ESRI’s ArcGIS Online World Imagery is a high resolution satellite and aerial imagery base map for use in Google Earth, ArcMap and ArcGIS Explorer. The same excellent imagery is used by the Bing Maps Aerial layer. Somewhat surprisingly, World Imagery can also be accessed by QGIS, as it supports ESRI’s map servers that use Representational State Transfer (REST) and Simple Object Assess Protocol (SOAP) standards.
Simply copy and past the following code into the Python Console in QGIS and press return (Plugins – Console):
The code adds an ESRI Online World Imagery base map to QGIS. It has a number of advantages over the popular OpenLayers Plugin that adds various Google, Bing and OpenStreetMap image layers to QGIS. Unlike images downloaded by the OpenLayers plugin the ESRI World Imagery base map is a true Raster who’s attributes are fully editable e.g. brightness, blending mode and transparency can be adjusted. World Imagery can also be printed at a very high resolution with other QGIS layers on a map and without it shifting relative to other layers; a conspicuous problem with OpenLayers that does not use “On the Fly” re-projection and only prints Google, Bing layers at a low resolution. It is an ideal aerial base map.
Edit: Updated to correct URL
Note: This method has been superseded by a plug-in that adds ESRI imagery and other REST layers via a GUI