Under the hood of lambdas and std::function

(1295 words)

In this post we’ll explore how lambdas behave in different aspects. Then we’ll look into std::function and how it works.

What’s a lambda?

Here’s a quick recap if you have yet to use one of the most powerful features of C++11 – lambdas:

Lambdas are a fancy name for anonymous functions. Essentially they are an easy way to write functions (such as callbacks) in the logical place they should be in the code.

My favorite expression in C++ is [](){}();, which declares an empty lambda and immediately executes it. It is of course completely useless. Better examples are with STL, like:

std::sort(v.begin(), v.end(), [](int a, int b) { return a > b; });

This has the following advantages over C++98 alternatives: it is where the code would logically be (as opposed to defining a class/function somewhere outside this scope), and it does not pollute any namespace (although this could be easily be bypassed even in C++98).


Lambdas have 3 parts:

  1. Capture list – these are variables that are copied inside the lambda to be used in the code;
  2. Argument list – these are the arguments that are passed to the lambda at execution time;
  3. Code – well.. code.

Here’s a simple example:

int i = 0, j = 1;
auto func = [i, &j](bool b, float f){ ++j; cout << i << ", " << b << ", " << f << endl; };
func(true, 1.0f);
  1. First line is simple - create 2 ints named i and j.
  2. Second line defines a lambda that:
    • Captures i by value, j by reference,
    • Accepts 2 parameters: bool b and float f,
    • Prints b and f when invoked
  3. Third line calls this lambda with true and 1.0f

I find it useful to think of lambdas as classes:

One last thing syntax-wise: you can also specify a default capture:

Capture by value vs by reference

Above we mentioned capturing a lambda by value vs by reference. What’s the difference? Here’s a simple code that will illustrate:

int i = 0;
auto foo = [i](){ cout << i << endl; };
auto bar = [&i](){ cout << i << endl; };
i = 10;

Lambda’s type

One important thing to note is that a lambda is not a std::function. It is true that a lambda can be assigned to a std::function, but that is not its native type. We’ll talk about what that means soon.

As a matter of fact, there is no standard type for lambdas. A lambda’s type is implementation defined, and the only way to capture a lambda with no conversion is by using auto:

auto f2 = [](){};

However, if your capture list is empty you may convert your lambda to a C-style function pointer:

void (*foo)(bool, int);
foo = [](bool, int){};

Lambda’s scope

All captured variables have the scope of the lambda:

#include <iostream>
#include <functional>

struct MyStruct {
	MyStruct() { std::cout << "Constructed" << std::endl; }
	MyStruct(MyStruct const&) { std::cout << "Copy-Constructed" << std::endl; }
	~MyStruct() { std::cout << "Destructed" << std::endl; }

int main() {
	std::cout << "Creating MyStruct..." << std::endl;
	MyStruct ms;
		std::cout << "Creating lambda..." << std::endl;
		auto f = [ms](){}; // note 'ms' is captured by-value
		std::cout << "Destroying lambda..." << std::endl;

	std::cout << "Destroying MyStruct..." << std::endl;


Creating MyStruct...
Creating lambda...
Destroying lambda...
Destroying MyStruct...

mutable lambdas

lambda’s operator() is const by-default, meaning it can’t modify the variables it captured by-value (which are analogous to class members). To change this default add mutable:

int i = 1;
[&i](){ i = 1; }; // ok, 'i' is captured by-reference.
[i](){ i = 1; }; // ERROR: assignment of read-only variable 'i'.
[i]() mutable { i = 1; }; // ok.

This gets even more interesting when talking about copying lambdas. Key thing to remember - they behave like classes:

int i = 0;
auto x = [i]() mutable { cout << ++i << endl; }
auto y = x;

Lambda’s size

Because lambdas have captures, there’s no single size for all lambdas. Example:

auto f1 = [](){};
cout << sizeof(f1) << endl;

std::array<char, 100> ar;
auto f2 = [&ar](){};
cout << sizeof(f2) << endl;

auto f3 = [ar](){};
cout << sizeof(f3) << endl;

Output (64-bit build):



Lambdas are also awesome when it comes to performance. Because they are objects rather than pointers they can be inlined very easily by the compiler, much like functors. This means that calling a lambda many times (such as with std::sort or std::copy_if) is much better than using a global function. This is one example of where C++ is actually faster than C.


std::function is a templated object that is used to store and call any callable type, such as functions, objects, lambdas and the result of std::bind.

Simple example

#include <iostream>
#include <functional>
using namespace std;

void global_f() {
	cout << "global_f()" << endl;

struct Functor {
	void operator()() { cout << "Functor" << endl; }

int main() {
	std::function<void()> f;
	cout << "sizeof(f) == " << sizeof(f) << endl;

	f = global_f;

	f = [](){ cout << "Lambda" << endl;};

	Functor functor;
	f = functor;


$ clang++ main.cpp -std=c++14 && ./a.out 
sizeof(f) == 32

std::function’s Size

On clang++ the size of all std::functions (regardless of return value or parameters) is always 32 bytes. It uses what is called small size optimization, much like std::string does on many implementations. This basically means that for small objects std::function can keep them as part of its memory, but for bigger objects it defers to dynamic memory allocation. Here’s an example on a 64-bit machine:

#include <iostream>
#include <functional>
#include <array>
#include <cstdlib> // for malloc() and free()
using namespace std;

// replace operator new and delete to log allocations
void* operator new(std::size_t n) {
	cout << "Allocating " << n << " bytes" << endl;
	return malloc(n);
void operator delete(void* p) throw() {

int main() {
	std::array<char, 16> arr1;
	auto lambda1 = [arr1](){}; 
	cout << "Assigning lambda1 of size " << sizeof(lambda1) << endl;
	std::function<void()> f1 = lambda1;

	std::array<char, 17> arr2;
	auto lambda2 = [arr2](){}; 
	cout << "Assigning lambda2 of size " << sizeof(lambda2) << endl;
	std::function<void()> f2 = lambda2;
$ clang++ main.cpp -std=c++14 && ./a.out 
Assigning lambda1 of size 16
Assigning lambda2 of size 17
Allocating 17 bytes

17. That’s the threshold beyond which std::function reverts to dynamic allocation (on clang). Note that the allocation is for the size of 17 bytes as the lambda object needs to be contiguous in memory.

That’s it for my first post. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please let me know if you have any suggestions, questions or comments!