Make mountains in Blender from height maps

  • Blender Mountain
    Mt Ruapehu modelled in Blender 
08/27/2017 - 20:06

Blender can make mountains from height maps, and this is a tutorial to show you how. The height map I've used is represented by a grayscale bitmap. Black being the lowest point, white the highest. Blender is able to deform a mesh based on the pixel colour of a texture. Download the following height map of two New Zealand mountains, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe.png, for use in the tutorial.

The height map was created by University of Otago - National School of Surveying who have published it at Koordinates, and is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.
Blender is free, and open source, from It runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. This tutorial is for Blender versions 2.5 & 2.6.


When Blender is first opened there is a cube in the middle of the screen. To delete this, Right Click Template-RMB.png on the cube >> press X >> Enter.

01 - CTRL ALT U - Add Ons - Import-ExportBlender has an Add-On that can import pictures, and movies. By default it is turned off. So the first thing to do is enable the Add On. Bring up the Blender User Preferences by pressing Ctrl Alt U. Click on Add-Ons, then Import-Export, and scroll down till you find Import Images as Planes. Enable this and close the preferences window.

02 - Check Import images as Planes

Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe DEMNext you will need a heightmap to work with. So download Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe.png. This is an image of two mountains found on a volcanic plataeu in the North Island of New Zealand. You can make your own heightmaps by opening your favourite photo editor or painting program and using a grayscale palette to draw high areas in lighter shades and low areas with darker shades. At the end of this tutorial you can read about sourcing heightmaps for other parts of the Earth.

03 - File > Import > Images as PlanesOpen your heightmap by clicking File » Import » Images as Planes.

04 - Image imported - Press TAB to enter EDIT MODEAfter it is imported you'll see a gray plane in your 3d viewport. This plane has one vertex in each corner. To be able to create our model we need many vertices. The vertices will be pushed upwards by the shaded pixels of the heightmap. We create these by subdividing our plane several times.

Press ⇆ Tab to enter Edit Mode . Press W to bring up the Specials menu and select Subdivide.05 - Press W - Click on SUBDIVIDE

06 - Make Number of Cuts equal 300On the left hand side in the Tools dock you will see a new Subdivide menu. With this you can adjust the Number of Cuts. For this tutorial use 300.
If the number of vertices are fewer than the pixels of the heightmap, Blender will calculate the average change in height. If the number of vertices equals or exceeds the pixels then you may see steps in your model. There are other methods of subdivision, such as using a Multiresolution Modifier.
07 - Click on the Modifiers Icon > Add Modifier > DisplaceIt's now time to apply a deformation modifier to the plane. ⇆ Tab into Object Mode Object Mode. Click on the Modifier icon Modifier in the Properties viewport Properties. Then Add Modifier and from the list choose Displace Displace Modifier.
08 - Choose a textureA set of displacement options will appear. To use the heightmap click on the open existing Texture icon, Texture, and select Ruapehu And Ngauruhoe.
09 - Result of displace modifierN10 - Adjust strength of modifier to .200ow you will see mountains! They'll be rough, and too high though. To correct the height, adjust the displacement Strength, 0.200 is about right for these mountains. If you're using your own heightmap you will want to play with this setting until it looks right. You can go the whole hog and measure between two XY reference points and two Z points to get it absolutely spot on.
11 - Smooth the modelFinally we can smooth the model to make it appear more natural. In the Tool dock click on Smooth.

As an alternative to this, you could use a Smooth Smooth Modifiermodifier. Modifiers are great to use because they allow for non destructive editing. You can play with the settings to your hearts content and easily reverse any changes. Modifiers can slow down your computer a little, if this is so, click Apply once you're happy with the model. Also click apply if you want to edit the model as a mesh.

If you use a rectangular texture you will want to change the Texture Coordinates, in the Displacement modifier, from to . This will prevent your model from looking strange by putting the texture in the right place on the plane.

Was this tutorial useful? Do you have questions? Comment below...


Add new comment