Gnuplot tutorial

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Gnuplot Tutorial

By Dr R Lindebaum

Contents

Introduction

Gnuplot is a powerful plotting program which has many useful features. Both Linux and Windows version are available. This tutorial is aimed at helping students use gnuplot for their projects. This tutorial does not cover all the features of gnuplot, but rather a small selection of features that will hopefully be most useful for physics and computational physics students. It will only describe some options for commands, but if you want to do something more complicated, you can use the help system to learn about all the features of the commands. This tutorial is specifically for gnuplot 4.0, but should be useful for both earlier and later versions.

There is a fairly comprehensive help system in gnuplot. The general form of the help command is

 help <topic>

for example

 help plot

This will give help on this command and provide a list of subtopics at the end, which will look like

Subtopics available for plot:
   acsplines         bezier            binary            csplines

You can now type in the subtopic, eg. bezier to get more information on how the to plot bezier curves. In Linux press q to get back to the command prompt. You can also get there in one step if you like with the command

help plot bezier

For many of the commands that I will discuss here, there are many more options that you can use than the ones I discuss. the use of help command will describe the command in full.

Interactive and batch modes

Gnuplot can be run either interactively, where you type in commands and gnuplot executes those commands as you type them. Interactive mode is started by typing gnuplot on the command line with no additional arguments. An example session is below.

gnuplot> set title "Graph of velocity versus time"
gnuplot> set xrange[0:10]
gnuplot> plot sin(x)
gnuplot> quit

Gnuplot Plot

Instead of typing the commands directly into gnuplot, you can put the commands in a text file. For example, the we could type the following list of commands in a editor and save them to a file say plot1.gnu

 set title "Graph of velocity versus time"
 set xrange[0:10]
 plot sin(x)
 pause -1

Note the pause -1 command at end of this file, it prevents gnuplot from continuing until a key is pressed. It is useful in batch mode only as otherwise gnuplot would draw the plot then close down immediately without giving you time to view your plot. Now to create the plot one can simply start gnuplot with the name of the file on the command line, eg

 gnuplot plot1.gnu

which draws the plot in a window and closes down after a key is pressed. If you still want to be able to type commands after the plot is made you could start it using the following commands:

 gnuplot
 gnuplot> load 'plot1.gnu'

The benefit of saving the commands to a file, is that it is easy to recreate a plot later. If you are in interactive mode you can also do this by saving your plot to do this, after the plot command type

 gnuplot> save 'plot1.gnu'

This creates the file plot1.gnu which contains all the commands to generate the plot that you have just generated. Note, this file is not a copy of the commands that you have typed, rather the commands necessary to generate the last plot that you made. It includes all the possible options to the commands. This makes the file big and quite hard to read.

Quickstart

Suppose you wish to plot the function x sin(1.2 x) on the range [0,7]. The following commands will produce the graph alongside.

set xrange[0:7] 
plot x*sin(1.2*x)

Gnuplot Plot

All graphs have little meaning unless the axes have labels and the graph a title

set title 'Graph of velocity versus '
set xlabel 'Time/s'
set ylabel 'Velocity/ms^{-1}'
set xrange[0:7] 
plot x*sin(1.2*x)

Gnuplot Plot

Terminals and output

Gnuplot by default draws the plots you create onto the screen. Often you want to create a plot for inclusion in a document, gnuplot can do this as well. If you are using openoffice, there are two formats that you can use, either emf or png. To create a png file you must set the terminal type and the file to send the output to eg

 set terminal png enhanced
 set ouput 'test.png'

Now when you execute the plot command, the png file is created and nothing goes to the screen. It is rather useful to use the enhanced version if the terminal. This allows you to create sub and superscripts, and change the fonts. For example x-132 is produced with x^{-1}_{32}. For more info about enhanced terminals type

 help enhanced

To send the output back to the screen again use the commands

 set term X11 enhanced 
 set out

To make a better image in an openoffice document it is useful to make a large png file, and then use open office to shrink it to the size on the page that you want (The image may appear less sharp on screen, but it will print out better!). If you want a larger image you can append a large or giant to the terminal.

 set terminal png enhanced large

Or if you want a specific size, for example 1024x768 which generates a good looking plot

 set terminal png enhanced size 1024,768

Since the postscript terminal is one of the most used, it has the most features. Unfortunately Openoffice does not handle postscript files well, so one way to use a postscript terminal is to create an eps file by

  set terminal postscript eps enhanced
  set out 'test.eps'
  plot sin(x)

Now in a bash shell use the pstoimg command to convert the postscript image to a png file form the command line type

  bash# pstoimg -scale 2 test.eps

This will create a file test.png which you can import into openoffice.

2D Plots (plotting curves)

Gnuplot can plot both analytic functions and data in data files. We will first look at some common commands that affect both.

Common commands

There are numerous options that you can set that will affect the overall look of the graph (Most work for 3D plots as well) Note that these commands have many more options, just the basic ones are used here. Type

 help set xlabel

for example to get help on all the possible options for the xlabel.

Make a title set title 'Graph of velocity versus time'
Label x axis set xlabel 'Time(s)'
Label y axis set ylabel 'Velocity(m/s\^2)'
Adjust the tick marks set xtics 0.1
set ytics 0.1
Adjust no. of minor tick marks set mxtics 4
Move the key set key bottom left
set key top right
Change the key text plot sin(x) title "new text"
Remove the key unset key
Set plot aspect ratio set size square
 :A wide plot set size ratio 0.25
 :A narrow tall plot set size ratio 2
Adjust the xrange set xrange[-3:5]
Adjust the lower xrange, upper auto set xrange[-3:*]
Adjust the upper xrange, lower auto set xrange[*:5]
Use a logarithmic x axis set logscale x
Use a logarithmic y axis set logscale y
Draw a grid on major tics set grid y

2d plots

As we saw in the quickstart section above, we can easily create 2 dimensional plots. For example the commands below produce

set title 'Graph of velocity versus time'
set xlabel 'Time/s'
set ylabel 'Velocity/ms^{-1}'
set xrange[0.1:7] 
set mxtics 4
set grid
set logscale y
plot x*exp(-x) title velocity

Gnuplot Plot

Besides plotting functions, you can also plot data that is in a file. The file should contain columns of number separated by white space. Any line that starts with # is ignored so you can put comments in your file For example if the file data.dat contains

 # time  x   y
 0.000  2.345 0.0000
 0.500  2,86  -1,32
 1.000  3.41  -1.9
 1.5    3.42  -1.99
 2.0    3.2   -1.8

You can plot x versus time using

set title 'Graph of x versus time'
set xlabel 'Time/s'
set ylabel 'x/m'
plot 'data.dat' using 1:2 title "x" 

Gnuplot Plot

Note the use of the using 1:2 which makes gnuplot use column 1 for the data on the horizontal axis and column 2 for the data on the vertical axis.

It is rather useful to be able to join the points with lines. Below we plot the third column versus the first column of data and draw lines between the points.

set title 'Graph of y versus time'
set xlabel 'Time/s'
set ylabel 'y/m'
plot 'data.dat' using 1:3 title "y"  with lines

Gnuplot Plot

Gnuplot can also plot manipulated versions of the columns for example if we want to plot y*sin(t) versus x*sin(t) using the same table we could use

set title 'Graph of y*sin(t) versus x*t'
set xlabel 'x*t/ms'
set ylabel 'y*sin(t)/m'
unset key
plot 'data.dat' using ($2*$1):($3*sin($1))  with lp

Gnuplot Plot

Note the if we want to compute a column the using parameter has the form using (....):(.....) where the things in the brackets are the function we must apply to the data. $1 refers to column 1, $2 to column 2 and so on. Also note the use of with lp at the end of the plot which plots both the points and joins lines between them.

Arrows and labels

Sometimes It is useful to draw lines and arrows on a plot and put labels on them. This can be easily done with the set arrow and the set label commands. Examine the following plot

set title 'Graph of velocity versus time'
set xlabel 'Time/s'
set ylabel 'Velocity/ms^{-1}'
set xrange[0:7] 
set mxtics 4
set arrow 1 from  1.9,-1.0 to 2.01,1.8
set label 1 "First max" at 1.8,-1.0 right 
plot x*sin(x) title velocity

Gnuplot Plot

The basic form of the set arrow command is

 set arrow  <tag>  from x,y to x,y 

Tag is just a reference tag for the arrow - use 1,2,3,4,... for successive arrows. By default, the coordinates used are the graph coordinates, but other options are available. The easiest way to get them is to click the middle mouse button at the end points of the arrow, which will print the coordinates at those points. It is also possible to append nohead to this command to just draw the line without the arrow head. There are more options to this command see

 help set arrow 

for more details

The basic form of the set label command is

 set label <tag> "label text" at x,y <left|center|right>

Again tag is a just a reference number to the label, At the end of the label we specify how to justify the text around the point specified in the at x,y. Left means the left side of the text is at that point, right means the right side is at that point and center means it is centered on that point. Again there are many more options for these labels for setting fonts, colours, rotations etc. see

 help set label 

for more options.

3d Plots

Basics

It is also possible in gnuplot to plot functions of two variables, eg z=f(x,y). Or equivalently data files which represent such a function. The command to do this is splot which is like the plot command but wants a function of two variables.

set xrange[0:7] 
set yrange[1:5]
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y)

Gnuplot Plot

You can increase the number of lines in the plot with the set isosamples command.

set xrange[-3:7] 
set yrange[1:5]
set isosamples 30
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y)

Gnuplot Plot

Data files require 3 columns, two for the x and y coordinates, and a z value which represents the height at that (x,y).. Ideally you want equispaced data which increases sequentially in one coordinate and then the other. At the end of one coordinate sequence put a single blank line. for example if the file test.dat contains

0 0 1 
0 2 1.1
0 3 1.2
0 4 1.33
 
1 0 0.9
1 2 1.06
1 3 1.15
1 4 1.22 

2 0 0.7
2 2 1.0
2 3 1.09
2 4 1.25

(note: the x and y coordinates can be real numbers too) then we can plot this data with the following

splot 'test.dat' title 'test' with lines

Gnuplot Plot

Hidden lines

It is also possible to remove lines that would be hidden if the surface was not transparent. This can make complicated diagrams easier to understand

set xrange[-3:7] 
set yrange[1:5]
set isosamples 30
set hidden3d
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y)

Gnuplot Plot

Contours

It is also possible to draw contours on the plot. using the set contour <base|surface|both> eg

 set contour surface

which makes gnuplot draw contours on the surface. the base option make the contours get drawn in the base, and both draws them in both places.

set xrange[-3:4] 
set yrange[1:5]
set isosamples 30
set hidden3d
set key outside
set contour both
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y) notitle

Gnuplot Plot

Often one simply wants the contour plot as viewed from above to do this use

 set view map
 unset surface

The unset surface prevents the surface from being drawn, as from above it is just a grid.

set xrange[-3:4] 
set yrange[1:5]
set isosamples 50
set view map
unset sureface
set hidden3d
set key outside
set contour base
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y) notitle

Gnuplot Plot

Sometimes the automatic contour levels are not adequate. You can do many adjustments to the contour levels using the set cntrparam command. For example

set cntrparam levels 10

instructs gnuplot to try fit 10 contour levels in. It will not force it to use exactly 10, but rather it will choose appropriate levels so that there are nearly 10 levels. There are many other options see help cntrparam for more details.

set xrange[-3:4] 
set yrange[1:5]
set isosamples 50
set view map
unset surface
set hidden3d
set key outside
set contour base
set cntrparam levels 10
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y) notitle

Gnuplot Plot

Colouration with pm3d

It is quite nice to colour shade the surfaces of plots with shades that depend on the height in the z direction. to do this use

 set pm3d

set pm3d has a number of options which affect the appearances of the plots. For example

set xrange[-2:2] 
set yrange[-2:2]
set isosamples 50
set pm3d
unset surface
set key outside
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y) notitle

Gnuplot Plot

It is also nice to use the coloration with contour plots.

set xrange[-2:2] 
set yrange[-2:2]
set isosamples 50
set pm3d
unset surface
set view map
set contour
set key outside
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y) notitle

Gnuplot Plot

You can play with the colour scheme used in the plot. If you are going to print the plot on a monochorme printer, it is useful to use

 set palette gray negative

This chooses a gray palette for the colouring. The negative reverses the order, making black represent higher values and white the lower values. There are many more options to the set palette command see help system for details.

set xrange[-2:2] 
set yrange[-2:2]
set isosamples 50
set pm3d
unset surface
set view map
set contour
set key outside
set palette gray negative
splot exp(-0.2*x)*cos(x*y)*sin(y) notitle

Gnuplot Plot

Fitting functions

Gnuplot has the ability to fit a function containing parameters to a data file. Gnuplot contains an implementation of the nonlinear least-squares (NLLS) Marquardt-Levenberg algorithm.

Suppose you wanted to fit a best fit straight line y = mx + c to a set of data points. This can be achieved using the fit command. The fit command takes the a number or parameters

 fit expression 'datafile'  (optional data modifiers) via  param1,param2,....

Let us see this in action, consider a data file data containing 2 columns of data one representing the independent variable time and the other the dependent variable position.

#Time position
0.000 2.345
0.500 2.86
1.000 3.41
1.5 3.42

To fit a best fit (least squares) straight line we use the command on the left. Part of the text output is shown on the right.

fit m*x +c 'data' using 1:2 via m,c
resultant parameter values

m               = 0.755
c               = 2.4425

After 4 iterations the fit converged.
final sum of squares of residuals : 0.0802875
rel. change during last iteration : -8.73884e-12

degrees of freedom    (FIT_NDF)                        : 2
rms of residuals      (FIT_STDFIT) = sqrt(WSSR/ndf)    : 0.200359
variance of residuals (reduced chisquare) = WSSR/ndf   : 0.0401438

Final set of parameters            Asymptotic Standard Error
=======================            ==========================

m               = 0.755            +/- 0.1792       (23.74%)
c               = 2.4425           +/- 0.1676       (6.863%)


correlation matrix of the fit parameters:

               m      c      
m               1.000 
c              -0.802  1.000 

From this output we read off the best fit slope m is 0.755 with a standard deviation of 0.1792 and the best fit intercept c is 2.4425 with standard deviation 0.1676

We can put this together with a plot command to plot the data points and the best fit straight line as below

fit m*x +c 'data' using 1:2 via m,c
set title "Position versus time"
set xlabel "time/s"
set ylabel "position/m"
plot 'data' title 'data points', m*x+c title 'best fit'

Gnuplot Plot

Error bars in data

In the above cases we have assumed that there is no error in the position measurement (or that the error is identical for each point. In many cases this is not the case and we want to plot the data with errors.

Suppose our data file now contains a third column containing the error in the position

#Time position pos error
0.000 2.345 0.1
0.500 2.86 0.15
1.000 3.41 0.4
1.5 3.42 0.1

We can fit this with

fit m*x +c 'data' using 1:2:3 via m,c
resultant parameter values

m               = 0.709309
c               = 2.3867

After 3 iterations the fit converged.
final sum of squares of residuals : 1.50974
rel. change during last iteration : -8.15835e-08

degrees of freedom    (FIT_NDF)                        : 2
rms of residuals      (FIT_STDFIT) = sqrt(WSSR/ndf)    : 0.868832
variance of residuals (reduced chisquare) = WSSR/ndf   : 0.754869

Final set of parameters            Asymptotic Standard Error
=======================            ==========================

m               = 0.709309         +/- 0.08091      (11.41%)
c               = 2.3867           +/- 0.07956      (3.333%)


correlation matrix of the fit parameters:

               m      c      
m               1.000 
c              -0.724  1.000 

There slope is 0.709309 +/- 0.08091 and the intercept is 2.3867 +/- 0.07956. In this case the error is smaller since the wayward point (3rd line in data) had a much higher error. Note that it is important to include the using 1:2:3 otherwise it will by default only use the first two columns!

This can be plotted together with the data points as

fit m*x +c 'data' using 1:2:3 via m,c
set title "Position versus time"
set xlabel "time/s"
set ylabel "position/m"
plot 'data' u 1:2:3 title 'data points' with errorbars, m*x+c title 'best fit'

Gnuplot Plot

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