In computer graphics, alpha compositing is the process of combining an image with a background to create the appearance of partial transparency. It is often useful to render image elements in separate passes, and then combine the resulting multiple 2D images into a single, final image in a process called compositing. For example, compositing is used extensively when combining computer rendered image elements with live footage.
In order to combine these image elements correctly, it is necessary to keep an associated matte for each element. This matte contains the coverage information—the shape of the geometry being drawn—making it possible to distinguish between parts of the image where the geometry was actually drawn and other parts of the image which are empty.
To store matte information, the concept of an alpha channel was introduced by Alvy Ray Smith in the late 1970s, and fully developed in a 1984 paper by Thomas Porter and Tom Duff. In a 2D image element which stores a color for each pixel, additional data is stored in the alpha channel with a value between 0 and 1. A value of 0 means that the pixel does not have any coverage information and is transparent; i.e. there was no color contribution from any geometry because the geometry did not overlap this pixel. A value of 1 means that the pixel is opaque because the geometry completely overlapped the pixel.
If an alpha channel is used in an image, it is common to also multiply the color by the alpha value, to save on additional multiplications during compositing. This is usually referred to as premultiplied alpha. Thus, assuming that the pixel color is expressed using RGBA tuples, a pixel value of (0.0, 0.5, 0.0, 0.5) implies a pixel which is half green and has 50% coverage. (Explanation: The RGB values are the first three values, (0, 0.5, 0) and the alpha value is the fourth, 0.5. If the color were fully green, its RGB would be (0, 1, 0). Since this pixel is using a premultiplied alpha, all of the RGB values in the ordered triplet (0, 1, 0) are multiplied by 0.5 and then the alpha is added to the end to yield (0, 0.5, 0, 0.5).) Premultiplied alpha also has some advantages over normal alpha blending because premultiplied alpha blending is associative and linear interpolation gives better results.
With the existence of an alpha channel, it is possible to express compositing image operations, using a compositing algebra. For example, given two image elements A and B, the most common compositing operation is to combine the images such that A appears in the foreground and B appears in the background. This can be expressed as A over B. In addition to over, Porter and Duff defined the compositing operators in, held out by (usually abbreviated out), atop, and xor (and the reverse operators rover, rin, rout, and ratop) from a consideration of choices in blending the colors of two pixels when their coverage is, conceptually, overlaid orthogonally:
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