How to Create QGIS Atlas Mapbooks

QGIS Atlas

Last Updated: Jan 25, 2017

Put Your Mapping in Auto-Pilot with QGIS Atlas

Like a modern-day mechanical mapping machine, you can automate your map output.

For 99% of us, there are 2 surefire ways to create mapbooks:

1. ArcGIS Data Driven Pages
2. QGIS Atlas

We’ve reviewed pumping out maps with ArcGIS data driven pages. Esri’s data driven pages works great. It’s solid.

But today we want to examine an equally-effective method with a QGIS Atlas tutorial.

Why use QGIS Atlas?

QGIS Atlas

The QGIS Atlas is a true open source technique to generate hundreds of maps in minutes. In the map-making business, this means being efficient without compromising art and intricacy.

QGIS’ Composer has the ability to create an “Atlas” built-in. In open source QGIS software, before version 1.9 it used to a plugin. Now, it’s integrated into QGIS core.

Simply, QGIS Atlas allows you to create multiple maps using records in a shapefile or spatial data set.

All you need to do is select a map layer containing geometries as your index layer. Each geometry in the index layer is used to create each individual page. QGIS Atlas dynamically changes the view extent to each feature in the index layer. Save tens, hundreds or thousands of maps as a single PDF or separate images.

There are tons of options to customize your map output. Let’s get our feet wet with a QGIS Atlas tutorial.

READ MORE: 27 Differences Between ArcGIS and QGIS – The Most Epic GIS Software Battle in GIS History

How to Create a QGIS Atlas Mapbook

Let’s use the the Natural Earth populated places layer. We have 4 records in the attribute table with point locations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston.

Populated Places

This means QGIS Atlas will generate 4 pages because there are 4 locations. If you have 1000 records, QGIS Atlas will produce 1000 pages.

Step 1: Create a new composer window

Click  File > New Composer 

QGIS Composer is where you set up your map output.

New Print Composer

Step 2: Add a new map item

In your new QGIS Composer, select the New Map Item tool. Drag and create a rectangle in your Composer map canvas.

QGIS Composer Map Rectangle

Step 3: Click “Generate an Atlas” in the “Atlas Generation” pane

In the right-pane, check the box “Atlas Generation”

QGIS Atlas Generation

Step 4: Choose your coverage layer

Your coverage layer is the index layer. It is used to create each individual page. QGIS Atlas dynamically changes the view extent to each feature in the coverage layer. The number of records in the coverage determines how many pages will be in your mapbook.

We have the 4 most populated cities (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston) in our index layer. This means our mapbook will output 4 pages.

Coverage Layer

Step 5: Select “Controlled By Atlas” in “Item Properties”

In the “Item Properties” tab, check the box for “Controlled By Atlas”

Controlled by QGIS Atlas

Step 6: Export QGIS Atlas Mapbook

Click  Atlas > Export Atlas as PDF 

Export Atlas as PDF

Result: QGIS Atlas Mapbook

The result is a 4-page PDF of each feature in the index layer. New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston are dynamically displayed with very little effort by the cartographer.

QGIS Atlas Results

The Nitty-Gritty Details in QGIS Atlas




QGIS Atlas has additional functionality for you to customize your mapbooks. The set up and possibilities are endless, in a good way.

QGIS Atlas Preview Toolbar

We love the way you can preview mapbooks using the QGIS Atlas toolbar. It’s a unique for you to get a feel for how the mapbook will look when exported. Push the  Preview Atlas  button to enable this feature.

From there, you can flip through the pages of your mapbook one-by-one. Here you can export as SVG, PDF or images.

Atlas Preview Toolbar

Customize your Exports Uniquely

What will be the file names of your maps or mapbook? The  Output Filename Expression  controls the file names of your export.

When you check  Single File Export When Possible , the output PDF file will be in a single PDF. When this option is not checked, the output will be separate PDFs.

How will the mapbook be sorted? This can be controlled using the  Sort By  and dropdown.

Output Atlas

Delve into Scales and Margins

In the  Item Properties  pane, you must select  Controlled by Atlas . With a polygon feature as your coverage layer, you can set up margins around the feature. This means that the scale will dynamically adjust itself.

Controlled by Atlas

For example:

When you set up 10% around the continents polygon, this is how much margin will be around each feature. Here is how the continent of Africa will look with a 10% margin:

Africa Atlas
Africa continent with a 10% margin

Here is Africa with a 50% margin:

Africa Atlas Example
Africa with a 50% margin

Generate Dynamic Text and Dynamic Everything as Labels

Dynamic text is a label that updates automatically based on a property of a map. If you want to dynamically label a city name in your map, click  Add New Label . Under  Item Properties , click  Insert an Expression .

Under  Fields and Values , double-click the field you want to dynamically be displayed in the map window. The expression will be similar to  [% "NAME” %] :

QGIS Dynamic Text

QGIS Atlas has its own list of functions that can be added as labels. This includes everything from the feature number to the number of features in the mapbook.

Pull Off a Strip Map Along a Line

Okay, the header is deceiving. There is no strip map tool in QGIS.

Line Segment Split

But if you want to use QGIS Atlas along a line, all you have to do is split it into segments. And there is a tool to do that in GRASS.

The  v.split.length  function splits the line into equal segments defined by the user. This means that QGIS Atlas will generate maps for each line segment.

Final Thoughts on QGIS Atlas




QGIS has its own little map-making factory and it’s called QGIS Atlas. Hundreds of mapping monkeys would have a hard time competing with this well-oiled machine. Automation is becoming key in a world begging for spatial answers instantly.

QGIS Atlas is gaining steam. With a little bit of practice, and this QGIS Atlas tutorial, you have the necessary tools to build your own atlas with authority.

Map with confidence. Map with speed. Map with automation.

QGIS Atlas is the only robust open source option to generate beautiful maps without compromising cartography.

What do you think of QGIS Atlas?

Let us know in the comments below.

4 Comments

  1. Most atlases are not done at the global scale. They’re usually of a city or jurisdiction, in which case they require some sort of road name index. QGIS’ atlas feature needs some sort of index creation assistant before it’s usable for most people.

  2. Thanks for the handy tutorial. I learned a lot, but found that Atlas doesn’t do what I was looking for. My ‘atlas’ doesn’t vary spatially, just varies in content. I wonder if there is an effort planned that would help automate that type of presentation.

  3. QGIS is excellent, I just quit another software and star using my new project with QGIS, thanks

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