Image processing in iOS

Last time we looked at animations in iOS. This time we will look into image processing and how it works in iOS. An image, in the most basic definition, is a 2-D (two dimensional) array of pixels which gives the width and height of an image. Each pixel contains information about its color and opacity, so in a data structure we would need to reserve memory for each of the 3 primary colors (red, green, blue) as well as for opacity (alpha channel). Since we need to encode color values between 0 and 255 we need 8 bits of memory since that would fit a value up to 256 (= 2^8). For all the colors and the alpha we would thus need 32 bits to store everything about a pixel.

Let’s create a struct named Pixel that has a 32-bit integer named value:

struct Pixel {
    var value: UInt32

Next we need to store the color and opacity information in this variable. The order bits are stored in the memory is right to left (little endian) by the Intel processor technology, so the red color would go at the end of the 32 bits memory location, followed to the left by green, then blue and finally alpha so the known RGBA abbreviation would in fact be ABGR. In the example below, the red color will occupy locations 1 and 2.


In order to get the value for the red color we need to bitwise AND the value variable with a 0xFF mask. That means - discard all the 0s while AND-ing the value with eight 1s, and this will save (mask) the last two locations that we need:

var red = UInt8(value & 0xFF)

It is now easier to understand how to get the other values, by shifting to the right 8 bits inside value for each of them:

var green = UInt8((value >> 8) & 0xFF)
var blue = UInt8((value >> 16) & 0xFF)
var alpha = UInt8((value >> 24) & 0xFF)

By shifting to the right, the green value moves to the right side 8 bits and will now occupy locations 1 and 2, and so on. Now let’s see the reverse process - how can we change the red value once we have something stored in the value variable:

value = UInt32(red) | (value & 0xFFFFFF00)

So we first pad the value of red with 0s so it fits a 32-bit memory location, then we bitwise AND the old value with a mask to clear the old value for red (while keeping the other colors and opacity intact), and we finally bitwise OR it with the new value for red. As you expected, the other values can be set in a similar manner, except this time we shift to the left because all colors and alpha only occupy 8 bits so they need to be arranged into their places:

value = (UInt32(green) << 8) | (value & 0xFFFF00FF)
value = (UInt32(blue) << 16) | (value & 0xFF00FFFF)
value = (UInt32(alpha) << 24) | (value & 0x00FFFFFF)

Here is one way your struct could look:

struct Pixel {
    var value: UInt32
    var red: UInt8 {
        get { return UInt8(value & 0xFF) }
        set { value = UInt32(newValue) | (value & 0xFFFFFF00) }
    var green: UInt8 {
        get { return UInt8((value >> 8) & 0xFF) }
        set { value = (UInt32(newValue) << 8) | (value & 0xFFFF00FF) }
    var blue: UInt8 {
        get { return UInt8((value >> 16) & 0xFF) }
        set { value = (UInt32(newValue) << 16) | (value & 0xFF00FFFF) }
    var alpha: UInt8 {
        get { return UInt8((value >> 24) & 0xFF) }
        set { value = (UInt32(newValue) << 24) | (value & 0x00FFFFFF) }

In the next part of this series we will look at how an image is converted into pixels, and how we can manipulate pixel information to get desired image effects.

Until next time!