Transparent PNGs in Internet Explorer 6

Newer breeds of browser such as Firefox and Safari have offered support for PNG images with full alpha channel transparency for a few years. With the use of hacks, support has been available in Internet Explorer 5.5 and 6, but the hacks are non-ideal and have been tricky to use. With IE7 winning masses of users from earlier versions over the last year, full PNG alpha-channel transparency is becoming more of a reality for day-to-day use.

However, there are still numbers of IE6 users out there who we can’t leave out in the cold this Christmas, so in this article I’m going to look what we can do to support IE6 users whilst taking full advantage of transparency for the majority of a site’s visitors.

So what’s alpha channel transparency?

Cast your minds back to the Ghost of Christmas Past, the humble GIF. Images in GIF format offer transparency, but that transparency is either on or off for any given pixel. Each pixel’s either fully transparent, or a solid colour. In GIF, transparency is effectively just a special colour you can chose for a pixel.

The PNG format tackles the problem rather differently. As well as having any colour you chose, each pixel also carries a separate channel of information detailing how transparent it is. This alpha channel enables a pixel to be fully transparent, fully opaque, or critically, any step in between.

This enables designers to produce images that can have, for example, soft edges without any of the ‘halo effect’ traditionally associated with GIF transparency. If you’ve ever worked on a site that has different colour schemes and therefore requires multiple versions of each graphic against a different colour, you’ll immediately see the benefit.

What’s perhaps more interesting than that, however, is the extra creative freedom this gives designers in creating beautiful sites that can remain web-like in their ability to adjust, scale and reflow.

The Internet Explorer problem

Up until IE7, there has been no fully native support for PNG alpha channel transparency in Internet Explorer. However, since IE5.5 there has been some support in the form of proprietary filter called the AlphaImageLoader. Internet Explorer filters can be applied directly in your CSS (for both inline and background images), or by setting the same CSS property with JavaScript.

CSS:

img {
	filter: progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.AlphaImageLoader(...);
}

JavaScript:

img.style.filter = "progid:DXImageTransform.Microsoft.AlphaImageLoader(...)";

That may sound like a problem solved, but all is not as it may appear. Firstly, as you may realise, there’s no CSS property called filter in the W3C CSS spec. It’s a proprietary extension added by Microsoft that could potentially cause other browsers to reject your entire CSS rule.

Secondly, AlphaImageLoader does not magically add full PNG transparency support so that a PNG in the page will just start working. Instead, when applied to an element in the page, it draws a new rendering surface in the same space that element occupies and loads a PNG into it. If that sounds weird, it’s because that’s precisely what it is. However, by and large the result is that PNGs with an alpha channel can be accommodated.

The pitfalls

So, whilst support for PNG transparency in IE5.5 and 6 is possible, it’s not without its problems.

Background images cannot be positioned or repeated

The AlphaImageLoader does work for background images, but only for the simplest of cases. If your design requires the image to be tiled (background-repeat) or positioned (background-position) you’re out of luck. The AlphaImageLoader allows you to set a sizingMethod to either crop the image (if necessary) or to scale it to fit. Not massively useful, but something at least.

Delayed loading and resource use

The AlphaImageLoader can be quite slow to load, and appears to consume more resources than a standard image when applied. Typically, you’d need to add thousands of GIFs or JPEGs to a page before you saw any noticeable impact on the browser, but with the AlphaImageLoader filter applied Internet Explorer can become sluggish after just a handful of alpha channel PNGs.

The other noticeable effect is that as more instances of the AlphaImageLoader are applied, the longer it takes to render the PNGs with their transparency. The user sees the PNG load in its original non-supported state (with black or grey areas where transparency should be) before one by one the filter kicks in and makes them properly transparent.

Both the issue of sluggish behaviour and delayed load only really manifest themselves with volume and size of image. Use just a couple of instances and it’s fine, but be careful adding more than five or six. As ever, test, test, test.

Links become unclickable, forms unfocusable

This is a big one. There’s a bug/weirdness with AlphaImageLoader that sometimes prevents interaction with links and forms when a PNG background image is used. This is sometimes reported as a z-index issue, but I don’t believe it is. Rather, it’s an artefact of that weird way the filter gets applied to the document almost outside of the normal render process.

Often this can be solved by giving the links or form elements hasLayout using position: relative; where possible. However, this doesn’t always work and the non-interaction problem cannot always be solved. You may find yourself having to go back to the drawing board.

Sidestepping the danger zones

Frankly, it’s pretty bad news if you design a site, have that design signed off by your client, build it and then find out only at the end (because you don’t know what might trigger a problem) that your search field can’t be focused in IE6. That’s an absolute nightmare, and whilst it’s not likely to happen, it’s possible that it might. It’s happened to me. So what can you do?

The best approach I’ve found to this scenario is

  1. Isolate the PNG or PNGs that are causing the problem. Step through the PNGs in your page, commenting them out one by one and retesting. Typically it’ll be the nearest PNG to the problem, so try there first. Keep going until you can click your links or focus your form fields.
  2. This is where you really need luck on your side, because you’re going to have to fake it. This will depend on the design of the site, but some way or other create a replacement GIF or JPEG image that will give you an acceptable result. Then use conditional comments to serve that image to only users of IE older than version 7.

A hack, you say? Well, you started it chum.

Applying AlphaImageLoader

Because the filter property is invalid CSS, the safest pragmatic approach is to apply it selectively with JavaScript for only Internet Explorer versions 5.5 and 6. This helps ensure that by default you’re serving standard CSS to browsers that support both the CSS and PNG standards correct, and then selectively patching up only the browsers that need it.

Several years ago, Aaron Boodman wrote and released a script called sleight for doing just that. However, sleight dealt only with images in the page, and not background images applied with CSS. Building on top of Aaron’s work, I hacked sleight and came up with bgsleight for applying the filter to background images instead. That was in 2003, and over the years I’ve made a couple of improvements here and there to keep it ticking over and to resolve conflicts between sleight and bgsleight when used together. However, with alpha channel PNGs becoming much more widespread, it’s time for a new version.

Introducing SuperSleight

SuperSleight adds a number of new and useful features that have come from the day-to-day needs of working with PNGs.

  • Works with both inline and background images, replacing the need for both sleight and bgsleight
  • Will automatically apply position: relative to links and form fields if they don’t already have position set. (Can be disabled.)
  • Can be run on the entire document, or just a selected part where you know the PNGs are. This is better for performance.
  • Detects background images set to no-repeat and sets the scaleMode to crop rather than scale.
  • Can be re-applied by any other JavaScript in the page – useful if new content has been loaded by an Ajax request.
Download SuperSleight

Implementation

Getting SuperSleight running on a page is quite straightforward, you just need to link the supplied JavaScript file (or the minified version if you prefer) into your document inside conditional comments so that it is delivered to only Internet Explorer 6 or older.

<!--[if lte IE 6]>
	<script type="text/javascript" src="supersleight-min.js"></script>
<![endif]-->

Supplied with the JavaScript is a simple transparent GIF file. The script replaces the existing PNG with this before re-layering the PNG over the top using AlphaImageLoaded. You can change the name or path of the image in the top of the JavaScript file, where you’ll also find the option to turn off the adding of position: relative to links and fields if you don’t want that.

The script is kicked off with a call to supersleight.init() at the bottom. The scope of the script can be limited to just one part of the page by passing an ID of an element to supersleight.limitTo(). And that’s all there is to it.

Update March 2008: a version of this script as a jQuery plugin is also now available.

About the author

Drew McLellan is lead developer on your favourite small CMS, Perch. He is Director and Senior Developer at UK-based web development agency edgeofmyseat.com, and formerly Group Lead at the Web Standards Project. When not publishing 24 ways, Drew keeps a personal site covering web development issues and themes, takes photos and tweets a lot.

More articles by Drew

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