Raster processing using Python Tools

Encodings, Formats and Libraries


Teaching: 5 min
Exercises: 0 min
  • What sorts of formats are available for representing raster datasets?

  • Understand the high-level data interchange formats for raster datasets.

Libraries and File formats for raster datasets

GDAL (Geospatial Data Abstraction Library) is the de facto standard library for interaction and manipulation of geospatial raster data. The primary purpose of GDAL or a GDAL-enabled library is to read, write and transform geospatial datasets in a way that makes sense in the context of its spatial metadata. GDAL also includes a set of command-line utilities (e.g., gdalinfo, gdal_translate) for convenient inspection and manipulation of raster data.

Other libraries also exist (we’ll introduce rasterio in the next section of this tutorial, and even more exist in the fields of geoprocessing (which would include hydrological routing and other routines needed for Earth Systems Sciences) and digital signal processing (including image classification, pattern recognition, and feature extraction).

GDAL’s support for different file formats depends on the format drivers that have been implemented, and the libraries that are available at compile time. To find the available formats for your current install of GDAL:

$ gdalinfo --formats
Supported Formats:
  VRT -raster- (rw+v): Virtual Raster
  GTiff -raster- (rw+vs): GeoTIFF
  NITF -raster- (rw+vs): National Imagery Transmission Format
  RPFTOC -raster- (rovs): Raster Product Format TOC format
  # There are lots more, results depend on your build

Details about a specific format can be found with the --format parameter, or by taking a look at the formats list on their website.

$ gdalinfo --format GTiff

Jupyterhub detail: location of gdal command-line scripts

If you’ve installed and activated your conda environment, gdalinfo should be available. It might not be available from your jupyter notebook, however.

To access the gdalinfo within our jupyterhub notebook, gdalinfo is available at


Programming Model: NumPy arrays

Because rasters are images, they are best thought of as 2-dimensional arrays. If we have multiple bands, we could think of an image as a 3-dimensional array. Either way, we are working with arrays (matrices) of pixel values, which in the python programming language are best represented by NumPy arrays.

For this tutorial, we’ll perform basic operations with NumPy arrays extracted from geospatial rasters. For more information about multidimensional array analysis, take a look at Thursday’s tutorial on N-Dimensional Arrays.

Key Points