Altcademy - a Forbes magazine logo Best Coding Bootcamp 2023

How to show legend in matplotlib

Understanding Legends in Matplotlib

When you're diving into the world of data visualization, one of the key components you'll encounter is the legend. In the simplest terms, a legend is a guide that helps anyone looking at your chart to understand what each graphical element represents. Think of it as a map legend that tells you what different symbols and colors mean, but for your chart.

In Matplotlib, which is a plotting library for Python, legends are incredibly useful for distinguishing between different datasets or categories within your plot. Adding a legend can turn a confusing jumble of lines or bars into a clear and interpretable visualization. So, let's learn how to add and customize legends in Matplotlib.

Basic Legend Placement

To begin with, let's see how you can add a basic legend to a plot. When you create a plot with multiple lines or markers, you can label each one using the label parameter within plotting functions like plot(), scatter(), bar(), etc. After labeling, you can call the legend() function to display the legend on the plot.

Here's a simple example:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

# Plotting two lines
plt.plot([1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6], label='Rising Trend')
plt.plot([1, 2, 3], [6, 5, 4], label='Falling Trend')

# Adding a legend

# Displaying the plot

In this code, we plot two lines with different trends and label them. When we call plt.legend(), Matplotlib looks for any labels we've defined and creates a legend for us.

Customizing Legend Location

Sometimes the default position of the legend is not ideal; it might overlap with your data or just not fit well with your plot's layout. You can change the location of the legend using the loc parameter within the legend() function. Matplotlib provides several location options such as 'upper right', 'upper left', 'lower left', 'lower right', 'right', 'center left', etc.

Here's how to position the legend in the upper left corner:

plt.legend(loc='upper left')

Alternatively, you can use numeric codes to set the position (e.g., loc=2 for 'upper left'). But as a beginner, it's often easier to remember the descriptive location names.

Handling Overlapping Legends

What if your legend is still overlapping with your data, even after you've moved it around? You can make your legend semi-transparent, so the data underneath is visible. This is done by setting the alpha parameter, which controls the transparency of the legend's background.

For example:

plt.legend(loc='best', alpha=0.5)

The alpha value ranges from 0 (completely transparent) to 1 (completely opaque). In the example above, alpha=0.5 makes the legend's background 50% transparent.

Customizing Legend Appearance

Matplotlib allows you to customize almost every aspect of the legend, from the frame to the font size. Let's say you want to change the border of the legend to a dashed line and modify the font size for better readability. Here's how you can do it:

plt.legend(loc='best', edgecolor='blue', facecolor='lightgray', 
           framealpha=1, fontsize=12, frameon=True)

In this snippet, edgecolor changes the color of the legend's border, facecolor changes the background color inside the legend, framealpha sets the transparency of the legend's frame (not the background), fontsize adjusts the size of the text, and frameon decides whether there should be a frame at all.

Dynamic Legends with Multiple Plots

When working with multiple plots, you might want to dynamically update your legend. For instance, if you're plotting in a loop or interactively adding data to your plot, you'll want the legend to reflect these changes.

Here is a code snippet to illustrate dynamic legend updates:

import matplotlib.pyplot as plt

# Initialize the plot
fig, ax = plt.subplots()

for i in range(3):
    ax.plot([1, 2, 3], [i, i+1, i+2], label=f'Line {i+1}')

# Update the legend to include all labeled elements

Every time we plot a new line inside the loop, we include a unique label. The legend is then updated to include all the labeled elements when we call ax.legend().

Legends with Multiple Columns

If you have many items to display in your legend, it might become too tall and narrow. You can spread out the items over multiple columns using the ncol parameter, which specifies the number of columns in the legend.


plt.legend(loc='upper center', ncol=2)

This would arrange the legend items into two columns.

Intuitive Analogies for Legends

To help you understand the concept of legends better, think of a legend as a cast list for a play. Just as the cast list tells you who each actor is and what character they play, the legend tells you what each line or marker represents in your data story.


Adding a legend to your Matplotlib plots is like introducing the characters in a story. It helps your audience quickly grasp the narrative you're trying to convey with your data. By customizing your legend, you ensure that your plot is not only informative but also aesthetically pleasing and easy to interpret.

Remember, the best legends are those that guide without overwhelming. They're the silent narrators of your data's tale, allowing the visual elements to shine while providing the context needed to understand the plot fully. As you continue your journey in data visualization, consider the legend an essential ally in crafting clear, compelling stories with your charts.