The Mandelbrot Set as rendered in Adobe Photoshop

Rendering the Mandelbrot set in Photoshop

For the past several years it feels like I have spent as much time using Adobe Photoshop as I have spent programming.  This has left me feeling soft.  Have I lost my technical edge and turned into a mere button-clicker?  “No” I tell myself.  A Photoshop document is practically a program.  Pixels are numbers.  Layer groups are subroutines. Clipping mask are functional composition.  Blending modes are mathematical operations.  Channel mixers are matrices!

Am I deceiving myself into thinking that Photoshop is as close to programming as you can get without worrying about the halting problem?

I proposed to myself a challenge.  Can I create a Photoshop document that renders the Mandelbrot set fractal?  No scripts or plug-ins, just the standard photoshop adjustment layers.

The Mandelbrot Set as rendered in Adobe Photoshop Spoiler alert: the answer is yes

The Document

We are going to start by deciding to make our document a 16bit CMYK image.  The 16 bit mode gives about 100 times more precision than 8 bit, and the CMYK mode gives us an extra channel to use for temporary values.  (Photoshop trivia: 16 bit mode is really closer to 15 bits — values go from 0 to 32768)


All operations in Photoshop use values between 0.0 and 1.0 while it is necessary to use numbers between -2 and 2 to calculate the Mandelbrot set.  -2 becomes 0, 0 becomes .5, and 2 becomes 1.0.  We are going to have to keep track of this mapping our selves.  Depending on your preferences and color mode Photoshop may display values as 0%-100% or 0-255, but from a mathematical perspective it is better to always think of the values going from 0 to 1.0.

Coordinate System

Since layers have no concept of their x,y positions in the image we will have to provide a coordinate system for them.  We will use the Y and K channels for this.  Y will be the x coordinate going from -2 (0.0) on the left to 2 (1.0) on the right.  Similarly K will go from -2 at the top to 2 at the bottom.   The gradient tool is not suitable for creating this base image as it does it’s interpolation non-linearly.  I suggest creating a 2×2 pixel image and scaling it up to twice the final size with bilinear interpolation to get a linear coordinate system.

Creating a coordinate system

Similarly we will use the Cyan channel to hold the real portion of the Mandelbrot function, and Magenta to hold the imaginary portion.


The Math

The complex numbers and exponents in Mandelbrot’s formula are easily expanded to simple addition and multiplication.  How hard could it be?
new_M = 2*C*M + K
new_C = C*C - M*M + Y

This doesn’t look too complicated, but photoshop has no simple way of performing signed multiplication.   This means that we are going to have to invent a way to do it ourselves.

Lets say you have numbers stored in the cyan and magenta channels using the -2 to 2 mapping that you would like to multiply together.  These are the steps you would take:

  1. Set the C and M channels to their respective absolute values.  (an invert layer with the blend mode set to darken affecting only C and M)
  2. Scale the C and M channels so that our 0-2 range maps to photoshop’s 0-1 range. (A channel mixer with C=200C -100, M=200M -100)
  3. Overlay the M into the C channel.  (channel mixer with C=100M, blendmode = overlay, affecting C only)
  4. Copy the C channel into the K channel and compress the range into .5-1.0. (channel mixer with K = 50C + 50)
  5. Discard the changes to all channels but K (Put all the previous layers in a layer group and set it to only affect the K channel)
  6. K is now equal to the absolute value of (C*M)/2
  7. If the cyan channel is < .5 then invert the black channel (invert layer with blending options set to blend if underlying cyan channel is > 127 affecting only K)
  8. If the magenta channel is < .5 then invert the black channel (invert layer with blending options set to blend if underlying magenta channel is > 127 affecting only K)
  9. K is now equal to C*M/2.

That algorithm reminds me more of assembly language than anything else.  That  satisfies my technical cravings.

There are a few more tricks to rendering the Mandelbrot set, but it is probably easier to understand by looking at the .psd file instead of reading about it.

Download rastered_mandelbrot.psb (.8MB)

If you would like to take the “Mandelbrot Challenge” yourself I recommend starting out with the Julia Set.

If you would like to learn more about the Mandelbrot set and complex math in general I highly recommend you read How to Fold a Julia Fractal at  It is really beautifully done.

Other interesting facts:

  • I designed this Mandelbrot renderer to perform interior shading, but it is possible to create a photoshop renderer with the traditional exterior shading, or even both at the same time.
  • I have tested the file with Adobe Photoshop CS3.  I don’t have a copy of Photoshop CS1 handy, but it should be capable of rendering the Mandelbrot set.
  • It is not currently possible to do this with the Gimp, or Pixelmator (at least as a layered renderer).

If you liked this article you might also be interested in Playing Conway’s game of Life with Photoshop .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>