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Technical Article   Bug:  Data frame, inserted pictures, and inset map are not transparent on output

Article ID: 17336
Bug Id: NIM006938
Software:  ArcGIS - ArcEditor 9.3, 9.3.1, 10 ArcGIS - ArcInfo 9.3, 9.3.1, 10 ArcGIS - ArcView 9.3, 10, 9.3.1 ArcGIS for Desktop Advanced 10.2, 10.1, 10.2.1, 10.3, 10.3.1, 10.2.2 ArcGIS for Desktop Basic 10.2, 10.2.1, 10.3, 10.3.1, 10.2.2, 10.1 ArcGIS for Desktop Standard 10.2.1, 10.1, 10.2, 10.3.1, 10.2.2, 10.3
Platforms:  Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1


Maps containing data frames that overlap other data frames or graphics elements are displayed in ArcMap Layout view as transparent. However, when they are printed or exported, the top data frame background is opaque white, obscuring the layer below.


Each individual data frame or graphic object is processed separately. If the data frame or graphic element contains raster data, transparency, or picture symbology, it becomes rasterized. 'No data' or hollow fill areas, which look transparent in ArcMap layout, print or export as white, filling the entire background of the data frame or graphic element.

The apparent no data/hollow fill on output is not supported. The limitation of transparent graphics and transparent data frames containing rasters are limitations of the Microsoft graphics engine (GDI) implemented in ArcGIS Desktop.


What is the preferred method for exporting and printing items in ArcMap? Answer
It is highly recommended to use ArcGIS Pro for printing and exporting, especially when experiencing issues caused by the limitations of the ArcMap display engine. More specifically, ArcGIS Pro is not restricted by the graphical device interface (GDI) limitations that some users experience in ArcMap. For example, transparency is natively supported in ArcGIS Pro, preventing the rasterization of layers. Additionally, ArcGIS Pro supports transparency in layout elements.

  ArcGIS Pro does not support exporting Adobe Illustrator files; it is recommended to export using PDF or SVG instead. Also, because ArcGIS Pro does not use the Windows GDI, font substitution or fallback does not occur in ArcGIS Pro. Boxes may appear if using characters unsupported by the chosen font.

Since this is a known limitation in ArcMap, there is no way to preserve transparency between data frames with rasterized elements using ArcMap. The workarounds below concern either removing the rasterization, or modifying the layout to avoid obscuring other layers.

  • Do not use transparent symbology, picture marker Symbology, nor include raster data in a data frame that obscures the layers behind it. If the data frame contains only vector data and neither transparency nor picture marker symbology, the transparency of the data frame background may be preserved.

     In ArcGIS 9.2, use the 'vectorize layers with bitmap markers/fills' option, under the Format tab in the export dialog box, to prevent bitmap markers or fills from causing rasterization.

  • Separate the graphic elements that contain raster data, transparency and/or picture marker symbology by themselves. Do not place these elements on top of other graphics or data frames. The output is a solid color background despite their appearance on screen, so plan the layout accordingly.

Related Information

Created: 3/21/2001
Last Modified: 9/23/2015

Article Rating: (9)
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By kmyl3s - 01/13/2015 8:50 AM

The article needs to be updated.

Just ran into this problem and surprised that it remains unresolved as per the decade of comments below.


By cartographics - 02/26/2014 5:09 PM

The article needs to be updated.

So this software behavior (Bug NIM006938) has been around since 2001 and it's making my maps look really crappy. How much does MaPublisher cost? You can you do this in QGIS!! C'mon ESRI. Hop to it. Fix this bug and let me get on with making (moderately decent) maps with your software.


By Trancoso - 11/18/2013 1:44 AM

Other - See details below.

That is a shame that such an expensive software that was made to produce maps is not able to export transparent overlapped data frames. Came on ESRI, I faced this problem for the first time around 10 years ago and as a long term user I am very disappointed that such a trivial bug was not fixed yet. Robustness of what has been previously developed is deffinitely more important than create new tools.


By jhschi - 04/10/2013 2:12 PM

Other - See details below.

I found this on another forum: Cassandra Lintin Date Aug 28, 2009 Message Legends are graphics and can not be transparent; this is exactly same issue as described with the transparent data frames (which can not be transparent on output if they contain raster data layers, transparency and/or picture/bitmap marker symbology). However, both the limitation of transparent graphics and transparent data frames that contain raster are limitations of the Microsoft graphics engine (GDI) that is implemented in ArcGIS Desktop. Until such a time as we completely replace it with a custom built engine, these limitation will persist. Cassandra L. - ESRI


By fishbio58 - 08/31/2012 10:34 AM

The article needs to be updated.

Just ran into this for the first time. I ended up just saving the map exports as separate files with the desired map background made transparent using the format tab under the Export Map window (must be PNG or other type where this option is available). I then import the maps into MS Powerpoint, overlay transparent map over base, group, save as... Pay attention to map scales etc. A bit clunky but works.


By dead horse - 07/17/2012 8:55 AM

Other - See details below.

Just unbelievable that nothing has been done to correct this issue after so much time. Jack may be nimble but he certainly isn't quick...quick to fix this! BS....


By Bpauls - 06/26/2012 3:46 PM

Other - See details below.

Get a move on ESRI - this has been a bug since 8.1. We are now at 10.1 and it still needs to be fixed. Please invest some time into this, since it has a serious impact on many of our jobs.

By Anonymous - 08/09/2010 6:02 AM

I have suggested related resources/links that can enhance this article. See below.

This article offers very good advice and info on this issue, however it is often the case that users want to maintain transparency over/under other layers (ie watermark effect). Will any provisions be made in the future to facilitate this need within ArcGIS? (It is known that there are ways to do it using various other programmes but is sometimes impractical) Thanks


By Anonymous - 01/17/2008 12:52 PM

The article needs to be updated.

It is nice to find an article that covers the exact topic you are searching for. Unfortunately the work around for this problem is not very useable and indicates the size of this bug. This bug needs to be resolved and indicates the complete overhaul needed in the way arcmap handles printing and plotting- both performance wise and functionality wise. Please make this a top priority for the NEXT release. Feel free to send this off to the QA department and the Product Managers. Thanks, Erik BTW a better work around is to save it as an .ai and do your printing and pdf creation from Illustrator. You can use the layer transparency 'darken' setting to reveal the raster behind the white raster that should have been created transparent.

By Anonymous - 08/24/2007 10:21 AM

Other - See details below.

This is a pretty severe limitation to printing. I am under the gun to produce some maps for publication and this is definitely a deal killer. Your first mention that this is a bug is 2001. Hey, folks, its 2007 now. How about a fix??


By Anonymous - 05/09/2007 6:28 AM

Other - See details below.

This bug STINKS! You should figure out a way to fix it.


By Anonymous - 04/12/2007 9:02 AM

I would like to see a new article that discusses the topic outlined below.

The data frame seems to only have the rasterization problem when exporting at higher resolutions (>100 dpi). When exporting the map as jpeg, tif, png, bmp, or gif images at <= 100 dpi the transparency of the data frame background is maintained and objects below the dataframe are visible in the exported image. This may not be very useful, since it is very rarely that this low of resolution is very functional, but who knows.

By Anonymous - 03/21/2007 11:18 AM

Other - See details below.

It would be helpful if the article provided directions on where to find the "vectorize layers with bitmap markers/fills" option in 9.2 and information on whether it applies to exporting the map or to printing. The behavior I was experiencing was in the print preview, but exporting using the vectorize option worked when exported to pdf and viewedin Adobe Reader.

By Anonymous - 05/27/2005 3:34 PM

I can't believe this is still a bug. This is a showstopper for any person who needs to make a traditional USA map with the Alaska inset that is angular on the right-hand side.

By Anonymous - 04/12/2005 4:50 PM

Why can't this be fixed? Creating the dataframe asa circle look really nice on the map however, the solid white shows through when exported or printed.

By Anonymous - 03/29/2005 11:14 AM

I have no idea what you are trying to tell me to do. Moving the shapefile to another layer or frame will still not work. The hollow background fill need to work properly, so that background graphics can be placed behind maps. The upshot is I do not understand what your "workaround" is intending to accomplish.