Image processing with Python and SciPy

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Given that NumPy provides multidimensional arrays, and that there is core support through the Python Imaging Library to display images and manipulate images in the Python environment, it's easy to take the next step and combine these for scientific image processing. As part of our short course on Python for Physics and Astronomy we begin by exploring how Python handle image input and output

Python Imaging Library - PIL

Before we get into the broad area, there is a caveat for users of Python 3. The essential Python Imaging Library (PIL) is not yet completely compatible with new version of Python. Consequently the FITS tools we will need for astronomical image processing are also currently only supported in the mature versions of Python 2. The comments that follow are based on Python 2.7.

PIL provides functions to manipulate images, including reading, modifying and saving in various standard image formats. Its functions are documented in an on-line manual with a tutorial, and in this handy pdf guide.

As a simple starting example, suppose you have an image that was taken with the camera turned so that "up" is to the side when the image is displayed. Here's how you would rotate an image 90 degrees.

import Image as pil
parser= argparse.ArgumentParser(description = 'Rotate a png image 90 degrees')
if len(sys.argv) == 1:
  sys.exit("Usage: png_image_rotate file.png ")
elif len(sys.argv) == 2:
  infilename = sys.argv[1]
  sys.exit("Usage: png_image_rotate file.png ")
myimage =

mirror = myimage.transpose(pil.ROTATE_90)
outfilename = os.path.splitext(os.path.basename(infilename))[0]+'_r90.png'

The first part of this is standard form to get the image name on the command line and make it available to the program. The PIL is imported with Image, and appears in the code as "pil". This is an amazingly short program, because in opening the image the library handles all the conversions in formatting and stores the image internally so that you refer to it only by the name assigned when it is loaded. We operate on the image with the transpose function, which has an argument that controls what it does. Here we rotate the image 90 degrees, and then save it to a file with a new name. The saving operation converts the internal data back to the file format set by the extension used in the file name.

You can transpose an image left-right with

mirror = myimage.transpose(pil.FLIP_LEFT_RIGHT)

or do both in one step with

mirror = myimage.transpose(Image.FLIP_LEFT_RIGHT).transpose(pil.ROTATE_90)

Processing is not limited to "PNG" files, though that file type is preferred because it is not a lossy storage option. Python reads and writes "jpg" files too.

Astronomical FITS files with PyFITS

PyFITS is available from the Space Telescope Science Institute, and can be added easily to a Python installation that already and NumPy and SciPy. As of January 2013, the current version 3.1.1 of PyFITS supports all the functions needed to manage image and table data in the standard Flexibile Image Transport System (FITS) files of astronomy.

FITS headers

Processing and displaying images

SciPy and SciKit for image processing


For examples of Python illustrating image processing, see the examples section.


For the assigned homework to use these ideas, see the assignments section.