Skip main navigation

Landsat 8 & 9 imagery in QGIS

A practical demonstration of how to create false colour Landsat 8 & 9 composites in QGIS.

Now that you have your satellite imagery, let’s get it into QGIS!

Adding our image to QGIS

Before we open our imagery in QGIS we will need to extract it.

Extracting our imagery

Your image files are packaged into a special .tar format. This is fairly similar to a zip file.

You may need extra software to open it if your computer doesn’t recognise tar files. We recommend 7-Zip, which is free and can be downloaded here. Do make sure that you download the correct version of 7-Zip for your computer!

The exact method will vary depending on which software you are using, but with 7-Zip:

  • 1) Right-click your tar file and select “7-Zip” and then “Extract to “LC09L1TP…””

Extract data screenshot Extracting our data.

  • 2) When this has finished running, open your new folder – you should have 24 different files.

You can view a preview of your image by double-clicking the “…thumb_large.jpeg” or “…thumb_small.jpeg”.

Extracted Landsat files screenshot Extracted Landsat data, including thumbnails.

Most of these files are the different bands of the satellite image – you can spot these as they end in B “…B[number].TIF” (with B standing for ‘Band’). There is also metadata (information about the image) and other files too.

Adding our bands to QGIS

Now we are finally ready to start viewing our satellite imagery!

  • 1) Open QGIS. Start a new project if you like, otherwise open your old one.
  • 2) On the Main Menu select Layer > Add Layer > Add Raster Layer.
  • 3) Click the browse button and find your Landsat folder.
  • 4) Change File Type to GeoTIFF.
  • 5) Hold down the Ctrl key on your keyboard and select all the TIFF files with a “B” near the end – there should be 11 in total!
  • 6) Click the Open button, and then Add, and Close.

Selecting bands screenshot Change the filetype to GeoTIFF and selecting all 11 Landsat bands.

You should have eleven new images in you Layers Panel – have a go at turning the top layers off to view the ones beneath and compare them in the Map Window. What is similar and what is different about them?

Landsat bands QGIS screenshot Viewing our 11 Landsat bands.

Creating a composite

Individually these bands are not that much use! We want to be able to create different RGB composites in colour using combinations of different bands. To do this we are going to merge all our data together into a single raster layer.

  • 1) On the main menu go to Raster > Miscellaneous > Build Virtual Raster
Virtual Rasters are a quick way of combining different bands together without creating massive new files. They work best if you are keeping all your data on a single computer and not sharing it with lots of different people.
  • 2) Click the Browse button and then click the Select All.
  • 3) Make sure the bands are in numerical order – you will probably have to drag B10 and B11 to the bottom of the list.
This is important so we can find the right bands later!
Selecting bands screenshot Selecting and correctly ordering our Landsat bands.
  • 4) Tick “Place each input file into a separate band”.
  • 5) Click the Browse button to the right of the Virtual field and click Save to File.
  • 6) In your Landsat folder, type “landsat_composite” for your filename and click Save.
  • 7) Finally click Run and Close when it has finished!
Virtual raster tool screenshot Building our Landsat composite as a virtual raster.
You should have a new layer in your Layers Panel and your Map Window. You may have to drag it to the top of the Layers Panel to view it.
Landsat composite screenshot Our Landsat colour composite layer.

Changing the bands

Because we didn’t tell QGIS which bands we wanted it to display, it has defaulted to bands 1/2/3 for RGB.
Can you work out what an ‘1/2/3’ composite is made up of from the diagram below? Band 1 is ‘blue edge’
Landsat 8 & 9 band diagram Landsat 8 & 9 bands. Based on an image courtesy of NASA.
This isn’t a very useful combination, so let’s make our own, starting with a true colour image.
Looking at the diagram above again, we can see that for Landsat 8 & 9, red is band 4, green is band 3 and blue is band 2 – so we need to assign these as RGB for our Landsat composite layer.
  • 1) In the Layers Panel right-click the “landsat_composite” layer and select Properties.
  • 2) Change “Red band” to Band 04, “Green band” to Band 03, and “Blue Band” to Band 02.
  • 3) Click OK.
Setting bands screenshot Setting our RBG bands to 4/3/2.
You should now have a true colour Landsat composite! This is close to what you would save seen with your own eyes if you had been flying over this landscape at exactly the day and time at which the image was collected.
True colour composite screenshot Our true colour Landsat composite – notice the labels beside the RGB bands in the Layers Panel.

Band combinations

Now that we have all our Landsat bands sorted, the fun can really start, and we can make some false colour composites using infrared bands! First though, we need a bit more information about the combinations of band available in Landsat 8 & 9. You may have noticed that the band numbers provided by the Landsat 8 and 9 satellites are slightly different to those used in the Sentinel-2 imagery we looked at earlier on. This is most easily apparent in the diagram below.
Landsat and Sentinel-2 band diagram Landsat 8 & 9 and Sentinel-2 band comparison. Based on image courtesy of NASA.
This means that to create similar composites we need to choose different numbers.
The table below shows some of the band combinations we can use.
Landsat 8 & 9 colour composite band combinations.
composite bands uses
true colour 4/3/2 realistic colours, like the naked eye
natural-like 7/5/3 quite realistic but exaggerated colours
false colour infrared 5/4/3 shows vegetation in red
false colour urban 7/6/4 shows built-up areas in purple
false colour agriculture 6/5/2 shows healthy plants in bright green
false colour land/water 5/6/4 studying wetland environments
false colour shortwave infrared 7/5/4 like 7/5/3
false colour geology 1 7/6/2 studying the geological landscape
false colour geology 2 6/3/2 studying the geological landscape
As you can see, the band combination you choose to use depends on the sort of landscape you are examining, and what you are intend using the multispectral imagery for. If you are interested in mapping the way in which expanding agriculture has encroached on archaeological sites, you might use a 5/4/3 combination. If you are trying to find new sites in a marshy environment, you might use 5/6/4. 6/5/2 which can distinguish between areas of healthy and stressed plants might be a good indicator of variations in the underlying soil; it might highlight areas where concentrations of stone might be detrimental to plant growth.

Changing the band combination

Once you have decided which combination you want to try you can set it in QGIS by repeating the earlier steps.
  • 1) In the Layers Panel right-click the “landsat_composite” layer and select Properties.
  • 2) Change “Red band” to the first number of your chosen combination (e.g. for 5/4/3, change it to 5).
  • 3) Change “Green band” to the second number.
  • 4) Change “Blue band to the third.
  • 5) Click OK.
You now have your chosen false colour composite!
False colour composite screenshot A 5/4/3 false colour composite showing the expanding farmland in red.
How does the Landsat imagery of your area of interest compare to the Sentinel-2 we downloaded last week?
This article is from the free online

Advanced Archaeological Remote Sensing: Site Prospection, Landscape Archaeology and Heritage Protection in the Middle East and North Africa

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now