I've recently gotten my hands on some fairly high resolution (0.5m) imagery that needs to be georeferenced. I had been using the Georeferencer plugin in QGIS - using Google Imagery XYZ layer as the basemap - with good success.

My successful georeferencing has been in mostly flat areas. I've moved into more hilly terrain, and now I just can't get the RMS down to a usable level. Using a Polynomial 2 transformation, the reported mean error is 20+.

The image am I currently working on is a large geographic area - approximately 20km x 15km. Finding usable control points is not difficult. I've tried a few strategies. First, I tried a 'minimal approach' adding control points regularly spaced around the perimeter of the image, and then just a few more in the interior of the image (regularly spaced). That didn't produce a good result. So then I've tried just adding many control points (currently 100+) regularly spaced across entire image - and still not getting a good result.

I'm not sure what strategies I should try? I was thinking maybe tiling the large image into smaller tiles (say 5km x 5km) and georeference those independently? My thinking there is that the smaller images will contain less total distortion compared to the entire image - and maybe easier to fix. Any other ways to deal with this situation?

2 Answers 2


It's important to think about what RMS actually means. There's a good reply about that here, even if not in the context of hilly terrain: https://gis.stackexchange.com/a/8918/29005

Applying this to your question, it should become obvious that a low RMS is not something you should strive for in this case, as it is almost meaningless. A hilly terrain is basically a map that is locally distorted and "smudged", as geodistance varies with elevation, and is also affected by the angle the photo was taken from. To reference this to a "flat" map, you will need to warp and distort the photo to make it closely fit the map, and that will always be messy.

As Mike Liu suggested, using a DTM to correct for all these terrain influences is the best and easiest solution. But finding such a DTM in sufficient quality is not always easy or possible at all. If this is true for you, you can still georeference the photo, but do so smartly. Think about what actually happens in these transformations: You specify a number of points that are "100% matches" on the photo and the map. If you use a polynomial transformation, the algorithm attempts to find a polynomial curve that makes everything between these "truth points" fit as best as possible. This means: The farther from a CP, the more "distortion" is applied.

There's no inherent benefit of using a lot of control points in a "grid pattern", unless you can place these with a high degree of accuracy. If you are even slightly unsure of identifying control points (CPs), it's better to not use them at all, as they'll ruin the polynomial fitting algorithm. For hilly terrain, I'd recommend trying to find obvious CPs at or around clear elevation changes (e.g. mountaintop/ridgeline, creeks/rivers and the edges of forested hillsides next to farmland, for example. Using a higher order polynomial transformation you'll allow for the necessary distortion to occur to warp the photo to a true flat map. With high resolution imagery such as yours, this should be fairly easy to do.

As this warping is necessary, it actually is a good sign to have a high RMS, because having a match without distortion would definitely be completely wrong. Of course, with higher order polynomial transformations, you risk a lot of faulty warping far from control points (and especially towards the edges of your photo), but there will always be a price to pay (aside the obvious huge amount of processing required).

As to your idea of using smaller areas: If you only need a small area for your analysis, then certainly, limiting yourself to referencing just the small area will make things easier and more accurate. If you absolutely need to work the entire 20x15km at once, then splitting it first and then trying to stitch it together later will make everything a lot more painful going forward.

In short: Do not put all your faith and trust into statistical numbers such as RMS. All these are just indicators that allow you to better understand your work, they are NOT qualifiers of any kind. Indicators such as these always need interpretation and consideration of context. There's a reason there's a whole field of science revolving around this, after all ;) . Also, trust your eyes: If the result of a transformation looks good (good fitting to the map/reference material), the result IS good! The benefit of working with visual data is that we are allowed to trust our visual senses. Human brains are very hard to beat at pattern and outlier recognition.

  • this is great information, thank you!
    – user890
    Nov 3, 2020 at 12:18

Usually georeferencing a hilly image needs a DTM to do it. You should find a DTM with the same image area first then do the georeference.

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