CALayer Tutorial for iOS: Getting Started

In this article, you’ll learn about CALayer and how it works. You’ll use CALayer for cool effects like shapes, gradients and particle systems. By Ron Kliffer.

Leave a rating/review
Download materials
Save for later
Update note: Ron Kliffer updated this tutorial for Xcode 11, Swift 5 and iOS 13. Scott Gardner wrote the original.

As you probably know, everything you see in an iOS app is a view. There are button views, table views, slider views and even parent views that contain other views!

But what you might not know is that each view in iOS is backed by another class called a layer — a CALayer, to be specific.

In this article, you’ll build the Layer Player app. In the process, you’ll learn:

  • What a CALayer is and how it works.
  • How to use CALayer functionality to achieve cool effects like shapes, gradients and even particle systems.

Getting Started

CALayer has more than a few properties and methods to tinker with. It has several subclasses with unique properties and methods. What better way to get an overview of this great API than by taking a guided tour?

Use the Download Materials button at the top or bottom of this tutorial to download the starter project. Open it in Xcode, then build and run to see what you’re starting with. The Layer Player app demonstrates nine different CALayer capabilities.

The starter project doesn’t do much. You’re about to write the code to turn this app into a fully functional CALayer tour guide!

How the Layer Player app will look when you're done

In each section, you’ll add the necessary code to make the layer magic work. After adding each line of code, play around with the settings you’ve just enabled. This will give you a deeper understanding of the power of each capability you explore.

But first, some theory.

How does CALayer relate to UIView?

UIView handles many things, including layout and touch events. However, it doesn’t directly control drawing or animations. UIKit delegates that task to the Core Animation framework, which enables the use of CALayer. UIView, in fact, is just a wrapper over CALayer.

Each UIView has one root CALayer, which can contain multiple sublayers. When you set bounds on a UIView, the view in turn sets bounds on its backing CALayer. If you call layoutIfNeeded() on a UIView, the call gets forwarded to the root CALayer.

CALayer vs UIView

Here are a few more things you should know about CALayer before you dive into the Layer Player app:

  • Layers can have sublayers: Just like views can have subviews, layers can have sublayers. You can use these for some cool effects!
  • Their properties are animatable: When you change the property of a layer, you can use CAAnimation to animate the changes.
  • Layers are lightweight: Layers are lighter weight than views, and therefore help you achieve better performance.
  • They have tons of useful properties: You’ll explore some of them in the following examples.

Now, you’re ready to get started by using CALayer to create some custom views.

Customizing Views With CALayer

Open CALayerViewController.swift and add the following code to setupLayer():

layer.frame = viewForLayer.bounds
layer.contents = UIImage(named: "star")?.cgImage

// 2
layer.contentsGravity = .center
layer.magnificationFilter = .linear

// 3
layer.cornerRadius = 100.0
layer.borderWidth = 12.0
layer.borderColor = UIColor.white.cgColor
layer.backgroundColor = swiftOrangeColor.cgColor

layer.shadowOpacity = 0.75
layer.shadowOffset = CGSize(width: 0, height: 3)
layer.shadowRadius = 3.0
layer.isGeometryFlipped = false

In this code, you create a customized view:

  1. You set the bounds of the layer, then set an image as the layer’s contents. Notice the use of the underlying CGImage.
  2. Then you center the image within the layer. You can use contentsGravity to change both size — as in resizing, resizing aspect and resizing aspect fill — and position — center, top, top-right, right, etc. magnificationFilter controls the behavior of the enlarged image.
  3. Next, you set CALayer‘s background color, make it round and add a border to it. Notice that you’re using the underlying CGColor objects to change the layer’s color attributes.
  4. Finally, you create a shadow for the layer. When isGeometryFlipped is true, the positional geometry and shadow will be upside-down.

Build and run. Select CALayer and check out the result:

Running the App

The controls don’t do anything at this point. So add the following to prepare(for:sender:):

if segue.identifier == "DisplayLayerControls" {
  (segue.destination as? CALayerControlsViewController)?.layerViewController = self

This connects the embedded CALayerControlsViewController. Build and run again and check out the layer properties in action. Play around with the various controls to get a feel for what you can do with CALayer!

Adjusting the Properties

Improving Performance With ShouldRasterize and DrawsAsynchronously

CALayer has two additional properties that improve performance: shouldRasterize and drawsAsynchronously.

shouldRasterize is false by default. When set to true, the layer’s contents only render once, which improves performance. It’s perfect for objects that animate around the screen but don’t change in appearance.

drawsAsynchronously is the opposite of shouldRasterize, and it’s also false by default. Set it to true to improve performance when the app needs to repeatedly redraw a layer’s contents. This might happen, for example, when you work with an emitter layer that continuously renders animated particles. You’ll use this feature later in the tutorial.

Note: Consider the implications before setting either shouldRasterize or drawsAsynchronously. Change the settings and compare the performance. This will help you determine whether activating these features actually improves performance in a given situation. If you misuse these properties, performance is likely to take a nosedive!

Scrolling With CAScrollLayer

CAScrollLayer displays a portion of a scrollable layer. It’s fairly basic — it can’t directly respond to user touches or even check the bounds of the scrollable layer. But it does cool things like preventing scrolling beyond the bounds. :]

UIScrollView doesn’t use a CAScrollLayer to do its work. Instead, it directly changes its layer’s bounds. With a CAScrollLayer, you can:

  • Set the scrolling mode to horizontal or vertical.
  • Scroll to a specific point or area programmatically.

Build and run and select CAScrollLayer from the menu. You’ll see an image and two switches that control the scrolling direction.

Switches to control scrolling

Now it’s time for you to set up the scrolling.

Setting up Scrolling

Return to the code and open CAScrollLayerViewController.swift. There’s already a CAScrollLayer in the view.

Add the following to panRecognized(_:):

var newPoint = scrollingView.bounds.origin
newPoint.x -= sender.translation(in: scrollingView).x
newPoint.y -= sender.translation(in: scrollingView).y
sender.setTranslation(.zero, in: scrollingView)
scrollingViewLayer.scroll(to: newPoint)
if sender.state == .ended {
  UIView.animate(withDuration: 0.3) {

When a pan gesture occurs, you calculate the corresponding translation required and then call the scroll(to:) method on the CAScrollLayer to move the image accordingly.

scroll(to:) doesn’t animate automatically, so you animate it explicitly using UIView.animate(withDuration:animations:).

Build and run and go back to the CAScrollLayer example. Now when you pan the image, you’ll see something like this:

Panning over an image that's too large

Layer Player also includes two controls to lock scrolling horizontally and vertically. You’ll get those working next.