Applying Built-In Image Filters In Swift

January 13th, 2023

⏱ Reading Time: 11 mins

Many applications allow to process images by applying filters and create variations of the original ones. Usually that’s feasible thanks to the Core Image framework and the APIs it provides. Core Image contains a long list of built-in filters that we can use in order to modify images, with the required steps to do so being specific and straightforward.

In this post you are going to meet how to make use of built-in filters, how to supply parameters in order to achieve the most desirable results, as well as how to chain filters for a combined result. On top of outlining the various stages of the process, I’m also presenting a simple SwiftUI app that demonstrates how everything fits in the context of a project. With no further delay, let’s get started by going straight into the point.

How to apply a filter

Well, it all starts with an image, which you should obtain in the most appropriate way for your app. Most often that will be a UIImage in iOS and a NSImage in macOS. In this example here we are going to use a UIImage that will be initialized with an actual image taken from the app bundle:

Notice that image is an optional UIImage object.

The next step is to get a CIImage object from the original image you already have. Note that a CIImage instance (where CIImage is a class in the CoreImage framework) does not represent an actual image, but it contains image data that is not directly displayable, for example in a SwiftUI Image view or a UIImageView in UIKit.

To come up with a CIImage object it’s necessary to perform an intermediate step; to get the original image as a CGImage first, and then use that representation in order to initialize a CIImage instance. Doing so takes just a couple of lines of code, however be warned; the resulting CGImage is an optional object, meaning it can be nil, and don’t forget that image in the previous snippet is also optional. So, the safest approach to go from the original UIImage to the desired CIImage is to use a guard let statement (or an if let if you prefer so):

Preparing the filter

With the CIImage object handy, we can then initialize a filter using the CIFilter class. Right at the initialization time we provide the name of the built-in filter we want to use as argument. For example, the following initializes a filter which will result to a sepia effect later on:

This particular filter accepts two parameter values; the first is the image that the filter will be applied to as a CIImage object, while the second is the intensity of the sepia effect as a double value in the closed range [0.0, 1.0].

Important: You can find the full list of built-in filters along with their parameters, possible values and examples on this page from Apple.

Note that CIImage is a KVO-compliant class, and that means we provide parameter names and values using the setValue(_:forKey:) method as key-value pairs.

There are two ways to specify keys for filter parameters. The first is as string literals:

The second way is to use the appropriate constant value contained in the Core Image framework:

It really doesn’t matter which approach you will follow to provide keys, as long as you ensure that they are correct. For the latter especially there is a “recipe” to construct the name of the required constant from a parameter name found in the previously given link:

  • Prefix the parameter name with the “kCI” value,
  • capitalize the first letter of the parameter name,
  • add the “Key” suffix to the end.

A few examples:

  • inputImage: kCIInputImageKey
  • inputIntensity: kCIInputIntensityKey
  • inputRadius: kCIInputRadiusKey
  • inputAngle: kCIInputAngleKey

In the code that follows next I’m going to use the second option and the constant values, but feel free to use the other one if you feel more comfortable with it.

Getting the filtered image

With the selected filter configured, the next step is to get the modified image as a CIImage object. That’s easy as there is a specific property in the CIFilter instance that we can get it from. It’s called outputImage:

Make sure to unwrap as shown above or using an if-let statement, because besides the filter in this demo, outputImage is optional as well.

The final move is to get the image as a UIImage or NSImage object. To do that properly we need a Core Image context which is described programmatically by a CIContext instance. Creating such an instance is computationally expensive, so make sure to initialize it once and then use it as many times as needed:

Using the context we can now get a CGImage representation of the modified image:

The output argument is the modified image as a CIImage object. The output.extent gives us the image frame (rectangle) needed as second argument. The resulting CGImage is an optional object and it can be nil, therefore make sure to proceed safely by optionally unwrapping it.

To get a UIImage from the above is as simple as that:

All the above content summarizes how to apply a single built-in filter on images in Swift. If that’s what you have been looking for, then you’re good to stop here. However, if you want to find out how all these fit to the context of a simple project, then keep reading on. Note that the discussion about how to chain filters comes right after the next part.

Applying filters in a demo SwiftUI app

The application that will be demonstrated here is pretty simple. It displays an image and right after a picker with various filters to select and apply:

The starting point towards its implementation is a simple enumeration where we’ll list all filters we would like to present and use:

There are five filters in total, as you can see in the above snippet:

  1. Sepia
  2. Motion Blur
  3. Color Invert
  4. Crystallize
  5. Comic

Each one of the above filters accept a different number and kind of parameters, which can be found in the link already provided above.

The Filters enum conforms to CaseIterable protocol so we can iterate through its cases in a loop. It also conforms to CustomStringCovertible in order to make the description computed property available here. A user-friendly text is provided for each filter in it.

Besides the Filters enum, we’ll also define the following ObservableObject type:

The image property marked with the @Published property wrapper is going to contain the image that will be displayed in the SwiftUI part. We’re about to add some quite interesting content to this class in a few moments.

In the frontend side, a single SwiftUI view is sufficient to generate the simple visual results we need. Its initial implementation is given right next:

The currently selected filter is kept in the selectedFilter stored property annotated with the @State property wrapper. Its value is set to none initially. Also, the filterMaker property holds a FilterMaker instance. Notice that it’s prefixed with the @StateObject property wrapper so it remains unchanged during subsequent renderings of the view.

In a VStack container you can find both the image and picker view. See that the source for the former is the image property in the FilterMaker instance.

Besides that, it’s interesting to observe the use of the selectedFilter property, as well as how all available cases in Filters enum are listed in the picker; the ForEach container iterates through them by accessing the allCases property, with the latter being exposed by the CaseIterable protocol. In addition, the name of each filter is taken from the description property.

Implementing the filters

The initial implementation of the FilterMaker class is quite short. However, this is going to change now, as it will contain all the code related to filters. For starters we’ll add a couple of stored properties, with the first one keeping a CIContext instance:

Remember what I mentioned previously; a CIContext object should be initialized only once, and then be used in multiple places.

Next, we’ll add the next property that will store the original, unmodified image as a UIImage object:

In addition to the above two, we’ll also define a computed property that will be returning the CIImage representation of the original image:

Following the steps presented in the first part of this post, see that we get the CGImage representation initially, which then use to initialize and return a CIImage object.

Next, let’s add an initializer method to the FilterMaker class where we’ll perform two actions:

  • We’ll load the original image from the assets catalog.
  • We’ll assign it to the image property so as to be displayed in the SwiftUI view.

Now, and right before we implement the filters, we’ll implement a method that is going to be reused several times next. It will be accepting a CIFilter as argument, it will construct a new UIImage and assign it to the image property of the FilterMaker class. Without creating this method, we would need to implement the code you see next as many times as the filters we want to implement are:

The getImage(usingFilter:) method does nothing else but following the steps described at the beginning of this tutorial. To recap:

  • In the first line we optionally unwrap the modified image and we get it as a CIImage object by accessing the outputImage property of the filter object. The unwrapped value is stored in the output constant.
  • In the second line we create a CGImage image using the output from the previous step. Here’s where the context property (the Core Image context) gets into play. The createCGImage(_:from:) method returns an optional value, so it’s necessary to optionally unwrap once again. Besides the output that we provide as first argument to that method, the second argument is the frame of the image that is fetched with the extent instance property of the CIImage class.
  • Finally, in the last line we initialize a UIImage object using the CGImage representation, which is then assigned to the image property.

Time to add the filters implementation. In order to keep things simple, we’re going to have a method for each single filter. Notice that the last line in each method next is a call to the getImage(usingFilter:) in order to get the filtered image:

See that all the above methods look quite similar. It’s just the name of the filter and the provided key-value pairs that change. Despite any differences, they all accept the CIImage instance as input for the filter they define.

I will intentionally avoid to discuss the parameters of each filter here. I will prompt you to the official documentation once again, where you can explore them thoroughly and see examples of the respective filters.

All these methods presented in the previous snippet cover all cases in the Filters enum, except one! The none case.

This case is particular, as we should not apply any filter here. Instead, what we need to do is something much simpler; to assign the original image to the image property. And for that, here’s the last method in the FilterMaker class:

Eventually, here’s the FilterMaker class complete:

Using the filters in the SwiftUI view

Every time a different option is selected in the Picker view, the selectedFilter property will be updated with that new value. As a refresher, this is the selectedFilter in the SwiftUI view of this sample app:

To detect changes occurring in this particular property, we’ll use the onChange(of:perform:) view modifier. We’ll apply it on the outermost view, the VStack container, as it doesn’t actually modify any view:

The newValue parameter in the closure contains the new value of the selectedFilter property. Depending on it, we’ll call the proper method that applies the respective filter to the image. All that will take place in a switch statement:

This is the only necessary addition in the SwiftUI view. Here’s its entire implementation:

The demo app is now ready, illustrating how to make use of built-in filters and modify an image on demand.

Note: You can download the sample project from this link.

Chaining filters

It’s possible to chain multiple built-in filters and end up with a combined result. The process to do so is probably easier than what you might be expecting. All you need to do is to provide the output of one filter as input to the next one! The final image is taken from the last filter using the CIContext instance as it is already presented in the previous parts.

To see an example of how to do that, we are going to chain two filters together, the sepia effect and the motion blur. The sample application presented previously is where this final addition is going to take place.

In the FilterMaker class we’ll add a new method:

We’ll start here by configuring a sepia filter, exactly as we have already met earlier:

As a reminder, the source ciImage is taken from this computed property:

Now, instead of creating a UIImage object using the modified image resulting from the above filter, we’ll first ensure that we can get its output CIImage:

Next, we’ll initialize a new CIFilter instance and configure it in order to produce a motion blur effect. Here’s the most important part! See that the input image provided to that new filter is the sepiaOutput fetched right in the previous snippet:

Lastly, and given that the blurFilter is the last one in the chain, we can get the new UIImage object:

To refresh your memory once again, this is the implementation of the getImage(usingFilter:) that we already talked about previously:

Here is the chainFilters() method as one piece:

Using the chained filters

In order to keep things simple, we’ll just add a Button to the SwiftUI view that will trigger the above method. We’ll add it as the last view in the VStack container:

Here’s the result of the above; right when the “Chain Filters” button is tapped the image is processed and the two chained filters are applied to it.


The steps to apply built-in filters to images in Swift are specific, and the only thing that changes is the filter name and the number of parameters. It’s also easy to chain filters together and come up with an image that contains them all. Hopefully, the sample app presented above is helping to better understand how to use filters in a SwiftUI based project. In a final note, I would recommend to take a look at the official documentation about Core Image filters for further study on this subject.

Thank you for reading! ????

Download the sample project

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