Use echo/printf to write images in 5 LoC with zero libraries or headers

tl;dr: With the Netpbm file formats, it’s trivial to output pixels using nothing but text based IO

To show that there’s nothing up my sleeves, here’s an image:

A computer generated image of gently shaded, repeating squares

And here’s the complete, dependency free bash script that generates it:

exec > my_image.ppm    # All echo statements will write here
echo "P3 250 250 255"  # magic, width, height, max component value
for ((y=0; y<250; y++)) {
  for ((x=0; x<250; x++)) {
    echo "$((x^y)) $((x^y)) $((x|y))" # r, g, b

That’s it. That’s all you need to generate an image that can be read by common tools like GIMP, ImageMagick and Netpbm.

To rewind for a second, it’s sometimes useful to output an image to do printf debugging of 2D algorithms, to visualize data, or simply because you have some procedural pixels you want to put on screen.

However — at least if you hadn’t seen the above example — the threshold to start outputting graphics could seem rather high. Even with a single file library, that’s one more thing to set up and figure out. This is especially annoying during debugging, when you know you’re going to delete it within the hour.

Fortunately, the Netpbm suite of tools have developed an amazingly flexible solution: a set of lowest common denominator file formats for full color Portable PixMaps (PPM), Portable GrayMaps (PGM), and monochrome Portable BitMaps (PBM), that can all be written as plain ASCII text using any language’s basic text IO.

Collectively, the formats are known as PNM: Portable aNyMaps.

The above bash script is more than enough to get started, but a detailed description of the file format with examples can be found in man ppm, man pgm, and man pbm on a system with Netpbm installed.

Each man page describes two version of a simple file format: one binary and one ASCII. Either is completely trivial to implement, though the ASCII ones are my favorite for being so ridiculously barebones that you can write them by hand in Notepad.

To convert them to more common file formats, either open and export in GIMP, use ImageMagick convert my_file.ppm my_file.png, or NetPBM pnmtopng < my_file.ppm > my_file.png

Should you wish to input images using this trivial ASCII format, the NetPBM tool pnmtoplainpnm will convert a binary ppm/pgm/pbm (as produced by any tool including Netpbm’s anytopnm) into an ASCII ppm/pgm/pbm.

If your goal is to experiment with any kind of image processing algorithm, you can easily slot into Netpbm’s wonderfully Unix-y set of tools by reading/writing PPM on stdin/stdout:

curl | 
    pngtopnm | 
    ppmbrighten -v +10 |
    yourtoolhere |
    pnmscale 2 |
    pnmtopng > output.png