I use the least square method to fit ellipses to data points that originate from a binary image. The least square fit minimizes the sum of squared algebraic distances between data points and the closest point to a non-centered, rotated ellipse. For the definition of algebraic distance, see $[1]$ and following snippet:

In the article also $6$ lines of Matlab code are given that implements the least square method for an ellipse-only fit (never parabola or hyperbola are fitted "accidentially"). This code was used for the fit.

Below we see $4$ versions of the same ellipse where from left to right the border thickness was increased inwards and outwards by the same amount. The least square fit works well for thin borders but with increasing border thickness the fit systematically worsens. This is visible by the naked eye for the most right figure (data points for this ellipse can be downloaded here). The fitted ellipse is not in the center of the elliptical shaped data points. With increasing border thickness the large semi-axis decreases and the small semi-axis increases, the other fit parameter are in principle not affected.

enter image description here

The same fits I get if I use another algorithm suggested in $[2]$ (using the Matlab code included in the paper). Using Mathematica with another code delivers an even worse fit:

The inner and outer borders of the data points are approximately confined by ellipses (green, manually fitted). The ellipse that I would expect by a least square fit would lie centrally between the green ellipses and would be similiar to the manually drawn red ellipse.

How to explain and alleviate this phenomen to get good fits? Maybe there is a short algorithm/code? A good fit should go approximately through the center of the data points.

Further information

  • there are no overlapping data points
  • all data points have the same weight
  • original data points lie on a grid and before fit Gaussian noise is added (standard deviation $\ll$ grid spacing)
  • thinning thick borders in the original images is not the desired solution


$[1]$ Andrew Fitzgibbon, Maurizio Pilu, and Robert B. Fisher: Direct Least Square Fitting of Ellipses, Pattern Analysis and Machine Intelligence, 21, 476 (1999). PDF

$[2]$ Radim Halir and Jan Flusser: Numerically Stable Direct Least Squares Fitting of Ellipses, Proc. Sixth Int. Conf. in Central Europe on Computer Graphics and Visualization, 1, 125 (1998) PDF

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ All of your ellipses seem wrong to me. Even the leftmost one seems like it should be raised and/or moved right. Perhaps there was a programming error. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Sep 28, 2021 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not surprised of those results, because those "ellipses with border" are usually comprised between two equidistant curves, which are not ellipses. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2021 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ I added a plot that shows that the border is confined by ellipses. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2021 at 20:31
  • $\begingroup$ You might try this: people.cas.uab.edu/~mosya/cl. IIRW, fitting circles using linear least squares on $x^2+y^2+ax+by+c$ does not give good results. The same likely applies to ellipses. The problem is basically the same as with simple linear regression: it all depends on all you are measuring distance, and with linear least squares it's not the desirable distance (that is, in the case of a circle, one would usually prefer to minimize distance measured from the center of the circle, and it leads to nonlinear least squares). $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2021 at 23:50
  • $\begingroup$ It's sort of hard to say without knowing what you're up to, but you could try maximizing a quantity like "the smallest distance between any point of the ellipse and any point not in the white region of the image" among ellipses encircling the center hole - such an ellipse won't clip corners, although I'm not sure how easy it is to compute (or whether it might not make sense in whatever application you're considering). $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2021 at 23:55

3 Answers 3


You can make the least-squares method work, but you have to be careful about which least-squares system you solve.

Clearly, the equation $Ax^2 + Bxy + Cy^2 + Dx + Ey + F = 0$ for the ellipse isn’t unique: multiplying $A, B, C, D, E, F$ by the same constant gives you another equation for the same ellipse. So you can’t simply minimize

$$\sum (Ax^2 + Bxy + Cy^2 + Dx + Ey + F)^2$$

over $A, B, C, D, E, F$, because you’ll get $A = B = C = D = E = F = 0$; you need to add a normalizing constraint to exclude this solution. But if you add the wrong constraint, for example $F = 1$, you’ll bias the solution towards ellipses where $A, B, C, D, E$ are smaller relative to $F$.

The right constraint is $A + C = 1$, because $A + C$ is invariant over isometries of $(x, y)$. Minimize

$$\sum (Bxy + C(y^2 - x^2) + Dx + Ey + F + x^2)^2$$

over $B, C, D, E, F$, and then let $A = 1 - C$.


An advantage of this method over one using barycenters and inertial moments is that it still works well with a non-uniform distribution of points.


Python code for these figures:

import numpy as np
from matplotlib.patches import Ellipse
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

with open("ellipse_data.txt") as file:
    points = np.array([[float(s) for s in line.split()] for line in file])
xs, ys = points.T

# Parameters for Ax² + Bxy + Cy² + Dx + Ey + F = 0
B, C, D, E, F = np.linalg.lstsq(
    np.c_[xs * ys, ys ** 2 - xs ** 2, xs, ys, np.ones_like(xs)], -(xs ** 2)
A = 1 - C

# Parameters for ((x-x0)cos θ + (y-y0)sin θ)²/a² + (-(x-x0)sin θ + (y-y0)cos θ)²/b² = 1
M = np.array([[A, B / 2, D / 2], [B / 2, C, E / 2], [D / 2, E / 2, F]])
λ, v = np.linalg.eigh(M[:2, :2])
x0, y0 = np.linalg.solve(M[:2, :2], -M[:2, 2])
a, b = np.sqrt(-np.linalg.det(M) / (λ[0] * λ[1] * λ))
θ = np.arctan2(v[1, 0], v[0, 0])

ax = plt.axes(aspect="equal")
    Ellipse((x0, y0), 2 * a, 2 * b, θ * 180 / np.pi, facecolor="none", edgecolor="red")
ax.scatter(xs, ys, s=0.5)
  • $\begingroup$ Does this fit only ellipses or conics? In case also parabolas or hyperbolas can be the result how must this be modified to get an ellipse-only fit? $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ @granularbastard As written this might give you a parabola or hyperbola if it’s a better fit. To constrain it to ellipses only, you need to add the constraint $B^2 + (2C - 1)^2 < 1$. However, that might just result in an optimum on the boundary, which would be a parabola. It’s not really clear what the “best” ellipse would be in that scenario. If you have a bound on the eccentricity $e$, you could use $B^2 + (2C - 1)^2 ≤ \frac{e^4}{(2 - e^2)^2}$. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2021 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ The best ellipse goes through the center of the points, similar to the last figure in the OP. $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2021 at 14:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's the OP's choice which one to accept, but I find your answer the most enlightening. $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2021 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ @granularbastard The figure in the OP is clearly best fit by an ellipse, and this algorithm will give you an ellipse, as I’ve shown in my figures. If your data looks anything like that, there’s no issue. The issue happens in a different scenario when your data really looks more like a parabola or a hyperbola: what’s the “best” ellipse that fits the points $\{(i,\frac{50}i)\mid 1≤i≤100\}$? My recommendation would be to detect that scenario (by checking that $B^2+(2C-1)^2<1$ isn’t satisfied) and reject that input, but if you need to force it to an ellipse, see my previous comment. $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2021 at 19:52

Using the symmetry, after a convenient rotation.

First we calculate the inertia matrix centered at the barycenter:

Given a set of points $S = \{s_k\} = \{x_k,y_k\},\ \ k=1,\cdots,n$ we calculate the barycenter $g = \frac 1n\sum_{k=1}^n s_k$. After that we calculate the inertia matrix

$$ I = \left( \begin{array}{cc} I_{xx} & -I_{xy} \\ -I_{xy} & I_{yy} \\ \end{array} \right) = \left( \begin{array}{cc} 510964. & 157771. \\ 157771. & 174852. \\ \end{array} \right) $$

with eigenvectors $v_1 = \{-0.929802,-0.36806\},\ \ v_2 = \{0.36806,-0.929802\}$

Then we rotate the centered data points $S-g$ by an angle given by $\alpha = -\arccos\left(v_1\cdot \vec e_y\right) = -1.94772$ giving $S_{\alpha}$

enter image description here

Now we define a distance to perform the fitting as:

$$ \delta(\rho_k,\theta_k,a,c) = \left|\rho_k - \frac{1}{\sqrt{\frac{\cos^2\theta}{a^2}+\frac{\sin^2\theta}{c^2}}}\right| $$

After transforming to polar form the rotated data $S_{\alpha}\to \{\rho_k,\theta_k\}$ we solve the minimization problem

$$ \min_{a,c}\sum_{k=1}^n \delta(\rho_k,\theta_k,a,c) $$

having the result

$$ E_{\alpha}=\frac{x^2}{33.959^2}+\frac{y^2}{12.0246^2}-1 = 0 $$

and recovering the original reference frame

$$ E=0.0060966 x^2+0.00414015 x y-0.393051 x+0.00168657 y^2-0.204216 y+6.60746 = 0 $$

enter image description here


Attached a MATHEMATICA script to implement the process.

dr[r_, t_] := r - 1/Sqrt[Cos[t]^2/a^2 + Sin[t]^2/c^2]
m0 = Import["/path_to_data/ellipse_data.txt", "Table"];

n = Length[m0];
g = Total[m0]/n;

{X, Y} = m0 // Transpose;
ixx = Sum[(Y[[k]] - g[[2]])^2, {k, 1, n}];
iyy = Sum[(X[[k]] - g[[1]])^2, {k, 1, n}];
ixy = -Sum[(X[[k]] - g[[1]]) (Y[[k]] - g[[2]]), {k, 1, n}];
mI = {{ixx, ixy}, {ixy, iyy}};

{Lambda, {v1, v2}} = Eigensystem[mI];
ang = -ArcCos[v1.{0, 1}/Norm[v1]];
m0r = Table[RotationMatrix[ang].(m0[[k]] - g), {k, 1, n}];
polardata = Table[{Norm[m0r[[k]]], ArcTan[m0r[[k, 1]], m0r[[k, 2]]]}, {k, 1, n}];

pobj = Sum[(dr[polardata[[k, 1]], polardata[[k, 2]]])^2, {k, 1, n}];
restrs = {0 < c < 15, 15 < a < 40};
psol = NMinimize[Join[{pobj}, restrs], {a, c}];

pellipse = x^2/a^2 + y^2/c^2 - 1 /. psol[[2]];
ellipser = pellipse /. {Thread[{x, y} -> RotationMatrix[ang].{XX - g[[1]], YY - g[[2]]}]} // N // Expand

grg = Graphics[{Red, PointSize[0.05], Point[g]}];
gr00 = ListPlot[m0, AspectRatio -> 2, PlotStyle -> {Thick, Black}];
gr3 = ContourPlot[ellipser == 0, {XX, 0, 45}, {YY, 0, 75},ContourStyle -> {Thick, Red}, PlotRange -> All];
Show[gr00, gr3, grg]
  • $\begingroup$ OK. I am working on a better method. I will include in the answer ASAP. $\endgroup$
    – Cesareo
    Sep 30, 2021 at 13:48
  • $\begingroup$ How did you arrive at this fit ? You don't mention that in your answer. $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2021 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ @GeometryLover Latter if possible, I may include some additional features. $\endgroup$
    – Cesareo
    Oct 1, 2021 at 0:03
  • $\begingroup$ Now it is time to include some additional tricks! $\endgroup$
    – Cesareo
    Oct 1, 2021 at 7:19
  • $\begingroup$ @granularbastard Please. Observe the new modification introduced. $\endgroup$
    – Cesareo
    Oct 1, 2021 at 22:48

How is the objective function defined? In other words, what exactly is the quantity that is being minimized here? Just saying "least squares" does not adequately specify how the fit is performed.

For example, the fit might be performed on the following parameters:

  1. The center $(x_0, y_0)$ of the ellipse
  2. The semimajor and semiminor axis lengths $a, b$.
  3. The rotation angle $\theta$ of the ellipse.

But then, given such an ellipse, how do we determine the error? Is it the sum of the squared distances of each data point to the closest point on the ellipse? Or is it the the sum of the squared vertical distances of each data point to the closest point on the ellipse? Before you question the latter option, note that this is precisely how a linear least-squares fit is performed: given observed $(x_i, y_i)$, we are finding $(a,b)$ that minimizes $$\sum_{i=1}^n (y_i - (ax_i + b))^2.$$

  • $\begingroup$ information was added $\endgroup$ Sep 28, 2021 at 23:14

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