What is OpenCV’s INTER_AREA Actually Doing?

Wenru Dong
Jun 24, 2018 · 10 min read

Recently I’m studying computer vision, and I came across the resize function in OpenCV. Resizing an image needs a way to calculate pixel values for the new image from the original one. The five such interpolation methods provided with OpenCV are INTER_NEAREST, INTER_LINEAR, INTER_AREA, INTER_CUBIC, and INTER_LANCZOS4.

Among those five methods, four of them are quite easy to guess how they do the interpolation. INTER_NEAREST uses nearest neighbor interpolation; INTER_LINEAR is bilinear; INTER_CUBIC is a bicubic function; and INTER_LANCZOS4 is a sinusoidal method. However, INTER_AREA is relatively mysterious, as the document of OpenCV describes it in the following way:

resampling using pixel area relation. It may be a preferred method for image decimation, as it gives moire’-free results. But when the image is zoomed, it is similar to the INTER_NEAREST method.

What does it mean by “using pixel area relation”? Perhaps I’m a beginner, and this is those common knowledge in the field of computer vision that every insider just knows. So I googled the term, hoping to find some articles in Wikipedia, or blog posts, or maybe a paper. It turns out that most of the time when people mention those interpolation methods, they just rephrase the brief explanation above, or just directly copy it. And this includes answers in sites like StackOverflow.

In the end, I decided to read the source code myself. And it turns out that the “true area” method is a very intuitive one, and depending on some conditions, INTER_LINEAR could be INTER_AREA, and vise versa.

So I wrote this article to help others who may be also wondering what INTER_AREA does. And I will explain it next.

Depending on how much we want to scale our original image, INTER_AREA may do different things.

To help with explanations, we mention some variables used in the source code:

inv_scale_x and inv_scale_y are output image width over original image width, and output image height over original image height, respectively. scale_x and scale_y, however, are original image width over output image width, and original image height over output image height. In other words:

double scale_x = 1./inv_scale_x, scale_y = 1./inv_scale_y;

There are also two integer versions, iscale_x and iscale_y, which are satuarate_cast<int> of scale_x and scale_y, respectively.

Shrinking images

If we are shrinking the original image, i.e., the final image is smaller than the original in both width and height, then the algorithm checks if the size of the original image is a multiple of that of the final one. In other words, if the width and the height of the original image divided by the width and the height, respectively, of the final one is an integer.

If so, then a boolean variable is_area_fast will be set to true. Following this:

  1. If the interpolation method used is INTER_LINEAR_EXACT, and we want to shrink the original image to its half size, i.e., iscale_x == 2 && iscale_y == 2, and the number of channels of the image is not 2, then resize function is actually using INTER_AREA.
  2. If the interpolation method used is INTER_LINEAR, and we want to shrink the original image to its half size, i.e., iscale_x == 2 && iscale_y == 2, then resize function is actually using INTER_AREA.

The “true area” method is only implemented for the cases where we are not enlarging the image. So the above two points also satisfy. This “true area” works in the following way.

First, we explain the case when is_area_fast is true. The variable is named so, because a family of functions utilising parallel computing will be called. We can image an RGB image as a cube. Figure 1 shows such a schematic illustration of a row of an image. Each small cube represents a pixel. The numbers are the indices.

Figure 1. Pixels of a row of an image with three channels. The numbers shown are the indices.

A pointer to an array of ints xofs points to an array that contains the starting indices of pixels on a row to be averaged in a later stage. For example, suppose we want to shrink the image to its third in its width and height. Then iscale_x = 3, and iscale_y = 3. What does xofs contains? They are 0, 1, 2, 9, 10, 11, etc. Notice the pattern? We take all the indices in the channel direction every iscale_x columns. It will be seen next that pixels with indices of 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 will be combined with those of 0, 1, 2 to calculate a weighted average. So xofs marks the starting boundaries of all such averaging blocks.

We then calculate a variable area, which is equal to iscale_x * iscale_y. In our example, area = 9.

Another pointer to array of ints ofs points to an array of area number of indices. These indices are the offsets in x direction and y direction, such that they form a window for each channel, and the number of pixels in this window equals area. In our example, ofs points to an array of 9 elements. Suppose our original image has a width of 9 pixels. Then each row of the image has 27 pixels, taking account of 3 channels. Therefore, the first three indices of ofs are 0, 3, 6. And then the next three are 27, 30, 33. Then finally the last three are 54, 57, 60. This is illustrated in Figure 2 (Of course, the width of the image in the figure is not 9…).

Figure 2. A portion of an image. If iscale_x is 3 and iscale_y is 3, then the window is a 3-by-3 block.

With this window, we sum the values of the pixels within it, and then divided by area. The result is the pixel value of the output image. In other words, the algorithm simply calculates the average value of the boxed pixels. This averaging is done for each index in xofs, finishing each channel.

Quite intuitive and straightforward, isn’t it?

That’s for scales of integer value. For non-integer shrinking, the idea is still the same, but weight will change depending on how much a pixel in the original image is included in a window (note that this time the window size has decimal values). For a row of pixels, this can be seen from Figure 3, where different colors represent which pixels are included each time the window moves. The same thing applies to y direction.

Figure 3. The scale is not an integer, therefore the window size is not an integer. Different colors represent which pixels are included each time the window moves.

The weight of each pixel is the proportion that is included times 1/area. For example, if 0.3 of pixel is contained in the window, then its weight is 0.3/area.

We can check it with a simple example:

import numpy as np
import cv2
# Create a numpy array, pretending it is our image
img = np.array([[3, 106, 107, 40, 148, 112, 254, 151],
[62, 173, 91, 93, 33, 111, 139, 25],
[99, 137, 80, 231, 101, 204, 74, 219],
[240, 173, 85, 14, 40, 230, 160, 152],
[230, 200, 177, 149, 173, 239, 103, 74],
[19, 50, 209, 82, 241, 103, 3, 87],
[252, 191, 55, 154, 171, 107, 6, 123],
[7, 101, 168, 85, 115, 103, 32, 11]],
# Resize the width and height in half
resized = cv2.resize(img, (img.shape[1]/2, img.shape[0]/2),
print(resized)# Result:
# [[ 86 83 101 142]
# [162 103 144 151]
# [125 154 189 67]
# [138 116 124 43]]

Enlarging images

When we are enlarging an image with INTER_AREA, it is actually calling the bilinear function, but with a different way of calculating the interpolation coefficents.

For the bilinear method, assuming we consider a 1D image for simplicity, the interpolated pixel value is a weighted average of the two original neighbourhood pixels. The weights depend on the distances to the two pixels. Closeness means higher weight. And the weight values vary linearly with the distances. But before we continue, I’d like to talk about how the coefficients (weights) are actually calculated in OpenCV.

For a beginner like me, I would’ve thought that scaling a row like [0, 1] to 4 columns would be [0, 0.3, 0.6, 1]. However, this is not the behaviour of OpenCV’s resize. Nor is MATLAB’s imresize.

The code for calculating the coefficients in the x direction for the bilinear method in OpenCV is, for each pixel index dx of the output image,

fx = (float)((dx+0.5)*scale_x - 0.5);    // (1)
sx = cvFloor(fx); // (2)
fx -= sx; // (3)

Recall that scale_x is the ratio between the input image width and the output image width. In (1), the fx is the “floating-point” pixel index of the input image in the x direction, whereas in (3), the fx is the interpolation coefficient for the right pixel in the x direction (i.e., the interpolation coefficients are the pair 1-fx and fx). So where does the equation in (1) come from?

One can image a 1D image in the following way shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4. Coordinates (indices) system of a 1D image. Boundaries and pixels all have separate coodinates. We assume pixels locate in the middle of boxes.

In Figure 4, we show the coordinate systems for a 1D image. We assume the pixels locate in the middle of pixel boxes, and boundaries have their own coordinates. Note that in MATLAB, index starts from 1.

Now what (1) does is to map the coordinates from the output image to the original input image. Since this is linear interpolation, to get the linear function, we need two equations. The first equation comes from the requirement that the left boundaries of the input and output images have the same coordinates. So that means -0.5 in the output image coordinate system should be mapped to -0.5 in the input image coordinate system. The second is that a distance of inv_scale_x in the output image coordinate system should be 1 in the input image coordinate system. Solving for the linear function, we then have the expression of (1). The MATLAB code for this mapping is written as

u = x/scale + 0.5 * (1 - 1/scale);

which can be found in images.internal.resize.contributions. Note that in the MATLAB code, x is the output image coordinate, u the input image coordinate and scale is the ratio of output image width over input image width, the same as inv_scale_x in OpenCV. So [0, 1] would actually become [0, 0.25, 0.75, 1]. Figure 5 shows the coefficients for the left pixel for 100 dxs when the output image width is two times of the input image.

Figure 5. The interpolation coefficients for the left pixel, calculated for 100 dx positions when the output image width is two times of the input image.

However, INTER_AREA has a different strategy for calculating the weights. And the behaviour is also slightly different depending on whether the scale factor is an integer or not.

The code for calculating the interpolation coefficient (the weight) in x direction is, for each pixel position of the output image dx:

sx = cvFloor(dx*scale_x);
fx = (float)((dx+1) - (sx+1)*inv_scale_x);
fx = fx <= 0 ? 0.f : fx - cvFloor(fx);


cbuf[0] = 1.f - fx;            
cbuf[1] = fx;

Calculation in y direction is the same. Here, cbuf contains the actual coefficients, where the first applies to the left pixel, and the second to the right pixel.

Since we are assuming inv_scale_x is an integer, then fx is essentially equivalent to

int inv_scale_x_integer = saturate_cast<int>(inv_scale_x);
fx = dx % inv_scale_x_integer + 1 - inv_scale_x_integer;

We can see that fx cannot be larger than 1. In fact, the largest possible value is 0. Plus this statement:

fx = fx <= 0 ? 0.f : fx - cvFloor(fx);

This means, when inv_scale_x is an integer, fx is always 0, and the coefficients are always 1 and 0. This also means that the interpolated value is a copy of the left pixel. We can see this with a simple test:

img = np.array([[ 86  83 101 142]
[162 103 144 151]
[125 154 189 67]
[138 116 124 43]], dtype=np.uint8)
enlarged = cv2.resize(img, (8, 8), interpolation=cv2.INTER_AREA)
# Result:
#[[ 86 86 83 83 101 101 142 142]
# [ 86 86 83 83 101 101 142 142]
# [162 162 103 103 144 144 151 151]
# [162 162 103 103 144 144 151 151]
# [125 125 154 154 189 189 67 67]
# [125 125 154 154 189 189 67 67]
# [138 138 116 116 124 124 43 43]
# [138 138 116 116 124 124 43 43]]

If inv_scale_x or inv_scale_y is not an integer, then the interpolation coefficients are no longer just 1 and 0. It is still similar to the integer case. It is just that the modulo is done with a real number. Although it is not well defined, we can still make a sense. Figure 6 shows the coefficients for the left pixel, calculated at 100 dx positions, with a inv_scale_x being 5.6:

Figure 6. The interpolation coefficients for the left pixel calculated at 100 dx positions, with a scale factor of 5.6.

Observe the pattern. Our scale factor is 5.6. Image that we are assigning values to each position, and at each position, the maximum amount we can assign is 1. Then from the beginning, we take 5 ones, and then there are only 5.6–5=0.6 to take, so the next coefficient is 0.6. After that, we have another 5.6 to divide. Last time we have 0.4 left to be filled up. We take that amount from the new 5.6, as if making the previous 0.6 to be 1. Now we keep assigning values so that at each position we have assigned the full amount, which is 1. Then after assigning another 5 ones, we have only 0.2 left. So the next one is 0.2.


To sum up,

  • When the output image is not larger than the input image both in width and height:

— The input/output scales in both width and height are integers:

  1. If width and height are shrinked by half, and the number of channels is not 2, then INTER_LINEAR_EXACT is INTER_AREA;
  2. If width and height are shrinked by half, then INTER_LINEAR is INTER_AREA;

INTER_AREA is the boxed/window resampling.

  • When the output image is larger than the input image in either width or/and height:

— The output/input scales in both width and height are integers:

INTER_AREA is a bilinear interpolation with coefficients (1, 0).

— Otherwise:

INTER_AREA is a bilinear interpolation with slightly more complicated coefficient values.

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