PDF/VT Transparency Guide


Boris Aronshtam

VDP Tech



©2008-2009 VDP Tech Incorporated



Last Revision: Jan 2, 2009











Revision History




Original Version


Added SoftMask clipping section

Table of Contents


1        Introduction. 4

2        PDF Transparency Compositing Formulas. 5

2.1        Completely Opaque Objects. 5

2.2        Completely Transparent Background. 5

2.3        Normal Blend Mode. 5

3        White Page Background Property. 6

3.1        White Page Background Opacity. 6

3.2        Blending with Page Background. 6

4        PDF Transparency Blending Modes. 8

5        Isolated and Non-Isolated PDF Transparency Groups. 10

5.1        The Example. 10

5.2        No-Grouping. 11

5.3        Isolated Transparency Group. 11

5.4        Non-Isolated Transparency Group. 11

6        PDF Radial Shading and PDF SoftMask Examples. 13

6.1        Creating Radial Shading in PDF. 13

6.2        Creating Radial SoftMask in PDF. 13

6.3        Marked vs. Unmarked Pixels in Soft Mask. 14

7        PDF/VT Encapsulated Form XObjects. 15

7.1        XObject External Dependency. 15

7.2        Default Transparency Values vs. Inheritance in Grouped Objects. 18

7.3        Interaction of External and Internal Soft Masks. 19

8        PDF Reference XObjects. 20

8.1        Introduction. 20

8.2        The Basic Reference XObjects Use. 21

8.3        Reference XObjects Encapsulation. 22

8.3.1        Target Content Description. 22

8.3.2        Referencing the Target File. 22

8.3.3        The Conclusion. 24


1      Introduction

There are numerous discussions related to defining the most adequate transparency model that combines the power and simplicity. Obviously, the ultimate PDF transparency guide is Adobe PDF Reference that can be found at http://www.adobe.com/devnet/pdf. Unfortunately, as the experience shows, it is not that easy to understand all the numerous PDF transparency issues from this reference text. Moreover, some information is confusing. For example, Plate 17 of the reference that shows the difference between isolated and non-isolated groups is misleading. It led many PDF/VT participants to believe that isolated PDF transparency groups always obscure the background. Though PDF/VT and PPML standard groups are already beyond this basic understanding, nevertheless, there are still multiple PDF Transparency issues that are still confusing to even the most educated participants.

The purpose of this book is to elaborate on the complex transparency issues. Thus you can consider this book as a companion to Transparency chapter of PDF Reference Manual.

Whenever it is possible, we will try to illustrate the points with straightforward hand-made PDF and PDF/VT examples. You are welcome to use all the examples freely, while paying respect to the copyright and credit lines and keeping them intact.

2      PDF Transparency Compositing Formulas

Let us start with PDF Transparency Blending Formula. Let us use the canonical representation of this formula.

ar   = 1 - (1-ab)(1-as)
arcr = (1-as)abcb + (1-ab)ascs + abasB(cb,cs)

According to PDF Transparency Model, an object in each point has Color (c) and Opacity (a). The formula calculates the resulting opacity (ar) and the resulting color (cr), according to


-          Source color (cs) and source opacity (as)

-          Background color (cb) and background opacity (ab)

-          Blending function (B).


This fairly complex formula has a number of fairly simple cases.


2.1       Completely Opaque Objects

Completely opaque objects defined as having opacity=1. For such object the formula is simplified to:

ar    = 1
cr    = B(cb,cs)

Though the resulting formula is extremely simple, the result is far from being trivial. It says that even the completely opaque objects interact with each-other while blending. Or in other words, there are no completely opaque objects.

2.2       Completely Transparent Background

Completely transparent background has ab=0. For such object the formula is simplified to:

ar    = as 
cr    = cs

According to this formula, placing an object on a completely transparent background does not change the appearance of the object.


2.3       Normal Blend Mode

Normal Blend Mode is the most intuitive blend mode (probably the only intuitive mode). It is defined as

B(cb,cs) = cs;

For this mode:



3      White Page Background Property

3.1       White Page Background Opacity

PageBackground.pdf is the simplest pdf example. It can be used as the template for the hand created pdf files.

The white page background has rgb=[1 1 1]. But what is the page background opacity ab? Is it 0 (completely transparent) or 1 (completely opaque)?  The PageBackground.pdf test provides the answer to this question: the page background is completely opaque.

Let us use the above formulas for the completely transparent and completely opaque backgrounds:

completely transparent: (ab=0); ar=as; cr=cs
completely opaque:      (ab=1); ar=1;  cr= (1-as) + asB(1,cs)

In case of the transparent background, the resulting color cr is unaffected by Cb and  the blending function. The source color just transparently passes through the background. In case of the opaque background, the resulting color cr is affected by cb and  the blending function in the non-trivial way. For simplicity let us use BM=Normal. In this case the formula is simplified:

B(cb,cs) = cs; cr= 1-as(1-cs)

The example draws 3 red (rgb=[1 0 0]) rectangles. Each rectangle has a different opacity as shown in the table together with the resulting color values:

























This exactly corresponds to the resulting PDF page as shown:


So the conclusion of this example is that page background is completely opaque.

3.2       Blending with Page Background

But as Dr. Paul Jones has pointed out, this is not the end of the story. It is wrong to treat the page background as a separate color. Page background is not a color, but the unmarked space. There is a cardinal difference between this unmarked space and the marked white color with opacity=1. This is illustrated by PageBackgroundBlending.pdf:


As one can see, blending with the background ignores the blend mode, and is equivalent to blending with BM=Normal against the opaque white color.

4         PDF Transparency Blending Modes

BlendModes_rgb.pdf and BlendModes_cmyk.pdf shows all the PDF Transparency blend modes defined in the PDF spec. As you can see, the result of blending is significantly affected by the blending color space.

RGB Blending Color Space

CMYK Blending Color Space



For each blend mode there are 5 group of circles: gray, red, green, blue, and black. Each group shows exactly the same circle with 3 opacities: 1.0, 0.5, and 0.1. Though the example is very simple, it reiterates a non-trivial conclusion:

Even completely opaque objects (ca=1) interact with the background. This is completely counterintuitive. Think about it for a moment: holding in your hand a brick, you cannot see anything behind it -- whatever light you shine through it. Only Normal opaque blend mode does not interact with the background - thus it is the only intuitive blendmode.

5       Isolated and Non-Isolated PDF Transparency Groups

In this chapter we will shows the difference between isolated transparency grouping, non-isolated transparency grouping, and no-grouping.

5.1       The Example

Isolation_rgb.pdf illustrates the difference between pdf isolated and non-isolated transparency groups:

Each row contains exactly the same 2 gray circles. These 2 gray circles are blended together in BM=Multiply and combined into 3 individual XObjects: Isolated, Non-Isolated, No-Grouping. For each blend mode it shows the following 4 columns:

  1. Isolated transparency group XObject blended with the orange background using the specified blendmode.
  2. Non-Isolated transparency group XObject blended with the orange background using the specified blendmode.
  3. The single gray circle from the group blended with the orange background using the specified blendmode.
  4. Non-grouped XObject.

The visual result can be verified with calculations and compared against the values reported by Acrobat9 (Advanced:PrintProduction:OutputPreview).  The following object RGB values are used:

Gray Circle: [0.7 0.7 0.7]
Orange Rect: [1.0 0.5 0.0]

5.2       No-Grouping

No-grouping case is the simplest case. It is equivalent to the placement of the individual circles in the group onto the background. The circles in the group are blended with the orange background in BM=Multiply. This BM overrides the external blend mode (Normal or Difference), thus resulting to the same result for all the blend modes.





Orange Rect


[1.00 0.50 0.00]

Gray Circle


[0.70 0.70 0.70]

Single Intersection

[0.7*1.0  0.70*0.5  0.7*0.0]

[0.70 0.35 0.00]

Double Intersection

[0.7*0.7  0.35*0.7  0.0*0.7]

[0.49 0.24 0.00]



5.3       Isolated Transparency Group

The circles are blended together (BM=Multiply) in complete isolation from the background and the result is blended with the background. This is fairly intuitive and can be easily verified and understood using vdptech TransparencyViewer.


5.4       Non-Isolated Transparency Group

According to the "PDF Reference Manual", the non-isolated transparency groups are somewhat even simpler than isolated groups. They are composited with the background as if no grouping occurs.

Indeed, the result of BM=Normal at the pdf file (1st row) can be derived as:

  1.  Combine the 1st circle with the orange background in BM=Multiply.
  2.  Combine the 2nd circle with the orange background in BM=Multiply.
  3. Combine the 1+2 together in BM=Normal.

Unfortunately, none of the other blend modes can be explained in the same manner for the BM=Multiply (2nd row). To simplify isolation vs. non-isolation matter even further let us examine IsolationSimple.pdf, where the issue of non-isolation is simplified and taken to the extreme by limiting the group to just one circle. As you can see, the bottom part of the non-isolated circle differs from the isolated circle. Why?


To answer this question one must carefully examine “Group Compositing Computations” presented in PDF Reference.  The calculations must take into account 1) the orange background when the group is calculated and 2) the orange background when the group is applied. All the calculations are significantly simplified by the fact that all our opacities = 1. Here are the calculations for non-isolated blending:






Orange Rect


[1.00 0.50 0.00]


Gray Circle


[0.70 0.70 0.70]


Group Calculation

C Mult R = [0.70*1  0.70*0.5  0.7*0]

[0.70 0.35 0.00]


Final Result

G Mult R = [0.70*1  0.35*0.5  0.0*0]

[0.70 0.18 0.00]

The calculated result precisely matches the result reported by Acrobat9. The conclusion of this result is that the orange background is applied twice. Group Compositing Computations fail to compensate for the orange background when the non-isolated group is blended with the background.

This subject causes and will continue to cause the heated discussions in PDF/VT and PPML standard committees. Despite the multiple requests, no one yet explained  the non-isolated transparency group benefits. Looking at Adobe InDesign documentation and Adobe "A Designer Guide to Transparency" does not help, but rather further confuses the subject - all the examples show Isolated Transparency as opaque and completely covering the background. Considering all the non-intuitiveness and the complexity of the matter and the absence of practical examples in Adobe literature,  vdptech concludes that non-isolated transparency groups do not provide any value to the users. We would also suggest removing support for non-isolated groups in the next version of PDF.


6      PDF Radial Shading and PDF SoftMask Examples

This chapter shows how to create pdf radial shading and pdf soft masks built out of radial shades.

6.1       Creating Radial Shading in PDF

This section is a small diversion from our main subject of pdf transparency. But it is useful to have this sample handy for using in PDF Soft Masks in the following chapters. RadialShading.pdf shows how to implement radial shading in PDF.



6.2       Creating Radial SoftMask in PDF

SoftMask.pdf is a simple example that shows PDF SoftMask usage. It defines Radial1 XObject as a red square with SoftMask defined as Radial Shade. This Radial1 XObject is placed twice onto the cyan background.

It is important to understand that a SoftMask is not a raster objects, but just an attribute of pdf graphics state (similar to opacity, current color, or clipping path) used to create a raster object (like Radial1 XObject in the example).


6.3       Marked vs. Unmarked Pixels in Soft Mask

As the previous example clearly shows, unmarked pixels (the pixels beyond the circle) do not contribute to the soft mask. This is why the “undesired” red square is visible. To clip this “undesired” square, the square (i.e. the bounding-box) needs to be erased by painting it white, before painting the radial shade.

SoftMask-Clipped.pdf compares the unmarked bounding-box on the left, to the marked bounding-box on the right. The bounding box on the right is “erased” with rgb=[0 .1 0], which results in pale ghost red square.

7      PDF/VT Encapsulated Form XObjects

This chapter deals only with PDF Form XObjects. Other types of XObjects (Image XObjects and Reference XObjects) are not discussed here.

 PDF/VT committee is currently in the process of defining PDF Encapsulated XObjects. This is a kind of an object that can be rendered once and placed multiple times - similar to Reusable Occurrences in PPML. Therefore, the predictability of PDF XObject is required.

A general PDF Form XObject is like a template that depends on the parameters specified at the XObject invocation time. Thus the same XObject may visually appear completely different, when invoked from the different contexts. For example, if the XObject does not define its own color, the external color is used. Thus, depending on the page graphics state, the same XObject can appear red or green. The current thinking in PDF/VT is to encapsulate all the required graphics attributes within the XObject, so it does not depend on the external context. The resulting Encapsulated XObject is only subject to CTM transformation at the invocation time (so it only can appear translated, zoomed, or skewed on the page).

Our conclusion is that the encapsulation can only be achieved with Isolated Transparency Grouping. This conclusion is demonstrated by the following examples.


7.1       XObject External Dependency

Encapsulation.pdf shows the reaction of different types of Form XObjects on the external graphics state.


The test uses 3 squares. Each is defined as XObject that draws a square, with no explicit attributes (no explicit fill-color, no explicit stroke-color, no explicit opacity, etc.). The reason they all look different is only because the graphics state (gs) on the page changes and affects the visual appearance. Let us go row by row:  

  1. No explicit gs is set on the page. Color is undefined – black.
  2. Stroke-color and line-width are defined externally. All squares inherit these values.
  3. Fill-color and line-width are defined externally (for rows 3 to 6). All squares inherit these values.
  4. Fill opacity (ca) is defined. It affects the objects differently:

-          Grouped objects (isolated and non-isolated): ca is applied to the object as a whole (fill and stroke are treated the same)

-          Ungrouped object:  ca is inherited.

  1. Stroke opacity (CA) is defined.

-          Grouped objects (isolated and non-isolated): CA is ignored.

-          Ungrouped object:  inherited.

  1. Dash is defined. All squares inherit this value.

The test obviously can be expanded to check for multiple other attributes (linejoin, miterlimit, etc.). But the picture is quite obvious:

Non-Grouped Objects
A non-grouped object behaves as inline code, inserted at the invocation time. If it defines some attributes, they are used. Otherwise, the external attributes are applied. As shown by Isolation.pdf example above, even the external blend mode is ignored. This makes non-grouped objects unsuitable for the encapsulation.

Grouped Objects
Unfortunately, a grouped object is not encapsulated by default: if some attributes are undefined, they are inherited from the external context. These attributes include most of the boring gs attributes: color, line width, line join, miter limit, line cap, dash pattern, etc.

But all the attributes related to transparency have implicit default values. Moreover, these attributes interact with the external gs (combined):


Default Value

Interaction with External Graphics State

Fill Opacity: ca


External ca is applied to the entire object

Stroke Opacity: CA


External CA is ignored



External SoftMask is applied to the entire object



External BlendMode is applied to the entire object



7.2       Default Transparency Values vs. Inheritance in Grouped Objects

As we saw in the previous section, some gs parameters (like Color and Dash Pattern) are clearly inherited from the external context. But how do we know that the transparency parameters have predefined default values and not just inherited from the external context?


UndefinedOpacity.pdf proves that Fill Opacity (ca) is not inherited.


Similar to the previous example, the test draws squares. Each is defined as XObject with no explicit attributes whatsoever. The appearance of the squares is manipulated from the external context. The external opacity is set to the low value of ca=0.2, so the effect is easily visible. The squares are blended with each-other in Normal mode.

1.      Drawing Non-Grouping squares is equivalent to drawing 2 Separate squares. Each square inherits the external ca value when blending with the background. The intersection of the squares darkens as the result of this blending.

2.      The grouped squares (Isolated and Non-Isolated) are blended together with the default opacity of ca=1. At their intersection the top square simply replaces the bottom square. Then the resulting group is blended with the background with ca=0.2.



7.3       Interaction of External and Internal Soft Masks

SoftMask-Interaction.pdf shows that the external SoftMask is not ignored, but applied to the entire Grouped XObject.


The example is derived from SoftMask.pdf. For simplicity the blue background is removed. Radial1 is defined as Isolated Group XObject and placed twice onto the page (left and right). Radial1 on the right is exactly the same as in the previous example. Radial1 on the left is placed onto the page when the same external SoftMask is defined in the page graphics state (external SoftMask). As you can see, this results in steeper white gain when moving from the center: effectively we have the SoftMask squared.


8      PDF Reference XObjects

8.1        Introduction

A PDF Reference XObjects refer to a page of another PDF file. This enables one PDF document to import content from another. The document in which the reference occurs is called the containing document; the one whose content is being imported is called the target document.

Note that there is no mechanism for the containing document to address a single XObject in the target document. An individual XObject in the target document can be addressed only by target document enclosing it into a page.

An excellent discussion on the subject can be found at Adobe PDF Reference XObject Blog, including a number of good examples. Though the Reference XObjects were defined since PDF 1.4, this is a very fresh subject:  Adobe Acrobat before 9.0 did not support Reference XObjects. Starting with 9.0, the PDF Reference XObjects are supported by all Acrobat flavors (Reader, Standard, and Professional). The PDF Reference XObjects in Acrobat are disabled by default. To enable them please refer to Adobe PDF Reference XObject Blog. In a snapshot, to enable PDF Reference XObjects support:

  1. Reference XObjects must be enabled in Page Display preferences.
  2. The location of target documents must be added to the privileged locations in Security (Enhanced) preferences. Note that each directory must be pedantically specified separately: specifying the parent directory is not sufficient.

There is no clarity at this time if PDF Reference XObjects will be used in PDF/VT as a viable way of referring to the external content (equivalent for example to PPML's ExternalDataArray). The purpose of the following sections is to show the pdf transparency behavior of Reference XObjects. In the spirit of the thread we will keep the examples small and readable. Because of the PDF security issues described above, the examples in this section are not clickable: the pdf files must be downloaded to the Acrobat privileged directories.


8.2       The Basic Reference XObjects Use

Let us show a simple test that demonstrates the use of Reference XObjects. Ref-SimpleTest.pdf refers to target document Ref-Target.pdf (you are welcome to substitute this target file for any of your files). Before running the example you need to place the 2 files into your privileged directory specified in Acrobat app. 


And if despite all our warnings you have not created your privileged directory, your target file will not be used, the image will be replaced by the alternative proxy content, and you will get the following result:


Creating Reference XObjects is simple. It is created as a regular Form XObject containing /Ref entry:

21 0 obj


  /BBox [0 0 612 792]

  /FormType 1

  /Subtype /Form

  /Type /XObject

  /Ref <</Page 0 /F (Ref-Target.pdf)>>



  proxy content % executed when target is not found




8.3       Reference XObjects Encapsulation

Now, when we are comfortable with creating Reference XObjects that refer to pages in external files, let us experiment and see the best way to encapsulate the Reference XObjects. Please use the following files and copy them to your privileged directory:


Ref-EncapsulationTest.pdf                 - the test that refers to Ref-EncapsulationTarget-Valid.pdf target.

Ref-EncapsulationTarget.pdf             - the handmade target file.

Ref-EncapsulationTarget-Valid.pdf   - the “valid” pdf file obtained by opening and closing the handmade
  target file Ref-EncapsulationTarget.pdf.


8.3.1    Target Content Description

Ref-EncapsulationTarget.pdf  contains 2 pages named Target#1 and Target#2:

Both pages contain our typical circles blended together in Multiply blend mode. Target#1 circles are gray circles with ca=1. Target#2 circles are black circles with ca=0.5. A golden thin band is placed as a background (under the circles). This band is very handy in observing the interesting behaviors. Let us list some of the observations.

·         Ignoring for a moment the interaction with the golden band, all the circle groups look exactly the same. That is: grouping, isolation, and external blending mode are ignored when blending with empty background (see Blending with Page Background).

·         Target#1, Normal blend-mode:

o   Isolated group (as expected) obscure the golden band.

o   Non-Isolated group interacts with the band; and though the circles are opaque, the band is seeing through.

·         The golden band looks differently when interacting with different circles.


8.3.2    Referencing the Target File

Ref-EncapsulationTest.pdf contains 2 pages.  The 1st page refers to Target#1 (opaque gray circles), the 2nd page refers to Target#2 (semi-transparent black circles). Each page has 3 columns:

1.      Isolated RefObject. Reference XObjects are declared as Isolated Transparency Group.

2.      Non-Isolated RefObject. Reference XObject are declared as Non-Isolated Transparency Group.

3.      Non-Grouped RefObject. Reference XObjects are not grouped.


Having the visual result, let us go through the observations for each RefObject grouping:


Isolated RefObject Grouping

·         The visual appearance of target pages is preserved.

·         The object opacities are preserved.

·         Target Page blend mode is ignored.

·         Target Page raster can be captured and used multiple times

Non-Isolated Grouping

·         The visual appearance of target pages is not preserved.

·         The object opacities are preserved.

·         Target Page blend mode is preserved, thus further complicating the visual appearance.

·         Target Page raster cannot be captured for multiple reuse


·         The visual appearance of target pages is not preserved.

·         The object opacities are preserved.

·         Target Page blend mode is preserved, thus further complicating the visual appearance.

·         Target Page raster cannot be captured for multiple reuse

The explanation of the special effects of Non-Isolation and Non-Grouping is left as an exercise to the readerJ


8.3.3    The Conclusion

The target pages can be nicely encapsulated by declaring the Reference XObjects referring to them as Isolated Transparency Groups. Not only is this a nice way of encapsulating, but the only one.


This conclusion can be combined with the conclusion of PDF/VT Encapsulated Form XObjects chapter:


Encapsulation can only be achieved with Isolated Transparency Grouping.