Shaded Relief with BlenderGIS (2019), part 2

[Back to Part 1]

In the overall process we are now at step 3, but things will go faster now.

  1. Prepare your DEM
  2. Read the DEM into Blender as DEM raw data build
  3. Adjust Z scaling (vertical exaggeration)
  4. Create and adjust a georef camera
  5. Correct the final pixel dimensions of the output image to match the DEM
  6. Set final image type to be TIFF
  7. Turn the light into a Sun, and adjust its properties
  8. Do a test render
  9. Do a full render

At the end I’ll cover some of the variations on this process and extra tweaks you can do.

Adjust Z scaling (vertical exaggeration)

The first thing to adjust on your plane is what we usually call the vertical exaggeration, but Blender thinks of as the Z scaling.

With the plane selected, go to the Object tab icon Object tab. Here you should see a number of sections, the first of which is the Transform section.

Object Transform section

Under Scale increase the Z value if you want to create vertical exaggeration. You should see your plane change shape.

It’s important to increase Z scaling before setting up the georef camera, because if you increase Z scaling afterwards, you may accidentally have set the camera below the tops of the highest features.

In my case the terrain has plenty of relief, so I’ll leave Scale Z at 1.000.

Create and adjust georef camera

Make sure the plane is still selected (in the Outliner) and go GIS>Camera>Georef.

A new camera (“Georef cam”) will appear in the Outliner. You do not need to delete the old camera.

When the georef cam is selected, then in the 3D Viewport you’ll see something like this (you may have to pull back).

georef cam createdThis is an orthographic camera (meaning, in effect, that all points of its lens look directly down: there is no perspective distortion) placed over the plane.

To check that your camera is properly pointed at your landscape, and sees all of it, hover the mouse over the 3D Viewport, and hit 0 on the numeric keypad (or go View>Viewpoint>Camera). You should see what the camera sees (“camera orthographic view”)

camera orthographic view

Hit NumPad-0 again (or go View>Viewpoint>Camera again) to go back to regular (“User perspective”) view.

Output tab: Correct the final pixel dimensions of the output image to match the DEM, and set final image type to be TIFF

Go to the Output tab icon Output tab, and under Dimensions check the Resolution X and Y that were set up when you created the georeferenced camera. Also note the percentage (%), which is 100% at this point.

output resolution

Change Resolution X and Resolution Y to match the pixel dimensions of your DEM. In my case, the initial DEM was 839 x 702 pixels, so I enter these two numbers for X and Y. With the dimensions of the hillshade matching those of the DEM I can, at the end, apply the DEM’s world file to the Blender output, and georeference it.

It’s possible at this stage in the process to set percentage to something small, like 20%. This way you can do some quick test renders: Blender will produce a rendering whose pixel dimensions are only 20% of the overall Resolution numbers you set. (Before the final render you’ll be back here and set this to 100% again.)

Lower down on the same tab, under Output, set the parameters for the type of image you want.

Output output parameters

I typically set these to File Format = TIFF, Color=BW and Color Depth = 8, but you can get JPG, PNG, etc. If you choose later to assign colour (other than grey or white) to the plane’s material, the world background or the sun, you will probably want to set Color to RGB or RGBA.

Turn the light into a Sun, and adjust its properties

Your plane is built, your camera is set: now all that is left to arrange is the Sunlight.

Select the Light in the outliner, and go to the Light object data tab icon Object Data tab.

Initially you should see something like this under Light:

Light object data Light initial

Click on Sun, and then change Strength to 1.

Click on the Use Nodes button below, and set its Strength to 2. It should now look like this.

Light object data Light final

You will want to play around with the Strength setting (in the Nodes section) when you do test renders. The strength of the light affects how bright your hillshade is.

The Angle setting for the sun is important. The Angle is how many degrees across the sun’s face looks from the ground. A sun with a smaller angle produces shadows with sharper edges.

sun angle comparison
Sun angle of 1° (left) and 10° (right)

A 1° sun is essentially a point source, and it casts sharp shadows. A 10° sun is bigger and the edges of shadows are diffuse. Take your pick.

Note that if you decide to use a coloured sun later (see “Part 3“) this is where you will change its colour: Light>Object Data>Nodes>Color.

Now go to the Object tab icon Object tab, and consider the location, rotation and scale of the light.

Light object transform initial

The location of the light does not matter: a “Sun” type light is considered to shine from an infinite distance regardless of its location. Scale should be left as all 1’s.

The rotation of the light however is all-important to us. It is here that we set the sun elevation and azimuth. These are both counter-intuitive in Blender, so here’s how it works.

Rotation X is always 0

Rotation Y is the complement of the familiar elevation angle (that is, 90 minus elevation). E.g., if you want a sun 60° above the horizon, set Rotation Y to 30°. Think of a light in a theatre clamped to a lighting pipe suspended over the stage. The pipe is the Y axis. The light is initially pointing straight down (0°) and you are swinging it up by 30°.

Rotation Z is the azimuth of the light, but instead of beginning at 0° for North and increasing clockwise (as we are familiar with from compass bearings), it begins at 0° for East and increases counterclockwise. (Think of angles measured on a coordinate plane.) It’s generally quickest to figure out by sketching on the back of an envelope, but the actual formula is that the Rotation Z = 450 – Azimuth, and subtract 360 from your answer if it is greater than 360.

common rotations Z

A few common angles: If I want a sun 50° above the horizon, coming from azimuth 337° (North-northwest), my light’s Rotation numbers will look like this:

light rotation for 50 at 337

Do a test render (F12)

There are two good ways to do this.

The first is to switch into camera view (Numpad-0) and change the viewport shading from Solid to Render. In the 3D Viewport, locate this group of icons in the upper right:

and note the group of four circles on the right end. At present, the second one, Solid viewport shading, is selected. Click on the fourth one to change to Render viewport shading. You will see Blender begin to render your scene with the camera and lights you have configured.

The other way to do a test render is to set percentage on the Output tab to something small (e.g., 10% or 20%) and and hit F12 to get a test render at a fraction of the size of the final render. A little Render window opens and after a pause you (hopefully!) get something like this.

test render basic

Either way, doing a test render often catches common mistakes, like forgetting to set up your light or camera. It also reveals how the overall image will look, and so you can adjust your light strength, azimuth and elevation to increase or decrease shadows and the overall brightness of the image.

When finished, be sure to either switch back to Solid viewport shading or set the output percentage to 100%.


On the Output tab, adjust Sampling. To the right of the word “Sampling,” note this menu icon:

This icon indicates that presets exist for this setting. Clicking on it, select Final. This increases the sampling numbers for the render, which will improve image quality.

Hit F12 to render.

Note that you can interrupt a render by hitting ESC, or by closing the render window.

I get this result:

basic render

Image>Save As allows you to save the image. If I saved this as “Blender shaded relief 1x 50 337.tif” I would then make a copy of the TFW world file I created back at the beginning and name it “Blender shaded relief 1x 50 337.tfw” This makes something georeferenced that I can pull into my GIS.

That’s it! You made a hillshade in Blender!

Now, to consider the many other things we can fiddle with in Blender—material, number of lights, denoising, etc.—go to Part 3.

2 thoughts on “Shaded Relief with BlenderGIS (2019), part 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s