Terragen Classic Basics For Mac

by John Labrenz | January 1, 2010

Terragen Classic for MacTerragen Classic is a free stand-alone scenery generator for non-commercial use. Terragen creates photorealist images up to 1000 pixels wide, based on your inputs for terrain, clouds, water and atmosphere. You can choose whether to make earth bound images, or if you like, create a view from Mars. Camera angle and height, sun angle and height, water reflectivity, atmosphere haze, along with cloud density and color are all adjustable. Terragen Classic is a great way to find out if you really like synthesizing landscapes risk-free — except for your time of course. If you want greater capability in image size, you can register your copy of software, or opt the greater capability of Terragen 2. A huge variety of terrain files are available online. The aim of this tutorial is to give you an overview of basic program controls using a starting file set; this is not meant to be a comprehensive tutorial on Classic Terragen.

Step 1

First, you must have Classic Terragen installed on your computer. Classic Terragen is available for free download. Choose either the Windows or Mac version according to your platform. A Windows version of this text is available.

Once installed, Terragen is ready to go. You can go build your own terrains, add your own surface textures, construct your own atmospheres, etc, and render to your hearts content. Alternatively, to shorten the learning curve, it is much easier to start with a pre-built terrain and pre-built parameter set (called a “world file”).

Step 2

There are many sources on the web for free terrain and world file downloads. A little searching will find enough downloads to keep you rendering for a long, long time. For the subject of this tutorial, we will be using a terrain made available available here.

The terrain is “American Dream.” Click the image to download the zip file to your computer. You will need to unzip this terrain into its native .ter format for use within the program. Please respect the “non-commercial” conditions at the top of the page and give credit to the author of the file.

Step 3

All the parameters required to render a scene are contained in “world files.” For this particular terrain I have constructed the following world file called “Naturescapesnew.” It is available for download here.

So, now we have the three components necessary to begin rendering:

  1. Terragen program installed
  2. Terrain downloaded
  3. World file downloaded

Starting Classic Terragen

When you start the program you will be faced with the Rendering control screen, shown below.

Rendering Control

Now go to “Windows” (at the top of your computer screen) and click on “Landscape.”

Landscape window

This will give you the two windows you will need to download the files.

Now, let us load up the world file that you downloaded before.

Click on the Rendering Control window. Go to “File” (at the top of the screen, not in the “rendering Control” window), click on “open” to find Naturescapesnew.tgw on your computer. Next, click on the Landscape window, click on upper right corner page symbol to open DHT-AmericanDream.ter file on your computer. You will be asked if you want to change the camera angle. Say “No.”

Rendering Control and Landscape windows

The unregistered version of Terragen Classic only allows a maximum terrain grid size of 513 X 513. We will therefore need to re-size our downloaded Terrain as follows:

  1. Go back to the Landscape screen above and click on the “size/radius” button in the top right hand corner.
  2. When you are asked “Reposition Camera?” Click “No.”
  3. A Landscape settings screen will pop up. Click on the 513 grid point button at the top of the screen.
  4. A “Copy and Resize Terrain” dialog box pops up. Click on the “OK” button.
  5. Another dialog box pops up that reads “Adjust the point spacing” Click on the “OK” button.
  6. To finalize the terrain sizing, click on the “OK” button at the bottom of the Landscape Settings dialog box.
  7. You’ll be asked again, “Reposition Camera?” Say “No.” (This is important-the results will not be correct otherwise.)


Your screen should now look like this:

Redering Control settings

Now comes the magic. Go back to your render control screen and hit Render Preview. You will get a small image in the Rendering Control Window. To see a larger version, Click on “Screen” in the Rendering Control window. This might take a little while, depending on your download speed. The two working windows will disappear while this is happening, and then reappear when it’s done.


Output: Rendering Complete

Congratulations, you have just rendered your first Classic Terragen landscape. So that’s pretty simple, but you want to render your own concept right?

OK, let’s go to the Landscape screen. Click on the paintbrush icon in the sidebar.


You will see the following Landscape View/sculpt screen pop up.

Landscape - View & Sculpt screen

You can drag points to describe the camera’s view. Grab the green dot and drag to reposition the camera, and grab the red dot and drag to position the target.

Once you’ve found something you like, go back to the render control screen hit render preview to see your new view. You can also fine tune the camera settings by inputting numerical position data directly into the render control screen.

Water iconWater

Things look pretty dry so far. Can Terragen render water? Of course! Click on the water icon to pull up the water parameter screen. To start, put in a water elevation of 600m and hit “Update Maps.”

Water settings

The water elevation will now show up as blue on your terrain maps.

Landscape - View & Sculpt window screenshot

Do a quick Render Preview to see what things look like.

The water parameter screen also contains numerous setting allowing you to adjust wave properties, reflections, water colors and transparency, as well as shoreline foam effects. I encourage you to play with each of these settings, try a test render to see what effect they have.

Clouds iconClouds

A quick click on the cloudscape icon gets you into the cloud parameter screen.

Cloudscape window

Again, here the options are numerous – everything from cloud color to altitude to density. When adjusting parameters, don’t forget to press the generate clouds button and update the view. Then do a render preview to see the result. Also note that what shows in the cloudscape screen will be a top down shot of the cloud layer. Therefore, moving your camera around will give you different cloud views from the ground. Give it a try!

Atmosphere iconAtmosphere

One of the most powerful tools in the Terragen arsenal is the atmosphere parameter set. Atmosphere settings change not only atmosphere colors, effects, and mood but can also dramatically change the appearance of surface texture colors themselves.

Atomosphere - Untitled window screenshot

The atmosphere set consists of three components:

  1. Haze
  2. Atmospheric blue
  3. Light decay

The overall effect of each of these components is described beside each item. Using the Haze settings as an example, increasing density increases the density of the fog. Increasing the half height increases the altitude at which the fog begins to take effect.

Again, in this example using the original world file, note from the Rendering control panel that the camera sits at an altitude of 969.9m, but is at 650m above the surface. So, ground level where the camera sits is about 319.9m.

Note: If you’ve kept your water elevation at 600m from before, reduce it back to 0m again to see the following effect.

Put in a number of about 160m for the haze half height. Do a quick render preview. You should begin to see some fog developing in your render. As you increase your half height, the fog becomes more and more pronounced!

Now, if you go back to your water elevation screen and put back in 600m for the water elevation and do a render preview, you will notice that the fog is gone. Why? Well, the fog is there but it is now under water. You will need to go and increase the elevation of the haze half height. Try 300m for the half height and you will see the fog appear again.

As another example, if you’ve moved your camera location around from that set out in the original world file, you may find that the atmosphere doesn’t render. Note that the sky elevation is set at 2100m in the cloud parameter dialog. So, if your chosen camera elevation is above 2100m, the sky will not render. To fix this adjust either the sky elevation or the camera elevation accordingly. It is important to note the relative elevations of the terrain, the camera, the water, etc. to ensure that your parameters will show up properly in your final render.

The effects on both the atmospheric blue and light decay parameters work in a similar fashion to the haze. Give them each a try to see the effect on the render.

Lighting iconLighting Conditions

Another powerful tool is the lighting control panel within Terragen. It contains numerous options to adjust lighting angles, position, strength, colors, appearance of the sun, background light and lighting effect on the atmosphere.

Lighting Conditions window screenshot

Left click inside the sun heading and altitude screens to change the sun’s position. Other parameter modifications are for the most part self explanatory. Again one of the best ways to see for yourself is to adjust each one individually and note the effect they have on your render.

Landscape iconLandscape

This parameter set has been left until the last because it is often causes the most confusion.

The surface map is what defines your surface textures. It defines not only the color but also the distribution.

The surface map always starts with a base layer. A base layer exists everywhere! Subsequent layers will cover a layer that appears before it, but you control its distribution effect on that preceding layer.

Landscape window screenshot

In this world file case, we have in essence, only 5 primary layers:

  • Surface (Base)
  • Mountain 1
  • Mountain 2
  • Mountain 3
  • Veg

You will note that the mountain 2, 3 and veg layers have a + sign next to them…that indicates that they have child layers. Click on the + sign to expand them further to see their child layers. A Child layer only affects it Parent layer. So, you can consider a layer that has child layers to be a highly refined Parent layer.

If you double click on the mountain 1 layer, you will bring up the surface texture parameter screen:

Surface Layer Editor window screenshot

On the upper half of the screen, you can modify the texture color and bumpiness. Under the advanced distribution tab below, you are able to control the exact coverage of this layer. If you adjust the coverage slider to the right, more of the terrain will take on this attribute. You can also adjust the “noisiness” as well as altitude and slope constraints. Similar adjustments can be made to each surface layer. Hovering your mouse over each parameter will bring up text help describing control parameters.

If you wish to add, remove or reposition layers, go back to the Landscape tab and press the appropriate buttons on the right hand side of the screen.

One really good way to see what effect the layer controls have is to add a brand new layer and give it a bright color (white or bright green work well). Do a render preview and see where and how it shows up on your terrain. Then go back and make some adjustments to that brightly colored layer and take a look at the effect of your change and how it now appears on your terrain.

Basic File Functions

Once you have modified all the parameters and you found something worthy of rendering, don’t forget to save the world file!

Also note that you can save surface files, atmosphere files and lighting files separately. That means you can open an existing world file then go and select another atmosphere file that you created for another render, apply that atmosphere file to the new world file.


Although classic Terragen is a relatively small program, it is quite powerful and flexible in allowing you to modify terrains and scenes from the realistic to the surrealistic. The only limit is your imagination.

Do not limit yourself to one world file set. Play with each of the parameters, do render previews to see the effect of each change and save the parameter sets that appeal to you! Try different terrains. In addition to computer created fantasy terrains, with a little searching on the web you will also find free terrains of actual earth features such as the Grand Canyon, Mount St. Helens, etc.

Most importantly, HAVE FUN!

Again, this tutorial was not intended to be a comprehensive screen by screen review of controls, merely an overview of basic concepts with a given world file and terrain. There are numerous detailed tutorials available on the web. One of the best places to start is the Terragen website for plug-ins, terrains, forum and, tutorial links.

This article was adapted for Mac by Cynthia Crawford.

About the Author

John is a Chemical Engineer who lives in Alberta, Canada. He is an avid fly fisherman of over 30 years whose lifelong interest in photography has been reignited with the advent of DSLRs. Although John focuses primarily on photographing landscapes, cooperative insects occasionally provide him with opportunities to shoot macro subjects as well. Some of John's images can be seen in his NatureScapes portfolio.

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