Working with whole slide images

Bio-Formats supports many whole slide image formats, but effectively working with this type of data requires some extra considerations. Each file contains images representing one or more physical slides, with each slide typically stored at multiple resolutions. The width and height of a full resolution whole slide image often exceed 100,000 pixels, so the uncompressed image size may be several gigabytes. This means that only part of the full resolution image can be accessed at any given time.

JPEG or JPEG-2000 compression is typically used such that the size on disk is often less than 100MB. Most whole slide formats split each image into many small tiles of 1024×1024 pixels or smaller and compress each tile independently, though some (e.g. Hamamatsu ndpi) compress the whole image at once. Many supported whole slide formats are based upon TIFF, with vendor-specific extensions for metadata or tile storage. Notable exceptions include Zeiss CZI and cellSens VSI.

The original full resolution image and its resolutions are collectively referred to as an image pyramid. File formats which support image pyramids are noted by the Pyramid column in the supported formats table.

By default, openBytes will load from the full resolution image in the first pyramid stored in the file. Each resolution of each pyramid is stored as a separate series, and can be accessed by calling setSeries prior to retrieving pixel data.

There are additional API methods that can be used to make pyramids easier to work with. These can be enabled by calling setFlattenedResolutions(true) prior to setId.

After setUnflattenedResolutions(true), each series represents an entire image pyramid and not just a single resolution. Calling setSeries(...) then skips over all other resolutions in the same pyramid, to either the next pyramid (if multiple pyramids are stored), or the thumbnail or barcode image (if present). To access the smaller resolutions in the pyramid, use the getResolutionCount() and setResolution(int) methods.

Most formats only store one pyramid per fileset, but some (e.g. cellSens VSI) allow multiple pyramids. Almost all formats allow a thumbnail, slide overview, and/or slide barcode image. Bio-Formats always stores these images as separate series, after all of the pyramids. Be careful to check the pixel type for the extra images, as the type and channel count will often differ from that of the pyramid(s).

For an example of how to use the pyramid resolution API, see

Bio-Formats also provides some visibility into how the tiles are stored via the getOptimalTileWidth() and getOptimalTileHeight() methods. This is a suggestion of the size of tiles to be passed to openBytes(int, byte[], int, int, int, int), in order to minimize the number of tile decompressions. In most cases, and especially for the largest resolution, the whole image can’t be loaded at once. The amount of memory allocated is not a factor in being able to load the whole image, as no more than 2GB of pixel data can be stored in a single byte array and most full resolution images will exceed this limit.

Pyramids in OME-TIFF

Bio-Formats 6.0.0 and later can read and write image pyramids in the OME-TIFF format. Reading OME-TIFF pyramids uses the same API as described above. Writing OME-TIFF pyramids requires the resolution dimensions to be specified in an IPyramidStore object. GeneratePyramidResolutions shows a simple example of how to do this.

The bfconvert command line tool will also automatically write pyramids if the input file has at least one pyramid, the output format is OME-TIFF, and the bfconvert -noflat option is specified.

Internal OMERO pyramid format

For files that contain very large images and are not in a format that supports pyramids, OMERO will generate its own image pyramid to improve visualization performance. Bio-Formats can read these generated pyramids, but cannot currently write them outside of OMERO. For details of how to read image pyramids with Bio-Formats, see Working with whole slide images

OMERO handles pyramid generation automatically for files that do not already have a stored pyramid, use a supported pixel type, and have images that exceed a specific XY size. The default XY size threshold is 3192×3192, but this can be configured in OMERO if necessary. Common formats for which a pyramid will be generated include Gatan DM3, MRC, and TIFF. Dedicated whole slide imaging formats such as SVS typically contain their own image pyramid, in which case an OMERO pyramid will not be generated.

For further information, see the OMERO pyramid specification.