In this chapter we will look at the infrastructure that gives you images to render to that can be presented to the screen afterwards. This infrastructure is known as the swap chain and must be created explicitly in Vulkan. The swap chain is essentially a queue of images that are waiting to be presented to the screen. Our application will acquire such an image to draw to it, and then return it to the queue. How exactly the queue works and the conditions for presenting an image from the queue depend on how the swap chain is set up, but the general purpose of the swap chain is to synchronize the presentation of images with the refresh rate of the screen.

Checking for swap chain support

Not all graphics cards are capable of presenting images directly to a screen for various reasons, for example because they are designed for servers and don't have any display outputs. Secondly, since image presentation is heavily tied into the window system and the surfaces associated with windows, it is not actually part of the Vulkan core. You have to enable the VK_KHR_swapchain device extension after querying for its support.

For that purpose we'll first extend the isDeviceSuitable function to check if this extension is supported. We've previously seen how to list the extensions that are supported by a VkPhysicalDevice, so doing that should be fairly straightforward. Note that the Vulkan header file provides a nice macro VK_KHR_SWAPCHAIN_EXTENSION_NAME that is defined as VK_KHR_swapchain. The advantage of using this macro is that the compiler will catch misspellings.

First declare a list of required device extensions, similar to the list of validation layers to enable.

const std::vector<const char*> deviceExtensions = {

Next, create a new function checkDeviceExtensionSupport that is called from isDeviceSuitable as an additional check:

bool isDeviceSuitable(VkPhysicalDevice device) {
    QueueFamilyIndices indices = findQueueFamilies(device);

    bool extensionsSupported = checkDeviceExtensionSupport(device);

    return indices.isComplete() && extensionsSupported;

bool checkDeviceExtensionSupport(VkPhysicalDevice device) {
    return true;

Modify the body of the function to enumerate the extensions and check if all of the required extensions are amongst them.

bool checkDeviceExtensionSupport(VkPhysicalDevice device) {
    uint32_t extensionCount;
    vkEnumerateDeviceExtensionProperties(device, nullptr, &extensionCount, nullptr);

    std::vector<VkExtensionProperties> availableExtensions(extensionCount);
    vkEnumerateDeviceExtensionProperties(device, nullptr, &extensionCount,;

    std::set<std::string> requiredExtensions(deviceExtensions.begin(), deviceExtensions.end());

    for (const auto& extension : availableExtensions) {

    return requiredExtensions.empty();

I've chosen to use a set of strings here to represent the unconfirmed required extensions. That way we can easily tick them off while enumerating the sequence of available extensions. Of course you can also use a nested loop like in checkValidationLayerSupport. The performance difference is irrelevant. Now run the code and verify that your graphics card is indeed capable of creating a swap chain. It should be noted that the availability of a presentation queue, as we checked in the previous chapter, implies that the swap chain extension must be supported. However, it's still good to be explicit about things, and the extension does have to be explicitly enabled.

Enabling the extension just requires a small change to the logical device creation structure:

createInfo.enabledExtensionCount = deviceExtensions.size();
createInfo.ppEnabledExtensionNames =;

Querying details of swap chain support

Just checking if a swap chain is available is not sufficient, because it may not actually be compatible with our window surface. Creating a swap chain also involves a lot more settings than instance and device creation, so we need to query for some more details before we're able to proceed.

There are basically three kinds of properties we need to check:

  • Basic surface capabilities (min/max number of images in swap chain, min/max width and height of images)
  • Surface formats (pixel format, color space)
  • Available presentation modes

Similar to findQueueFamilies, we'll use a struct to pass these details around once they've been queried. The three aforementioned types of properties come in the form of the following structs and lists of structs:

struct SwapChainSupportDetails {
    VkSurfaceCapabilitiesKHR capabilities;
    std::vector<VkSurfaceFormatKHR> formats;
    std::vector<VkPresentModeKHR> presentModes;

We'll now create a new function querySwapChainSupport that will populate this struct.

SwapChainSupportDetails querySwapChainSupport(VkPhysicalDevice device) {
    SwapChainSupportDetails details;

    return details;

This section covers how to query the structs that include this information. The meaning of these structs and exactly which data they contain is discussed in the next section.

Let's start with the basic surface capabilities. These properties are simple to query and are returned into a single VkSurfaceCapabilitiesKHR struct.

vkGetPhysicalDeviceSurfaceCapabilitiesKHR(device, surface, &details.capabilities);

This function takes the specified VkPhysicalDevice and VkSurfaceKHR window surface into account when determining the supported capabilities. All of the support querying functions have these two as first parameters because they are the core components of the swap chain.

The next step is about querying the supported surface formats. Because this is a list of structs, it follows the familiar ritual of 2 function calls:

uint32_t formatCount;
vkGetPhysicalDeviceSurfaceFormatsKHR(device, surface, &formatCount, nullptr);

if (formatCount != 0) {
    vkGetPhysicalDeviceSurfaceFormatsKHR(device, surface, &formatCount,;

Make sure that the vector is resized to hold all the available formats. And finally, querying the supported presentation modes works exactly the same way with vkGetPhysicalDeviceSurfacePresentModesKHR:

uint32_t presentModeCount;
vkGetPhysicalDeviceSurfacePresentModesKHR(device, surface, &presentModeCount, nullptr);

if (presentModeCount != 0) {
    vkGetPhysicalDeviceSurfacePresentModesKHR(device, surface, &presentModeCount,;

All of the details are in the struct now, so let's extend isDeviceSuitable once more to utilize this function to verify that swap chain support is adequate. Swap chain support is sufficient for this tutorial if there is at least one supported image format and one supported presentation mode given the window surface we have.

bool swapChainAdequate = false;
if (extensionsSupported) {
    SwapChainSupportDetails swapChainSupport = querySwapChainSupport(device);
    swapChainAdequate = !swapChainSupport.formats.empty() && !swapChainSupport.presentModes.empty();

It is important that we only try to query for swap chain support after verifying that the extension is available. The last line of the function changes to:

return indices.isComplete() && extensionsSupported && swapChainAdequate;

Choosing the right settings for the swap chain

If the swapChainAdequate conditions were met then the support is definitely sufficient, but there may still be many different modes of varying optimality. We'll now write a couple of functions to find the right settings for the best possible swap chain. There are three types of settings to determine:

  • Surface format (color depth)
  • Presentation mode (conditions for "swapping" images to the screen)
  • Swap extent (resolution of images in swap chain)

For each of these settings we'll have an ideal value in mind that we'll go with if it's available and otherwise we'll create some logic to find the next best thing.

Surface format

The function for this setting starts out like this. We'll later pass the formats member of the SwapChainSupportDetails struct as argument.

VkSurfaceFormatKHR chooseSwapSurfaceFormat(const std::vector<VkSurfaceFormatKHR>& availableFormats) {


Each VkSurfaceFormatKHR entry contains format and colorSpace member. The format member specifies the color channels and types. For example, VK_FORMAT_B8G8R8A8_UNORM means that we store the B, G, R and alpha channels in that order with an 8 bit unsigned integer for a total of 32 bits per pixel. The colorSpace member indicates if the SRGB color space is supported or not using the VK_COLOR_SPACE_SRGB_NONLINEAR_KHR flag. Note that this flag used to be called VK_COLORSPACE_SRGB_NONLINEAR_KHR in old versions of the specification.

For the color space we'll use SRGB if it is available, because it results in more accurate perceived colors. Working directly with SRGB colors is a little bit challenging, so we'll use standard RGB for the color format, of which one of the most common ones is VK_FORMAT_B8G8R8A8_UNORM.

The best case scenario is that the surface has no preferred format, which Vulkan indicates by only returning one VkSurfaceFormatKHR entry which has its format member set to VK_FORMAT_UNDEFINED.

if (availableFormats.size() == 1 && availableFormats[0].format == VK_FORMAT_UNDEFINED) {

If we're not free to choose any format, then we'll go through the list and see if the preferred combination is available:

for (const auto& availableFormat : availableFormats) {
    if (availableFormat.format == VK_FORMAT_B8G8R8A8_UNORM && availableFormat.colorSpace == VK_COLOR_SPACE_SRGB_NONLINEAR_KHR) {
        return availableFormat;

If that also fails then we could start ranking the available formats based on how "good" they are, but in most cases it's okay to just settle with the first format that is specified.

VkSurfaceFormatKHR chooseSwapSurfaceFormat(const std::vector<VkSurfaceFormatKHR>& availableFormats) {
    if (availableFormats.size() == 1 && availableFormats[0].format == VK_FORMAT_UNDEFINED) {

    for (const auto& availableFormat : availableFormats) {
        if (availableFormat.format == VK_FORMAT_B8G8R8A8_UNORM && availableFormat.colorSpace == VK_COLOR_SPACE_SRGB_NONLINEAR_KHR) {
            return availableFormat;

    return availableFormats[0];

Presentation mode

The presentation mode is arguably the most important setting for the swap chain, because it represents the actual conditions for showing images to the screen. There are four possible modes available in Vulkan:

  • VK_PRESENT_MODE_IMMEDIATE_KHR: Images submitted by your application are transferred to the screen right away, which may result in tearing.
  • VK_PRESENT_MODE_FIFO_KHR: The swap chain is a queue where the display takes an image from the front of the queue on a vertical blank and the program inserts rendered images at the back of the queue. If the queue is full then the program has to wait. This is most similar to vertical sync as found in modern games.
  • VK_PRESENT_MODE_FIFO_RELAXED_KHR: This mode only differs from the first one if the application is late and the queue was empty at the last vertical blank. Instead of waiting for the next vertical blank, the image is transferred right away when it finally arrives. This may result in visible tearing.
  • VK_PRESENT_MODE_MAILBOX_KHR: This is another variation of the first mode. Instead of blocking the application when the queue is full, the images that are already queued are simply replaced with the newer ones. This mode can be used to implement triple buffering, which allows you to avoid tearing with significantly less latency issues than standard vertical sync that uses double buffering.

Only the VK_PRESENT_MODE_FIFO_KHR mode is guaranteed to be available, so we'll again have to write a function that looks for the best mode that is available:

VkPresentModeKHR chooseSwapPresentMode(const std::vector<VkPresentModeKHR> availablePresentModes) {

I personally think that triple buffering is a very nice trade-off. It allows us to avoid tearing while still maintaining a fairly low latency by rendering new images that are as up-to-date as possible right until the vertical blank. So, let's look through the list to see if it's available:

VkPresentModeKHR chooseSwapPresentMode(const std::vector<VkPresentModeKHR> availablePresentModes) {
    for (const auto& availablePresentMode : availablePresentModes) {
        if (availablePresentMode == VK_PRESENT_MODE_MAILBOX_KHR) {
            return availablePresentMode;


Unfortunately some drivers currently don't properly support VK_PRESENT_MODE_FIFO_KHR, so we should prefer VK_PRESENT_MODE_IMMEDIATE_KHR if VK_PRESENT_MODE_MAILBOX_KHR is not available:

VkPresentModeKHR chooseSwapPresentMode(const std::vector<VkPresentModeKHR> availablePresentModes) {
    VkPresentModeKHR bestMode = VK_PRESENT_MODE_FIFO_KHR;

    for (const auto& availablePresentMode : availablePresentModes) {
        if (availablePresentMode == VK_PRESENT_MODE_MAILBOX_KHR) {
            return availablePresentMode;
        } else if (availablePresentMode == VK_PRESENT_MODE_IMMEDIATE_KHR) {
            bestMode = availablePresentMode;

    return bestMode;

Swap extent

That leaves only one major property, for which we'll add one last function:

VkExtent2D chooseSwapExtent(const VkSurfaceCapabilitiesKHR& capabilities) {


The swap extent is the resolution of the swap chain images and it's almost always exactly equal to the resolution of the window that we're drawing to. The range of the possible resolutions is defined in the VkSurfaceCapabilitiesKHR structure. Vulkan tells us to match the resolution of the window by setting the width and height in the currentExtent member. However, some window managers do allow us to differ here and this is indicated by setting the width and height in currentExtent to a special value: the maximum value of uint32_t. In that case we'll pick the resolution that best matches the window within the minImageExtent and maxImageExtent bounds.

VkExtent2D chooseSwapExtent(const VkSurfaceCapabilitiesKHR& capabilities) {
    if (capabilities.currentExtent.width != std::numeric_limits<uint32_t>::max()) {
        return capabilities.currentExtent;
    } else {
        VkExtent2D actualExtent = {WIDTH, HEIGHT};

        actualExtent.width = std::max(capabilities.minImageExtent.width, std::min(capabilities.maxImageExtent.width, actualExtent.width));
        actualExtent.height = std::max(capabilities.minImageExtent.height, std::min(capabilities.maxImageExtent.height, actualExtent.height));

        return actualExtent;

The max and min functions are used here to clamp the value of WIDTH and HEIGHT between the allowed minimum and maximum extents that are supported by the implementation. Make sure to include the <algorithm> header to use them.

Creating the swap chain

Now that we have all of these helper functions assisting us with the choices we have to make at runtime, we finally have all the information that is needed to create a working swap chain.

Create a createSwapChain function that starts out with the results of these calls and make sure to call it from initVulkan after logical device creation.

void initVulkan() {

void createSwapChain() {
    SwapChainSupportDetails swapChainSupport = querySwapChainSupport(physicalDevice);

    VkSurfaceFormatKHR surfaceFormat = chooseSwapSurfaceFormat(swapChainSupport.formats);
    VkPresentModeKHR presentMode = chooseSwapPresentMode(swapChainSupport.presentModes);
    VkExtent2D extent = chooseSwapExtent(swapChainSupport.capabilities);

There is actually one more small things that need to be decided upon, but it's so simple that it's not really worth creating separate functions for them. The first one is the number of images in the swap chain, essentially the queue length. The implementation specifies the minimum amount of images to function properly and we'll try to have one more than that to properly implement triple buffering.

uint32_t imageCount = swapChainSupport.capabilities.minImageCount + 1;
if (swapChainSupport.capabilities.maxImageCount > 0 && imageCount > swapChainSupport.capabilities.maxImageCount) {
    imageCount = swapChainSupport.capabilities.maxImageCount;

A value of 0 for maxImageCount means that there is no limit besides memory requirements, which is why we need to check for that.

As is tradition with Vulkan objects, creating the swap chain object requires filling in a large structure. It starts out very familiarly:

VkSwapchainCreateInfoKHR createInfo = {};
createInfo.surface = surface;

After specifying which surface the swap chain should be tied to, the details of the swap chain images are specified:

createInfo.minImageCount = imageCount;
createInfo.imageFormat = surfaceFormat.format;
createInfo.imageColorSpace = surfaceFormat.colorSpace;
createInfo.imageExtent = extent;
createInfo.imageArrayLayers = 1;

The imageArrayLayers specifies the amount of layers each image consists of. This is always 1 unless you are developing a stereoscopic 3D application. The imageUsage bit field specifies what kind of operations we'll use the images in the swap chain for. In this tutorial we're going to render directly to them, which means that they're used as color attachment. It is also possible that you'll render images to a separate image first to perform operations like post-processing. In that case you may use a value like VK_IMAGE_USAGE_TRANSFER_DST_BIT instead and use a memory operation to transfer the rendered image to a swap chain image.

QueueFamilyIndices indices = findQueueFamilies(physicalDevice);
uint32_t queueFamilyIndices[] = {(uint32_t) indices.graphicsFamily, (uint32_t) indices.presentFamily};

if (indices.graphicsFamily != indices.presentFamily) {
    createInfo.imageSharingMode = VK_SHARING_MODE_CONCURRENT;
    createInfo.queueFamilyIndexCount = 2;
    createInfo.pQueueFamilyIndices = queueFamilyIndices;
} else {
    createInfo.imageSharingMode = VK_SHARING_MODE_EXCLUSIVE;
    createInfo.queueFamilyIndexCount = 0; // Optional
    createInfo.pQueueFamilyIndices = nullptr; // Optional

Next, we need to specify how to handle swap chain images that will be used across multiple queue families. That will be the case in our application if the graphics queue family is different from the presentation queue. We'll be drawing on the images in the swap chain from the graphics queue and then submitting them on the presentation queue. There are two ways to handle images that are accessed from multiple queues:

  • VK_SHARING_MODE_EXCLUSIVE: An image is owned by one queue family at a time and ownership must be explicitly transfered before using it in another queue family. This option offers the best performance.
  • VK_SHARING_MODE_CONCURRENT: Images can be used across multiple queue families without explicit ownership transfers.

If the queue families differ, then we'll be using the concurrent mode in this tutorial to avoid having to do the ownership chapters, because these involve some concepts that are better explained at a later time. Concurrent mode requires you to specify in advance between which queue families ownership will be shared using the queueFamilyIndexCount and pQueueFamilyIndices parameters. If the graphics queue family and presentation queue family are the same, which will be the case on most hardware, then we should stick to exclusive mode, because concurrent mode requires you to specify at least two distinct queue families.

createInfo.preTransform = swapChainSupport.capabilities.currentTransform;

We can specify that a certain transform should be applied to images in the swap chain if it is supported (supportedTransforms in capabilities), like a 90 degree clockwise rotation or horizontal flip. To specify that you do not want any transformation, simply specify the current transformation.

createInfo.compositeAlpha = VK_COMPOSITE_ALPHA_OPAQUE_BIT_KHR;

The compositeAlpha field specifies if the alpha channel should be used for blending with other windows in the window system. You'll almost always want to simply ignore the alpha channel, hence VK_COMPOSITE_ALPHA_OPAQUE_BIT_KHR.

createInfo.presentMode = presentMode;
createInfo.clipped = VK_TRUE;

The presentMode member speaks for itself. If the clipped member is set to VK_TRUE then that means that we don't care about the color of pixels that are obscured, for example because another window is in front of them. Unless you really need to be able to read these pixels back and get predictable results, you'll get the best performance by enabling clipping.

createInfo.oldSwapchain = VK_NULL_HANDLE;

That leaves one last field, oldSwapChain. With Vulkan it's possible that in your swap chain becomes invalid or unoptimized while your application is running, for example because the window was resized. In that case the swap chain actually needs to be recreated from scratch and a reference to the old one must be specified in this field. This is a complex topic that we'll learn more about in a future chapter. For now we'll assume that we'll only ever create one swap chain.

Now add a class member to store the VkSwapchainKHR object with a proper deleter. Make sure to add it after device so that it gets cleaned up before the logical device is.

VDeleter<VkSwapchainKHR> swapChain{device, vkDestroySwapchainKHR};

Now creating the swap chain is as simple as calling vkCreateSwapchainKHR:

if (vkCreateSwapchainKHR(device, &createInfo, nullptr, swapChain.replace()) != VK_SUCCESS) {
    throw std::runtime_error("failed to create swap chain!");

The parameters are the logical device, swap chain creation info, optional custom allocators and a pointer to the variable to store the handle in. No surprises there. Now run the application to ensure that the swap chain is created successfully!

Try removing the createInfo.imageExtent = extent; line with validation layers enabled. You'll see that one of the validation layers immediately catches the mistake and a helpful message is printed:

Retrieving the swap chain images

The swap chain has been created now, so all that remains is retrieving the handles of the VkImages in it. We'll reference these during rendering operations in later chapters. Add a class member to store the handles:

std::vector<VkImage> swapChainImages;

The images were created by the implementation for the swap chain and they will be automatically cleaned up once the swap chain has been destroyed, therefore we don't need a deleter here.

I'm adding the code to retrieve the handles to the end of the createSwapChain function, right after the vkCreateSwapchainKHR call. Retrieving them is very similar to the other times where we retrieved an array of objects from Vulkan. First query the number of images in the swap chain with a call to vkGetSwapchainImagesKHR, then resize the container and finally call it again to retrieve the handles.

vkGetSwapchainImagesKHR(device, swapChain, &imageCount, nullptr);
vkGetSwapchainImagesKHR(device, swapChain, &imageCount,;

Note that when we created the swap chain, we passed the number of desired images to a field called minImageCount. The implementation is allowed to create more images, which is why we need to explicitly query the amount again.

One last thing, store the format and extent we've chosen for the swap chain images in member variables. We'll need them in future chapters.

VDeleter<VkSwapchainKHR> swapChain{device, vkDestroySwapchainKHR};
std::vector<VkImage> swapChainImages;
VkFormat swapChainImageFormat;
VkExtent2D swapChainExtent;


swapChainImageFormat = surfaceFormat.format;
swapChainExtent = extent;

We now have a set of images that can be drawn onto and can be presented to the window. The next two chapters will cover how we can set up the images as render targets and then we start looking into the actual drawing commands!

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