The Hidden Powers of QGIS 3: 33 Truly Underappreciated Features and Plugins

QGIS 3 3D Logo

Last Updated: Apr 21, 2018

QGIS 3 has landed.

When QGIS releases a new version, it’s kinda a big deal. Because the unsung heroes of open source GIS software are back in action! It’s their third big release. QGIS 3!

I know some of you may be hesitating to make the switch to QGIS 3.

But when you hit a fork in the road, what do you do?

You look the devil in the eye and take this ride.

1 Simulating landscapes in 3D

ayers rock uluru qgis 3 3d window

The rumors are true. QGIS 3 now brings an interactive, fully integrated interface for you to work in 3D.

A year ago, QGIS relied on plugins like qgis2threejs. Whereas now, QGIS 3 has adopted 3D natively.

We’re genuinely excited about this one. It’s slick and has the power to transform your data and visualizations.

Believe the hype. Cheers to QGIS 3 for putting 3D in the palm of our hand.

2 Giving life back to mapping

qgis 3 alpha slider

Ironically, one of the biggest problems in most GIS software is its lack of tools to build unforgettable visualizations.[1][2][3]

Turns out, QGIS distinguishes itself as a leader in cartography. This is because it places practicality and usability above all else.

Some of my favorites:

ALPHA SLIDER: For setting transparency, the alpha parameter is a value between 0 to 1. While 0.0 is fully transparent, 1.0 is fully opaque.

COLOR RAMP WIDGET: Now, QGIS 3 remembers color ramps per projects and as favorites. Most importantly, there are loads to choose from like ColorBrewer and cpt-city.

3 The Need for Speed

Quietly on its quest, QGIS unquestionably qualifies for quickness.

Because when you can pan, zoom and load features at the blink of an eye.

qgis 3 speed

Fastest GIS software in the west.

Everything is slick in QGIS 3. VERY powerful. Extremely, EXTREMELY fast.

Panning, zooming with large data from Geopackage and file geodatabase is like GIS on steroids. And cached labeling gives faster rendering and redraw times.

4 Placing labels manually

When you have overlapping labels, the traditional approach is either to generate annotations or alter the layer’s placement settings. However, this often results in something messy or completely ineffective.

While most GIS software tout smart label placement [1][2], they never are. The best idea that I’ve seen so far is how you can just pick up and move labels in QGIS 3. Also, you can hide, shift and style single labels.

Instead of producing annotations, QGIS 3 takes a minimalistic approach that puts the user in the driver’s seat. Big up to QGIS 3 for giving users complete control of their map labels. It’s been a head scratcher for years.

5 Previewing coordinate reference system bounds

The theme surrounding QGIS 3 is its inventive, new ideas to improve user experience. Adding to the list, users can ensure they have valid coordinate systems by previewing their valid bounds.

When you go into the CRS project properties tab, it shows graphically relevant coordinate systems. For example, here is the valid extent for Australia.

It’s QGIS sense of charm to build software with lots of fresh ideas and features that puts users first. In today’s modern GIS environment, this type of user-first thinking is all too welcome.

qgis 3 coordinate reference-system extent preview

6 Editing with ease

Regardless of your experience with editing data, QGIS 3 has a couple of new tools so you can work more comfortably.

  • tracing at offsets.
  • tracking edits from multiple users.
  • editing features that stick to topology.
  • querying between numerical values.
  • easier shapes with new CAD tools.

Again, QGIS 3 is crammed full of high quality editing tools modernizing the experience.

7 Packaging anything in a geopackage

qgis geopackage examples

In QGIS 2.8, shapefile was the default file format for output. Now in QGIS 3, the standard output format is a Geopackage.

You really have to know what’s so special about Geopackage (.GPKG) to know why QGIS 3 made this change. This self-contained serverless SpatiaLite database can contain anything from vector, tiles, rasters, layer attributes, and even extensions.

Unlike shapefile which had 3 mandatory files, this open standards geospatial container is easy to share because it’s all contained in a single file.

8 Enabling background processing

Instead of waiting during a process, QGIS 3 has added background tasks. This means that you can continue your workflow as you naturally do when running a task.

If you want to turn on background processing, the option is available when you run the tool.

This type of seamless environment adds up to something special to the user. It allows you to keep doing your work when processing churns away in the background.

qgis 3 background processing

9 Reprojecting while geoprocessing

A nice feature is how you can automatically reproject your layer by setting it up in the algorithm.

For example, if field crews collect data with a handheld GPS, points will be in WGS84. If you want to buffer these points and project them, you can do this all at the same time.

Instead of going through the intermediate step of projecting data and creating a new file, you can do both. To say the least, this is a big time saver for GIS professionals.

10 Convenience worth its weight in gold

Whether you’re a veteran user, casual user or even someone who has never done GIS before… QGIS 3 has added convenience worth its weight in gold.

If you worked with QGIS 2.18, then you will be able to open these projects in QGIS 3. But you won’t be able to open them the other way around.

When you have multiple panes, you can stack them up into tabs. Unlike ArcGIS Pro, QGIS 3 doesn’t have contextual ribbons (which I’m digging). But for the traditional QGIS user, I think this approach just makes more sense.

11 Locator search bar

qgis 3 locator search bar

On the topic of analysis, another way to find algorithms is to use the locator search bar. Not only does it have geoprocessing algorithms, but you can locate active layers, features and algorithms.

That’s right. If you have a long list of layers in your map, just type it in. Next, it will auto-complete until you select it. Finally, it will highlight in your map.

If you want to use the locator bar, it’s in the bottom-left of QGIS. This means no more delving into your menu to find the right tool or feature.

12 Displaying in high definition

QGIS has always been on the cutting edge for display. It’s light years ahead for cartography with almost limitless potential.

Maps are super crisp in QGIS 3. They are beautiful to look at. And they always have been a cut above the rest in print composer and map canvases.

Now, you have the option to directly tweak map canvas exports with customized settings. For quick exports, luckily QGIS 3 executes this masterfully. Even your grandma would hang your maps on her fridge.

13 Perfecting your map layouts

The QGIS mapping interface is called ‘Print Composer’. It acts almost like a separate application. QGIS 3 has reworked its print composer with a brand new layout engine.

Now, you can snap your layouts with the guide manager for exact positioning giving it a clean, polished look. The key here is finding where to snap to via the layout guidelines.

In addition, there are refreshing changes in how you resize and distribute elements.

qgis 3 print composer

14 Unifying add layer toolbar

Adding data in QGIS 3 could have been just another set of random buttons. But QGIS 3 takes a massive leap forward with the Data Source manager

The unified data source manager transcends beyond a single format. Without restrictions, you can connect to GIS data sources including ArcGIS online features vector, raster and more.

In addition, the QGIS browser panel adds easier functionality to find data then drag and drop in your map canvas.

15 Make geoprocessing great again

qgis 3 processing toolbox

As always, QGIS comes with an incredibly polished set of geoprocessing tools. But what’s important to note is how refined and cleanly put together they are. For example, QGIS 3 organizes tools in a much more intuitive way so they’re easier to find.

A lot of these features have been rewritten from scratch in C++. Luckily, this means it’s more stable and better performance that separates it from other GIS software.

Lastly, QGIS 3 comes with a revised and expanded set of tools. For example, raster analysis now includes ruggedness, slope and hillshade by default.

16 Displaying multiple canvases

One of the elements that every map often forgets to incorporate is 3D. But now that 3D is built in QGIS 3, how about both in 2D and 3D at the same time?

The approach you should take is to use multiple canvases. For now, each canvas can’t sync together. At least that I could see.

Anyone who wants to showcase several layers at the same time, it’s refreshing you can now do so. And that’s just what I did with Mount Kilimanjaro in both 2D and 3D from our list of free satellite imagery sources.

qgis 3 mount kilimanjaro multiple canvas

17 Going above and beyond with Python 3

An incredible amount of work went into QGIS 3 including moving Python 2 to 3. QGIS 3 gives the option to run Python scripts directly in the browser.

Python within QGIS can enhance functionality beyond the traditional commands and solve more complex and dedicated problems. For example, powerful libraries like Pandas, Numpy and Scikit extend GIS into data science.

Python 3 is a major milestone for QGIS 3. If you really want to automate and extend, it’s absolutely crucial you learn Python.

18 Tables and graphing

qgis 3 table calendar picker

One of the major highlights is how tables have become more user friendly. Just like how tables resize vertically to fit text.

When you start editing a table, you begin noticing the expanded set of table editing tools. For example, date fields have calendars for selecting dates. And booleans have checkboxes.

Also, copying and pasting features into a word processor is a simple CTRL-C and CTRL-V. Instead of exporting a table, it’s easy to paste tables into external applications.

19 Seducing your colleagues with effects

QGIS 3 goes above and beyond expectations for cartography. If you give it a try, you can utterly seduce your colleagues giving a sense of pride and workmanship.

For example, topological coloring enables you to separate colors from neighboring polygons. This way, you can get that color separation in your maps

The selection of opacity can help your maps near perfection. On top of that, adding gradient fills for annotations completely differentiates your maps from the rest.

20 Clustering points at different scales

qgis 3 point cluster renderer

When you zoom out in a map, it can be difficult to see the number of points because they overlap each other.

This is why the new cluster renderer groups nearby points into a single rendered marker symbol. Then, it lists the number of points that the new one represents. This makes a logical choice next time you want to count features in a map at a small scale.

Just when you think QGIS has run out of ideas, it’s more inventive and creative than the last. And the other symbology rendering are impressive like heat maps or displacement for points and 2.5D rendering for polygons.

21 Expanding the list of plugins

If you’ve ever used QGIS before, then you know their enormous list of plugins is like your Holy Grail. This open approach has done exceedingly well and is by far the most active open source GIS project by a mile.

Everyday, developers are migrating their plugins over to QGIS 3. Unfortunately, some of your favorites may not have been migrated at the moment.

But hang on tight. Without a doubt, plugins will still remain a centerpiece in QGIS 3.

qgis 3 plugins list

22 Auto-complete everything

QGIS 3 rolls out a new feature that quietly changes the GIS user experience forever. When users begin typing a word, it suggests existing entries based on your keystrokes.

And not only does this apply to querying attributes, but it applies to the locator search bar as well. So this means that if it’s on the tip of your tongue, just start typing it… and auto-complete will probably just suggest it to you.

If you want to find a value with auto-complete, press F3 with a layer. Basically, auto-complete rewrites the rule book.

23 Styling rasters

qgis 3 dem hillshade 3d

In QGIS 3.0, handling of color ramps has gotten much better via a newly introduced color ramp button widget.

Again, QGIS spruces up your maps with beautiful preset color ramps. This means you can create the perfectly blended color ramp with the push of a button.

Also for single-banded pseudocolor and paletted renderers, you can now change the transparency for multiple values at the same time.

24 Basemaps and symbols galore

QGIS 3 doesn’t do anything to shake up the winning formula for symbology. As mentioned earlier, they’re crisp, load fast and are what we all know and love.

And it still has some of the finest options for stacking your favorite symbols like its built-in SVG markers. For most of us, this is a staple for our daily work.

Problem is, it doesn’t deliver these symbols to begin with by default. Off the get-go, we want to start rockin’ n rollin’ with a bottomless vault of symbols neatly organized. And unfortunately, you have to do a bit of searching and organizing beforehand in QGIS 3.

25 Automating dull stuff with Graphical Modeler

Just to be reminded of what it takes to make a great model in every sense of the word: input, algorithms and output. And when you can string these processes together in graphical modeler, suddenly life gets easier because you can reuse them in the future.

QGIS 3 refinements for graphical modeler solidifies it as a key choice for automating. For example, this simple model sets an input parameter, buffers a set of points and generates an output.

From start to finish, it runs quick and smoothly without any snags along the way. And instead of a shapefile for output, it generates the new default geopackage output.

qgis 3 processing modeler

26 Designing reports

QGIS Atlas

It’s a popular myth that you can’t produce well-designed reports in QGIS.

As you probably already know, Atlas mapbooks is how to assemble multi-page maps basing each view on an attribute. For some, this is a key automation tool and used daily.

If you want to take reporting a step further adding a bit more workmanship, the report engine seizes the moment. It helps you set up headers, footers and everything in between.

27 Writing metadata

I admit. Metadata is not the sexiest topic. And metadata hasn’t attracted as much attention in QGIS 3.

But time and time again, metadata has proven to be a wise time investment. Because what happens when the originator of the data goes MIA? It’s the metadata that you will always go back to refer to.

In its first phase of development, QGIS has overhauled how it handles metadata. Based on its new metadata editing tool, QGIS 3 introduces its own internal, formalised metadata schema.

28 Setting your favorites

By assembling a cast of your favorite symbols, you can truly customize your maps and call them your own.

Not only can you save your favorite symbols, but you can save fonts as well. And just in case you don’t save your favorites, QGIS keeps track of your most recent for you.

And each user profile carries its own unique set of symbols really personalizing the experience.

qgis 3 favorites style manager

29 Improving tabs and visibility

QGIS 3 allows for serious customization so you can really personalize it. For example, you can dock several panels together. These tabbed floating docks is for striking a great balance for screen real estate.

If you want to completely have your main layout in focus, it’s a matter of pressing Ctrl+Tab as a keyboard shortcut key. This command toggles for complete map visibility.

30 Selection by form

It’s sometimes the small things that count. When you want to select features by value, QGIS 3 has added a way to zoom or flash features that you select. In addition, you can select, remove and add features by selecting between a set of values.

Alternatively, you can select by expression which requires some basic syntax for expressions. For example, you can select anything from geometry, fields, colors and even fuzzy matching.

qgis 3 select feature value

31 Data defined parameters

In QGIS 3, users can set up data defined parameters from fields which drive geoprocessing tools. For example, you can buffer features based on a buffer distance field.

Instead of a static value, QGIS succeeds in a big way how you can dynamically use multiple values in a field. In addition, you can use an In Case and Else statement based on categorical variables.

On the other hand, geometry generators render modified or new geometry based on values entered by expression editor. In layer styling, this how to create geometry generators of your own.

32 CAD tools for easier shapes

To continue its theme of making easier digitizing tools, QGIS 3 has included tools to trace at a distance, track edits and use simple calendar pickers for date fields.

Of course, aside from all that QGIS 3 steps up to the plate offering a suite of CAD tools for better shapes. For example, when you create a rectangle, you can start from the center, from three points or from the corner. This makes it a whole new ball game for CAD style editing in QGIS.

qgis 3 digitize offset

33 Same old license

Here is the ugly truth about commercial software: It is costly and you can do 99% of the same stuff with open source software.

Unlike proprietary software, you don’t have a license except for the GNU General Public License. Users from around the world embraced QGIS 2 as the #2 option for GIS (behind Esri). And now, QGIS 3 is flying off the shelves.

If you’re horrified by the high cost of license fees, then QGIS 3 far surpasses expectations. Instead of shelling out for license, QGIS still stands the test of time as unquestionably the #1 open source GIS software.

Now you’ve got it

It’s QGIS best release in its lifetime. And this is a toweringly grand achievement because they’ve already redefined GIS software at least twice. (QGIS 1 & 2)

So now 2.18 is the LTR. And 3.0 is the regular release.

Cut to the chase. The developers of QGIS 3 have poured in the same creativity and imagination into this thing to once again change the game.

QGIS 3 is a remarkable piece of open source GIS software. Don’t miss your chance. A positive GIS experience.

What are your thoughts? Let us know with a comment below.

And don’t forget

You don’t have to be an organ donor to support QGIS. Although I could give away my heart for my love of QGIS, the best way to support this tremendously talented team is to donate to the project.

Hundreds of thousands of users and contributors around the world trust QGIS. This is because of its talented cast of supporting developers and donations worldwide.


If you haven’t already, check out NorthRoad’s 24 days of QGIS 3.0 features.

And the QGIS 3 changelog has the most thorough list of new changes.


  1. I like what I see so far from QGIS 3. Highlights I think are

    1. It’s very fast at loading, rendering anything. And everything looks crisp and clear.
    2. 3D is really cool, except it’s a bit too basic without options. I’m sure this will improve over time.
    3. I like the updates done to map composer… table styling, spacing, aligning & distributing

  2. Great summary. Could elaborate on no. 6 – tracking edits from multiple users.
    What feature are you referring to?

  3. Unfortunately, I realized the lack of features in Linux when compared to QGIS in Windows, due to the outdated versions of QT, QWT and QScintilla such as 3D view. I do not understand why the QGIS installation does not install the latest versions of the required libraries on Linux just like Windows does, and I still can not solve the problem.

  4. This is referring to timestamps in fields. If you have multiple people working on a data set at different times, you can see when the last edits took place.

  5. Does anybody know where I could learn about using Python to automate QGIS? I what I looking for is actually how to navigate the python API for it. It is an incomprehensible nightmare for me though QGIS is a great product. I am very comfortable consulting ESRI’s python documentation but I am not able to make sense of QGIS. Any advice?

  6. I’m trying to find a free version of what Batchgeo does. I have excel spreadsheets of addresses and related info that I want to map. I can have over 1000 entries that I need to map– probably more than 3000. Any suggestions?

  7. We want to thank the developers and all team members for sharing your insight, your precious time, dedication and tremendously hard work with us. You trust us with your most valuable gift and for that we salute and gratefully appreciate you. Thank you for equipping us to do better planning, care for our planet and set a clear way for future generations.

  8. I learned my trade with ESRI products but since I came across QGIS I will not use ArcGIS anymore. Love version 3 as it’s quite fast.

  9. QGIS 3 is fantastic! Great work. I have ArcGIS but rarely use it now. I feel more comfortable with QGIS, specially after version 3. In earlier version snapping and editing had problems, now it is perfect, so easy.

    One thing I would like to see improved is the number of decimal places in attribute table. I don’t know how to round off to the desired numbers. ArcGIS has it easy.

  10. Odd, but some simple and unexpected things seem to be missing. I tried to enter the function $rownum in Field Calculator, and it tells me it’s an unknown function? Why on Earth would developers do that?

  11. I agree with many of comments, but QGIS is for users having experience with python programing and other system related things. For my as Hydrologist QGIS could be very useful, but after several time to install and run it I’m ready to come back to commercial software like ArcGIS, because I got hundreds of messages about additional things which I need to install using python console etc. Also, it seems that QGIS conflicts with ArcGIS Pro.

  12. @Antanas:

    QGIS Does not require that you know anything about python. It is there in the background (just like it is in ArcGIS) if you want to use it, otherwise, you can just point and click your way around to do things.


    Regarding the Mac Version, we are dependent on QGIS community members to build our packages. We cannot guarantee that all platforms will have packages on the day of release. You will be pleased to know that they are available now on though.

  13. Hi, on the comment ”Problem is, it doesn’t deliver these symbols to begin with by default. Off the get-go, we want to start rockin’ n rollin’ with a bottomless vault of symbols neatly organized. And unfortunately, you have to do a bit of searching and organizing beforehand in QGIS 3”from point 24 how do you go about adding the symbols so that the SVG appears in the symbol drop down? Thanks

  14. Appreciate your post, this is so inspiring that I would like to traduce it for my spanish speakers who follow my facebook page about GIS.
    Thanks again for this list and I am sure it will grow fast!


  15. “Big up to QGIS 3 for giving users complete control of their map labels. It’s been a head scratcher for years.”

    To be fair, manual label placement has been in QGIS v2 for quite some time. What version 3 did was make it more user friendly by allowing the overrides to be stored with the project. With v2 the user had to add specifically named fields to each layer to enable each icon in the relevant toolbar. Now it’s on all the time and if the user still wishes to store info in the layer or export it that is a provided option.

    Similarly geometry generators have been in since 2.14(ish?).

    The general vector editing in Q has come a long way and is far more consistent now. That the trace tool they added in 2.whenever was considerably superior to the one in arc rather highlights the way this has been going to me. Q might not do absolutely everything Arc can but what it can do it generally does better, often much better.

    3.0 was a bit buggy, 3.2 is looking pretty stable so far.


    I believe it’s @row_number, not $. Don’t understand enough about programming to know why, but it is listed as a double clickable option right at the very top of the list of functions when on an expression window for calculating something based on rows…

  16. Great article to explore QGIS 3, thanks guys. I have been playing with the report generator for a bit now and was wondering one thing. If you have to subgroups of a parent group, would it be possible to mix those maps? So e.g.:
    District 1
    City 1 map 1
    City 1 map 2
    City 2 map 1
    City 2 map 2

    In the Atlas you could do this by creating two pages, a setting I don’t see right now. In the position tab of the map item is see however a page setting but it leads to nothing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.