Creating Shaded Relief Images and 3D Scenes Using Aerial Photos, DEMs, Arc, and ArcScene

Dave and Barb Tewksbury
Hamilton College
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  1. This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

    This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

    • Scientific Accuracy
    • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
    • Pedagogic Effectiveness
    • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
    • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

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  2. This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see

This page first made public: Jul 29, 2008


Students use ArcGIS (DEMs plus georeferenced orthophotos) to create shaded relief images with correct shadows and to create 3D views of aerial photos in ArcScene to help them visualize landscapes.

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This exercise could be part of any course or research project in which it is important to be able to visualize not only the topography in 3D (which could be done simply with a DEM) but also the features visible in an aerial photograph or satellite image of the Earth or Mars.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students must have basic ArcGIS skills and be able to work with DEMs in ArcMap, and create and manipulate hillshades. We have a set of short, targeted tutorial modules that provide these basic skills.

How the activity is situated in the course

Any time after basic GIS skills are taught.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Students will learn a basic GIS technique that can then be used in landscape analysis.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

None directly in this activity. This is simply a tutorial that teaches a particular set of techniques.

Other skills goals for this activity

Students will practice GIS skills learned in previous assignments.

Description of the activity/assignment

The first part of this activity teaches students how to make a high quality shaded relief image of an aerial photo using ArcMap, an orthophoto, and a DEM by matching the illumination direction on the hillshade created from the DEM with the illumination direction at the time the photo was taken.

In the second part of this activity, students use a digital orthophoto with an associated DEM, and ArcScene to construct a high resolution 3D visual version of the scene that can be tilted, panned, and zoomed in real time, providing an outstanding way for students to visualize landscape.

This activity does not come with a data set. Any orthophoto and DEM can be used.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Students will be evaluated in a later assignment when they apply this technique to studying a particular landscape.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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