Some Basic Image Processing Procedures - Lecture Material - Completely Remote Sensing tutorial, GPS, and GIS -
Some Basic Image Processing Procedures

The roots of remote sensing reach back into ground and aerial photography. But modern remote sensing really took off as two major technologies evolved more or less simultaneously: 1) the development of sophisticated electro-optical sensors (see page I-5a) that operate from air and space platforms and 2) the digitizing of data that were then in the right formats for processing and analysis by versatile computer-based programs. Today, analysts of remote sensing data spend much of their time at computer stations, as shown below, but nevertheless still also use actual imagery (in photo form) that has been computer-processed.

Students in a high school class learning the basics of remote sensing by using computer-based instructional programs.

Now that you have seen the individual Landsat Thematic Mapper (TM) bands and color composites that have introduced you to our study image, we are ready to investigate the power of computer-based processing procedures in highlighting and extracting information about scene content. This involves the recognition, appearance, and identification of materials, objects, features, and classes (these general terms all refer to the specific spatial and spectral entities in a scene). A very helpful summary of the main ideas involved in digital image processing is provided in Volume 3 in the Remote Sensing Core Curriculum first cited in the Overview of this Tutorial. Jan Husdal has produced a good Internet site worth visiting for more on image processing (but it may "stick" on screen after you try to leave via the "Back" button). Another useful overview tutorial has been put on line by the Chesapeake Bay Institute at Towson University in Maryland. Chapter 7 on Image Processing, from Floyd Sabins, Jr.'s excellent text on remote sensing, has been reproduced online at this site. There are also some helpful supplementary ideas on basic processing in the first five pages of Appendix B of this Tutorial.

The advantages of computer processing and the common routines or methods are summarized in this Table:

Table listing Advantages of Computer Processing and some of the commonly used Routines.

Processing procedures fall into three broad categories: Image Restoration (Preprocessing); Image Enhancement; and Classification and Information Extraction. The first of these is considered on this page. We will discuss on the next two pages contrast stretching, densing slicing, and spatial filtering; producing stereo pairs, perspective views, and mosaics are considered in other Sections of the Tutorial. Under Information Extraction, ratioing and principal components analysis have elements of Enhancement but lead to images that can be interpreted directly for recognition and identification of classes and features. Also included in the third category but treated outside this Section is Change Detection. Pattern recognition is often associated with this category.

A word about a parameter we have mentioned before (e.g, first on page I-5a and at the beginning of this Section), namely the meaning of the term Digital Number or DN. We have said that the radiances, such as reflectances and emittances, which vary through a continuous range of values, are digitized onboard Landsat and other spacecraft after initially being measured by the sensor(s) in use. Ground instrument data can also be digitized at the time of collection. Or, imagery obtained by conventional photography is capable of digitization. A DN is simply one of a set of numbers based on powers of 2, such as 26 or 64. This range of numbers is coupled with the range of radiances. Instrument-wise these radiances can be, for example, recorded as varying voltages. The lower and upper limits of the sensor's response capability form the end members of the DN range selected. The voltages are divided into equal whole number units based on the digitizing range selected. Thus, a Landsat TM band can have its voltage values - the maximum and minimum that can be measured - subdivided into 28 or 256 equal units. These are arbitrarily set at 0 for the lowest value, so the range is then 0 to 255.


Preprocessing is an important and diverse set of image preparation programs that act to offset problems with the band data and recalculate DN values that minimize these problems. Among the programs that optimize these values are atmospheric correction (affecting the DNs of surface materials [making them higher or lower] because of radiance from the atmosphere itself, involving attenuation and scattering); sun illumination geometry; surface-induced geometric distortions; spacecraft velocity and attitude variations (roll, pitch, and yaw); effects of Earth rotation, elevation, curvature (including skew effects), abnormalities of instrument performance (irregularities of detector response and scan mode such as variations in mirror oscillations); loss of specific scan lines (requires destriping), and others. Once performed on the raw data, these adjustments may require appropriate radiometric and geometric corrections.

Resampling is one approach commonly used to produce better estimates of the DN values for individual pixels that have been reshifted to better fit their real spatial distributions. Thus, after the various geometric corrections and translations have been applied, the net effect is that the resulting redistribution of pixels involves their spatial displacements to new, more accurate relative positions. However, the radiometric values of the displaced pixels no longer represent the real world values that would be obtained if this new pixel array could be resensed by the scanner. The particular mixture of surface objects or materials in the original pixel has changed somewhat (depending on pixel size, number of classes and their proportions falling within the pixel, and extent of continuation of these features in neighboring pixels [a pond may fall within one or just a few pixels; a forest can spread over many contiguous pixels]).

In effect, for any shifted pixel from a geometric location X to a new, more correct location Y, the calculated radiometric corrections lead to creation of a new DN number for that pixel. To further clarify, at the time of sampling during the sensor overpass the geometrically incorrect pixel covers ground X, with its set of DN values, but after being shifted occupies a position that, if not adjusted, has X's DN values. However after being properly relocated the pixel should have somewhat different DN values that represent ground Y. One way to find this new Y DN value set is to examine the values in pixels surrounding the X pixel and average them out as an estimate of what inputs from them to Y would have been (if correctly sampled in the first place). This estimate of the new brightness value (as a DN) that is closer to the Y condition is made by some mathematical resampling technique. Three sampling algorithms are commonly used:

The three commonly used Resampling Strategies

In the Nearest Neighbor technique, the transformed pixel A (equals Y) takes the value of the closest pixel in the pre-shifted array. In the Bilinear Interpolation approach, the average of the DNs for the 4 pixels surrounding the transformed output pixel is used. The Cubic Convolution technique averages the 16 closest input pixels; this usually leads to the sharpest image.

Because preprocessing is an expansive topic that requires development of a broad background, we will omit further discussion here. Instead, we refer you to any of the textbooks listed in the Overview that treat this subject in more detail.