c# - Approximating an ellipse with a polygon



I am working with geographic information, and recently I needed to draw an ellipse. For compatibility with the OGC convention, I cannot use the ellipse as it is; instead, I use an approximation of the ellipse using a polygon, by taking a polygon which is contained by the ellipse and using arbitrarily many points.

The process I used to generate the ellipse for a given number of point N is the following (using C# and a fictional Polygon class):

Polygon CreateEllipsePolygon(Coordinate center, double radiusX, double radiusY, int numberOfPoints)
    Polygon result = new Polygon();
    for (int i=0;i<numberOfPoints;i++)
        double percentDone = ((double)i)/((double)numberOfPoints);
        double currentEllipseAngle = percentDone * 2 * Math.PI;
        Point newPoint = CalculatePointOnEllipseForAngle(currentEllipseAngle, center, radiusX, radiusY);
    return result;

This has served me quite while so far, but I've noticed a problem with it: if my ellipse is 'stocky', that is, radiusX is much larger than radiusY, the number of points on the top part of the ellipse is the same as the number of points on the left part of the ellipse.


That is a wasteful use of points! Adding a point on the upper part of the ellipse would hardly affect the precision of my polygon approximation, but adding a point to the left part of the ellipse can have a major effect.

What I'd really like, is a better algorithm to approximate the ellipse with a polygon. What I need from this algorithm:

  • It must accept the number of points as a parameter; it's OK to accept the number of points in every quadrant (I could iteratively add points in the 'problematic' places, but I need good control on how many points I'm using)
  • It must be bounded by the ellipse
  • It must contain the points straight above, straight below, straight to the left and straight to the right of the ellipse's center
  • Its area should be as close as possible to the area of the ellipse, with preference to optimal for the given number of points of course (See Jaan's answer - appearantly this solution is already optimal)
  • The minimal internal angle in the polygon is maximal

What I've had in mind is finding a polygon in which the angle between every two lines is always the same - but not only I couldn't find out how to produce such a polygon, I'm not even sure one exists, even if I remove the restrictions!

Does anybody have an idea about how I can find such a polygon?

5 Answers: 

finding a polygon in which the angle between every two lines is
always the same

Yes, it is possible. We want to find such points of (the first) ellipse quadrant, that angles of tangents in these points form equidistant (the same angle difference) sequence. It is not hard to find that tangent in point


dx=-a*Sin(Fi), dy=b*Cos(Fi)

Derivative y' describes tangent, this tangent has angular coefficient

Fi = ArcCotangent(a/b*Tg(Theta)) = Pi/2-ArcTan(a/b*Tg(Theta)) 

due to relation for complementary angles

where Fi varies from 0 to Pi/2, and Theta - from Pi/2 to 0.
So code for finding N + 1 points (including extremal ones) per quadrant may look like (this is Delphi code producing attached picture)

  for i := 0 to N - 1 do begin
    Theta := Pi/2 * i /  N;
    Fi :=  Pi/2 - ArcTan(Tan(Theta) * a/b);
    x := CenterX + Round(a * Cos(Fi));
    y := CenterY + Round(b * Sin(Fi));
  // I've removed Nth point calculation, that involves indefinite Tan(Pi/2) 
  // It would better to assign known value 0 to Fi in this point

enter image description here

Sketch for perfect-angle polygon:

enter image description here


One way to achieve adaptive discretisations for closed contours (like ellipses) is to run the Ramer–Douglas–Peucker algorithm in reverse:

1. Start with a coarse description of the contour C, in this case 4 
   points located at the left, right, top and bottom of the ellipse.
2. Push the initial 4 edges onto a queue Q.

while (N < Nmax && Q not empty)

3. Pop an edge [pi,pj] <- Q, where pi,pj are the endpoints.
4. Project a midpoint pk onto the contour C. (I expect that 
   simply bisecting the theta endpoint values will suffice
   for an ellipse).
5. Calculate distance D between point pk and edge [pi,pj].

    if (D > TOL)

6.      Replace edge [pi,pj] with sub-edges [pi,pk], [pk,pj].
7.      Push new edges onto Q.
8.      N = N+1



This algorithm iteratively refines an initial discretisation of the contour C, clustering points in areas of high curvature. It terminates when, either (i) a user defined error tolerance TOL is satisfied, or (ii) the maximum allowable number of points Nmax is used.

I'm sure that it's possible to find an alternative that's optimised specifically for the case of an ellipse, but the generality of this method is, I think, pretty handy.


Here is an iterative algorithm I've used.

I didn't look for theoretically-optimal solution, but it works quit well for me.

Notice that this algorithm gets as an input the maximal error of the prime of the polygon agains the ellipse, and not the number of points as you wish.

public static class EllipsePolygonCreator
#region Public static methods

public static IEnumerable<Coordinate> CreateEllipsePoints(
  double maxAngleErrorRadians,
  double width,
  double height)
  IEnumerable<double> thetas = CreateEllipseThetas(maxAngleErrorRadians, width, height);
  return thetas.Select(theta => GetPointOnEllipse(theta, width, height));


#region Private methods

private static IEnumerable<double> CreateEllipseThetas(
  double maxAngleErrorRadians,
  double width,
  double height)
  double firstQuarterStart = 0;
  double firstQuarterEnd = Math.PI / 2;
  double startPrimeAngle = Math.PI / 2;
  double endPrimeAngle = 0;

  double[] thetasFirstQuarter = RecursiveCreateEllipsePoints(
    width / height,

  double[] thetasSecondQuarter = new double[thetasFirstQuarter.Length];
  for (int i = 0; i < thetasFirstQuarter.Length; ++i)
    thetasSecondQuarter[i] = Math.PI - thetasFirstQuarter[thetasFirstQuarter.Length - i - 1];

  IEnumerable<double> thetasFirstHalf = thetasFirstQuarter.Concat(thetasSecondQuarter);
  IEnumerable<double> thetasSecondHalf = thetasFirstHalf.Select(theta => theta + Math.PI);
  IEnumerable<double> thetas = thetasFirstHalf.Concat(thetasSecondHalf);
  return thetas;

private static IEnumerable<double> RecursiveCreateEllipsePoints(
  double startTheta,
  double endTheta,
  double maxAngleError,
  double widthHeightRatio,
  double startPrimeAngle,
  double endPrimeAngle)
  double yDelta = Math.Sin(endTheta) - Math.Sin(startTheta);
  double xDelta = Math.Cos(startTheta) - Math.Cos(endTheta);
  double averageAngle = Math.Atan2(yDelta, xDelta * widthHeightRatio);

  if (Math.Abs(averageAngle - startPrimeAngle) < maxAngleError &&
      Math.Abs(averageAngle - endPrimeAngle) < maxAngleError)
    return new double[] { endTheta };

  double middleTheta = (startTheta + endTheta) / 2;
  double middlePrimeAngle = GetPrimeAngle(middleTheta, widthHeightRatio);
  IEnumerable<double> firstPoints = RecursiveCreateEllipsePoints(
  IEnumerable<double> lastPoints = RecursiveCreateEllipsePoints(

  return firstPoints.Concat(lastPoints);

private static double GetPrimeAngle(double theta, double widthHeightRatio)
  return Math.Atan(1 / (Math.Tan(theta) * widthHeightRatio)); // Prime of an ellipse

private static Coordinate GetPointOnEllipse(double theta, double width, double height)
  double x = width * Math.Cos(theta);
  double y = height * Math.Sin(theta);
  return new Coordinate(x, y);


I assume that in the OP's question, CalculatePointOnEllipseForAngle returns a point whose coordinates are as follows.

newPoint.x = radiusX*cos(currentEllipseAngle) + center.x
newPoint.y = radiusY*sin(currentEllipseAngle) + center.y

Then, if the goal is to minimize the difference of the areas of the ellipse and the inscribed polygon (i.e., to find an inscribed polygon with maximal area), the OP's original solution is already an optimal one. See Ivan Niven, "Maxima and Minima Without Calculus", Theorem 7.3b. (There are infinitely many optimal solutions: one can get another polygon with the same area by adding an arbitrary constant to currentEllipseAngle in the formulae above; these are the only optimal solutions. The proof idea is quite simple: first one proves that these are the optimal solutions in case of a circle, i.e. if radiusX=radiusY; secondly one observes that under a linear transformation that transforms a circle into our ellipse, e.g. a transformation of multiplying the x-coordinate by some constant, all areas are multiplied by a constant and therefore a maximal-area inscribed polygon of the circle is transformed into a maximal-area inscribed polygon of the ellipse.)

One may also regard other goals, as suggested in the other posts: e.g. maximizing the minimal angle of the polygon or minimizing the Hausdorff distance between the boundaries of the polygon and ellipse. (E.g. the Ramer-Douglas-Peucker algorithm is a heuristic to approximately solve the latter problem. Instead of approximating a polygonal curve, as in the usual Ramer-Douglas-Peucker implementation, we approximate an ellipse, but it is possible to devise a formula for finding on an ellipse arc the farthest point from a line segment.) With respect to these goals, the OP's solution would usually not be optimal and I don't know if finding an exact solution formula is feasible at all. But the OP's solution is not as bad as the OP's picture shows: it seems that the OP's picture has not been produced using this algorithm, as it has less points in the more sharply curved parts of the ellipse than this algorithm produces.


I suggest you switch to polar coordinates:

Ellipse in polar coord is:

x(t) = XRadius * cos(t)
y(t) = YRadius * sin(t)

for 0 <= t <= 2*pi

The problems arise when Xradius >> YRadius (or Yradius >> Yradius)

Instead of using numberOfPoints you can use an array of angles obviously not all identical. I.e. with 36 points and dividing equally you get angle = 2*pi*n / 36 radiants for each sector. When you get around n = 0 (or 36) or n = 18 in a "neighborhood" of these 2 values the approx method doesn't works well cause the ellipse sector is significantly different from the triangle used to approximate it. You can decrease the sector size around this points thus increasing precision. Instead of just increasing the number of points that would also increase segments in other unneeded areas. The sequence of angles should become something like (in degrees ):

angles_array = [5,10,10,10,10.....,5,5,....10,10,...5]

The first 5 deg. sequence is for t = 0 the second for t = pi, and again the last is around 2*pi.