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Analysing Colours in an Image

For a project that I am working on, I had to figure out which colours are primarily used in an image so that it can be indexed for sorting. Obviously, there is only a small finite set of colours that we are interested in. This article shows on how I went about analysing an image to see which of those colours were primarily used in the image.

First of all, I had to define a palette that I wanted to index on. Then I needed to check the image to see which colours existed, and map those to my finite set of colours. Then we could count them, and select the ones that were used most.

Picking the palette of colours wasn't very simple especially because pink and purple are difficult to differentiate, as well as orange and brown. It required a little bit of effort, but we settled on the following colours:

Some of the colour names have multiple colour values attached to them; this was so that we can tune the analysing algorithm a little bit to provide better results.

In order to match the colours from the image to the palette, I needed to create a mapping algorithm. It's difficult to do this with RGB values because they don't have the natural properties that we humans use for colours. However, the HSV model works a lot better. A HSV colour 'wheel' looks like:

On the X-axis we have the hue — a value that describes which colour it is on a scale from 0 to 360 (°). On The Y-axis we have both the saturation — a value that describes the intensity of a colour and value — the value describing the lightness of a colour. The respective six blocks on the y-axis correspond with saturation values of 0.0, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6, 0.8 and 1.0, and each of the ten bands of each block with the value values of 0.0, 0.1, 0.2 ... 0.9 and 1.0.

Then I cheated and used The Gimp to change this image of the colour wheel to an indexed image, using the palette from above. The option for that is: Image -> Mode -> Indexed -> "Use Custom Palette" and then pick your palette. Don't forget to change it back to RGB before you save it though. The resulting image then looks like:

The script to draw this palette is:

require 'colortools.php';

$img = imagecreatetruecolor( 720, 720 );

$hFactor = 2;
$hStep = 15;
$vStep = 0.10;
$vFactor = 120;

for ( $h = 0; $h < 360; $h += $hStep )
    for ( $s = 0; $s < 1.01; $s += 0.2 )
        for ( $v = 0; $v < 1.01; $v += $vStep )
            colorComponent::hsvToRgb( $h, $s, $v, $r, $g, $b );
            $c = imagecolorallocate( $img, $r * 255, $g * 255, $b * 255 );
                $h * $hFactor, $s * 600 + $v * $vFactor,
                ($h + $hStep) * $hFactor - 1, $s * 600 + ($v + $vFactor) - 1,

imagepng( $img, $argv[1] );

Each square's coordinates represent a mapping between (rounded) H, S and V values. With a little script, we can generate a mapping table:

function colorToRgb($color, &$r, &$g, &$b)
    $r = ($color >> 16) & 0xFF;
    $g = ($color >> 8) & 0xFF;
    $b = $color & 0xFF;

$img = imagecreatefrompng( '/tmp/hsv-normal-palette.png' );

$hFactor = 2;
$vFactor = 12;

echo "<" . "?php\nclass colorMap {\n\tpublic \$map;\n\n";
echo "\tfunction __construct() {\n\t\t\$this->map = array(\n";

for ( $h = 0; $h < 360; $h += 15 )
    for ( $s = 0; $s < 5; $s += 1 )
        for ( $v = 0; $v < 10; $v += 1 )
            $c = imagecolorat( $img, $h * $hFactor, $s * 120 + $v * $vFactor );
            colorToRgb($c, $r, $g, $b);

            printf( "\t\t\t'x%03x%01x%01x' => '#%02x%02x%02x',\n",
                $h, $s, $v, $r, $g, $b

echo "\t\t);\t}\n}\n";

It would be better if we had the algorithm to convert from a random HSV value to a HSV value matching the closest colour in the palette. That's something for a next stage though.

The mapping table is used to find out which colours of our palette are actually part of the image. To sample all pixels in an image would take too much time, so we restrict ourselves to 200x200 samples, making 40000 pixels.

For each sampled pixel we:

  • find the RGB values

  • convert the RGB values to HSV (unless it's transparent, then we skip it)

  • normalize the HSV values by rounding the values

  • map the rounded value with our mapping key to produce the RGB hex value from our palette

  • count how much of each of the RGB hex values we've gotten

  • create an array where the number of pixels normalised to each RBG hex value is larger than 5%

The HSV-to-normalized-key algorithm looks like:

$key = sprintf('x%03x%01x%01x',
    max(0, min(345, floor( $h / 15 ) * 15)),
    min(4, floor($s * 5)),
    min(9, floor($v * 10))

To visualise this process, I've created a before and after image:

Sadly, as you can see, our typical red phone box isn't quite detected as being red, but rather black and grey. For some reason the conversion from an arbitrary HSV value to a palette colour with The Gimp isn't quite as good as we've hoped. So instead of drawing a correct HSV colour wheel, I decided to boost the colours a little bit away from grey by modifying the S and V values. This caused the following change in the palette-drawing script:

$sR = 1 - ( (1-$s) * (1-$s) );
$vR = 1 - ( (1-$v) * (1-$v) * (1-$v) * (1-$v) );
colorComponent::hsvToRgb( $h, $sR, $vR, $r, $g, $b );

In a diagram, this looks like:

We use this new algorithm, to redraw a new HSV wheel:

And with The Gimp create a new palette:

This new palette we then scan to create the color map out off. With this new color map we re-analyse the image to count our primary image colours. The result is then:

Which tells us that red was the most prevalent colour with over 50% of the sampled pixels (13916 + 7822 out of 40000), grey being second with 35% and black with 19%. Brown, orange and green also make up more than 5% of the total amount of sampled pixels.


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Interesting read.

At first glance using a custom pallete instead of storing the most popular colors, sort of like Mikko demonstrated using Imagick, seems to be less flexible though. Storing more colors (and mapping to a custom pallete only when searching) would allow cooler features too e.g. a hierarhical, faceted color filter, that would allow a user to drill down to her favorite shade of blue.

@zaadjis: I know it's less flexible, but in my case a custom palette is what was wanted. The list of colours are shown in a static drop-down box for users to select from.

That was very useful article. Thanks for sharing :)

Really nice article!

I tried to find the most popular colours in an image a few years back. Didnt have anywhere near your foresight on this.

Iam workin on a similar project but with LAB colors An easy way to reduce the grey and black colors and get better matching results is to increase the contrast of the image before matching the colors of an image with the map.

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