In this tutorial I will show you how to create a Hillshaded topographic map in QGIS. We will be using Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, a near global Digital Elevation Model (DEM) collected in February 2000 aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle Endeavour (mission STS-99). The mission used a X-Band mapping radar to measure the Earth’s topography, built in collaboration with the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), and the German and Italian space agencies.

The raw radar data has been continuously processed and improved since it was first collected. Countless artefacts have been painstakingly removed and areas of missing data have been filled using alternate data sources. The version we will be using is the 1 Arc-Second Global SRTM dataset, an enhanced 30 meter resolution DEM that was released last year. It is a substantial improvement over the 3 Arc-Second / 90 meter SRTM data previously available for Ireland. SRTM elevation data can be downloaded from the United States Geological Survey’s EarthExplorer website.

When first loaded into QGIS (via Add Raster Layer), the DEM is displayed as a rather uninformative black and white image.


It is therefore necessary to apply a suitable colour ramp that accentuates topography. While it is possible to create your own colour ramp, or use one of the colour ramps provided by QGIS, superior colour ramps can be downloaded using Etienne Tourigny’s Color Ramp Manager (Plugins – Manage and Install Plugins). After the plugin is added to QGIS, go to the Plugins menu again and choose the Colour Ramp Manager.

In the window that pops up, choose the full opt-city package and click check for update. The plugin will then download the cpt-city library, a collection of over a hundred cartographic gradients (version 2.15). After the package downloads, quit the dialogue.

Back in QGIS, right click the DEM layer to bring up the Layer Properties dialogue. In the Style tab, change the render type from single band grey to single band pseudocolor. Then click new color ramp and new color ramp again, choose the cpt-city color ramp to bring up the cpt-city dialogue. Click topography and choose the sd-a colour ramp. While this is an excellent colour ramp, I find its colours are a bit too strong for my liking.

Still in the Layer Properties dialogue, change the min and max values to match your DEM’s lowest and highest elevations values and click classify, this applies the new colour ramp. Next, change the brightness to 30 and lower the contrast and saturation to -20. Click OK to apply the new style and quit the Layer Properties dialogue.


Next we need to create a Hillshade layer from the DEM, a 3D like visual representation of topographic relief. This is achieved via the menu Raster – Analysis – DEM (Terrain models). There is one small catch, the hillshading algorithm assumes the DEM’s horizontal units are in meters (they are decimal degrees). We need to enter a scale correction factor of 111120 (in the Scale ratio vert. units to horiz. box). Once that is all done, select an output path to save the generated hillshade and click OK. Generating a hillshade may take up to a minute depending on the size of your DEM.


After the hillshade is created, open its Layer properties dialogue. Change the min and max values to 125 and 255, increase its brightness to 45 and contrast to 20. Finally, switch the blending mode from normal to multiply. This allows the DEM beneath the hillshade to show though. Click OK to apply the new style.

If you followed these steps correctly you will have created a fine looking topographic map similar to the one below. It’s also possible to create contours but that’s a tutorial for another day.


Technical note:

There are two hillshading algorithms available in QGIS, one by Horne (1981) and another by Zevenbergen and Thorne (1987). Jones (1998) examined the quality of hillshading algorithms, he found the algorithm of Fleming and Ho€er (1979) is slightly superior to Horne’s (1981) algorithm. Zevenbergen and Thorne’s (1987) algorithm is a derivation of Fleming and Ho€er’s (1979) formula. QGIS uses Horne’s (1981) algorithm by default.


Horn, B.K., 1981. Hill shading and the reflectance map. Proceedings of the IEEE, 69, 14–47.

Jones, K.H., 1998. A comparison of algorithms used to compute hill slope as a property of the DEM [PDF]. Computers & Geosciences, 24, 315–323.

Zevenbergen, L.W. & Thorne, C.R., 1987. Quantitative analysis of land surface topography. Earth surface processes and landforms, 12, 47–56.