Chapter 1. Common API Elements

Table of Contents

Opening and Closing Devices
Device Naming
Related Devices
Multiple Opens
Shared Data Streams
Querying Capabilities
Application Priority
Video Inputs and Outputs
Audio Inputs and Outputs
Tuners and Modulators
Radio Frequency
Video Standards
Digital Video (DV) Timings
User Controls
Extended Controls
The Extended Control API
Enumerating Extended Controls
Creating Control Panels
Codec Control Reference
Camera Control Reference
FM Transmitter Control Reference
Flash Control Reference
JPEG Control Reference
Image Source Control Reference
Image Process Control Reference
Digital Video Control Reference
FM Receiver Control Reference
Detect Control Reference
RF Tuner Control Reference
Data Formats
Data Format Negotiation
Image Format Enumeration
Single- and multi-planar APIs
Multi-planar formats
Calls that distinguish between single and multi-planar APIs
Image Cropping, Insertion and Scaling
Cropping Structures
Scaling Adjustments
Experimental API for cropping, composing and scaling
Selection targets
Comparison with old cropping API
Streaming Parameters

Programming a V4L2 device consists of these steps:

In practice most steps are optional and can be executed out of order. It depends on the V4L2 device type, you can read about the details in Chapter 4, Interfaces. In this chapter we will discuss the basic concepts applicable to all devices.

Opening and Closing Devices

Device Naming

V4L2 drivers are implemented as kernel modules, loaded manually by the system administrator or automatically when a device is first discovered. The driver modules plug into the "videodev" kernel module. It provides helper functions and a common application interface specified in this document.

Each driver thus loaded registers one or more device nodes with major number 81 and a minor number between 0 and 255. Minor numbers are allocated dynamically unless the kernel is compiled with the kernel option CONFIG_VIDEO_FIXED_MINOR_RANGES. In that case minor numbers are allocated in ranges depending on the device node type (video, radio, etc.).

Many drivers support "video_nr", "radio_nr" or "vbi_nr" module options to select specific video/radio/vbi node numbers. This allows the user to request that the device node is named e.g. /dev/video5 instead of leaving it to chance. When the driver supports multiple devices of the same type more than one device node number can be assigned, separated by commas:

> modprobe mydriver video_nr=0,1 radio_nr=0,1

In /etc/modules.conf this may be written as:

options mydriver video_nr=0,1 radio_nr=0,1

When no device node number is given as module option the driver supplies a default.

Normally udev will create the device nodes in /dev automatically for you. If udev is not installed, then you need to enable the CONFIG_VIDEO_FIXED_MINOR_RANGES kernel option in order to be able to correctly relate a minor number to a device node number. I.e., you need to be certain that minor number 5 maps to device node name video5. With this kernel option different device types have different minor number ranges. These ranges are listed in Chapter 4, Interfaces.

The creation of character special files (with mknod) is a privileged operation and devices cannot be opened by major and minor number. That means applications cannot reliable scan for loaded or installed drivers. The user must enter a device name, or the application can try the conventional device names.

Related Devices

Devices can support several functions. For example video capturing, VBI capturing and radio support.

The V4L2 API creates different nodes for each of these functions.

The V4L2 API was designed with the idea that one device node could support all functions. However, in practice this never worked: this 'feature' was never used by applications and many drivers did not support it and if they did it was certainly never tested. In addition, switching a device node between different functions only works when using the streaming I/O API, not with the read()/write() API.

Today each device node supports just one function.

Besides video input or output the hardware may also support audio sampling or playback. If so, these functions are implemented as ALSA PCM devices with optional ALSA audio mixer devices.

One problem with all these devices is that the V4L2 API makes no provisions to find these related devices. Some really complex devices use the Media Controller (see Chapter 16, Media Controller) which can be used for this purpose. But most drivers do not use it, and while some code exists that uses sysfs to discover related devices (see libmedia_dev in the v4l-utils git repository), there is no library yet that can provide a single API towards both Media Controller-based devices and devices that do not use the Media Controller. If you want to work on this please write to the linux-media mailing list:

Multiple Opens

V4L2 devices can be opened more than once.[1] When this is supported by the driver, users can for example start a "panel" application to change controls like brightness or audio volume, while another application captures video and audio. In other words, panel applications are comparable to an ALSA audio mixer application. Just opening a V4L2 device should not change the state of the device.[2]

Once an application has allocated the memory buffers needed for streaming data (by calling the VIDIOC_REQBUFS or VIDIOC_CREATE_BUFS ioctls, or implicitly by calling the read() or write() functions) that application (filehandle) becomes the owner of the device. It is no longer allowed to make changes that would affect the buffer sizes (e.g. by calling the VIDIOC_S_FMT ioctl) and other applications are no longer allowed to allocate buffers or start or stop streaming. The EBUSY error code will be returned instead.

Merely opening a V4L2 device does not grant exclusive access.[3] Initiating data exchange however assigns the right to read or write the requested type of data, and to change related properties, to this file descriptor. Applications can request additional access privileges using the priority mechanism described in the section called “Application Priority”.

Shared Data Streams

V4L2 drivers should not support multiple applications reading or writing the same data stream on a device by copying buffers, time multiplexing or similar means. This is better handled by a proxy application in user space.


To open and close V4L2 devices applications use the open() and close() function, respectively. Devices are programmed using the ioctl() function as explained in the following sections.

[1] There are still some old and obscure drivers that have not been updated to allow for multiple opens. This implies that for such drivers open() can return an EBUSY error code when the device is already in use.

[2] Unfortunately, opening a radio device often switches the state of the device to radio mode in many drivers. This behavior should be fixed eventually as it violates the V4L2 specification.

[3] Drivers could recognize the O_EXCL open flag. Presently this is not required, so applications cannot know if it really works.