Alpha compositing, OpenGL blending and premultiplied alpha
15 June 2019

Image compositing is the process of combining one or more images into a single one. Compositing can be done in any number of ways, but a very common way of doing it is to use the alpha channel for blending. Here, alpha is loosely treated as opacity. The precise interpretation is more nuanced, as described in Interpreting Alpha by Andrew Glassner.

This is the equivalent of the image produced when a layer is composited on another layer with the “Normal” blend mode in Photoshop. This technique was widely popularized by a seminal paper published in 1984. Compositing Digital Images by Thomas Porter and Tom Duff. This compositing technique is so common these days that most people conceptualize alpha as being transparency, instead of just a numeric channel.

Table of contents

Conventions and nomenclature

To simplify the discussion here, we’ll only talk about compositing two images at a time. More images can be composited in exactly the same way, one after the other. We’ll call the background image the destination, since it is already present in the buffer we want to composite on. We’ll call the foreground image the source.

Each image has four channels: Red, Green, Blue and Alpha. (Rd,Gd,Bd,Ad)(R_d, G_d, B_d, A_d) are the destination image channels, (Rs,Gs,Bs,As)(R_s, G_s, B_s, A_s) are the source image channels, and (R,G,B,A)(R, G, B, A) are the resultant image channels.

For simplicity, we will assume that all channels lie in the range [0,1][0, 1].

Interlude: The OpenGL blending API

If blending is not activated explicitly, OpenGL overwrites the destination with the source image by default. In order to enable and control blending, there are three main function calls:

  1. glEnable(GL_BLEND) activates blending.

  2. glBlendEquation(mode) sets the blend mode. The blend mode dictates what is done with the scaled source and destination values.

    e.g. The most common blend mode, GL_FUNC_ADD, evaluates channels by addition. So R=Rsks+RdkdR = R_s k_s + R_d k_d. Green, Blue and Alpha channels are computed similarly.

    GL_FUNC_SUBTRACT, on the other hand, evaluates by subtraction. So R=RsksRdkdR = R_s k_s - R_d k_d.

    If you’re wondering what the ksk_s and kdkd variables are, that leads me to the third function.

  3. glBlendFunc(ksk_s, kdk_d): This function is used to set the values of the scaling factors ksk_s and kdk_d for source and destination respectively.

The mathematics of alpha compositing

The following formula described in the Porter-Duff paper is used to get the final composited pixel colors:

A=As+Ad(1As)(R,G,B)=(Rs,Gs,Bs)As+(Rd,Gd,Bd)Ad(1As)A\begin{aligned} A &= A_s + A_d (1 - A_s) \cr (R, G, B) &= \frac{(R_s, G_s, B_s) A_s + (R_d, G_d, B_d) \mathbf{A_d} (1 - A_s)}{A} \end{aligned}

Optimization: Opaque destination

Many times—for instance in a game frame—your background image is guaranteed to be fully opaque, meaning Ad=1A_d=1. In this case, the formula becomes:

A=As+(1As)=1(R,G,B)=(Rs,Gs,Bs)As+(Rd,Gd,Bd)(1As)\begin{aligned} A &= A_s + (1 - A_s) = 1 \cr (R, G, B) &= (R_s, G_s, B_s) A_s + (R_d, G_d, B_d)(1 - A_s) \end{aligned}

In this case, you can set up OpenGL to do blending as follows:

glBlendEquation (GL_FUNC_ADD);

Pragmatism interlude: What if my destination isn’t opaque

With Ad1A_d \neq 1, the formula seemingly breaks our OpenGL API. It needs two multiplications instead of one: AdA_d and (1As)(1−A_s), and one final division by AA.

How do we achieve this?

Pragmatic answer: If you can get away with it performance-wise, write a shader that samples two textures, and render to a third target texture with the composited result. The shader itself would look something like this:

uniform sampler2D tex_dst;
uniform sampler2D tex_src;
varying vec2 frag_uv;

void main() {
    vec4 dst = texture2D(tex_dst, frag_uv);
    vec4 src = texture2D(tex_src, frag_uv);

    float final_alpha = src.a + dst.a * (1.0 - src.a);
    gl_FragColor = vec4(
        (src.rgb * src.a + dst.rgb * dst.a * (1.0 - src.a)) / final_alpha,

So, what’s the difference between a shader like this, and the OpenGL blending API? The OpenGL blending API makes the computation happen on specialized hardware located within the GPU sub-unit called the Render Output Unit (ROP), Life of a triangle - NVIDIA’s logical pipeline by Christoph Kubisch. while our shader version executes on the shader execution hardware (called a Streaming Multiprocessor (SM) on NVIDIA hardware or a Compute Unit (CU) on AMD hardware.)

Technically, executing on the ROP is faster because you are executing on specialized ROP hardware meant for blending (which ends up being used anyway, even in the shader case), and because you’re freeing up the shader cores to do other work.

Even the original Porter-Duff paper describes the “proper” optimization, i.e. premultiplied alpha. But the paper was written in a time where GPUs didn’t exist, and CPUs were slow.

Today, GPUs exist, CPU clock speeds are much higher, and we’re limited by memory access times more often than we are by computation. So, if you can get away with it, write a shader; it involves much less code than what I’m about to describe, and it probably runs fast enough.

Premultiplied alpha

Finally. Let’s see how to use hardware blending, even for non-opaque destinations.

Let’s look back to our initial formula, and move the denominator over to the left:

(R,G,B)=(Rs,Gs,Bs)As+(Rd,Gd,Bd)Ad(1As)A(R,G,B)A=(Rs,Gs,Bs)As+(Rd,Gd,Bd)Ad(1As)\begin{aligned} (R, G, B) &= \frac{(R_s, G_s, B_s) A_s + (R_d, G_d, B_d) A_d (1 - A_s)}{A} \cr \therefore \color{brown}{(R, G, B) A} &= \color{olive}{(R_s, G_s, B_s) A_s} + \color{magenta}{(R_d, G_d, B_d) A_d} (1 - A_s) \end{aligned}

When we load the source image, we multiply its color channels by its alpha. We do the same when we load the destination image. Now we can use GL_FUNC_ADD and glBlendFunc(GL_ONE, GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA) and get the final image, but also in premultiplied form.

We must reverse the premultiplication process by computing (RA,GA,BA,A)(\frac{R}{A}, \frac{G}{A}, \frac{B}{A}, A), if when want to use or save the composited result.

To recap premultiplied alpha, our pipeline now operates like this:

  1. Render the premultiplied destination image onto the frame buffer.
  2. Render the premultiplied source image onto the frame buffer, with blending enabled, glBlendEquation(GL_FUNC_ADD), and glBlendFunc(GL_ONE, GL_ONE_MINUS_SRC_ALPHA).
  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 if you have multiple images to be composited.
  4. Render the composited result onto another render texture, while reversing the premultiplication process by dividing by the alpha. This is the final image we want.

Note that the simplest form of reversing premultiplication might produce invalid color values when divided by zero alpha. This does not matter if the resultant texture is sampled using point filtering, but it is relevant otherwise. Alpha Blending: To Pre or Not To Pre by John McDonald.