Image processing #001

Image processing


This is the first in a group of posts, during which I’m going to work through the development of an image processing system. I’m going to start at a very high level working with some classic image processing techniques. The plan as I write this is to work down to a complete implemenation on an FPGA. In the process I’m going to demonstrate how to link the high-level descriptions to check the performance of the low-level FPGA code.

This is all based on things I’ve learned over 10 years of developing this sort of code in a real production environment. However, it’s all based on standard image-processing literature, so I shan’t be giving away any trade secrets!

First steps

Image processing is one of the most processing intensive applications around at the moment. A VGA webcam throws out 10 million pixels per second. If each of those pixels needs a few dozen operations applying to it, that’s a few hundred million operations per second (MOPS) required. Easy for a PC to manage, but embedded systems with a power budget of a couple of watts can’t use even an Atom processor (with its associated chipset).

Another feature of image-processing is that it is often (at the lowest level) very parallelisable. The same thing happens to each pixel, and there’s no dependence from one pixel to the next. Lots of easy parallelism suits an FPGA implementation ideally.


The first stage of most image-processing systems is to reduce the data rate to something more manageable for a conventional microprocessor to pick up. Often the best way to do this is to extract the edges in the image – similar to what the human vision system does.

A very simple edge detector is the Sobel detector – this involves applying a two simple sums to each pixel in the image, one to extract the horizontal components of edges and one for the vertical components. Diagonal lines will respond to both direction filters.

The sums can be described in terms of the 8 pixels in a square around the target pixel – this means we can’t calculate the edge response in a single-pixel border around the image.

Doing the maths

The sum performed is to take the gray-scale pixel values that represent each of the outlying pixels and sum them thus:


The total “edge magnitude” can be calculated by summing the squares of the horizontal and vertical responses:



This is technically known as a convolution – a “mask” is used to define the sums:

 1  2  1
 0  0  0
-1 -2 -1

This is the horizontal edge detector described above. If you use those numbers in a matrix (which is what Scilab does), the vertical edge detector can be obtained by transposing the horizontal matrix.

Find some edges

Here’s a test image:

[img_assist|nid=45|title=Test image|link=popup|align=none|width=640|height=490]

The Scilab code to generate edge images is very simple:

cd websrc/Corners/code/scilab
hs=[1 2 1; 0 0 0 ; -1 -2 -1]; // Mask for horizontal lines
vs=hs’; // Vertical lines is just the transpose
img=imread(‘../testkb.pgm’); // read the image
v=filter2(vs, img); // Apply the filters
h=filter2(hs, img);
e=h.^2+v.^2; // Sum the squares to combine them

The imshow command can be used to see the images v, h, and e. I used the imsave command to save them for the web.

These are the vertical and horizontal responses:



And the combined edge response:


Still a very recognisable image I think you’ll agree – this is the first stage in many image processing systems.

Onwards to detecting corners next…


All the code from this series is available via git from

4 thoughts on “Image processing #001

  1. Martin

    Why thanks Ioannis :) if I understand rightly, what you are performing is a very simple 1d convolution [-1 1]. This is less noise tolerant than the Sobel detector, but if you’ve already low-pass filtered your input image, it’ll be fine.

    I’m surprised that it’s faster to do that than convolve with a mask though (unless OpenCV doesn’t actually move all the memory around when you shift the image, but just updates some pointers).

    I’d be interested in seeing some timings for the two methods if you have the opportunity!

  2. Ioannis Katramados

    Nice post Martin… and very well written! Actually, I was wondering which is the fastest way to do edge detection. The way I do it is by shifting the entire image one pixel to the right and then one pixel down. Then I subtract (AbsDiff) the initial image from the shifted images which gives horizontal and vertical edges. Using OpenCV that’s pretty fast. Not sure if it’s the same case with an FPGA though.


  3. Martin

    An edge is the border between a light section and a dark section of an image. A corner is (kind of) the point where two edges join.


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