I'm trying to render a RGBA depth map of my scene where each channel byte is a byte of the 32-bit single float Z/depth value. The result will look like a blueish/magentaish render instead of a traditional grayscale black/white image.

I've done this before in C++ in my custom software renderer it's really easy in software you just read the bytes off of the float directly:

i32 IntDepth = *(i32 *)&Z;
byte dR = IntDepth >> 0;
byte dG = IntDepth >> 8;
byte dB = IntDepth >> 16;
byte dA = IntDepth >> 24;
i32 Color = RGBAi(dR, dG, dB, dA);
RenderPixel(Context, X, Y, Color);

I'm completely new to blender's node programming. I'm trying to create a node that does the above. Takes a depth/float as input, and outputs 4 bytes/integers.

Here's what I have so far (modified from this source)

    #NOTE: Run this code first then use SHIFT-A, below, to add Custom node type.

import bpy
from bpy.types import NodeTree, Node, NodeSocket

# Implementation of custom nodes from Python
# Derived from the NodeTree base type, similar to Menu, Operator, Panel, etc.
class MyCustomTree(NodeTree):
    bl_idname = 'CustomTreeType'
    bl_label = 'Custom Node Tree'

# Defines a poll function to enable filtering for various node tree types.
class MyCustomTreeNode :
    def poll(cls, ntree):
        b = False
        # Make your node appear in different node trees by adding their bl_idname type here.
        if ntree.bl_idname == 'ShaderNodeTree': b = True
        return b

# Derived from the Node base type.
class MyCustomNode(Node, MyCustomTreeNode):
    '''A custom node'''
    bl_idname = 'CustomNodeType'
    bl_label = 'DepthToRGBA'
    bl_icon = 'INFO'

    def update_value(self, context):
        self.outputs["Depth"].default_value = self.Depth
        Bytes = bytearray(struct.pack("f", self.Depth))
        self.R = Bytes[0]
        self.G = Bytes[1]
        self.B = Bytes[2]
        self.A = Bytes[3]
        self.outputs["R"].default_value = self.R
        self.outputs["G"].default_value = self.G
        self.outputs["B"].default_value = self.B
        self.outputs["A"].default_value = self.A
        self.update ()

    R = bpy.props.IntProperty(update = update_value)
    G = bpy.props.IntProperty(update = update_value)
    B = bpy.props.IntProperty(update = update_value)
    A = bpy.props.IntProperty(update = update_value)
    Depth = bpy.props.FloatProperty(update = update_value)

    def init(self, context):
        self.outputs.new('NodeSocketInt', "R")
        self.outputs["R"].default_value = self.R
        self.outputs.new('NodeSocketInt', "G")
        self.outputs["G"].default_value = self.G
        self.outputs.new('NodeSocketInt', "B")
        self.outputs["B"].default_value = self.B
        self.outputs.new('NodeSocketInt', "A")
        self.outputs["A"].default_value = self.A
        self.inputs.new('NodeSocketFloat', "Depth")
        self.inputs["Depth"].default_value = self.Depth

    def update_output(self, out_name):
        #Review linked outputs.
            out = self.outputs[out_name]
            can_continue = True
            can_continue = False
        if can_continue:
            if out.is_linked:
                # I am an ouput node that is linked, try to update my link.
                for o in out.links:
                    if o.is_valid:
                        o.to_socket.node.inputs[o.to_socket.name].default_value = self.outputs[out_name].default_value

    def update(self):

    # Optional: custom label
    # Explicit user label overrides this, but here we can define a label dynamically.
    def draw_label(self):
        return "DepthToRGBA"

### Node Categories ###
import nodeitems_utils
from nodeitems_utils import NodeCategory, NodeItem

# our own base class with an appropriate poll function,
# so the categories only show up in our target tree type
class MyNodeCategory(NodeCategory):
    def poll(cls, context):
        b = False
        # Make your node appear in different node trees by adding their bl_idname type here.
        if context.space_data.tree_type == 'CompositorNodeTree': b = True
        return b

# all categories in a list
node_categories = [
    # identifier, label, items list
    MyNodeCategory("SOMENODES", "Saedo Nodes", items=[

def register():
    nodeitems_utils.register_node_categories("CUSTOM_NODES", node_categories)

def unregister():

if __name__ == "__main__":

I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong but it doesn't seem to be working, "Backdrop" is ticked but nothing shows up. Here's my node setup in blender:

enter image description here

I figured I need those divides by 255 since bytearray returns values in the range [0->255], is that correct?

My questions:

  • How can I just debug the values returned by bytearray? I have a couple of prints there but they don't see to be getting called at all.
  • Every time I run script, then modify something in it, I can't run it again unless i close/restart blender. It says Category "CUSTOM_NODES" is already registered. Is there a way around that?
  • Finally, how do I correctly get the affect that I want? is struct.pack the right way to do it in python or?

EDIT: Old engine video, but this is what I want to achieve. @1:55 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouYT_MBPB84

EDIT: More details based on conversation with the super helpful TLousky

First I really appreciate your help! As I was trying to read the texture in engine, I was thinking about it I don't think this RGB mapping gives me the effect I want.

Here's the rundown: We're making a game with prerendered backgrounds, similar to the old FF and Resident Evil games. The artist gives me a colormap of the rendered scene, a lowpoly mesh for collision and a depth map/image corresponding to that render. The depth map is used to create the illusion of depth/occlusion so if something's in front of the player, it would render on top.

The way we do that is: 1) First fill the color buffer with the background 2) Fill the depth buffer with the depth map 3) Render 3D objects normally. Since the depth buffer is already populated, things get occluded correctly. Assuming of course the engine uses the same camera and near/far plane settings as used in the actual render.

The traditional way of doing depth maps is just a grayscale image, where R=G=B=A = depth*255, depth is normalized in the range [0, 1]. The problem with this is we're compressing a float which is 4 bytes, to a single byte. Going down from a huge range to a much smaller one. So when the engine tries to read the depth map, it will get much less accurate results, there's no way it would get the real depth that was encoded this way.


  • Writing:
  • depth = 0.755313
  • R=G=B=A = (byte)(depth*255.0) = (byte)(192.604815) = 192
  • Reading: (pick any channel)
  • depth = R/255.0 = 192/255.0 = 0.752941

Not the same number! This was just an example there could be more accuracy lost.

So I thought why not take each of the float's bytes and broadcast them to each channel. So now R=Byte0, G=Byte1, B=Byte2, A=Byte3. Nothing's lost at all! When reading the depth map now, I can read the values of R/G/B/A, do some bit-shifting and bitwise-OR and get the exact depth that was encoded.

The depth image this way would result in each pixel having color contributions from each channel, instead of red being the closest, blue being the farthest. Something like the following:

enter image description here

(Note: for this shot, the prerendered background and depth image were generated from the engine itself as a test so I had total control, and not from Blender otherwise I wouldn't be asking)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Seems like this is a simple color reampping task, which is exactly what the color_ramp node does. Why not use it instead of code? $\endgroup$
    – TLousky
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 21:15
  • $\begingroup$ I'll try that thanks. Like I said I'm new to this. I saw the color ramp as one of the node names but didn't think of it much. Will try it. $\endgroup$
    – vexe
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 21:26
  • $\begingroup$ @TLousky so I'm not sure how to use this node. I'm guessing "Z" goes into "Frac" as input, but then what? :S $\endgroup$
    – vexe
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ I've edited my question to include a video of the result I'm after just to make sure we're on the same page $\endgroup$
    – vexe
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 21:38

1 Answer 1


You can remap the Z depth to a color map of your choice using a color_ramp node based method, either in the compositor (after rendering), or in real-time with cycles. Let's look at both methods:

Real time Z depth color remapping in Cycles

enter image description here

Here's the node setup for the material:

enter image description here

The key here is the Converter --> Math --> Multiply node's value, which sets the overall scale of the Z depth. Play with it until you can see a depth color gradient in your scene.

Using the compositor

enter image description here

I think this gives more control since here we have the normalize node, which as its name implies, normalizes the Z depth values. Here's a closer look at the node setup:enter image description here

How it works - EDITED

We get the Z depth from the render layers node, as a one of the render passes. The values it holds are the Z distance of each surface point from the camera, in blender units. Very relative and not extremely useful for visualization. Each value is a floating point number.

Which is why we're using the normalize node, in order to remap the Z depth values into a tighter range (i.e. black to white on a floating point grayscale color map ranging from 0-1).

The Z values are reversed with the farthest points mapped to white (1.0), and the closest points mapped to black (0.0). We use the Invert node to reverse the mapping.

To convert the grayscale values to RGB values, we use the color_ramp node. It maps values to the colors you choose according to the selected interpolation function. By default it uses a linear mapping. Values closest to the minimum are mapped to the color in the leftmost swatch, and values closest to the maximum are mapped to the rightmost swatch. The color_ramp colors have 4 channel RGBA data.

Why I'm using the Less Than node:

The less than node is used as a mask. In the gif above, you can see that without it, the background (which is presented as black on the inverted grayscale Z depth map), will be mapped to blue on the color ramp. I wanted the background to be black, so I used the less than node as a mask.

Essentially, any value that is below the threshold specified will be mapped to 0, which includes all the background but none of the object's values, while all the rest is mapped to 1.0.

The mix node is used to mix between the color ramp's output and a pure black image, with the result of the less than node used as a mask. This way you see the background as black, but the object remains as rendered by the color ramp.

Further quantitative investigation

To try figure out how this really works, I performed an empirical analysis. I created a scene with an array of 6 boxes, evenly spaced from the camera, placed 10 blender units from the camera on the Y axis and onwards, with 0.5 BU on the X axis between each instance and the next so that they won't hide each other.

I then rendered the scene and saved the pixel data of the raw Z depth, the normalized and inverted Z depth, and the output of the color ramp's RGBA. The ramp's swatches were:

left   - (R=0, G=0, B=1, A=0)
middle - (R=0, G=1, B=0, A=0.5)
right  - (R=1, G=0, B=0, A=1)

enter image description here

I then saved the pixel data as a csv, which you can download here, and plotted the raw Z, normalized and inverted Z and the ramp's RGBA: enter image description here

It's fairly easy to use various python tools to figure out the interpolation.

  • $\begingroup$ You sir are a gentleman and a scholar. My artist will love this. Mucho gracias $\endgroup$
    – vexe
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 22:20
  • $\begingroup$ Not a problem, you are very welcome sir :) $\endgroup$
    – TLousky
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ I have a question though, what about the 4th component/channel? a float is 4 bytes, the color ramp says RGB I don't know if that means it's only using those 3 channels? Also could you maybe explain a bit the purpose of that "Less than", "Invert" and "Mix" nodes? I know what each of them does but just not sure why we need them. I know that blender doesn't store depth in 0->1 range that's why we needed Normalize. $\endgroup$
    – vexe
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 22:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @vexe, added an explanation of the node setup, hope it clarifies how it works $\endgroup$
    – TLousky
    Commented Jun 4, 2017 at 22:48
  • $\begingroup$ Congrats! Trying to reverse engineer the numbers now. Reading the RGB from the engine, I need to reconstruct the Z value. My ramp has 3 simple colors, Full blue/green/red at 0, 0.5 and 1. Should be simple, but I'm not sure if I also need to reverse the "Mix" and "Invert" nodes too? or is it just finding the 'T' interpolant between the 3 colors? (the whole point of this is to increase Z accuracy when composing Z from 3 bytes instead of 1) $\endgroup$
    – vexe
    Commented Jun 7, 2017 at 7:05

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