Plotting in SunPy

SunPy makes use of matplotlib for all of its plotting - as such, it tries to follow the matplotlib plotting philosophy. It is therefore useful to go over how matplotlib works as background.

1. Matplotlib Tutorial

The tutorial provided here is a summary of one that can be found in the matplotlib usage documentation.

Matplotlib provides two main pathways for plotting. One is meant for interactive use (e.g. command-line) and the other for non-interactive use (e.g. modules). It is important to recognize though that the interactive-use pathway (referred to as pyplot) just provides shortcuts for doing many of the more advanced non-interactive functions in the background. It is therefore possible to switch between the two as necessary and it is possible to use pyplot in a non-interactive way. In this manner pyplot is just a shortcut to making it quicker to set up plot axes and figures. In order to get access to the full interactive capabilities of pyplot it is necessary to turn this feature on. Pylab is another matplotlib usage scenario but it is essentially just pyplot with the interactive capabilities turned on and numpy and matplotlib imported into the main namespace.

2. Pyplot

Here is a simple example of pyplot usage.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
plt.plot(range(10), range(10))
plt.title("A simple Plot")

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The show command opens a plot on the screen and blocks execution until the plot window is closed. The show command only works once. If you were to call show again after the above code is executed nothing happens. This confusing behavior is something that the matplotlib devs get complaints about often and so this may change. A discussion about this can be found here. Don’t be confused by another command called draw. This is only used while in interactive mode.

To turn on interactivity for pyplot use the command

>>> plt.ion()   

In interactive mode, the plot will appear at the first plot command and most commands will update the plot as you call them. Here is some example code:

>>> plt.plot(range(10), range(10))   
>>> plt.title("Simple Plot")   

In this example, you’ll see that the title appears right on the plot when you call it. Note that in this case the show command is useless as the plot shows up right when you create it. Also note that some commands will not automatically update the plot and you have to use the draw command. The following command

>>> plt.ioff()   

turns off interactivity.

3. Advanced Pyplot

If you need more fine-grained control over plots the recommended path is to use pyplot and access the figures and axes objects. This is shown in the following example.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import numpy as np
x = np.arange(0, 10, 0.2)
y = np.sin(x)
fig = plt.figure()
ax = plt.subplot()
ax.plot(x, y)

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In matplotlib, Figure is the top-level container for all plot elements and Axes is the top-level container for a particular plot. So the above example, creates a figure then creates an axes and populates the plot in ax. With this method you now have your hands on the Axes object so you can do things like change the labels on the x and y axes or add a legend. In the previous section, pyplot took care of creating these objects for you so you didn’t have to worry about creating them yourself.

4. SunPy Plotting Convention

To be consistent with matplotlib, SunPy has developed a standard plotting policy which supports both simple and advanced matplotlib usage. The following examples focus on the map object but they should be applicable across all of the data objects.

4.1 peek()

For quick and easy access to a plot all SunPy base objects (i.e. maps, spectra, timeseries) define their own peek command which will create a plot for you and show it without you having to deal with any matplotlib setup. This is so that it is easy to take a quick look at your data. For example you can make the following plot.

smap =

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This creates a plot window with all axes defined, a plot title, and the image of the map data defined by the contents of the map. In non-interactive mode the plot window blocks the command line terminal and must be closed before doing anything else.

4.2 plot()

For more advanced plotting the base SunPy objects also provide a plot command. This command is similar to the pyplot imshow command in that it will create a figure and axes object for you if you haven’t already.

When you create a plot with peek or plot, SunPy will use astropy.visualization.wcsaxes to represent coordinates on the image accurately, for more information see Plotting Maps with wcsaxes.

Using plot it is possible to customise the look of the plot by combining SunPy and matplotlib commands, for example you can over plot contours on the Map:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import astropy.units as u


aia_map =

# let's add contours as well
aia_map.draw_contours([10,20,30,40,50,60,70,80,90] * u.percent)


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In this example, the Figure and WCSAxes instances are created explicitly, and then used to modify the plot:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import astropy.units as u
from astropy.coordinates import SkyCoord


smap =

fig = plt.figure()
# Provide the Map as a projection, which creates a WCSAxes object
ax = plt.subplot(projection=smap)

im = smap.plot()

# Prevent the image from being re-scaled while overplotting.

xc = [0,100,1000] * u.arcsec
yc = [0,100,1000] * u.arcsec

coords = SkyCoord(xc, yc, frame=smap.coordinate_frame)

p = ax.plot_coord(coords, 'o')

# Set title.
ax.set_title('Custom plot with WCSAxes')


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It is possible to create the same plot, explicitly not using wcsaxes, however, this will not have the features of wcsaxes which include correct representation of rotation and plotting in different coordinate systems. Please see this example Plotting a Map without any Axes.

Plotting Maps with wcsaxes

By default SunPy map uses the astropy.visualization.wcsaxes module to improve the representation of world coordinates, and calling plot or peek() will use wcsaxes for plotting. Unless a standard matplotlib.axes.Axes object is explicitly created.

To explicitly create a WCSAxes instance do the following

>>> fig = plt.figure()   
>>> ax = plt.subplot(projection=smap)   

when plotting on an WCSAxes axes, it will by default plot in pixel coordinates, you can override this behavior and plot in ‘world’ coordinates by getting the transformation from the axes with ax.get_transform('world'). Note: World coordinates are always in degrees so you will have to convert to degrees.:

>>> smap.plot()   
>>> ax.plot((100*u.arcsec).to(u.deg), (500*u.arcsec).to(u.deg),
...         transform=ax.get_transform('world'))   

Finally, here is a more complex example using SunPy maps, wcsaxes and Astropy units to plot a AIA image and a zoomed in view of an active region.

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from matplotlib import patches
import astropy.units as u
from astropy.coordinates import SkyCoord


# Define a region of interest
length = 250 * u.arcsec
x0 = -100 * u.arcsec
y0 = -400 * u.arcsec

# Create a SunPy Map, and a second submap over the region of interest.
smap =
bottom_left = SkyCoord(x0 - length, y0 - length,
top_right = SkyCoord(x0 + length, y0 + length,
submap = smap.submap(bottom_left, top_right=top_right)

# Create a new matplotlib figure, larger than default.
fig = plt.figure(figsize=(5, 12))

# Add a first Axis, using the WCS from the map.
ax1 = fig.add_subplot(2, 1, 1, projection=smap)

# Plot the Map on the axes with default settings.

# Draw a box on the image
smap.draw_quadrangle(bottom_left, height=length * 2, width=length * 2)

# Create a second axis on the plot.
ax2 = fig.add_subplot(2, 1, 2, projection=submap)


# Add a overlay grid.

# Change the title.
ax2.set_title('Zoomed View')

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