This is part of the WebGL image processing series and it relies on information in previous articles. See all articles here.

It is designed to be used on desktop.

This article was inspired by threshold/halftone article, but we'll look at this from a WebGL/GLSL viewpoint and show the code necessary to obtain these effects.

What is Thresholding?

Thresholding segments an image's color values into a smaller range. It's a method of color quantization which was mainly developed for image compression (reducing the size of images) to meet the limitations of the technology available at that time.

Computers started out with extremely limited color rendering options. 8-bit pixel depth was 256 colors, while 4-bit was only 16 colors. And to make it worse, different machines had different color palettes. Any image rendered on a system had to be rendered in those colors.

We don't have these issues anymore - image compression is still in use but not with dramatic effects - but thresholding and dithering algorithms are still used for their aesthetic look.

We'll use this image for the rest of the article, with a gradient bar on the side to make it easier to understand what's happening to the color range.

A basic example

Instead of using the whole range of GLSL's 0-1 floating point color channel, we could round our values to either 0 (if our color value is lower than 0.5) or 1 (if our color value is higher than 0.5).

The results of this segmentation depend on the threshold amount, and the white balance of our image. For different images there will be a better threshold amount to pick. Try changing the threshold amount for the image below, see how the gradient on the side is clamped to either black or white at a specific point.


This isn't the most specular image - in fact it looks pretty bad - but it's simple to understand and will lead us to more interesting effects. Let's break it down with GLSL.

We'll start with the grayscale function we covered in the color correction article.

  // make image grayscale
  vec4 lum = vec4(0.2126, 0.7152, 0.0722, 0);
  float grayscale = dot(outColor, lum);

Now that we have a grayscale image we can take our 0-1 color channel value and round up or down depending on our threshold value (we've used 0.5 here).

float thresholdValue = 0.5;

float threshold(float color) {
  if (color > thresholdValue) {
    return 1.0;
  return 0.0;

outcolor = vec4(vec3(threshold(grayscale)), 1.0);

Multi-Step Threshold

In our binary threshold we lose a lot of information from our image, which makes it hard to recognise what we're looking at. A simple improvement to this would be to add more information: instead of a binary 2-value (white, black) image we could use 3 values (white, gray, black).

We can then set these threshold amounts to different values.

We achieve this by adding an additional condition statement to our threshold function.

float thresholdWhiteValue = 0.5;
float thresholdGreyValue = 0.25;

float threshold(float color) {
  if (color > thresholdWhiteValue) {
    return 1.0;
  if (color > thresholdGreyValue) {
    return 0.5;
  return 0.0;

Threshold with noise

A simple way to improve our threshold is to add some noise between our thresholded steps.

float rand(vec2 uv) {
  return fract(sin(dot(uv.xy, vec2(12.9898,78.233))) * 43758.5453);

float grainMultiplier = 1.2;

void main() {
  // ... load image 
  float thresholded = threshold(
    grayscale + ((rand(uv) / 9.0) * grainMultiplier)

  outColor = vec4(vec3(thresholded), 1.0);

In the next article, we'll extend this effect to use dithering/halftone patterns for each threshold step.

Feedback and suggestions

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