Tcl/Tk with C for Image Processing

See how to use a mix of Tcl, Tk, and C to make image manipulation both easy and efficient.

To start an implementation in C from scratch for an image processing (or manipulation) program is a difficult task. It is necessary not only to develop an internal data structure, but also to write the filters for reading and writing the available graphic formats. The interface design and implementation is also difficult, due to the need for dealing with issues such as color allocation, quantization and so on. In this article, we'll show you how Tcl and Tk can help you in dealing with these problems easily. However, it should be noted that some operations on images are computationally intensive, making the use of Tcl prohibitively expensive. So we'll use a mixture of Tcl and Tk with C, and get the best of both worlds.

In Linux Journal #10 (February, 1995) Matt Welsh wrote a nice article describing a way to use Tcl/Tk as a front end for C programs using pipes to and from a wish process. While this method has many advantages, e.g., straightforward implementation and memory saving when using static libraries, it does present some limitations:

  • First, since your program is “split” into two different processes, the sharing of resources is not an easy task.

  • Second, all communication is done through the pipes, imposing an extra burden on the system.

In this article, we approach this problem using Tcl/Tk as an extension to the core program, and show some of the advantages of solving it in this manner.

A Practical Example: Let's Dither

We'll start by writing a small program to do a special dither (half-toning) for creating a special effect that applies only to a selected sub-rectangle of an image.

The described technique transforms vertical strips of colored pixels into a vertical strip of black and white pixels, where the average intensity best approximates the original average. Also, all black pixels are grouped in the center. (This effect has been used in the entertainment industry for some time now.) See Figure 1. The following sections describe the necessary steps for accomplishing this effect.

Figure 1. The typical appearance of the program after the dithering of one rectangular region.

Image in Tk

The very fabric of our program is based on the image primitive, which first appeared in Tk version 4.0. The idea is to create an “image object” with an associated command, just like any normal widget.

Images can be of two different types: bitmaps and photos. While bitmaps deal only with foreground and background colors, photos treat true-color objects, automatically quantizing for the available number of colors in the display. Let's focus on the “photo” type, which was implemented by Paul Mackerras based on his earlier “photo widget”.

A command for creating an image object named “picture” with the image in the file “mickey.gif” would be:

image create photo picture -file mickey.gif

After its creation we can easily do some operations. For example, to get its dimensions:

set pic_wid [image width picture]
set pic_hei [image height picture]
You can also create a second image, and copy a section of the first one into the second:
image create photo pic_piece
pic_piece copy picture -from 0 0
        [expr $pic_wid/2] [expr $pic_hei/2]
During the copy you can use the Tk options subsample or zoom to reduce the image or enlarge a portion of it. The copied portion can be placed anywhere inside the destination image.

It is possible to specify the size of the color cube of a given image (you can even explicitly impose it to be gray-scale), its gamma correction and some other nifty things. Check out the photo man page for details.

A good way to both see the image and allow some manipulation is to treat it as a “canvas object”:

canvas .c
pack .c
 .c create image 1 1 -anchor nw -image picture
                -tags "myimage"

After creation, you can draw and manipulate any canvas object you wish just as if it were floating upon myimage. Just remember to keep the image as the “lower” object, so that you'll always be able to see everything else. This positioning can be accomplished by giving:

 .canvas lower myimage


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