PhotoSauce Blog


Part 1 of this series introduced my reference System.Drawing/GDI+ image resizer, which I use to compare the quality and speed of MagicScaler. Starting with this post, I’ll be discussing some of its implementation details and the settings it uses.

The settings on the Graphics class in System.Drawing/GDI+ tend to get most of the attention when people write about resizing with DrawImage(), but before I get in to those, I wanted to cover a few of the other features a resizer should have and some non-Graphics settings that make a difference in speed or quality.

The points in this post relate to my reference GDI+ resizer code, available in this gist.

Dispose all the things!

The first thing I’ll point out here is all the using statements in my reference GDI+ resizer. Every GDI+ object has a system-level handle associated with it, and the .NET wrappers for those objects implement finalizers to make sure they get cleaned up. When dealing with graphics, however, it’s important to note that a single object, if it represents an image, may be 100MB+. And since these are unmanaged handles, the Garbage Collector doesn’t know whether there’s a ton of memory tied up underneath those tiny managed wrappers, so it may be lazy about cleaning them up. Even absent memory pressure, there are a finite number of handles available, and failing to dispose of the hundreds or thousands of handles a typical web app might tie up while performing image resizing can result in errors or runaway memory usage. You may see Out of Memory exceptions, unexpected App Pool restarts, or the dreaded GDI+ Generic Error. All the System.Drawing wrappers implement IDisposable, so use it. On everything.

Loading the Image

I always use the Image.FromStream(Stream stream, bool useEmbeddedColorManagement, bool validateImageData) overload when opening my source image.

The second parameter to that overload (useEmbeddedColorManagement), when set to true, tells GDI+ to read and apply any embedded Color Profiles in the image file. Setting that parameter to false (or omitting it, as false is the default) may improve performance slightly, but it can cause the colors in the image to be misinterpreted when the image is re-encoded and viewed in a web browser. Setting the parameter to true forces GDI+ to convert the image to the sRGB colorspace during processing, meaning it will look as intended after processing (with certain limitations – for example, CMYK conversions are not done correctly). For more information on color management and examples of what happens when you get it wrong, have a look at this excellent series by Jeffrey Friedl.

Here’s a quick example showing what happens when an image’s colorspace is incorrectly interpreted. The source image in this case was saved in the Adobe RGB colorspace and has an embedded ICC profile indicating such. This is common not just in images saved from Adobe apps (e.g. Photoshop and Lightroom) but also in JPEGs saved directly from high-end digital cameras. First, the image resized without color management, and then with.

cmanwrong cmanright

You can see the colors in the first image just look at bit washed out. They’re not completely wrong, so it’s an easy mistake to miss. It certainly looks better done correctly, though.

The third parameter to Image.FromStream() (validateImageData) allows you to tell System.Drawing to skip its default validation step during image load. This seemingly simple parameter is so important (and confusing) that warrants its own post, so look out for that later in this series. For now, I’ll just say you want to skip validation. It can have a huge impact on performance. Image.FromStream() is the only method of loading an image file in System.Drawing that exposes that option, so it’s the method I always use.

Images with Multiple Frames

GDI+ supports accessing multiple image frames from both the TIFF and GIF decoders. Specifically, it supports retrieving any individual frame of an animated GIF or any page of a multi-page TIFF file. GDI+, for some reason, differentiates between the two types of multi-frame image containers by using the concept of frame dimensions. Image.SelectActiveFrame() accepts the dimension and frame number. The .NET docs don’t offer much help as far as choosing the dimension value. See the Remarks section in the equivalent GDI+ docs for more clear guidance. The short version: use FrameDimension.Time for GIF and FrameDimension.Page for TIFF.


While GDI+ supports opening image files of many different pixel formats, when it comes to using the Graphics class, you’re restricted to RGB and RGBA. PixelFormat.Canonical refers to RGBA, and unless you explicitly set the PixelFormat when creating a new Bitmap, that’s what you’ll get. When you save your image, it will be saved in the same format as your Bitmap (RGB or RGBA) as long as it’s supported by the encoder. These restrictions lead to two quirks in my reference resizer. First, if indexed color is requested, the output format is forced to GIF. GDI+ doesn’t support PNG8, and I wanted my reference resizer to have visually comparable output with MagicScaler. Second, I default to RGB output for all images and enable RGBA only if the input image has alpha support. While this doesn’t necessarily speed processing during the resize (in most cases DrawImage() works in RGBA anyway – I’ll have more on that in a future post), it does speed the encoding process and makes the output files smaller than if they were all saved as the default RGBA.

It’s also worth pointing out the way I determine whether the input image has alpha support. You may see other examples that check for alpha support by using Image.IsAlphaPixelFormat() with the input image’s PixelFormat property. This seems perfectly reasonable, but it turns out it doesn’t work the way you’d think. As an example, consider what happens when you open a greyscale image in GDI+. Greyscale isn’t supported for processing in GDI+, so the image is converted to the canonical format (RGBA) automatically. Image.PixelFormat will report alpha support in that case, which would be wrong. The only reliable way to get the pixel format information is to check Image.Flags. The flags set there reflect the pixel format of the input image, not the converted intermediate.

EXIF Orientation

Increasingly, the images we handle on the web come from digital cameras or smartphones, and these will often be captured rotated, with an EXIF Orientation tag set to tell viewing software how to display them correctly. Nearly all modern software will read and react to those tags, so when viewing an image that is stored rotated, you may never know it. It’s important when processing images that you process the Orientation tag if present since it will be removed during re-encoding. My reference resizer includes an extension method called ExifRotate() that does just that. GDI+ only supports retrieving EXIF metadata using the magic number values, so for Orientation, you’ll want property ID 274 (0x112). The possible values for that property are explained in the link above.

Image.RotateFlip() can do both operations at once, and as the name implies, the rotation is done first. This can make a difference if doing both a rotation and a flip, but the reference resizer handles all possible EXIF values correctly if you want to avoid trying to wrap your head around how that works.

JPEG Quality

I’ll start this topic off by saying that the default JPEG quality setting in GDI+ is quite poor, so you’ll almost certainly want to change it if you’re saving JPEGs. Though it isn’t documented anywhere that I’ve found, in my own testing I’ve determined the default GDI+ quality level is set to 75 (on a scale of 0 to 100) in all versions of Windows I’ve checked. That number can be tricky, though, as it doesn’t have any meaning outside the specific encoder you’re using. For example, you’ll often hear/read that 75 is a good quality level to use in Photoshop when saving web graphics. And in fact, it is. 75 in Photoshop, though, has nothing to do with 75 in GDI+ (or the underlying WIC encoder it uses). There are no standards for quality values, and different encoders may use their own quantization tables. In my own experience, I’ve found that anything less than 80 is unacceptable from the Windows encoders and that for smaller images like thumbnails, a value of up to 95 is more appropriate. You can’t see it in my reference resizer implementation because the logic is in the shared ProcessImageSettings class, but if a quality level isn’t explicitly set, I dynamically choose a value between 83 and 95 depending on the output image resolution.

Another fact of note is that GDI+ always uses 4:2:0 chroma subsampling regardless of the quality setting you choose, and it offers no way to change that. Photoshop’s ‘Save for Web’ uses 4:2:0 subsampling only on quality levels of 50 or below and switches to 4:4:4 at quality level 51. This is another reason for the vast difference in image quality at comparable settings values between GDI+ and other encoders. The underlying WIC encoder, by the way, does offer the ability to change JPEG subsampling settings, but GDI+ doesn’t use it (MagicScaler does).

The only other thing I’ll point out here is the using statements on the EncoderParameter and EncoderParameters objects in the reference resizer. These are often overlooked, but as I pointed out before, everything in GDI+ uses system-level handles, so don’t forget to dispose those.

Bonus: Image.GetThumbnailImage()

I don’t use this.

If all you want is a quick way to get a thumbnail version of a larger image, this sounds like it’s just the thing, but don’t be fooled. In the worst case scenario, this method will retrieve a very low quality, low resolution embedded JPEG from the EXIF metadata in your input file. It will probably be ugly. In the best case scenario, it will create the thumbnail on the fly, using the GDI+ defaults with all the quality issues that come with them. I’ll be pointing those out in the next post. If you care at all about the quality of your images, forget this method exists.

Tune in next time, when I’ll be covering the Graphics class and its many mysterious settings…