Creating Shaded Relief in Blender

Welcome! This is the long-awaited text version of my Blender relief tutorial, following on the video series I did a few years back. If you’ve already seen the videos and are returning for a refresher, note that I use a somewhat different method now, so don’t be surprised if you encounter unfamiliar settings.

This tutorial will take you an hour or two to get through — but I think the results are quite worth it. More importantly, note that your second relief will take much less time than this first one, since most of the work you’ll be doing can be saved and simply reloaded for future relief projects. Once you’ve invested the time to get comfortable with it, this technique can fit within ordinary production timelines.

This tutorial is, and will remain, free, but if you derive some value from it, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.

Version History

Version 1.1 (Jan 29, 2018) — Changes to Chapter 6: Added section on denoising, and alterered render settings to suggest using Limited Global Illumination. Both of these tips are courtesy of Dunstan Orchard.

Version 1.0 (Nov 16, 2017) — Initial release of text version.


Why Blender? In short: Blender makes better-looking relief. Most of the cartographers I know do their shaded relief in ArcMap or another GIS program, or sometimes they use Photoshop or Natural Scene Designer. All of these programs use basically the same algorithm, and you get a pretty similar results, as seen below. This standard GIS hillshade looks OK, but it’s rather noisy and harsh.


As Leland Brown has put it, this looks sort of like wrinkled tinfoil; full of sharp edges.

Blender, on the other hand, is designed specifically for 3D modeling. People use it for CGI, animations, and plenty more cool stuff. It’s intended to simulate the complexities of how light really works: the way it scatters, the way it reflects from one mountain to the next, and the way its absence creates shadows. Here’s Blender’s version of the same area:


Notice how it’s softer and more natural. The peaks cast shadows, and then those shadowed areas are gently lit by light scattered off of nearby mountain faces. Notice also how the structure of the terrain becomes more apparent. In a standard hillshade, I think you lose the forest for the trees. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the two methods:


Blender’s result not only looks more attractive and realistic, it’s also more intelligible, I think. Certain features of the landscape become more apparent — look at the valley below, running northeast-southwest. It’s hard to tell how wide it is, or that it’s a valley at all, when looking at the standard hillshade. But the Blender relief makes its structure clear, thanks to the improved modeling of lighting.


Whereas the standard hillshade algorithm makes pixels lighter or darker based solely on which direction they’re facing, Blender looks at the scene’s context, and whether that pixel is in a mountain shadow or is in a position to catch scattered light. The result is a more attractive, more understandable relief.

Table of Contents

This is a fairly long tutorial, as I mentioned, so for your convenience I’ve split it up into multiple chapters.

  1. Getting Set Up: We begin by downloading Blender and preparing a heightmap
  2. Blender Basics: Here, we’ll learn to navigate the software
  3. The Plane: We shall set up a plane mesh and apply a heightmap texture
  4. The Camera: Let us prepare to image the plane correctly
  5. The Sun: In which we cast light upon the plane
  6. Final Adjustments: Here, lingering settings are finally adjusted
  7. Advanced Thoughts: For your consideration on future days

Please enjoy, and if you see any errors (either typographical or of fact), please do let me know. I hope that this tutorial empowers you to produce work you can be proud of!