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6 Tips for Beginning Canvas Programmers

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lately I've spent some time programming against the <canvas> API. Predictably, I encountered all the common beginner's mistakes, and had to work through them. Along the way, I learned a number of useful things about canvas programming, some basic, some not-so-basic. Here's a quick summary:

1. To avoid security errors, always serve your HTML (and scripts) from the same server as any images you're going to be working with. (Corollary: Don't "serve" your HTML and images from the local filesystem. That's a sure way to get security errors.) Install a local instance of Apache web server (or some other web server) and serve content to your browser from localhost, if need be.

2. If you're modifying pixels using context.getImageData( ), use putImageData( ) to draw back to the image, and be sure to supply all 3 arguments to putImageData( )! Here is a common pattern:

function doSomething() {

var canvasData =
context.getImageData(0, 0, imageObj.width, imageObj.height);

for (var x = 0; x < w; x++) {
for (var y = 0; y < h; y++) {
var idx = (x + y * w) * 4;
var r = canvasData.data[idx + 0];
var g = canvasData.data[idx + 1];
var b = canvasData.data[idx + 2];

// do something to r,g,b here

canvasData.data[idx + 0] = r;
canvasData.data[idx + 1] = g;
canvasData.data[idx + 2] = b;

// draw it back out to the screen:
context.putImageData(canvasData, 0, 0);

Notice the three arguments to putImageData(). The final two args are the x and y position at which to draw the image. If you forget those two args, expect errors.

3. You can draw offscreen by simply creating a canvas element programmatically. Like this:
    imageObj = new Image();
imageObj.src = "http://localhost:4502/content/lena.png";

function getOffscreenContext(imageObj) {
var offscreenCanvas = document.createElement("canvas");
offscreenCanvas.width = imageObj.width;
offscreenCanvas.height = imageObj.height;
return offscreenCanvas.getContext("2d");

If you use this function (or one like it), you can keep an offscreen copy of your image around, which can be extremely handy.

4. You can save programmatically created/modified images offline. The trick is to slurp the canvas into a data URL and then open or display that URL in a new frame or window where you can right-click it to get the usual image-save options from the browser. Something like this:

myImage = canvas.toDataURL("image/png"); 
window.open( myImage ); // opens in new window as a PNG

This serializes the image as a (big, huge) data URL, then opens the image in a new window. The new window contains a PNG image, plain and simple.

5. Any time you assign a value to canvas.width or canvas.height, you will wipe the canvas clean! This is both weird and handy. Just doing canvas.width = canvas.width will instantly erase the canvas.

6. When all else fails, consult the HTML 5 Canvas Cheatsheet.

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