OME-TIFF sub-resolution support

Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Storage
  3. TIFF and OME-TIFF file format changes
  4. Bio-Formats and OME-Files API and implementation changes


There have been several different proposals for images at different scales in the form of sub-resolutions (image “pyramids”) for TIFF and OME-TIFF in Bio-Formats and OME Files, which include:

This investigation included the review of existing specifications, samples and implementations of TIFF-based formats:

Alternative existing approaches include:

This proposal will summarise the various possible approaches and their tradeoffs, including the practical implementations I have tested while evaluating them.


There are several strategies we could employ for sub-resolutions:

Strategies A, B and C

Strategy D

Strategy E

A. Implicit ordering

This is the approach taken by the existing Pyramid TIFF reader



GeoTIFF is almost the same as the design shown here, with the exception that the sub-resolution level order is reversed, starting with the smallest sub-resolution and ending with the full resolution. It has the same pros and cons.

B. SubIFDs pointing to main IFDs

Intermediate between (A) and (C). The SubIFDs tag is used to indicate that other IFDs are sub-resolutions of this IFD. The other IFDs are part of the main IFD list, like (A).



C. SubIFDs pointing to separate IFDs

This is how sub-resolutions in TIFF are ideally supported.



D. External metadata with implicit resolution order

Similar to (A), but instead of using the SubIFDs tag the resolution count is specified in the Image OME-XML metadata.



E. External metadata with explicit resolution order

Similar to (A), but instead of using the SubIFD tag the sub-resolutions IFDs are specified in the Image OME-XML metadata



Overview of the various strategies:

Strategy A B C D E
SubIFDs usage None Simple Full Optional‡ Optional‡
z reduction No No No No Yes
libtiff compatibility Yes No Yes Yes‡ Yes
Photoshop compatibility No No Yes No No
Sub-resolution access without SubIFDs Yes Yes§ No Optional‡ Optional‡
Reading portability High Mid Low† High High
Writing portability High Mid Low High High
Implementation complexity Low Middling Middling High High
Model changes No No No Simple Complex
Multi-series OME-TIFF No* Yes Yes Yes*† Yes
Multi-file OME-TIFF No* Yes Yes Yes*† Yes

* Implementation complexity very high, with a great deal of potential fragility

† Would still be readable by all software, but without sub-resolutions

SubIFDs could be used independently of additional metadata, but would have to refer to IFDs in the main sequence since the metadata will access them by index. [If the metadata allowed access by offset, then proper SubIFDs directory entries could also be used.]

§ Accessible, but without any metadata to indicate the structure


We will implement strategy C in the short term. In the longer term, E would allow z reductions (or requiring HDF5 might avoid the need for any model changes).

So long as bfconvert and the other Bio-Formats tools allow for sub-resolution flattening on conversion, the native support for separate SubIFDs which aren’t part of the main IFD sequence should not be a hindrance to inter-operability. If there is a need to access sub-resolutions in tools without support for SubIFDs, bfconvert can create a suitably flattened TIFF. If we wanted to create TIFFs with an increased range of portability, we could implement strategy B. If proper SubIFDs support was acceptable then strategy C would be preferable. Since strategy C is what libtiff supports natively and is what OME-Files C++ would write, having compatible behaviour between the C++ and Java implementations would be preferable.

SubIFD only supports reductions in x and y, not in z (unless using libtiff extensions). This will meet all the 2D cases, including digital pathology. For reductions in z, we would require support for sub-resolutions in the metadata model. However, this is a TIFF-specific limitation which would not apply to e.g. HDF-5. It might be acceptable to require HDF-5 for this feature rather than add TIFF-specific features to the data model.

Note that implementing strategy B or C doesn’t preclude implementing strategy E independently. If OME-XML metadata describing sub-resolutions exists, we can simply ignore the SubIFDs metadata. SubIFDs could remain for readers which aren’t capable of using the OME-XML metadata. Strategy B would potentially ease the implementation of strategy E, since the top-level IFDs can be reused. However, the caveats with libtiff remain. Since we could retain strategy B or C for the plain TIFF writer, we would get sub-resolution support essentially “for free” in the OME-TIFF writer irrespective of the addition of support for strategy E. Strategy E will require full support in the data model for TiffData (or equivalent) elements for every resolution level.

TIFF and OME-TIFF file format changes

This is based largely on Damir Sudar’s suggestions

Follow-up work could include:

Outstanding questions

Sample files

Simple scripts to convert existing file formats with sub-resolutions to TIFF and OME-TIFF files with SUBIFDS have been created for testing purposes:

Of the three, makepyramid-scn generates the most compliant OME-TIFF files with the best tile sizes and compression types. These will be used to test the TIFF and OME-TIFF support for sub-resolutions in Bio-Formats and OME Files prior to the creation of a writer which can generate the files directly.

Note that the scripts require a copy of Bio-Formats showinf on the PATH. They also require a copy of libtiff on LD_LIBRARY_PATH and tiffinfo and tiffset on the PATH. libtiff must be a release > 4.0.9 for BigTIFF SUBIFDS support in tiffset; at the time of writing this means building a copy from git.


From ome-model 6.0.0, the OME-TIFF file format specification includes support for multi-resolution images - see the OME-TIFF specification and the Bio-Formats 6.0.0 announcement.

Bio-Formats and OME-Files API and implementation changes

Existing sub-resolution API

Implemented only for reading

IFormatReader Description
seriesToCoreIndex Convert from series (resolution 0) to linear index
coreIndexToSeries Convert from linear index to series (resolution 0)
setCoreIndex Set linear index (series and resolution)
getCoreIndex Get linear index (series and resolution)
getResolutionCount Get resolution count for current series
setResolution Set resolution for current series
getResolution Get resolution for current series
hasFlattenedResolutions True if resolutions are flattened to series
setFlattenedResolutions Enable resolution flattening (before setId)
FormatReader Description
resolution Field storing current resolution level
flattenedResolutions Field storing whether resolutions are flattened

The implementation in FormatReader maintains the current resolution level for the active series, and whether or not resolutions are flattened (which affects the behaviour of the “core index” methods).

Proposed sub-resolution writer API additions

The writer implementation needs to keep track of the number of resolution levels in the current series, and the current resolution in the current series.

The “core index” methods and “flattened resolutions” reader methods are not required for writing, because these are specific to the reader implementation and the CoreMetadata class which the writer interface lacks.

The writer will need to be able to set the sub-resolution metadata and switch between resolution levels via the writer API. To set the current resolution, similarly to the current series, the following additions are required:

IFormatWriter Description
setResolution Set resolution for current series
getResolution Get resolution for current series
getResolutionCount Get resolution count for current series
FormatWriter Description
resolution Field storing current resolution level

There are two strategies which could be used to implement setting of the sub-resolution metadata. Firstly, specification of all metadata via writer methods to match every reader method:

IFormatWriter Description
setResolutionCount Set resolution count for current series
setSizeX Set size X for current series and resolution
setPixelType Set pixel type for current series and resolution
setInterleaved Set interleaved for current series and resolution
Etc. for all series/resolution properties from IFormatReader
FormatWriter Description
core Field for storing core metadata list for all series and resolutions

Here, setResolutionCount would add the extra CoreMetadata elements to describe the extra sub-resolutions for the current series (can be a copy of the current series core metadata). Then, setSizeX, setSizeY and other methods would be used to customise the sub-resolution metadata. The downside of this approach is that the metadata needs to be fully specified before setId is called, or else the internal writer state will be inconsistent. setSeries can’t be called before setId, and so this approach is incompatible with the current writer semantics.

Secondly, by setting the core metadata list:

IFormatWriter Description
setCoreMetadataList Set the core metadata list (all series and resolutions)
getCoreMetadataList Get the core metadata list (all series and resolutions)
FormatWriter Description
resolution Field storing current resolution level
core Field for storing core metadata list for all series and resolutions

This can be done before setId and remain compatible with the existing writer API. setCoreMetadataList could be used as an alternative to setMetadataRetrieve, or after setMetadataRetrieve by calling getCoreMetadataList to get the core metadata set from the metadata store, and then modifying it before calling setCoreMetadataList.

TiffWriter Description
prepareToWriteImage Set SUBIFDS to correct size
saveBytes Update SUBIFDS

prepareToWriteImage will need to set the SubIFDs tag to a size of resolutionCount - 1 if the number of resolutions is greater than 1. saveBytes will write the currently selected sub-resolution level. The SubIFDs offsets will require updating after each sub-resolution is written; the offset to the SubIFDs arrays will require caching.

The main implementation choice to make is whether the IFormatWriter and FormatWriter changes above should be made in these places, or if they should be restricted to TiffWriter for the initial work. Having them exposed makes them resusable in other writers and allows for clean integration of sub-resolution functionality into tools like bfconvert. However, it is then a visible public API addition. Keeping it hidden avoid this, but at the cost of accessing it requiring hardcoding of writer-specific special cases.

Proposed sub-resolution reader changes

MinimalTiffReader Description
initFile Check SUBIFDS and set CoreMetadata
openBytes Use current sub-resolution from SUBIFDS

initFile will check the SubIFDs tag, and initialise the CoreMetadata with the sub-resolution data. openBytes will read the selected sub-resolution level (no changes required).

If we wish to write TIFF and OME-TIFF with sub-resolutions without any corresponding data model changes, we can make use of the existing sub-resolution API support in IFormatReader. If a corresponding set of methods were added to IFormatWriter, this would provide the basis for specifying the number of resolution levels, setting the current resolution level and writing pixel data for a specific resolution level. Since this uses SubIFDs, no metadata model changes would be required. With the corresponding reader support, this would provide transparent support for reading, writing, and conversion of data files containing sub-resolution data.

Implementation of writing support

Writing can be broken down into these steps, which can be implemented in order:

These steps are partially implemented on several git branches:

Branch Description
coremetadata-subchannel Add sizeSubC[] subchannel sizes to CoreMetadata
format-writer-subresolution Serialise MetadataRetrieve to CoreMetadataList; add SubresolutionFormatWriter
imageconverter-noflat Add bfconvert -noflat option
ometiff-pyramid-writer More bfconvert support and ISubResolutionFormatWriter

The rationale for these steps is detailed here.

In order to set CoreMetadataList from MetadataRetrieve, we need to be able to round-trip all needed metadata, including all metadata needed for sub-resolutions. The key defect here is that the OME-XML Channel class’ SamplesPerPixel attribute isn’t representable in CoreMetadata. There’s only sizeC and imageCount. OME-Files C++ CoreMetadata stores sizeC as an array:

/// Number of channels.
std::vector<dimension_size_type> sizeC;

The size of the vector is the channel count; the size of each element is the number of samples for that channel index. Bio-Formats needs to be able to store the same information. The coremetadata-subchannel branch is the start of the needed work. It adds sizeSubC as a supplement to sizeC (leaving sizeC present but unused for backward compatibility). The steps to do this are:

Once the CoreMetadata changes are in place, we can create a SubResolutionFormatReader to contain a CoreMetadataList and to fill it from MetadataRetrieve when set, or alternatively from setCoreMetadataList directly. At this point, it’s possible to specify all series and resolutions before setId. This work is begun on the format-writer-subresolution branch. The writer implementation should strictly enforce correct series, resolution and plane progression, to ensure correct ordering in the file being written.

The TIFF saving code needs updating to allow saving of sub-resolution planes in SUBIFDS. I would suggest updating TiffSaver to maintain a stack of sub-resolutions and to write them in order like libtiff. This means it will have to maintain this state:

Next, we can make individual writers implement SubResolutionFormatWriter. Given the small number of writers, I would suggest converting the entire lot for ease of maintenance (writers don’t need to use subresolutions if they implement the interface). Then we can update OMETiffWriter to write pyramids. Given the current series and current resolution information in the inherited writer implementation, the only alteration is to saveBytes to set the correct SUBIFDS size when writing out the full resolution plane, then writing each resolution sequentially and updating SUBIFDS accordingly (if TiffSaver is made stateful this can be automatic). The writer should set NEWSUBFILETYPE appropriately to full resolution or reduced-resolution image. Also bitwise OR PAGE if the image is a multi-plane series.

Lastly, update ImageConverter to set the resolutions in CoreMetadataList and use setResolution in addition to setSeries to loop over each resolution as well as each series and transfer all the resolution levels. The imageconverter-noflat and ometiff-pyramid-writer branches implement most of the needed logic.


The release of Bio-Formats 6.0.0 includes support for reading and writing multi-resolution OME-TIFF - see the announcement on or the OME Website.