Controlling Float Positioning In Latex: An In-Depth Guide

What Are Floats and Why Position Them?

In LaTeX, floats are objects that are not part of the main text flow, such as figures, tables, algorithms, listings, etc. They are meant to be positioned in a document according to certain rules that determine the best placement. The LaTeX float placement algorithms try to ensure that floats do not appear before they are referenced in the text and that they do not fall too far away from their first reference.

However, the algorithms do not always generate optimal float positions, especially in complex documents. Poor float placement can disrupt the reading flow and coherence of the text. Readers may have to jump back and forth to view a referenced object. This reduces readability. Therefore, controlling float positioning is often necessary for high quality typesetting.

Specifically, authors may want finer control over float placement for several reasons:

  • To keep figures and tables close to their first textual reference
  • To prevent floats from splitting logical sections and paragraphs
  • To arrange visuals in intended narrative order
  • To group related floats, like figures in subsections
  • To position multiple pagewide floats in sequence
  • To align floats precisely with surrounding body text

Relying solely on LaTeX's automatic float placement can yield suboptimal page layouts that impair readability, navigation, and coherence. Manually controlling floats enables authors to optimize the positioning for the document's logical structure and narrative.

Specifying Float Placements

LaTeX offers several manual placement specifiers that provide greater control over float positioning:

[h], [t], and [b]

The location modifiers [h], [t], and [b] constraint floats to a particular vertical region of the page. Each constant corresponds to the following page areas:

  • [h]: Place the float "here" at the insertion point
  • [t]: Position at the top of a text page
  • [b]: Position at the bottom of a text page

For example, using [t] attempts to put the float at the absolute top of the current page. If insufficient space remains, LaTeX defers float insertion to a later page.

These modifiers give authors high-level control for grouping related floats toward logical regions like page tops and bottoms. However, using them alone can still yield less precision than manually placing floats in the source text.

[h!] and [t!]

For strict control, the bang "!", as in [h!] enforces the given placement. Unlike their gentler variants, these specifiers will override LaTeX's efforts to find the optimal position. They are risky since using them improperly can disrupt LaTeX's ability to generate good overall page balance and flow.

[h!] tries to insert the float on the current page at precisely the insertion point, possibly overflowing other content. [t!] positions the float at the absolute top of the page, again overflowing existing material if necessary. Authors should use both sparingly where precise control matters most for comprehension.

Figure and Table Environments

Floats are typically generated using standard LaTeX environments like:

  • figure
  • table
  • listing
  • algorithm

For example, a figure would use:

  \caption{A sample image float.} 

The optional argument [h] passes a suggested placement hint to LaTeX's positioning algorithm. This controls float positioning at a high level for the overall document structure.

Controlling Floats Within Sections

Grouping related floats within logical sections requires tools for controlling flow at a localized page range. Useful commands include:


The \clearpage command terminates the current page and inserts any deferred floats. This forces LaTeX to flush out pending floats before starting a new page.

Authors can trigger page breaks at logical conceptual shifts using \clearpage. This groups related floats in preceding sections while isolating floats in upcoming chapters through partitioning page sequences.

Using \afterpage to Place Floats Precisely

The \afterpage{} command postpones until the next page column. This positions at the absolute top of the next page.

Unlike [t], \afterpage guts out any existing top matter queued for the target page. Therefore, use \afterpage surgically where precise control matters over automatically flowing body text and secondary floats.

Some examples for precise float placement after new conceptual sections:

\section{Best Practices For Figures}
Text at end of practices section...


\section{Troubleshooting Figures}
Text starts troubleshooting section...  

Here \afterpage positions the key figure precisely at the top of the next page right after the best practices section, providing clear narrative separation before starting the new troubleshooting concepts.

Multi-Page Floats and Deferred Floats

By default, LaTeX float environments occupy at most a single page column. However, some visual contents like large figures, multipage tables, and long listings require breaking across pages. Key techniques include:

Allowing Floats to Span Pages

The float package provides the H placement parameter to enable page-spanning floats. H floats break across page boundaries until completing contents.

Add [H] to environments enabling multipage floats:


This allows the wide figure* environment to split the custom 1.5\linewidth image over page columns until fully containing it before continuing body text.

Deferring Floats to Document End

Authors may want to postpone less critical floats past body text, dedicating initial pages to key ideas first.

The endfloat package moves floats with the [H] parameter to an external Floats section after the main document content. For example:

\section{Important Concepts}
Text covering key ideas...


\section{Secondary Details}
Text covering additional details...

\Floats % Deferred floats here

This technique focuses the narrative on crucial ideas first while deferring peripheral floats to the end.

Troubleshooting Improper Float Placement

Sometimes LaTeX generates logically disjointed or simply ugly float placements. Symptoms of suboptimal positioning include:

  • Float caption text overlapping body text
  • Figures placed pages away from first reference
  • Related floats split across distant pages
  • Logical sections broken across pages
  • Uneven gaps between text and floats
  • Floats pushed to end of document

Strategies for troubleshooting include:

Identifying Float Placement Issues

  • Inspect document visually for disjointed or uneven positioning
  • Review LaTeX compiler warnings for overfull boxes
  • Temporarily disable floats to isolate issues
  • Print debug lines for LaTeX's choice of placements

Resolving Float Problems

  • Adjust float sizes if overlapping body text
  • Upgrade position specifiers from [h] to [H]
  • Apply manual breaks and placers like \clearpage
  • Set strict markups like [h!] where precision matters
  • Shorten paragraphs to ease LaTeX page breaking

With iterated customization of position specifiers, page break forcing, multipage settings, and text reflowing, authors can achieve optimal placement to improve narrative flow and coherence.

Example Figures and Code Snippets

For concrete demonstrations, here are sample float layouts using manual placement commands:

Caption Positioning Examples

  \caption{Analog filter circuit.}

Figure is near text reference since [htbp] tries placing at
  insertion point first before positioning top, bottom, page end.  
  \caption{Error codes}
    1 & Timeout \\
    2 & Invalid input \\

Table is precisely here since [h!] forces the insertion point.

Code for Manual Placement

    \caption{Measurement plot}

Figure forced to top of next page right after this text.

For more examples and techniques, refer to LaTeX documentation on controlling float positioning.

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