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Representing Images in Memory

quick reference for programmers interested in working with image data in memory (byte arrays)

This page is a quick reference for programmers interested in working with image data in memory (byte arrays). This topic is straightforward overall, but there are a few traps that aren’t necessarily intuitive so I try my best to highlight those here.

💡 See my newer article, Creating Bitmaps from Scratch in C#

This article assumes you have some programming experience working with byte arrays in a C-type language and have an understanding of what is meant by 32-bit, 24-bit, 16-bit, and 8-bit integers.

Pixel Values

An image is composed of a 2D grid of square pixels, and the type of image greatly influences how much memory each pixel occupies and what format its data is in.

Bits per pixel (bpp) is the number of bits it takes to represent the value a single pixel. This is typically a multiple of 8 bits (1 byte).

Common Pixel Formats

There are others (e.g., 64-bit RGB images), but these are the most typically encountered pixel formats.


Endianness describes the order of bytes in a multi-byte value uses to store its data:

Assuming array index values ascend from left to right, 32-bit (4-byte) pixel data can be represented using either of these two formats in memory:

Bitmap images use little-endian integer format! New programmers may expect the bytes that contain “RGB” values to be sequenced in the order “R, G, B”, but this is not the case.

Premultiplied Alpha

Premultiplication refers to the relationship between color (R, G, B) and transparency (alpha). In transparent images the alpha channel may be straight (unassociated) or premultiplied (associated).

With straight alpha, the RGB components represent the full-intensity color of the object or pixel, disregarding its opacity. Later R, G, and B will each be multiplied by the alpha to adjust intensity and transparency.

With premultiplied alpha, the RGB components represent the emission (color and intensity) of each pixel, and the alpha only represents transparency (occlusion of what is behind it). This reduces the computational performance for image processing if transparency isn’t actually used.

In C# using System.Drawing premultiplied alpha is not enabled by default. This must be defined when creating new Bitmap as seen here:

var bmp = new Bitmap(400, 300, PixelFormat.Format32bppPArgb);

Benchmarking reveals the performance enhancement of drawing on bitmaps in memory using premultiplied alpha pixel format. In this test I’m using .NET 5 with the System.Drawing.Common NuGet package. Anti-aliasing is off in this example, but similar results were obtained with it enabled.

Random rand = new(0);
int width = 600;
int height = 400;
var bmp = new Bitmap(600, 400, PixelFormat.Format32bppPArgb);
var gfx = Graphics.FromImage(bmp);
var pen = new Pen(Color.Black);
var sw = Stopwatch.StartNew();
for (int i = 0; i < 1e6; i++)
    pen.Color = Color.FromArgb(rand.Next());
    gfx.DrawLine(pen, rand.Next(width), rand.Next(height), rand.Next(width), rand.Next(height));
bmp.Save("benchmark.png", ImageFormat.Png);

Time to render 1 million frames:

At the end you have a beautiful figure:

Pixel Locations in Space and Memory

A 2D image is composed of pixels, but addressing them in memory isn’t as trivial as it may seem. The dimensions of bitmaps are stored in their header, and the arrangement of pixels forms rows (left-to-right) then columns (top-to-bottom).

Width and height are the dimensions (in pixels) of the visible image, but…

⚠️ Image size in memory is not just width * height * bytesPerPixel

Because of old hardware limitations, bitmap widths in memory (also called the stride) must be multiplies of 4 bytes. This is effortless when using ARGB formats because each pixel is already 4 bytes, but when working with RGB images it’s possible to have images with an odd number of bytes in each row, requiring data to be padded such that the stride length is a multiple of 4.

// calculate stride length of a bitmap row in memory
int stride = 4 * ((imageWidth * bytesPerPixel + 3) / 4);

Working with Bitmap Bytes in C#

This example demonstrates how to convert a 3D array (X, Y, C) into a flat byte array ready for copying into a bitmap. Notice this code adds padding to the image width to ensure the stride is a multiple of 4 bytes. Notice also the integer encoding is little endian.

public static byte[] GetBitmapBytes(byte[,,] input)
    int height = input.GetLength(0);
    int width = input.GetLength(1);
    int bpp = input.GetLength(2);
    int stride = 4 * ((width * bpp + 3) / 4);

    byte[] pixelsOutput = new byte[height * stride];
    byte[] output = new byte[height * stride];

    for (int y = 0; y < height; y++)
        for (int x = 0; x < width; x++)
            for (int z = 0; z < bpp; z++)
                output[y * stride + x * bpp + (bpp - z - 1)] = input[y, x, z];

    return output;

For completeness, here’s the complimentary code that converts a flat byte array from bitmap memory to a 3D array (assuming we know the image dimensions and bytes per pixel from reading the image header):

public static byte[,,] GetBitmapBytes3D(byte[] input, int width, int height, int bpp)
    int stride = 4 * ((width * bpp + 3) / 4);

    byte[,,] output = new byte[height, width, bpp];
    for (int y = 0; y < height; y++)
        for (int x = 0; x < width; x++)
            for (int z = 0; z < bpp; z++)
                output[y, x, z] = input[stride * y + x * bpp + (bpp - z - 1)];

    return output;

Marshalling Bytes in and out of Bitmaps

The code examples above are intentionally simple to focus on the location of pixels in memory and the endianness of their values. To actually convert between byte[] and System.Drawing.Bitmap you must use Marshall.Copy as shown:

public static byte[] BitmapToBytes(Bitmap bmp)
    Rectangle rect = new(0, 0, bmp.Width, bmp.Height);
    BitmapData bmpData = bmp.LockBits(rect, ImageLockMode.ReadWrite, bmp.PixelFormat);
    int byteCount = Math.Abs(bmpData.Stride) * bmp.Height;
    byte[] bytes = new byte[byteCount];
    Marshal.Copy(bmpData.Scan0, bytes, 0, byteCount);
    return bytes;
public static Bitmap BitmapFromBytes(byte[] bytes, PixelFormat bmpFormat)
    Bitmap bmp = new(width, height, bmpFormat);
    var rect = new Rectangle(0, 0, width, height);
    BitmapData bmpData = bmp.LockBits(rect, ImageLockMode.ReadOnly, bmpFormat);
    Marshal.Copy(bytes, 0, bmpData.Scan0, bytes.Length);
    return bmp;

How to Create a Bitmap in Memory Without a Graphics Library

The code examples above use System.Drawing.Common to create graphics, but creating bitmaps in a byte[] array is not difficult and can be done in any language. See the Creating Bitmaps from Scratch article for more information.