Working with content streams

A content stream is a stream object associated with either a page or a Form XObject that describes where and how to draw images, vectors, and text. (These PDF streams have nothing to do with Python I/O streams.)

Content streams are binary data that can be thought of as a list of operators and zero or more operands. Operands are given first, followed by the operator. It is a stack-based language, loosely based on PostScript. (It’s not actually PostScript, but sometimes well-meaning people mistakenly say that it is!) Like HTML, it has a precise grammar, and also like (pure) HTML, it has no loops, conditionals or variables.

A typical example is as follows (with additional whitespace and PostScript-style %-comments):

q                   % 1. Push graphics stack.
100 0 0 100 0 0 cm  % 2. The 6 numbers are the operands, followed by cm operator.
                    %    This configures the current transformation matrix.
/Image1 Do          % 3. Draw the object named /Image1 from the /Resources
                    %    dictionary.
Q                   % 4. Pop graphics stack.

The pattern q, cm, <drawing commands>, Q is extremely common. The drawing commands may recurse with another q, cm, ..., Q.

pikepdf provides a C++ optimized content stream parser and a filter. The parser is best used for reading and interpreting content streams; the filter is better for low level editing.

Pretty-printing content streams

To pretty-print a content stream, you can use parse and then unparse it. This converts it from binary data form to pikepdf objects and back. In the process, the content stream is cleaned up. Every instruction will be separated by a line break.

with"../tests/resources/congress.pdf") as pdf:
    page = pdf.pages[0]
    instructions = pikepdf.parse_content_stream(page)
    data = pikepdf.unparse_content_stream(instructions)


Content streams are not always decodable to ASCII. This one just happens to be.

How content streams draw images

This example prints a typical content stream from a real file, which like the contrived example above, displays an actual image.

with"../tests/resources/congress.pdf") as pdf:
    page = pdf.pages[0]
    commands = []
    for operands, operator in pikepdf.parse_content_stream(page):
        print(f"Operands {operands}, operator {operator}")
        if operator == pikepdf.Operator('cm'):
            matrix = pikepdf.Matrix(operands)
        commands.append([operands, operator])

PDF content streams are stateful. The commands q, cm and Q manipulate the current transform matrix (CTM) which describes where we will draw next. In most cases you have to track every manipulation of the CTM to figure out what will happen, even to answer a question like, “where will this image be drawn, and how big will it be?”

But in this simple case, we can read the matrix directly. The decimal numbers 200.0 and 304.0 establish the width and height at which the image should be drawn, in PDF points (1/72” or about 0.35 mm). The pixel dimensions of the image have no effect. If we substituted that image for another, the new image would be drawn in the same location on the page, painted into the 200 × 304 rectangle regardless of its pixel dimensions.

Editing a content stream

Let’s continue with the file above and center the image on the page, and reduce its size by 50%. Because we can! For that, we need to rewrite the second command in the content stream.

We take the original matrix (matrix) and then translated it to the center of this page. We’re currently in a coordinate system where (0, 0) is the bottom left corner of the page, and (1, 1) is the top right corner. Without actually having to track the image’s position, we can translate it by 0.25 of its dimensions (to create a border of 25% all around) and then scale it by 0.5. (We could also scale by 50%, and then translate by 50%, which would be 25% in the full image coordinate system.)

new_matrix = matrix.translated(0.25, 0.25).scaled(0.5, 0.5)

On an important note, the PDF coordinate system is nailed to the bottom left corner of the page, and on y-axis, up is positive. That is, the coordinate system is more like the first quadrant of a Cartesian graph than the down is positive convention normally used in pixel graphics:

PDF positive-up coordinate system

(Some PDF programs insert a command to “flip” the coordinate system, by translating to the top left corner and scaling by (1, -1).)

After calculating our new matrix, we need to insert it back into the parsed content stream, “unparse” it to binary data, and replace the old content stream.

commands[1][0] = pikepdf.Array(new_matrix)
new_content_stream = pikepdf.unparse_content_stream(commands)
page.Contents = pdf.make_stream(new_content_stream)

# You could save the file here to see it


To rotate an image, first translate it so that the image is centered at (0, 0), rotate then apply the rotate, then translate it to its new center position. This is because rotations occur around (0, 0).


In this illustration, the page’s MediaBox is located at (0, 0) for simplicity. The MediaBox can be offset from the origin, and code that edits content streams may need to account for this relatively condition.

Editing content streams robustly

The stateful nature of PDF content streams makes editing them complicated. Edits like the example above will work when the input file is known to have a fixed structure (that is, the state at the time of editing is known). You can always prepend content to the top of the content stream, since the initial state is known. And you can often append content to the end the stream, since the final state is predictable if every q (push state) has a matching Q (pop state).

Otherwise, you must track the graphics state and maintain a stack of states.

Most applications will end up parsing the content stream into a higher level representation that is easier edit and then serializing it back, totally rewriting the content stream. Content streams should be thought of as an output format.

Extracting text from PDFs

If you guessed that the content streams were the place to look for text inside a PDF – you’d be correct. Unfortunately, extracting the text is fairly difficult because content stream actually specifies as a font and glyph numbers to use. Sometimes, there is a 1:1 transparent mapping between Unicode numbers and glyph numbers, and dump of the content stream will show the text. In general, you cannot rely on there being a transparent mapping; in fact, it is perfectly legal for a font to specify no Unicode mapping at all, or to use an unconventional mapping (when a PDF contains a subsetted font for example).

We strongly recommend against trying to scrape text from the content stream.

pikepdf does not currently implement text extraction. We recommend pdfminer.six, a read-only text extraction tool. If you wish to write PDFs containing text, consider reportlab.