Friday, 21 August 2009

Changing the aspect ratio of axes

A couple of days ago, I saw a question on the gnuplot discussion board about how to change the ratio of the three axes in a 3D plot independently. In 2D, this is not a problem, for one can use the command
set size xsize, ysize

where xsize and ysize are relative to the canvas size. If, e.g., you type
set size 1, 0.5
then the figure will be just as wide as it was originally, but the height will be reduced by a factor of two. Now, the problem is that in 3D the above-mentioned instruction will lead to a figure whose height (i.e., the z coordinate axis) is reduced by a factor of two, but the width is unchanged. However, the width is determined by x and y, therefore, the x-y axes will be linked in this way. This results in the pitiable situation that we can't have an x axis, which is twice as long as the y axis. There's got to be a way around this problem! Sure enough, there is, and this is what we will set out to solve now. This will require some hand-work, but it is fairly simple otherwise.

The original problem on the discussion board was to set the xrange as [-6:6], the yrange as [-3:3], and the zrange as [-2:2], while keeping the units on each axis equal, i.e., have aspect ratios 6:3:2. What we can do is the following: we can easily change the z:x ratio, simply setting the size. Then, instead of plotting over the whole y range, we will only plot over one part of it, and yes, you've guessed correctly, we will use the ternary operator for that. The only trick is that we specify a yrange which is actually larger than the one that we want to plot. So, here is our script, and we will discuss it below
set iso 100,100
set xrange [-6:6]
set yrange [-3:9] # We should have [-3:3], but do not rush!
set zrange [-2:2]
set ticslevel 0
unset key
unset colorbox
set xtics nomirror
set ytics -3,2,3
set ztics -2,2,2
set xtics -6,2,6
set border 1+16

set xlabel 'x-label'
set zlabel 'z-label' offset graph 0.05,0,-0.1
set ylabel 'y-label' offset graph -0.05,-0.25,0
f(x) = (x<3?x:1/0)
set size 1,0.7
set arrow 1 from -6,-3,-2 to -6,3,-2 nohead
set arrow 2 from 6,-3,-2 to 6,3,-2 nohead
set arrow 3 from -6,3,-2 to 6,3,-2 nohead

set palette rgbformulae 33,13,10
splot sin(x)*cos(f(y)) with pm3d

In the beginning, as usual, we set up the figure. The only thing to watch out is the unusual yrange: we specify more than we actually will use. On the border, we draw only the x, and z axes, but not the x2, y, and y2 axes. We will do that by hand, where we draw 3 headless arrows. Before we plot anything, we define a function which we will use to restrict the plotted yrange to [-3:3]. In the plotting function we pass not y, but f(y), so that nothing will be plotted beyond y=3. Having done the heavy work, we plot the function, and get the following image

Now, a couple of comments are in order here. One is that, since we set the y axis by hand, we have got to set the ylabel by hand, too. This is why we specified the offsets for the labels. (For the zlabel it wouldn't have been necessary, it just made the figure look a bit tidier.) The second remark is that it really depends on the view what looks the same on the 3 axes: that is why there is no generally applicable number can be given in the set size command. You have to try and determine it on a case-by-case basis.


  1. Thanks!
    Do you have any idea of how to do it if you have to plot data from a file and not a function?

    1. You may try like this:
      splot "" using 1:2:3 with pm3d

    2. This splot command will work, but only if your file is ordered in a specific way :
      Every time the x value is changing, a blank line must be inserted. Example :

      15.000000 25.714286 8.37529e-002
      15.000000 51.428571 6.90240e-002

      30.000000 25.714286 5.59758e-003
      30.000000 51.428571 9.37562e-003

      45.000000 25.714286 1.79473e-002
      45.000000 51.428571 9.68278e-003

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