[whatwg] Canvas - globalCompositeOperation

Philip Taylor excors+whatwg at gmail.com
Tue Mar 27 16:30:41 PDT 2007

It has been mentioned before [1] that globalCompositeOperation is
poorly defined - the spec has a note saying "The source-* descriptions
below don't define what should happen with semi-transparent regions"
and is vague about non-transparent colours too - and it is not
implemented interoperably. I haven't seen any descriptions of what it
ought to do, so this is an attempt to explain and describe what I
believe should be specified.


Most of the operations are defined in the Porter-Duff paper [2], which
does say how semi-transparent regions should be handled. My summary of

A single pixel with 25% alpha is considered to be a large number of
subpixels of which a uniformly-random 25% are totally solid and 75%
are totally transparent - the subpixels only have 1-bit alpha. When
you combine that 25% alpha pixel 'A' with a 50% alpha pixel 'B', you
expect 25%*50% of the subpixels to overlap, while (1-25%)*(1-50%) of
subpixels are covered by neither pixel, and similar for the subpixels
that are covered by only 'A' or only 'B'.

The composite operators define how you choose which of the inputs (0,
A, B) is used as the output of the subpixel, for each of the four
possible coverage cases (!A & !B, !A & B, A & !B, A & B). Then you
just (conceptually) average all the subpixels, to get the actual pixel

The P-D paper assumes colours are represented with pre-multiplied
alpha (where nonpremul[r, g, b, a] == premul[r*a, g*a, b*a, a]), e.g.
50%-transparent bright red is premul[0.5, 0, 0, 0.5]. The canvas
(inheriting from CSS) and seemingly much of the rest of the world
(e.g. Cairo, and most humans) use non-pre-multiplied alpha in their
APIs, e.g. 50% transparent red is "rgba(255, 0, 0, 0.5)". But the
compositing equations won't work nicely with non-pre-multiplied alpha,
and implementations appear to use pre-multiplied alpha internally, so
the operation should be specified in the pre-multiplied form. (I'll
use lowercase c for pre-multiplied colour components, uppercase C for

Taking that into account gives the following algorithm for most of the
composite operators:

|  Operator         | FA   | FB
|  -----------------+------+------
|  source-over      | 1    | 1-aA
|  destination-over | 1-aB | 1
|  source-in        |   aB | 0
|  destination-in   | 0    |   aA
|  source-out       | 1-aB | 0
|  destination-out  | 0    | 1-aA
|  source-atop      |   aB | 1-aA
|  destination-atop | 1-aB |   aA
|  xor              | 1-aB | 1-aA
|  copy             | 1    | 0
|  lighter          | 1    | 1
|    cO = cA*FA + cB*FB
|    aO = aA*FA + aB*FB
|  where cX is the pre-multiplied colour component of pixel X, in the range
|  [0, 1]; aX is the alpha component of pixel X in the range [0, 1]; A and B
|  are the source and destination pixels respectively; O is the output pixel.
|  The calculation of aO must be clamped to the range [0, 1].

("lighter" can result in aO > 1, hence the need to clamp it.)

Only "darker" cannot fit in this table (given that FA is a function of
aB, and FB is a function of aA).


To compare the main implementations (Firefox trunk 20070326, Opera
9.20, Safari 2.0.4), there is a demonstration at
and example outputs at

"over", "in", "out" and "copy" are all correct (in that they match the
above algorithm).

"xor" is correct in Firefox and Safari, but incorrect in Opera; Opera
appears to be using the pre-multiplied equations on the
non-pre-multiplied colours (i.e. doing CO = CA*FA + CB*FB, where CX is
the non-pre-multiplied colour component).

"atop" and "lighter" are correct in Firefox and Safari, but incorrect
in Opera; I don't know what Opera is doing.

"darker" is messy:

Firefox's "darker" is implemented as:

  Operator          | FA                | FB
  darker [saturate] | min(1, (1-aB)/aA) | 1

It seems this can't easily be hardware-accelerated - the Cairo GL
backend [3] doesn't support CAIRO_OPERATOR_SATURATE, and says

    /* XXX: This line should never be reached. Glitz backend should
bail out earlier if saturate operator is used. OpenGL can't do
saturate with pre-multiplied colors. Solid colors can still be done as
we can just un-pre-multiply them. However, support for that will have
to be added to glitz. */

Safari gives completely different output, and is very close to
implementing it with non-pre-multiplied colours as:

  CO = 1 - (1-CA)*aA - (1-CB)*aB
  aO = aA + aB

except not quite like that (see the bottom-right box in the example
page), and I don't know what it's really doing. Opera is also quite
like that, except more different.

KHTML [4] doesn't implement either "lighter" or "darker" - it treats
them as "source-over". Rhino Canvas [5] does the same. Both are
relying on existing graphics libraries for the actual drawing, which
don't provide those operations - see QPainter::CompositionMode [6] and
java.awt.AlphaComposite [7].


Conclusion: The above definition is sensible (in my opinion) and works
(in practice).

Opera needs to fix "xor" and "atop". Firefox and Safari are fine.
[...at least when ignoring other compositing bugs, unrelated to this
colour calculation.]

I would be happy if "darker" was removed from the spec - there isn't
an obvious definition for it, and it's not interoperably implemented
at all and it sounds like it never will be. Existing implementations
can add "apple-plusdarker", "moz-saturate", etc, if they still want to
provide the old functionality.

"lighter" seems much easier to define, and more useful, so I think
it's perhaps worth keeping - but it looks like a pain for those using
Qt/Java/etc libraries which don't support anything other than the
standard Porter-Duff operators, and I don't know if it's a difficulty
for Opera to fix their implementation of it. Does anyone have views on
this or on "darker"?


[1] http://lists.whatwg.org/htdig.cgi/whatwg-whatwg.org/2006-July/006963.html
[2] http://keithp.com/~keithp/porterduff/p253-porter.pdf
[3] http://gitweb.freedesktop.org/?p=cairo.git;a=blob;hb=HEAD;f=src/cairo-glitz-surface.c
[4] http://websvn.kde.org/trunk/KDE/kdelibs/khtml/ecma/kjs_context2d.cpp?revision=605784&view=markup
[5] http://rhino-canvas.cvs.sourceforge.net/rhino-canvas/rhino-canvas/src/net/sf/rhinocanvas/js/CanvasRenderingContext2D.java?view=markup
[6] http://doc.trolltech.com/4.1/qpainter.html#CompositionMode-enum
[7] http://java.sun.com/j2se/1.5.0/docs/api/java/awt/AlphaComposite.html

Philip Taylor
excors at gmail.com

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