Create 3D images with TerraRay on OSX

TerraRay from the German company Synium Software is a simple, inexpensive Apple OSX program for creating landscape scenes.  The water, fog and clouds TerraRay renders can be quite beautiful.  And it has fractal and automatic-population features that quickly generate intriguing landscapes.  Despite its simple interface, TerraRay can be a powerful artistic tool.

A comprehensive guide to everything about TerraRay would be boring, and unnecessary; several good tutorials are built-in.  And for the most part, what you do with it is pretty obvious.  So, here’s my guide to what’s not obvious about TerraRay 6.5.7.  Click on any screenshot if you’d like to see it better.

Here’s an overview of the stages thru which a 3D model progresses:

09 work flow

Add and edit content

Start by creating a new scene from the Welcome panel or the File menu.  TerraRay displays an empty scene with the Terrain Elevation editor activated.

05 new scene

You can use or skip editors in any order.  The highlighted parts of the screenshot above are the same in all of the editors.

  • An editor selector bar is on the left margin.
  • real-time viewfinder that shows what the camera sees is in the bottom left corner.
  • A toolbar at the top includes tools for adding optional editors and the things they edit; plants, rocks and objects.  There are also tools to preview and render your scene from the camera’s point of view.  A preview is a fast, less detailed render that’s useful for checking your work.

The rest of the display varies depending on the editor you’re working in. 

  • Typically, a top-down view of your project is in the center.
  • An editor tool bar may be above this, and a button bar may be below it.
  • The right side of the work area may contain an editor menu or item list.

When you create a new scene, the Terrain Elevation editor activates automatically. flooded canyon s

  • In the project area, you see a green triangle; that’s the camera, the point of view for rendering your project as an image.
  • A circle around the mouse pointer shows the size and location of the brush (in this case, the elevation brush).
  • Above the project area is a brush tool-bar.  You’ll also find it in several other editors.
  • The top-down view shows a gray-scale elevation map (never mind that it’s yellow); the brighter an area’s color, the higher it will be rendered.
  • To enlarge your work area, use the Scene size button in the bottom right corner.  This way you can get the use of more of your screen’s real estate.  You can also get the scope you need for a scene such as a long canyon.  This control also adjusts the minimum and maximum elevation.
  • To reduce the elevation of an area, adjust the brush elevation setting in the top right corner and paint over the area.  The erosion brush also reduces elevation; it works much like the Smear tool in Photoshop.  The slower you move it, the more pronounced the erosion becomes.
  • You can also modify elevation with fractal terrain presets, and with filters.

This editor modifies the elevation layer, which is a required component of the model.  (If you don’t want it in your image, point the camera away from it.)  Here’s my concept of the kinds of layers and other components that make up a TerraRay model:

12 components

  • Elevation layer; required, and only one is available.  May have elevation and a material.  Overhangs, caves, etc. aren’t possible.  Adjust this layer in the Terrain Elevation editor.  You can also import a grayscale elevation map file created by other software.
  • Other terrain layers; optional.  Create them in the Terrain Material editor.  Each of these layers may have a material.
  • Objects; optional.  Use the tool bar “Add objects” to enable this editor.  TerraRay can’t create objects.  But a small library of objects is built in; and you can import 3DS object model files with the Objects editor.  Each object is created at ground level of the center of the workarea (even if that’s underwater); its height is adjustable.  Objects may have one or more materials.
  • Rocks, plants; optional.  Use the tool bar “Add rocks” or “Add plants” to enable these editors.  Created at ground level or water level.
  • Water; visible|invisible.
  • Sun, other lights; The sun is required; other lights are optional.  Use the Lights editor to control the sun and create other lights.  The Sky editor has some sun controls.
  • Sky, clouds; fog; haze; Clouds, fog and haze are optional.  The Sky editor has some sun controls.



Landscapes are TerraRay’s strength; objects are its weakness.  Roughly positioning an object horizontally by dragging it in the top-down workspace view isn’t too bad.  But hitting a target exactly is tough.  And positioning an object vertically is really tough.  Creating a complex structure by combining multiple objects is scarcely to be thought of.  With no way to zoom in, no calibration of the elevation slider, no way to make a delicate adjustment, no ability to key in a desired elevation, and only a small viewfinder to see what I’m doing, precisely positioning an object may take me half an hour of trial and error.  (For example, the gecko in the grass in the canyon picture above.)

The best strategy I’ve found is to do a preview with settings that create a very large image, save the image as a file, and magnify it with another program such as Preview.  Then go back to the object editor and adjust the object by guess and by golly, etc.

Suggestion; if you’ve moving an object from low ground to high ground, increase its height first, so it won’t disappear from the viewfinder.

Note; The sizing and rotation handles of an object may cover the object or each other; or they may get covered by nearby objects.

Note; TerraRay bogs down when a model includes about 20 objects, even on my quad-processor iMac.  Clouds also contribute to this problem.


office parkReflections add symmetry and emphasis, or they can just be playful.  I was confused at first about how to make objects that reflect well.  The secret seems to be:

  • Color – not texture
  • No bump strength
  • Use uniform mirror
  • Some percentage extent to which you want the object to be reflective (100% = perfect mirror).

Here are the material settings for the office buildings in the image above (they’re really just cubes):

office park material

Overlapping objects

16 co-located objectsMultiple objects that share the same X-Z coordinates look like a single object in the top-down workarea view.  This leads to puzzling interface behavior.  If you place three objects in one location, then try to drag one of them away, you will “grab” not the top object or the bottom object, but the oldest object.  17 co-located objects

In this example, I created the ball first; then the cone; and finally the cube.  If I co-locate them in any order, then drag one away, it will always turn out to be the ball.  Next comes the cone, even tho it’s the lowest, because it was the second object created. Clicking on an object’s entry in the list in the right margin has no effect on the order in which you can grip co-located objects.

Suggestion; As soon as you create an object, move it away from the center of the work area.  This avoids the need to move away older objects in order to get a grip on the new one.

Importing objects

The built-in object library is modest.  But 3DS-formatted object model files are readily available on the Internet.  Let’s say I want a bird.  The obvious tactic, googling for “3ds birds,” found some for sale; but I’m a cheapskate (that’s why I’m using TerraRay).  A Google Images search for “3ds birds” brought up several free ones.  So:

  • In your browser, bring up Google and switch to Images.
  • Search for “3ds birds.”  (Or try this website I found.)

60 Google images

  • Pick a nice bird that’s in flight, and go to that web page.  Make sure the file offered is a .3ds file and has the price and usage permissions you want.
  • Use the method provided by the web page to download the file.

65 image website

  • In Finder, if it’s a .zip library, double-click it to expand it. 

70 zip file

  • Drag the .3ds file to your working folder.
  • In TerraRay, click New object.  Select Import 3ds file

75 object import

  • Navigate to your 3ds file.  Click Open.

80 object navigation

  • The bird is added to your object list, and it appears in the center of your project.  (But it isn’t added to the library.)

85 object delivery

  • Adjust its size, location, height and materials to your liking.

Importing terrain elevations

In addition to creating terrain elevations with TerraRay tools, you can import a grayscale map from an image file with a format like .png or .jpeg.  Here’s how I used Photoshop Elements to make an elevation for a shallow valley with smooth sides.

  • In Photoshop Elements, create a new empty image.  Make two fill/adjustment layers.  (These are different from TerraRay layers.)  Make each of them a gradient that fades to invisible.  Rotate one of them 180 degrees from the other.
  • Make a third fill/adjustment layer underneath these layers.  Color it solid black.

305 creating grayscale

  • FILE > SAVE the image as a .png file.

310 saving grayscale

  • in TerraRay, create a new scene.  In the Terrain Elevation editor, click the Load image button on the bottom of the workarea. 
  • Navigate to the file you saved in Photoshop Elements.  Click Open.

315 navigating to grayscale320 loaded elevation

You can adjust the loaded elevation as needed, using TerraRay tools.


It’s easy to make the sun visible.  Just put it in front of the camera and play with its elevation.

  • You can change the color of sunlight, this is how to get colored clouds, etc.  But you can’t change the color of the sun.
  • Note; the sun is visible through terrain.  This gives a surrealistic translucent effect, but normally you’ll want to keep the sun above the terrain or out of camera range.

205 transparent mountain

Preview and render

It’s easy to click “Render” in the tool bar and go get a beer at the real bar.  But there’s a lot behind this function.  Take a look at the Render settings panel, accessible from the preview|render panel’s tool bar:

210 render options

  • An important control is Renderer type at the top of the panel.  The panel explains each type’s pros and cons.  You may want to preview with “Direct lighting” for speed, and do your final render with “Path tracer” to get good reflections.
  • Another nice control, in the bottom left corner, is vaguely labeled Presets.  This control governs the quality and speed of the render.
  • Preview and Render have separate settings, and each remembers its settings.
  • On the tool bar, “Save as image” gives you a choice of .png, .jpeg and .tiff file formats.  I like .png; it’s compatible with a lot of software, and it’s less lossy than .jpeg.

Render performance

Suggestion; Help your computer render faster by quitting nonessential programs.  This will release memory and reduce the demand for CPU time slices.

Note; It’s a good idea to save your project before you start a render.  TerraRay sometimes silently fails during a render.  The progress bar animation may keep going; but if several hours have passed and TerraRay is still on stage 1, it’s toast.  If the interface still works, open the TerraRay menu and select “Quit TerraRay.”  Otherwise, push the clover, alt and escape keys on your keyboard at the same time.  This brings up a list of running programs; force-quit TerraRay and restart it.

Post processing

Once a render or preview has finished, you can optionally adjust the resulting image.  In the tool bar, click “Post processing.”  An interesting tool is depth of field; it unfocuses image content at specified distances from the camera.

many Buddhas

TerraRay remembers the post-processing settings for a project.  It will apply them again automatically after each render.


2 thoughts on “Create 3D images with TerraRay on OSX

  1. Alain ZELLWEGER


    I have no difficulty to import 3DS objects in TerraRay unfortunately objects remain white!
    How to import textures with the object? I for example, i have a object “man” . with this man, I have a “.tif” file that contains the necessary texture (face, clothes, …) How to use this .tif file with my 3DS object.

    Thank you for your answer!

    1. pablovilas13 Post author

      Loss of textures is a frequent problem when using the 3DS format; not just with TerraRay, but other 3D modeling programs. The cause is that the textures are stored in a separate file from the model. If the file is located in a folder your software (TerraRay) doesn’t expect, or is named in a way it doesn’t expect, your software might not find it. I suggest that, at the operating system level (in OSX, Finder) you make sure the base name of the texture file matches that of the model file, and that they are in the same folder. Googling for advice on this problem will get you more advice, for example


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