Create 3D Terrain Models from Real World Locations

3D model of Ngornogo Conservation Area — World Heritage Site
3D model of Ngornogo Conservation Area — World Heritage Site

Software Needed:

QGIS: Geographical Information Software

Adobe Photoshop

Atlas 3D Map Generator (Photoshop plug-in)

I have been creating 3D models of terrain for uploading to SketchFab and also generating 3D models for use in my World Heritage sites class. With GIS, it is possible to add any additional information to the 3D models as needed. I like this approach because it is straightforward to create whatever 3D content you need with just a few clicks. It did take me a while to figure out this workflow, so hopefully this post will save somebody some time and effort.

My General Workflow:


  1. Capture with screenshots digital elevation models (DEMs) and aerial imagery within QGIS. The advantage of this approach is that any other GIS layers can be added on top of the DEM models in the final 3D modeling rendering.
    a. Navigate to a real world of interest within QGIS.
    b. I typically use the QGIS SRTM plug-in for automatically downloading the DEMs that cover the current extent. If there are more than one DEM, I merge them together.

Raster ⇨Miscellaneous ⇨ Merge. Then add the recently downloaded SRTM files and click merge.

To use this SRTM plug-in, create a free profile at https//

c. Take screenshots of both the DEM and aerial imagery for the overlaying 3D model’s texture. Make sure the screenshots cover the same area of the screen so that they overlay each other.


  1. Open the DEM raster layer in Photoshop.
  2. Create a new layer in Photoshop and embed the texture layer (aerial imagery or other GIS layers), and label this new layer as texture.
  3. Create New Terrain using the Atlas plug-in
  4. Modify the terrain settings and export the 3D model from Photoshop.

I normally export the 3D model with 600 cm width dimensions which seems to work well with uploading to SketchFab. I also save the texture files as JPEGS which SketchFab can process.

Upload to Sketchfab

  1. Compress the exported .obj and other supporting files. On a Mac highlight all the files, right-click and then select compress. Upload the .zip file to SketchFab.

Stepping Back in Time — 3D modeling Aerial Images shot in the aftermath of the devastating 1970 Lubbock Tornadoes.

I am currently working on creating a 3D model of the tornado damage paths and surrounding destruction left behind by the May 11, 1970 tornadoes in Lubbock, Texas. These tornadoes were extremely powerful, and it lead to Tetsuya Theodore (Ted) Fujita developing the F-Scale. The Lubbock tornado was rated as an F-5.

Click here for the 3D modeling story from the Museum of Texas Tech University.

Click here for more information about the 1970 Lubbock tornadoes from the National Weather Service.