Image Segmentation with scikit-image

Image Segmentation is one of the most important steps in most imaging analysis pipelines. It separates between the background and the features of our images. It can also determine the number of distinct features and their location. Our ability to segment determines what we can analyze. We’ll look at a basic but complete segmentation pipeline with scikit-image. You can see the result in the title image where we segment four cells. First, we will need to threshold the image into a binary version where the background is 0 and the foreground is 1.

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from skimage import io, filters, morphology, color

image = io.imread("example_image.tif")  # Load Image
threshold = filters.threshold_otsu(image)  # Calculate threshold
image_thresholded = image > threshold  # Apply threshold

# Show the results
fig, ax = plt.subplots(1, 2)
ax[0].imshow(image, 'gray')
ax[1].imshow(image_thresholded, 'gray')

We calculate the threshold with the threshold_otsu function and apply it with a boolean operator. This threshold method works very well but there are two problems. First, there are very small particles that have nothing to do with our cell. To take care of those, we will apply morphological erosion. Second, there are holes in our cells. We will close those with morphological dilation.

# Apply 2 times erosion to get rid of background particles
n_erosion = 2
image_eroded = image_thresholded
for x in range(n_erosion):
    image_eroded = morphology.binary_erosion(image_eroded)

# Apply 14 times dilation to close holes
n_dilation = 14
image_dilated = image_eroded
for x in range(n_dilation):
    image_dilated = morphology.binary_dilation(image_dilated)

# Apply 4 times erosion to recover original size
n_erosion = 4
image_eroded_two = image_dilated
for x in range(n_erosion):
    image_eroded_two = morphology.binary_erosion(image_eroded_two)

fig, ax = plt.subplots(2,2)
ax[0,0].imshow(image_thresholded, 'gray')
ax[0,1].imshow(image_eroded, 'gray')
ax[1,0].imshow(image_dilated, 'gray')
ax[1,1].imshow(image_eroded_two, 'gray')
ax[0,1].set_title("Eroded 2x")
ax[1,0].set_title("Dilated 14x")
ax[1,1].set_title("Eroded 4x")

Erosion turns any pixel black that is contact with another black pixel. This is how erosion can get rid of small particles. In our case we need to apply erosion twice. Once those particles disappeared, we can use dilation to close the holes in our cells. To close all the holes, we have to slightly over dilate, which makes the cells slightly bigger than they actually are. To recover the original morphology we apply some more erosions. Here is an example that shows how erosion and dilation work in detail. It also illustrates what being “in contact” with another pixel means by default.

cross = np.array([[0,0,0,0,0], [0,0,1,0,0], [0,1,1,1,0], 
                [0,0,1,0,0], [0,0,0,0,0]], dtype=np.uint8)
cross_eroded = morphology.binary_erosion(cross)
cross_dilated = morphology.binary_dilation(cross)
fig, ax = plt.subplots(1,3)
ax[0].imshow(cross, 'gray')
ax[1].imshow(cross_eroded, 'gray')
ax[2].imshow(cross_dilated, 'gray')
ax[1].set_title("Cross Eroded")
ax[2].set_title("Cross Dilated")

Now we are essentially done segmenting foreground and background. But we also want to assign distinct labels to our objects.

labels = morphology.label(image_eroded_two)
labels_rgb = color.label2rgb(labels,
                             colors=['greenyellow', 'green',
                                     'yellow', 'yellowgreen'],
# (342, 382)
# (342, 382)
fig, ax = plt.subplots(2,2)
ax[0,0].imshow(labels==1, 'gray')
ax[0,1].imshow(labels==2, 'gray')
ax[1,0].imshow(labels==3, 'gray')
ax[0,0].set_title("label == 1")
ax[0,1].set_title("label == 2")
ax[1,0].set_title("label == 3")
ax[1,1].set_title("All labels RGB")

We use morphology.label to generate a label for each connected feature. This returns an array that has the same shape as our original image but the pixels are no longer zero or one. The background is zero but each feature gets its own integer. All pixels belonging to the first label are equal to 1, pixels of the second label equal to 2 and so on. To visualize those labels all in one image, we call color.label2rgb to get color representations for each label in RGB space. And that’s it.

Segmentation is crucial for image analysis and I hope this tutorial got you on a good way to do your own segmentation with scikit-image. This pipeline is not perfect but illustrates the concept well. There are many more functions in the morphology module to filter binary images, but they all come down to a sequence of erosions and dilations. If you want to adapt this approach for your own images, I would recommend to play around with the number of erosions and dilations. Let me know how it worked for you.

Contrast Adjustment with scikit-image

Contrast is one of the most important properties of an image and contrast adjustment is one of the easiest things we can do to make our images look better. There are many ways to adjust the contrast and with most of them we have to be careful because they can artificially change our images. The title image shows three basic methods of contrast adjustment and how they affect the image histogram. We will cover all three methods here but first let us consider what it means for an image to have low contrast.

Each pixel in an image has an intensity value. In an 8-bit image the values can be between 0 and 255. Contrast issues occur, when the largest intensity value in our image is smaller than 255 or the smallest value is larger than 0. The reason is that we are not using the entire range of possible values, making the image overall darker than it could be. So what about the contrast of our example image? We can use .min() and .max() to find maximum and minimum intensity.

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from skimage import io, exposure, data

image = io.imread("example_image.tif")
# 52
# 1

Our maximum of 52 is very far away from 255, which explains why our image is so dark. On the minimum we are almost perfect. To correct the contrast we can user the exposure module which gives us the function rescale_intensity.

image_minmax_scaled = exposure.rescale_intensity(image)
# 255
# 0

Now both the minimum and the maximum are optimized. All pixels that were equal to the original minimum are now 0 and all pixels equal to the maximum are now 255. But what happens to the values in the middle? Let’s look at a smaller example.

arr = np.array([2, 40, 100, 205, 250], dtype=np.uint8)

arr_rescaled = exposure.rescale_intensity(arr)
# array([  0,  39, 100, 208, 255], dtype=uint8)

As expected, the minimum 2 became 0 and the maximum 250 became 255. In the middle, 40 became smaller, nothing happened to 100 and 205 became larger. We will look at each step to find out how we got there.

arr = np.array([2, 40, 100, 205, 250], dtype=np.uint8)
min, max = arr.min(), arr.max()
arr_subtracted = arr - min  # Subtract the minimum
# array([  0,  38,  98, 203, 248], dtype=uint8)
arr_divided = arr_subtracted / (max - min)  # Divide by new max
# array([0.        , 0.15322581, 0.39516129, 0.81854839, 1.        ])
arr_multiplied = arr_divided * 255  # Multiply by dtype max
# array([  0.        ,  39.07258065, 100.76612903, 208.72983871,
#        255.        ])
# Convert dtype to original uint8
arr_rescaled = np.asarray(arr_multiplied, dtype=arr.dtype)
# array([  0,  39, 100, 208, 255], dtype=uint8)

We can get there in four simple steps. Subtract the minimum, divide by the maximum of the new subtracted array, multiply by the maximum value of the data type and finally convert back to the original data type. This works well if we want to rescale by minimum and maximum of the image but sometimes we need to use different values. Especially the maximum can be easily dominated by noise. For all we know, it could be just one pixel that is not necessarily representative for the entire image. As you can see from the histogram in the title image, very few pixels are near the maximum. This means we can use percentile rescaling with little information loss.

percentiles = np.percentile(image, (0.5, 99.5))
# array([ 1., 28.])
scaled = exposure.rescale_intensity(image,

This time we scale from 1 to 28, which means that all values above or equal to 28 become the new maximum 255. As we chose the 99.5 percentile, this affects roughly 5% of the upper pixels. You can see the consequence in the image on the right. The image becomes brighter but it also means that we lose information. Pixels that were distinguishable now look exactly the same, because they are all 255. It is up to you if you can afford to lose those features. If you do quantitative image analysis you should perform rescaling with caution and always look out for information loss.