I am looking for simple suggestions of software packages that go beyond what ESRI ArcScene can offer.

I want to create 3D terrain visualisations, particularly of orthophotos draped over high quality DEMs. However I would also like more control of atmospheric conditions (eg haze), lighting, surface texture, clouds, and antialiasing. I'm looking for recommendations for packages that are relatively simple to use (like ArcScene) and which load GIS data natively.

I would be happy with very short replies along the lines of "try this package X" or "have you looked at package Y, it's great, we use it at work...". [Editor: put these as comments instead of answers please]

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    Have you tried ArcGIS Pro? I haven't used it for 3D terrain modelling yet, but it's supposed to offer more advanced 3D capabilities (including more options for illumination).
    – Radar
    Jan 21, 2016 at 19:18
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    seems like a valid question to me... anyways, if you have QGIS (free), there is a 3D visualization plugin called qgis2threejs (google it). It exports stuff right out of GIS into 3D visuals in the web browser (free). However, if you want to get into the advanced styling, you'll need to know JavaScript to modify the three.js file that it outputs.
    – Tangnar
    Jan 22, 2016 at 15:16
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    You are looking for Terragen planetside.co.uk . Simple enough but also very in-depth as you go along. It;s been around for many year. Used to work with it 5 years ago. It does amazing work; also has been used to many many films.
    – nickves
    Jan 22, 2016 at 15:16
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    btw im voting for reopen
    – nickves
    Jan 22, 2016 at 15:17
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    What about Google Earth Pro? I believe it is free now. Pro version can load GIS data.
    – Thomas
    Jan 22, 2016 at 16:26

2 Answers 2


Dynamic or real-time viewing

For real-time viewing, start with the Virtual Terrain Project. Open source from a proficient developer it has native GIS smarts. Even if you opt not to use VTP the website itself is the best curated list of data and white paper resources on terrain modelling I'm aware of -- including short evaluations of other 3D terrain software ;-)

If you're more of a hacker/developer type and comfortable with text files as design and control tools osgEarth might be the ticket. Open source with an active community.

I don't consider Google Earth a viable contender, even though it's performance and smoothness make it a better tool than ArcScene for many circumstances. Why? You can't load your own terrain or base imagery, only work on top of what they already provide.

Static or render-then-view

On the static rendering side best of breed would be Visual Nature Studio and World Construction Set from 3D Nature / AlphaPixel. It has detailed control over atmospherics, vegetation, buildings, water with waves and reflections, and integrates well with GIS data. However that extra control comes with a learning investment.

A couple of notable applications I'm aware of that approach world rendering from the design and artistic creation side are Terragen, already suggested in the comments, and Blender. Both can produce spectacular results, but ingesting GIS is an afterthought so there may be a fair bit of data munging work to get where you want. Of the two Terragen is at least focussed on world building while for Blender it's entirely a sideline.

That said, Blender is an open source project and there is a some activity to improve it's terrain abilities; the generic BlenderGIS and Open Street Map specific Blender-geo data importers for two.

Another worthy of mention is Bryce, also approaching from the artistic side.

2016-Jan-29: added Terragen and Blender
2016-Feb-01: Incorporate Xenon's comment, split into dynamic/static, add Bryce, osgEarth; not-add Google Earth

  • Oh look, there's a Blender Stack Exchange site, a wee bit of GIS stuff there too: blender.stackexchange.com/questions/34307/gis-data-import Jan 29, 2016 at 20:30
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    One distinction I will make is between realtime tools like Google Earth, ArcScene, VTP and osgEarth ( osgearth.org ) which do great stuff, but limit their quality in order to achieve interactive realtime redraw rates (up to 60fps) and tools like Terragen, Blender, and WCS/VNS which render frames in an "offline" manner, taking, seconds, minutes or in extreme cases, hours, to produce a single high-quality still image (or a series of them stored as an AVI/MOV). Realtime will be quicker, rendered tools will always be higher visual quality as they can throw more resources at the problem. Jan 29, 2016 at 22:16

For the short answer, take a look at http://www.geoweb3d.com/

  • even If the link provides an answer to the question, please describe what can be found behind the link in case the link breaks someday
    – LaughU
    Oct 27, 2017 at 11:53

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