Section: File Formats (5)
Updated: 08 April 2000Index
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ppm - portable pixmap file format
The portable pixmap format is a lowest common denominator color image
It should be noted that this format is egregiously inefficient. It is
highly redundant, while containing a lot of information that the human
eye can't even discern. Furthermore, the format allows very little
information about the image besides basic color, which means you may
have to couple a file in this format with other independent
information to get any decent use out of it. However, it is very easy
to write and analyze programs to process this format, and that is the
It should also be noted that files often conform to this format in
every respect except the precise semantics of the sample values.
These files are useful because of the way PPM is used as an
intermediary format. They are informally called PPM files, but to be
absolutely precise, you should indicate the variation from true PPM.
For example, "PPM using the red, green, and blue colors that the
scanner in question uses."
The format definition is as follows.
A PPM file consists of a sequence of one or more PPM images. There are
no data, delimiters, or padding before, after, or between images.
Each PPM image consists of the following:
A "magic number" for identifying the file type.
A ppm image's magic number is the two characters "P6".
Whitespace (blanks, TABs, CRs, LFs).
A width, formatted as ASCII characters in decimal.
A height, again in ASCII decimal.
The maximum color value (Maxval), again in ASCII decimal. Must be less
Newline or other single whitespace character.
A raster of Width * Height pixels, proceeding through the image in
normal English reading order. Each pixel is a triplet of red, green,
and blue samples, in that order. Each sample is represented in pure
binary by either 1 or 2 bytes. If the Maxval is less than 256, it is
1 byte. Otherwise, it is 2 bytes. The most significant byte is
In the raster, the sample values are "nonlinear." They are
proportional to the intensity of the CIE Rec. 709 red, green, and blue
in the pixel, adjusted by the CIE Rec. 709 gamma transfer function.
(That transfer function specifies a gamma number of 2.2 and has a
linear section for small intensities). A value of Maxval for all
three samples represents CIE D65 white and the most intense color in
the color universe of which the image is part (the color universe is
all the colors in all images to which this image might be compared).
Note that a common variation on the PPM format is to have the sample
values be "linear," i.e. as specified above except without the gamma
takes such a PPM variant as input and produces a true PPM as output.
Characters from a "#" to the next end-of-line, before the maxval line,
are comments and are ignored.
Note that you can use
to convert between a the format with 1 byte per sample and the one
with 2 bytes per sample.
There is actually another version of the PPM format that is fairly rare:
"plain" PPM format. The format above, which generally considered the
normal one, is known as the "raw" PPM format. See
for some commentary on how plain and raw formats relate to one another.
The difference in the plain format is:
There is exactly one image in a file.
The magic number is P3 instead of P6.
Each sample in the raster is represented as an ASCII decimal number
(of arbitrary size).
Each sample in the raster has white space before and after it. There must
be at least one character of white space between any two samples, but there
is no maximum. There is no particular separation of one pixel from another --
just the required separation between the blue sample of one pixel from the
red sample of the next pixel.
No line should be longer than 70 characters.
Here is an example of a small pixmap in this format:
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 15 0 15
0 0 0 0 15 7 0 0 0 0 0 0
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 15 7 0 0 0
15 0 15 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Programs that read this format should be as lenient as possible,
accepting anything that looks remotely like a pixmap.
Before April 2000, a raw format PPM file could not have a maxval greater
than 255. Hence, it could not have more than one byte per sample. Old
programs may depend on this.
Before July 2000, there could be at most one image in a PPM file. As
a result, most tools to process PPM files ignore (and don't read) any
data after the first image.
Copyright (C) 1989, 1991 by Jef Poskanzer.
- SEE ALSO