Switching from GDAL’s Python bindings

This document is written specifically for users of GDAL’s Python bindings (osgeo.gdal) who have read about Rasterio’s philosophy and want to know what switching entails. The good news is that switching may not be complicated. This document explains the key similarities and differences between these two Python packages and highlights the features of Rasterio that can help in switching.

Mutual Incompatibilities

Rasterio and GDAL’s bindings can contend for global GDAL objects. Unless you have deep knowledge about both packages, choose exactly one of import osgeo.gdal or import rasterio.

GDAL’s bindings (gdal for the rest of this document) and Rasterio are not entirely compatible and should not, without a great deal of care, be imported and used in a single Python program. The reason is that the dynamic library they each load (these are C extension modules, remember), libgdal.so on Linux, gdal.dll on Windows, has a number of global objects and the two modules take different approaches to managing these objects.

Static linking of the GDAL library for gdal and rasterio can avoid this contention, but in practice you will almost never see distributions of these modules that statically link the GDAL library.

Beyond the issues above, the modules have different styles – gdal reads and writes like C while rasterio is more Pythonic – and don’t complement each other well.

The GDAL Environment

GDAL library functions are excuted in a context of format drivers, error handlers, and format-specific configuration options that this document will call the “GDAL Environment.” Rasterio has an abstraction for the GDAL environment, gdal does not.

With gdal, this context is initialized upon import of the module. This makes sense because gdal objects are thin wrappers around functions and classes in the GDAL dynamic library that generally require registration of drivers and error handlers. The gdal module doesn’t have an abstraction for the environment, but it can be modified using functions like gdal.SetErrorHandler() and gdal.UseExceptions().

Rasterio has modules that don’t require complete initialization and configuration of GDAL (rasterio.dtypes, rasterio.profiles, and rasterio.windows, for example) and in the interest of reducing overhead doesn’t register format drivers and error handlers until they are needed. The functions that do need fully initialized GDAL environments will ensure that they exist. rasterio.open() is the foremost of this category of functions. Consider the example code below.

import rasterio
# The GDAL environment has no registered format drivers or error
# handlers at this point.

with rasterio.open('example.tif') as src:
    # Format drivers and error handlers are registered just before
    # open() executes.

Importing rasterio does not initialize the GDAL environment. Calling rasterio.open() does. This is different from gdal where import osgeo.gdal, not osgeo.gdal.Open(), initializes the GDAL environment.

Rasterio has an abstraction for the GDAL environment, rasterio.Env, that can be invoked explicitly for more control over the configuration of GDAL as shown below.

import rasterio
# The GDAL environment has no registered format drivers or error
# handlers at this point.

with rasterio.Env(CPL_DEBUG=True, GDAL_CACHEMAX=128000000):
    # This ensures that all drivers are registered in the global
    # context. Within this block *only* GDAL's debugging messages
    # are turned on and the raster block cache size is set to 128 MB.

    with rasterio.open('example.tif') as src:
        # Perform GDAL operations in this context.
        # ...
        # Done.

# At this point, configuration options are set back to their
# previous (possibly unset) values. The raster block cache size
# is returned to its default (5% of available RAM) and debugging
# messages are disabled.

As mentioned previously, gdal has no such abstraction for the GDAL environment. The nearest approximation would be something like the code below.

from osgeo import gdal

# Define a new configuration, save the previous configuration,
# and then apply the new one.
new_config = {
    'CPL_DEBUG': 'ON', 'GDAL_CACHEMAX': '512'}
prev_config = {
    key: gdal.GetConfigOption(key) for key in new_config.keys()}
for key, val in new_config.items():
    gdal.SetConfigOption(key, val)

# Perform GDAL operations in this context.
# ...
# Done.

# Restore previous configuration.
for key, val in prev_config.items():
    gdal.SetConfigOption(key, val)

Rasterio achieves this with a single Python statement.

with rasterio.Env(CPL_DEBUG=True, GDAL_CACHEMAX=512000000):
    # ...

Please note that to the Env class, GDAL_CACHEMAX is strictly an integer number of bytes. GDAL’s shorthand notation is not supported.

Format Drivers

gdal provides objects for each of the GDAL format drivers. With Rasterio, format drivers are represented by strings and are used only as arguments to functions like rasterio.open().

dst = rasterio.open('new.tif', 'w', format='GTiff', **kwargs)

Rasterio uses the same format driver names as GDAL does.

Dataset Identifiers

Rasterio uses URIs to identify datasets, with schemes for different protocols. The GDAL bindings have their own special syntax.

Unix-style filenames such as /var/data/example.tif identify dataset files for both Rasterio and gdal. Rasterio also accepts ‘file’ scheme URIs like file:///var/data/example.tif.

Rasterio identifies datasets within ZIP or tar archives using Apache VFS style identifiers like zip:///var/data/example.zip!example.tif or tar:///var/data/example.tar!example.tif.

Datasets served via HTTPS are identified using ‘https’ URIs like https://landsat-pds.s3.amazonaws.com/L8/139/045/LC81390452014295LGN00/LC81390452014295LGN00_B1.TIF.

Datasets on AWS S3 are identified using ‘s3’ scheme identifiers like s3://landsat-pds/L8/139/045/LC81390452014295LGN00/LC81390452014295LGN00_B1.TIF.

With gdal, the equivalent identifiers are respectively /vsizip//var/data/example.zip/example.tif, /vsitar//var/data/example.tar/example.tif, /vsicurl/landsat-pds.s3.amazonaws.com/L8/139/045/LC81390452014295LGN00/LC81390452014295LGN00_B1.TIF, and /vsis3/landsat-pds/L8/139/045/LC81390452014295LGN00/LC81390452014295LGN00_B1.TIF.

To help developers switch, Rasterio will accept these identifiers and other format-specific connection strings, too, and dispatch them to the proper format drivers and protocols.

Dataset Objects

Rasterio and gdal each have dataset objects. Not the same classes, of course, but not radically different ones. In each case, you generally get dataset objects through an “opener” function: rasterio.open() or gdal.Open().

So that Python developers can spend less time reading docs, the dataset object returned by rasterio.open() is modeled on Python’s file object. It even has the close() method that gdal lacks so that you can actively close dataset connections.


gdal and Rasterio both have band objects. But unlike gdal’s band, Rasterio’s band is just a tuple of the dataset, band index and some other band properties. Thus Rasterio never has objects with dangling dataset pointers. With Rasterio, bands are represented by a numerical index, starting from 1 (as GDAL does), and are used as arguments to dataset methods. To read the first band of a dataset as a Numpy ndarray, do this.

with rasterio.open('example.tif') as src:
    band1 = src.read(1)

A band object can be used to represent a single band (or a sequence of bands):

with rasterio.open('example.tif') as src:
    bnd = rasterio.band(src, 1)

Other attributes of GDAL band objects generally surface in Rasterio as tuples returned by dataset attributes, with one value per band, in order.

>>> src = rasterio.open('example.tif')
>>> src.indexes
(1, 2, 3)
>>> src.dtypes
('uint8', 'uint8', 'uint8')
>>> src.descriptions
('Red band', 'Green band', 'Blue band')
>>> src.units
('DN', 'DN', 'DN')

Developers that want read-only band objects for their applications can create them by zipping these tuples together.

from collections import namedtuple

Band = namedtuple('Band', ['idx', 'dtype', 'description', 'units'])

src = rasterio.open('example.tif')
bands = [Band(vals) for vals in zip(
    src.indexes, src.dtypes, src.descriptions, src.units)]

Namedtuples are like lightweight classes.

>>> for band in bands:
...     print(band.idx)


The transform attribute of a Rasterio dataset object is comparable to the GeoTransform attribute of a GDAL dataset, but Rasterio’s has more power. It’s not just an array of affine transformation matrix elements, it’s an instance of an Afine class and has many handy methods. For example, the spatial coordinates of the upper left corner of any raster element is the product of the dataset’s transform matrix and the (column, row) index of the element.

>>> src = rasterio.open('example.tif')
>>> src.transform * (0, 0)
(101985.0, 2826915.0)

The affine transformation matrix can be inverted as well.

>>> ~src.transform * (101985.0, 2826915.0)
(0.0, 0.0)

To help developers switch, Affine instances can be created from or converted to the sequences used by gdal.

>>> from rasterio.transform import Affine
>>> Affine.from_gdal(101985.0, 300.0379266750948, 0.0,
...                  2826915.0, 0.0, -300.041782729805).to_gdal()
(101985.0, 300.0379266750948, 0.0, 2826915.0, 0.0, -300.041782729805)

Coordinate Reference Systems

The crs attribute of a Rasterio dataset object is an instance of Rasterio’s CRS class and works well with pyproj.

>>> from pyproj import Proj, transform
>>> src = rasterio.open('example.tif')
>>> transform(Proj(src.crs), Proj('+init=epsg:3857'), 101985.0, 2826915.0)
(-8789636.707871985, 2938035.238323653)


GDAL metadata items are called “tags” in Rasterio. The tag set for a given GDAL metadata namespace is represented as a dict.

>>> src.tags()
{'AREA_OR_POINT': 'Area'}
>>> src.tags(ns='IMAGE_STRUCTURE')

The semantics of the tags in GDAL’s default and IMAGE_STRUCTURE namespaces are described in https://gdal.org/user/raster_data_model.html. Rasterio uses several namespaces of its own: rio_creation_kwds and rio_overviews, each with their own semantics.

Offsets and Windows

Rasterio adds an abstraction for subsets or windows of a raster array that GDAL does not have. A window is a pair of tuples, the first of the pair being the raster row indexes at which the window starts and stops, the second being the column indexes at which the window starts and stops. Row before column, as with ndarray slices. Instances of Window are created by passing the four subset parameters used with gdal to the class constructor.

src = rasterio.open('example.tif')

xoff, yoff = 0, 0
xsize, ysize = 10, 10
subset = src.read(1, window=Window(xoff, yoff, xsize, ysize))

Valid Data Masks

Rasterio provides an array for every dataset representing its valid data mask using the same indicators as GDAL: 0 for invalid data and 255 for valid data.

>>> src = rasterio.open('example.tif')
>>> src.dataset_mask()
array([[0, 0, 0, ..., 0, 0, 0],
       [0, 0, 0, ..., 0, 0, 0],
       [0, 0, 0, ..., 0, 0, 0],
       [0, 0, 0, ..., 0, 0, 0],
       [0, 0, 0, ..., 0, 0, 0],
       [0, 0, 0, ..., 0, 0, 0]], dtype-uint8)

Arrays for dataset bands can also be had as a Numpy masked_array.

>>> src.read(1, masked=True)
masked_array(data =
 [[-- -- -- ..., -- -- --]
  [-- -- -- ..., -- -- --]
  [-- -- -- ..., -- -- --]
  [-- -- -- ..., -- -- --]
  [-- -- -- ..., -- -- --]
  [-- -- -- ..., -- -- --]],
             mask =
 [[ True  True  True ...,  True  True  True]
  [ True  True  True ...,  True  True  True]
  [ True  True  True ...,  True  True  True]
  [ True  True  True ...,  True  True  True]
  [ True  True  True ...,  True  True  True]
  [ True  True  True ...,  True  True  True]],
        fill_value = 0)

Where the masked array’s mask is True, the data is invalid and has been masked “out” in the opposite sense of GDAL’s mask.

Errors and Exceptions

Rasterio always raises Python exceptions when an error occurs and never returns an error code or None to indicate an error. gdal takes the opposite approach, although developers can turn on exceptions by calling gdal.UseExceptions().