Volume data format

Written by Paul Bourke
Original: March 1994, Updated: September 2000

The format discussed here for storing volumetric data is not a "standard" but rather the method I've used over the years for various volume rendering applications. I suggest it will meet the needs of most people who have volumetric data on a uniform 3 dimensional grid.

A bit like the PPM file format for images, this format has an ASCII (human readable) header followed by binary data. Unlike PPM it explicitly specifies the "endian" of the file as well as having more header fields. The format has no explicit support for floating point data although the extension for this is pretty trivial.


The header consists of a number of lines (5) separated by linefeed characters, ASCII Hex "0a". The header lines are described as follows:

  • The first line consists of a comment, the comment can be as long as need be as long as it doesn't contain a linefeed.

  • The second line consists of three integers giving the size of the volume grid in the three directions, from now on referred here as x, y, z. These dimensions must be positive, they may be 1 but not 0.

  • The third line consists of three floating point numbers indicating the size of the cells in each direction. This gives support of non cubic cells, of course this is only interpreted by the display or analysis software. The size of a cell must be greater than 0.

  • The fourth line consists of three floating point numbers giving the real world coordinates of the lower corner of the volumetric dataset. The upper corner can be calculated given the number of cells and the cell size. Similarly the real world coordinates of any cell can be computed.

  • The fifth and last header line contains two integers that indicate the type of binary data that follows immediately after the linefeed at the end of this line. The first number indicates the data type and the second number indicates the endian of the data.

    The data type is indicated as follows
    • 1 - single bit per cell, two categories
    • 2 - two byes per cell, 4 discrete levels or categories
    • 4 - nibble per cell, 16 discrete levels
    • 8 - one byte per cell (unsigned), 256 levels
    • 16 - two bytes representing a signed "short" integer
    • 32 - four bytes representing a signed integer

    The endian is one of

    • 0 for big endian (most significant byte first). For example Motorola processors, Sun, SGI, some HP.
    • 1 for little endian (least significant byte first). For example Intel processors, Dec Alphas.

One advantage of an ASCII header is that the standard UNIX command "head -5" can be used to quickly determine the details of a volumetric file. it is also particularly easy to parse in C/C++.


An example of a legal header is given below, it represents a grid 500 x 500 x 100, with wider z axis cells. The grid is centered about the origin in the x and y axis, the z axis starts at the origin. The data consists of signed short integers in big endian format.

This is a comment line, created by Paul Bourke
500 500 100
1.0 1.0 2.0
-250.0 -250.0 0.0
16 0

The data in binary form follows immediately after the linefeed at the end of the fifth line of the header. The data is not compressed so the total expected data is straightforward to calculate, the product of the three dimensions multiplied by the data type size divided by 8. If the image dimensions are nx, ny, nz, and the data type is one byte then the volumetric data will be

nx * ny * nz bytes

The data is stored with the first coordinate varying fastest, then the second, then the third. For example, using the x, y, z convention in this document the writing of a byte grid might be

   #define Nx 500
   #define Ny 500
   #define Nz 100
   unsigned char grid[Nx][Ny][Nz];
   FILE *fptr;
   int x,y,z;
   /* Write the volumentic data file */
   fprintf(fptr,"This is a comment line, created by Paul Bourke\n");
   fprintf(fptr,"%d %d %d\n",Nx,Ny,Nz);
   fprintf(fptr,"1.0 1.0 2.0\n");
   fprintf(fptr,"-250.0 -250.0 0.0\n");
   fprintf(fptr,"8 1\n");
   for (z=0;z<Nz;z++) {
      for (y=0;y<Ny;y++) {
         for (x=0;x<Nx;x++) {