This tutorial will show you how to read a Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF (COG) in QGIS - streaming straight from its online location instead of downloading it. QGIS doesn’t yet support reading a COG as a main operation (hopefully a good QGIS developer can add support in the future), but since QGIS uses GDAL as its main data format library it’s possible with a little bit of configuration.


The key to reading a Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF with QGIS is the ‘vsicurl’ virtual file system of GDAL. Normally QGIS will open any raster file with GDAL, and an online file read with vsicurl should be no different, but unfortunately there is a hard coded assumption in the QGIS GUI that if you’re adding a raster layer that is not WMS or WCS then of course it must be a file.

Thankfully there is a way around it, with another great feature of GDAL - Virtual Rasters (VRT’s). And QGIS has a great little tool to build a virtual raster.

Finding a COG to test

Some users will already have a Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF that they can use, but if you don’t and want to try out COG’s yourself then head over to OpenAerialMap. Browse around and find an image that suits your fance. I’m going to use this one from the Indonesian Red Cross. To get the proper reference to the Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF you must right-click on the ‘download’ button and then click ‘copy link location’.

This will copy the link you need to your clipboard. You can paste this into a scratch pad document to use later, or you can just not copy anything else and use it in our next step in QGIS.

Creating a Virtual Raster in QGIS

Next we want to create our Virtual Raster (VRT) in QGIS. To do this make sure you have the GDAL Tools Plugin installed in QGIS (it should ship standard in most distributions). And then navigate to Raster -> Miscellaneous -> Build Virtual Raster (Catalog).

When you click on that it should open a dialog box that helps you create a VRT to read your cloud optimized geotiff. The key bit to make it work is to prepend /vsicurl/ before your pasted in URL from the link location. So for our link the ‘Input files’ field should look like: /vsicurl/ Specify an output file where you want to save the small file that contains the pointer to the online COG.

You can leave the rest of the defaults as is, or try out things like reprojection. If you want transparency you can select the 'Source No Data' option, and it will use that color value as 'transparent'. 0 is 'real black', which can often be transparent, but it has an annoying side effect of making pure black pixels in your image also transparent. For this exercise we are just using one COG, but you could just as easily point at multiple ones online, just put a comma between each (with no space). And be sure to prepend /vsicurl/ onto each of them.

If you leave ‘Load into canvas when finished’ checked, then after a bit of processing time you should see your COG displayed as an active layer in QGIS.

Admittedly this looks about the same as downloading and using a GeoTIFF locally. But the power of the Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF becomes apparent when you zoom in. On fast connections it should take less than a second to redraw, at full resolutions. This is a little slower than downloading the whole file and loading it up locally.

So you can try to hit the download button from OpenAerialMap to compare the performance. But what you’ll find there is a 1.2 gigabyte file that takes quite awhile to download on all but the fastest connections. The advantage of using the Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF is that you can zoom to anywhere within seconds, instead of waiting for a huge GeoTIFF to download. This access pattern saves everyone time and money, by getting to people only the data they need to do their task. And it enables access to fully analytic data, not just the visualization that web tiles allow.

Call for Help - QGIS Developers

If you are a developer there’s a couple things that would make for much nicer COG support in QGIS, and as an open source project anyone can contribute. Hopefully some of the core developers of QGIS are able to help out with these tasks.

  • Handle COG's better - The mechanics to open Cloud Optimized GeoTIFF's are all there, but the GUI components to open a raster assume it is a file and only let you browse your local files. There should be some option to open raster files that are online, and automatically use /vsicurl/. The cloud support in GDAL is continually advancing, and QGIS would be a great front-end for cloud data, if it changed a few assumptions. A nice cloud raster plugin would be a great first step, and eventually rework the core raster layer options.
  • Better Refreshing - When zooming in on a local raster there is always a downsampled version of the pixels until the higher resolution bit loads, leading to a smooth experience. There's something with COG's or VRT's that makes for a white screen in between zooms. This could be something in the underlying GDAL, but would be good to start and see if there's a QGIS fix.