SketchUp and Photoshop: Part 2 – High-Resolution Aerials

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I demonstrated how to link SketchUp with Photoshop (or any graphic editor), enabling you to seamlessly edit SketchUp textures and images. That post focused on editing tiling material images, such as grass or stone. This post is about geo-location: getting high-resolution aerial images from Google Earth Pro into SketchUp.

Add Location

In SketchUp, the Add Location tool (menu: File / Geo-location / Add Location, or use the Google toolbar) is what you need for bringing in an aerial image of a specific location. Simply type an address (or a landmark, or a city name, or coordinates) to find your location,
define the region, click the Grab button, and you can import up to one square mile of that location into SketchUp.
001 GE Toolbar
The major issue with these imported aerials is their low resolution. From a distance, all looks good, but close up, not so great.
001 Pixel Aerial
One of the biggest benefits of the link between SketchUp and Photoshop is the ability to replace the default Google Earth aerial images with images of higher resolution. The process is relatively straightforward and worth trying.

Google Earth Pro

Google Earth Pro is now free. Aside from a plethora of cool tools and features, GE Pro allows you to download high-resolution aerials, up to 4,000 pixels wide, depending on availability. This provides a great FREE solution to getting these hi-res aerials into SketchUp.
At the moment, there is no direct import of high-res aerials from GE Pro into SketchUp. Hopefully this will be added in a future SketchUp version (hint, hint to any SketchUp staff that might be reading…) But there is a workaround – read on.

The Process: Importing the High-Resolution Aerial

In SketchUp, use Add Location to find a spot in Google Earth. Adjust the region pins as needed, and click Grab to bring the Google Earth aerial into SketchUp. Make sure terrain is toggled off – this only works with the 2D, bird’s-eye view.

 

Part 1 of this series described how to edit a texture in your model, by right-clicking on it and choosing Texture / Edit Texture Image. That method is a bit problematic here, because the aerial is inside a group, and that group is locked. This is by design – a locked layer can’t be
moved, and moving terrain, especially accidentally, can be disastrous in SketchUp. As a workaround, you could unlock the group temporarily, but that’s risky (you could forget to re-lock it). And anyway, there’s another way to edit the texture.
Click the Paint Bucket tool, and on the Materials (PC) or Colors (Mac) window, click the House icon to see your in-model materials. Find the aerial image, and double-click it to open the image for editing. Then click the Edit texture image icon, which opens the low-res aerial in Photoshop.
In Photoshop, you now need to adjust the size and resolution of the low-res image so that it can accommodate the high-res, GE Pro version you’ll get in the next step. To do this in Photoshop, resize the image using Image / Image Size. As a rule of thumb, increase the image height to 30 with resolution of 96. We’ll get back to this image in a bit.

Adjust the SketchUp aerial image size once in Photoshop

Open GE Pro and navigate to the same location you specified in SketchUp. Make sure that the north direction is straight up, and there’s no tilt in the view (press R to orient your view this way.) Make sure that terrain, roads, and other labels are turned off – this can distort the edges of the image.

High-res aerial from Google Earth Pro

 

Choose File / Save Image. In the toolbar that comes up, select the pull-down menu and the resolution that you want. The largest is usually around 4k. Click Save Image, then open this high-res image in Photoshop.

 

 

 

Now you have two images open in Photoshop – the low-res one from SketchUp and the high-res one from GE Pro.

High-res aerial and low-res aerial both open in Photoshop

In Photoshop, copy and paste the high-res image onto the low-res one. The copy will be inserted as a new layer. Turn the layer opacity down and compare the images. If the image sizes seem too different, undo the paste and adjust the SketchUp lo-res image size up or down as needed to match the hi-res scale. It doesn’t have to match exactly, but the closer the better.

 

 

 

Next, using the Free Transform options in Photoshop, try to align the high-res image to match the low-res image underneath. This time you are looking for an almost-exact alignment, which can take some practice. I suggest that you don’t try to scale the image by maintaining the aspect ratio, but instead adjust the pins manually as needed to get the images to align as closely as possible. It took my 3D Studio team a couple of weeks to master the process but it’s worth the effort (thanks to my colleage Justin Clark).

align high-res aerial with low-res aerial
Once you get the high-res image in a good position, turn the image opacity back to 100 and flatten the image.

high-res Images aligned and ready to save

Save the image and go back to SketchUp. The aerial should now have a better resolution. The image below has the hi-res aerial, plus a few extra adjustments including Photoshopping diagrammatic overlays.
Google Earth high res aerial
If you don’t see much of a difference after replacing your lo-res aerial, try this adjustment: In the Preferences window, open the
OpenGL page. If not already selected, check the box for Use Maximum Texture Size. You’ll get a warning about how this can impact performance when using high resolution images; click OK. Now check out the image – does it look better?
This OpenGL setting can, and most often will, affect performance. If you experience significant slowdown, go back and cancel Use Maximum Texture Size. You can always turn it back on right before exporting images, or when exporting for rendering.
This method is a simple but powerful way to generate high-quality aerial images to supplement a model and build better context. When coupled with rendering programs such as Lumion, you can build expressive, detailed, contextual models. High-res aerials can show vegetation, buildings, and cars, while also adding impressive and realistic textures.

About Daniel Tal

Daniel Tal, ASLA, is a professional speaker and a registered landscape architect with over 17 years of experience. He is a 3D modeling and visualization expert, has authored two books with Wiley and Sons: SketchUp for Site Design and Rendering in SketchUp and is the tech-editor at large for Landscape Architecture Magazine. Tal runs a 3D modeling and visualization studio for Stanley Consultants, a 1,000 person multi-disciplinary engineering firm. Read more about Daniel.

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4 Comments


  1. Hi Daniel–

    This is very helpful. Thank you for posting this tip. Can you give some insight into what to expect when “Add More Imagery” is needed in SU? For example, with more than one GE image already in SU, should one of the lo-res images have high detail imagery added to it and saved? How are multiple lo-res images improved by this method? Also, doesn’t scale in SU get thrown out of whack when adjusting the lo-res image to fit the high-res image?

    Reply

  2. This is a great question. We tile large areas of images and add high-rez versions as needed. In fact we sometimes add multuiple levels of higher resolutions to the site locations. It’s hard to explain but I just provided a presentation at SketchUp Basecamp on this topic. I will link the video once it is released (should be soon) and plan on seeing more blogs on this topic.

    But generally speaking, we add high-rez aerials on a needed bases. The more you move away from the model focus and center, the less rez we add. Does this help?

    Reply

  3. Thank you for this comprehensive tutorial

    Reply

  4. Hi Daniel – Great Articles. Thank you. What other 3D terrain options are possible to import into sketchUp outside of Google Earth? I am concerned about the lack of accuracy in terms of the elevation / topography in GoogleEarth. I will be using SketchUp + Skelion to layout out Large ground mount solar arrays on variable terrain and the accuracy of elevation is important in order to meet the max slope tolerances of the racking systems.

    Reply

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