given tree-ish (i.e., commit, tag, or tree object) arguments.

The git diff-tree command will compare the contents of the named tree objects and report the changes between them. It’s primarily used to examine the changes from commit to commit, or between two specific commits.

A typical usage might look like this: git diff-tree -r <first-commit-hash>..<second-commit-hash>.

The -r flag makes the diff-tree command recursively traverse and diff the trees. Without -r, git diff-tree would only show the top level differences.


In summary, while git diff and git diff-tree both compare changes, they are used in different scenarios:

  • git diff is a user-level command that shows the changes between different states of a project (e.g., between working directory and staging area, staging area and commit, or between two commits).
  • git diff-tree is a low-level command used mainly by Git itself or for scripts. It compares the tree structures pointed to by the given tree-ish arguments and is primarily used to examine changes from commit to commit.

Remember that Git is a powerful tool, and understanding the differences between similar commands can go a long way in helping you leverage its capabilities more effectively.