Using Canvas to Create Transparent Photos

This topic explains how to use HTML5 Canvas to create a transparent version of a photograph that can be used in game graphics or webpage designs.

This topic includes a stand-alone annotated code sample that shows how to transform the photo of an American Kestral falcon so you can see through the image. The code sample demonstrates how to change the alpha value of each pixel. The alpha value determines the opacity of the displayed color. This sample shows you how to modify the alpha value of a photograph by changing the alpha part of each pixel to 50 percent. An image with 100 percent alpha would be opaque and one with 0 percent would be invisible. The discussion material at the end of this sample explains more about how the code works to develop this technique.

Canvas Cross-Domain Security Issues

The Using Canvas to Make Photos into Shapes and the Using Canvas to Add Texture to Photos topics show you how to create photographic special effects by reading and writing pixels to the Canvas. The special effects technique covered in this topic uses the getImageData method to read pixels directly from an image. This method has an important security requirement that does not apply to the first two topics. This security requirement stops a Canvas program from copying pixels from one computer domain to another, and is necessary to prevent Internet forgery.

To comply with this security requirement, you can only read pixels from an image that is in the same domain as the code sample in this topic. To run the code sample, you need to place a photo named "kestral.png" in the same folder as the html code you are running. This puts the image in the same domain as the program, making it possible to run the program. If your original image is on another domain and you attempt to read pixels by using the getImageData or toDataURL methods, your program might stop responding and cause an error. However, if your image is on a server or in the cloud, and your code is on the same domain as the image, getImageData or toDataURL reads the pixels without a problem. For more information about these security issues, see the documentation for getImageData and toDataURL.

Canvas Code Sample

<!DOCTYPE html>
    <script type="text/javascript">
      //Global variables
      var picWidth = 200; // width of the canvas
      var picHeight = 200; // height of the canvas
      var picLength = picWidth * picHeight; // number of chunks
      var myImage = new Image(); // Create a new blank image.
      // Load the image and display it.
      function displayImage() {

        // Get the canvas element.
        canvas = document.getElementById("myCanvas");

        // Make sure you got it.
        if (canvas.getContext) {

          // Specify 2d canvas type.
          ctx = canvas.getContext("2d");

          // When the image is loaded, draw it.
          myImage.onload = function() {
            // Load the image into the context.
            ctx.drawImage(myImage, 0, 0);

            // Get and modify the image data.

            // Put the modified image back on the canvas.

          // Define the source of the image.
          // This file must be on your machine in the same folder as this web page.
          myImage.src = "kestral.png";

      function getColorData() {

        myImage = ctx.getImageData(0, 0, 200, 200);

        // Loop through data.
        for (var i = 0; i < picLength * 4; i += 4) {

          // First bytes are red bytes.        
          // Second bytes are green bytes.
          // Third bytes are blue bytes.
          // Fourth bytes are alpha bytes
          // Test of alpha channel at 50%.
[i + 3] = 128;

      function putColorData() {

        ctx.putImageData(myImage, 0, 0);
      function noPhoto() {
        alert("Please put a .png file in this folder and name it kestral.png.");
  <body onload="displayImage()">
      American Kestral
      The original image is on the left and the modified image is on the right.
    <img id="myPhoto" src="kestral.png" onerror="noPhoto()">
    <canvas id="myCanvas" width="200" height="200">
      Public domain image courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


Canvas Code Sample Discussion

This discussion explains the design and structure of this Canvas code sample and how all the parts work together. The sample uses a standard HTML5 header, <!doctype html>, so that browsers can distinguish it as part of the HTML5 specification. This code is divided into two major parts:

  • Body Code
  • Script Code

Body Code

The body tag uses the onload function to call the displayImage function when the page is loaded. An original image of a kestral is loaded into the body so you can compare it to the one that will be modified by Canvas. The onerror event is added to the img element to determine if the image is loaded. The canvas element is part of the body. The initial width and height of the Canvas is specified, as is the id attribute. The ID is required so that the canvas element can be added to the object model of the page.

Script Code

The script code includes four functions: displayImage, getColorData, putColorData, and noPhoto. The displayImage function is called when the page is loaded. The getColorData and putColorData functions are called from displayImage. The noPhoto function is called if there is an error when the photo is loaded. Global variables are created at the beginning of the script section to create an empty image file, which will be used later, as well as variables that define the height and width of the canvas. In addition, the length of the image array is calculated, determining the number of 4-byte values in the array.

displayImage Function

This function is called on page load. It gets the canvas object by using the ID of the canvas element in the body code. It then gets the CanvasRenderingContext2D object of the canvas, making it ready to accept drawing and uses DrawImage to load the image into the context. After the context is initialized as a 2-D canvas, the canvas is ready to be drawn to.

The last thing the function does is to specify the source of the image by supplying a path. Because images might not load instantly, an event is set up that will call a function when the image actually gets loaded. After an image is loaded, it is displayed and a call is made to the getColorData and putColorData functions, which will complete the drawing work.

Unlike the first two topics in this tutorial, you must place the kestral image on your own computer. You cannot call it from another domain. If the pixels on the canvas are from another domain, the image is considered a security threat, and you cannot modify it. For more information about cross-domain security threats, see the canvas documentation. Any file named "kestral.png" will work. If you want to use the original kestral image, right-click the left image of the kestral in the first topic of this scenario and click Save picture as and save it to your computer, placing it in the same folder as your webpage.

getColorData Function

The image is copied by using the getImageData method to myImage and processed by moving through the image data array and changing the alpha bits to a value of 128. Full opacity would be 255, and full transparency would be 0 (zero). The array is 200 × 200 pixels, making it 40,000 cells. Each cell is 4 bytes, making the array a total of 160,000 bytes. The program goes through a loop 160,000 times, reading 4 bytes at a time. Each time it changes the fourth byte by making it 128. The result is that the entire image is semi-transparent.

Note  For more information about Canvas pixel colors, see the Using Canvas to Change Photo Colors topic.

putColorData Function

This function simply writes the changed image data back to the canvas using putImageData. It is often useful to have a second image to do the actual processing and display the result only when the processing is finished.

noPhoto Function

This function is called if the img element is not able to load a file called Kestral.png. An alert appears, telling the reader that the correct file is not loaded.

Code Requirements

This code runs in Windows Internet Explorer 9. It does not work in earlier versions of Windows Internet Explorer, but might run in other browsers that support HTML5 Canvas.

Related topics

How to Create Canvas Special Effects