C Callbacks in Swift


  1. Jun 25, 2015
    Added a note about passing another closure (that can capture external variables) to the userInfo parameter.
  2. Jul 1, 2015
    Updated the code for creating a PathElement from a CGPathElement for the newest Xcode 7 release.
  3. Oct 30, 2016
    Updated text and code for Swift 3 using the new `UnsafeRawPointer` API.

A few years ago I wrote about how to access the elements of a CGPath or UIBezierPath. To do that in Objective-C, you call the CGPathApply function and pass in a pointer to a callback function. CGPathApply then calls this callback for each path element.

If you wanted to do this in Swift 1.x, you were out of luck because there was no way to bridge a Swift function to a C function pointer. You had to write a small wrapper in C or Objective-C that encapsulated the callback function.

As of Swift 2, it’s now possible to do this fully natively in Swift. C function pointers are imported into Swift as closures. You can pass any Swift closure expression or function with matching parameters to code that expects a C function pointer — with one massive caveat: unlike closures, C function pointers don’t have the concept of capturing state. As a result, the compiler will only allow Swift functions that don’t capture any outside state to be bridged to a C function pointer. Swift uses the @convention(c) notation to indicate this calling convention.

Accessing the elements of a UIBezierPath

Let’s take the familiar task of iterating over the elements of a path as an example.

A Swift data structure for path elements

First, consider the data structures we have to deal with. CGPath.apply will pass a pointer to a CGPathElement to the callback function. This is a struct that contains a constant indicating the type of the path element and a C array of CGPoints. The number of points in the array varies between 0 and 3 depending on the element type.

Working with CGPathElement in Swift is not very pleasant. The C array gets imported as a UnsafeMutablePointer<CGPoint> whose lifetime is limited to the callback function, so we’d have to copy its contents to somewhere else if we wanted to keep the data around. A safer and more convenient way to access the correct number of points for each element type would be nice too.

A Swift enum with associated values for the points is ideal for this purpose. A custom initializer does the conversion from CGPathElement:

/// A Swiftified representation of a `CGPathElement`
/// Simpler and safer than `CGPathElement`.
public enum PathElement {
    case moveToPoint(CGPoint)
    case addLineToPoint(CGPoint)
    case addQuadCurveToPoint(CGPoint, CGPoint)
    case addCurveToPoint(CGPoint, CGPoint, CGPoint)
    case closeSubpath

    init(element: CGPathElement) {
        switch element.type {
        case .moveToPoint:
            self = .moveToPoint(element.points[0])
        case .addLineToPoint:
            self = .addLineToPoint(element.points[0])
        case .addQuadCurveToPoint:
            self = .addQuadCurveToPoint(element.points[0], element.points[1])
        case .addCurveToPoint:
            self = .addCurveToPoint(element.points[0], element.points[1], element.points[2])
        case .closeSubpath:
            self = .closeSubpath

Next, let’s add a nice string representation to our new data type for easier debugging.

extension PathElement: CustomDebugStringConvertible {
    public var debugDescription: String {
        switch self {
        case let .moveToPoint(point):
            return "moveto \(point)"
        case let .addLineToPoint(point):
            return "lineto \(point)"
        case let .addQuadCurveToPoint(point1, point2):
            return "quadcurveto \(point1), \(point2)"
        case let .addCurveToPoint(point1, point2, point3):
            return "curveto \(point1), \(point2), \(point3)"
        case .closeSubpath:
            return "closepath"

While we’re at it, we should also make PathElement Equatable because that’s what you should always do for value types.

extension PathElement : Equatable {
    public static func ==(lhs: PathElement, rhs: PathElement) -> Bool {
        switch(lhs, rhs) {
        case let (.moveToPoint(l), .moveToPoint(r)):
            return l == r
        case let (.addLineToPoint(l), .addLineToPoint(r)):
            return l == r
        case let (.addQuadCurveToPoint(l1, l2), .addQuadCurveToPoint(r1, r2)):
            return l1 == r1 && l2 == r2
        case let (.addCurveToPoint(l1, l2, l3), .addCurveToPoint(r1, r2, r3)):
            return l1 == r1 && l2 == r2 && l3 == r3
        case (.closeSubpath, .closeSubpath):
            return true
        case (_, _):
            return false

Enumerating path elements

Now comes the interesting part. We’d like to extend UIBezierPath with a new computed property named elements that iterates over the path and returns an array of PathElements. We know that we have to call CGPath.apply and pass it a function that gets called for each element. Inside the callback function, we need to convert the CGPathElement to a PathElement and store it somehow in an array. This last part is not as easy as it sounds because the C calling convention prevents the function from accessing any variables from the surrounding context.

Since pure C implementations of this API face the same problem, CGPath.apply takes one more argument in the form of an untyped pointer (void * in C) and passes this pointer on to the callback function. This enables the caller to pass an arbitrary piece of data (such as a pointer to an array) to the callback — exactly what we need.

void * gets imported into Swift as on optional UnsafeMutableRawPointer. This is a new type that was introduced in Swift 3 to differentiate untyped pointers (void *) from typed ones (Unsafe[Mutable]Pointer<T>).

We create a Swift array to hold the PathElement values and then call withUnsafeMutablePointer() to get a pointer to the array that’s valid inside the closure passed to withUnsafeMutablePointer. In this closure we then convert the typed pointer to a raw pointer in order to pass it to CGPath.apply as our userInfo parameter. The final step in the inner path element callback function is to convert the raw pointer back to an UnsafeMutablePointer<[PathElement]> and append the new path element to the array.

The full implementation looks like this:

extension UIBezierPath {
    var elements: [PathElement] {
        var pathElements = [PathElement]()
        withUnsafeMutablePointer(to: &pathElements) { elementsPointer in
            let rawElementsPointer = UnsafeMutableRawPointer(elementsPointer)
            cgPath.apply(info: rawElementsPointer) { userInfo, nextElementPointer in
                let nextElement = PathElement(element: nextElementPointer.pointee)
                let elementsPointer = userInfo?.assumingMemoryBound(to: [PathElement].self)
        return pathElements

Update: In a post on the developer forums, Apple employee Quinn “The Eskimo!” suggested a slightly different approach: instead of a pointer to the array you want to mutate, you could also pass a pointer to another closure in the userInfo parameter. Since this closure is not constrained by the C calling convention, it can capture any variables you want.

Creating the pointer to the closure involves some ugly @convention(block) and unsafeBitCast magic (or wrapping the closure in a box type), so I’m not sure I like it. But the end result is certainly very convenient.

Conforming UIBezierPath to Sequence

Now that we have an array of path elements, it is trivial to turn UIBezierPath into a Sequence. This allows users to iterate over the path with a for element in path loop or to call methods like map or filter directly on the path:

extension UIBezierPath: Sequence {
    public func makeIterator() -> AnyIterator<PathElement> {
        return AnyIterator(elements.makeIterator())


Let’s try this with an example path:

let path = UIBezierPath()
path.move(to: CGPoint(x: 0, y: 0))
path.addLine(to: CGPoint(x: 100, y: 0))
path.addLine(to: CGPoint(x: 50, y: 100))
path.move(to: CGPoint(x: 0, y: 100))
path.addQuadCurve(to: CGPoint(x: 100, y: 100),
    controlPoint: CGPoint(x: 50, y: 200))
path.move(to: CGPoint(x: 100, y: 0))
path.addCurve(to: CGPoint(x: 200, y: 0),
    controlPoint1: CGPoint(x: 125, y: 100),
    controlPoint2: CGPoint(x: 175, y: -100))
The example path
The example path.

Now we can iterate over the path and print a description of each element:

for element in path {
/* Output:
moveto (0.0, 0.0)
lineto (100.0, 0.0)
lineto (50.0, 100.0)
moveto (0.0, 100.0)
quadcurveto (50.0, 200.0), (100.0, 100.0)
moveto (100.0, 0.0)
curveto (125.0, 100.0), (175.0, -100.0), (200.0, 0.0)

Or we can count how many closepath commands there are in the path:

let closePathCount = path.filter {
    $0 == .closeSubpath
// -> 3


Swift automatically bridges C function pointers to Swift function types. This makes it possible (and very convenient) to work with a large number of C APIs that take function pointers as callbacks. Because the C calling convention does not allow these functions to capture external state, you often have to pass external variables your callback function needs through an untyped pointer that many C APIs offer for this purpose. Doing this from Swift is a bit convoluted but entirely possible.

If you liked this article, I bet you’ll also like Advanced Swift, the book I wrote together with Chris Eidhof and Airspeed Velocity.

The second edition, fully updated for Swift 3, is out now.

Advanced Swift is available as a DRM-free e-book (including the full book for Swift Playgrounds on iPad) and in print.