ArcGIS Living Atlas

How to show terrain in even the flattest areas

Just because your map is in the Netherlands, doesn’t mean you can’t brew some terrain hillshade into it! I’m from the glacially-scraped flatlands of Michigan, trust me, I know flat. But I also know that a bit (or a lot) of terrain hillshade on a map can bring it to life. So what can be done if the mapped area should illustrate even the subtlest of elevation, but by golly there is hardly an elevation to be had? No problem, we will harness the power of statistics and the prowess of ArcGIS Pro to add a wrinkle to even the smoothest of landscapes.

Here’s how:

0:00 A bold introduction. Can he make good on his claims?

0:07 Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. A misnomer if there ever was one.

0:25 Adding in the wondrous, and highly luscious, digital elevation model image service from Living Atlas. Anywhere in the world, any scale. Even flat, flat, Mt. Pleasant.

0:34 Making a hillshade, based on the elevation data, using the “Hillshade” raster function. I love this tool. And I love the team that made it. Behind every feature is a team of folks doing their best to make something wonderful.

0:50 Maximizing hillshade variability with the Dynamic Range Adjustment renderer. This only bothers with the current view area so tones aren’t wasted on out-of-sight stuff.

1:25 Forcing tone variability across the range of shadows using STATISTICS! Standard deviation as the “stretch type” strong-arms the distribution of pixels across the color scheme.

2:15 Give it an Overlay blend mode and POW, look at that! Forcing bumpiness in a nearly bump-free area. Hillshade finds a way!

2:56 Not enough? Tough customer! Ok, here’s a second technique that you can layer in. Same hillshade, but no blend mode and make the middle colors (flat areas) transparent.

4:24 Gratuitous verification tour of flat areas including Florida, the Netherlands, Sahara, and Moscow.

Please help yourself to this cacophony of before/after examples…

Copenhagen without terrain.
Copenhagen with hillshade.
Karachi without forced hillshade.
Karachi with forced hillshade.
Rotterdam normal.
Rotterdam with some elevation apparent along the canal burms!
Regular old London.
London with nearly unbelievable terrain.
Florida is flat.
Florida is just barely bumpy.
The plains of metro Paris.
Paris is alive with hillshade.
Bangkok regular.
Bangkok with extremely maximized hillshade.
Moscow has very little terrain.
Moscow with some outrageous forced hillshade.

Happy flatland hillshading! John

P.S. Yes, I tried this on the Bonneville Salt Flats and flat is just flat. Nothing to work with. Let’s be reasonable, people.

About the author

I have far too much fun looking for ways to understand and present data visually, hopefully driving product strategy and engaging users. I work in the ArcGIS Living Atlas team at Esri, pushing and pulling data in all sorts of absurd ways and then sharing the process. I also design user experiences for maps and apps. When I'm not doing those things, I'm chasing around toddlers and wrangling chickens, and generally getting into other ad-hoc adventures. Life is good. You might also like these Styles for ArcGIS Pro:

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