02
Oct
09

Two Steps Removed From a Photograph

Hey everyone,

As promised, something a little different this time. We learn a lot from the mistakes of others, to be sure, but we can learn from their successes as well. There are many great maps out there which inspire me to keep going, to keep making myself better. And, of course, there’s something to be said for looking at things that are beautiful.

So, today I’ll make a few comments about one of my favorite maps, which I fell in love a couple of years ago when an instructor of mine used it on his intro cartography syllabus.

Kenai Fjords National Park, by Tom Patterson. Click to go to National Parks Service viewer where you can see the image in more detail.

Kenai Fjords National Park, by Tom Patterson. Click to go to National Parks Service viewer where you can see the map in more detail.

Detail of Kenai Fjords Map

Detail of Kenai Fjords Map

This is a map of Kenai Fjords National Park, in Alaska, by Tom Patterson, one of the masters of creating terrain relief. Not only is he great at it, but he has a website which helps explain his techniques to anyone interested: Shaded Relief. You can also find some nice, freely available, premade relief images for the entire globe.

The most obvious great thing about this map is the relief. I’ve provided a detail above, but you should click on the first image, which takes you to the National Park Service map viewer, and browse around the image in detail yourself. This is not just some quick, automatically generated terrain relief that you put together in ArcGIS. Those can look decent, but the Kenai Fjords map is a huge step beyond what most people do. I am not sure as to the exact details of its creation, but he has clearly done a lot of manual work here, airbrushing in Photoshop or some similar program, carefully choosing his colors to show shadows, vegetation patterns, etc. The detail is incredible. I mean, you can even see a fine snow texturing on the top of the ice/snow dome and the glaciers. And small mountain peaks poking up through the snow. This thing is just one or two steps removed from a photograph — just far enough away from one that it doesn’t have that weird mismatched feeling that I get from looking at satellite photo that have been labeled with simple symbols and clean type, as though there are 1000-foot-high letters on the ground. He did his job well, and that means that you don’t notice most of the effort he had to go to. It looks right, it looks natural — nothing sticks out as being obviously wrong or feeling artificial. He even carries the relief into the water, so that the land doesn’t look like it’s sitting on a flat plane.

I will speculate, however, that the beauty of this relief is probably helped out a bit by the fact that the actual terrain of this region in Alaska is, itself, beautiful and interesting (applying this same technique in Kansas would likely produce something less stunning). Nonetheless, it would be easy to fail at doing justice to such terrain.

The labeling and other symbols on the map are still clear, despite what goes on underneath them — they’re not overpowered by the terrain relief. I also like the parts which show how the glaciers have receded in the last century. This is not just a pretty map — it’s a functional one that conveys data.

As I’m writing this, I’m finding it’s a lot more challenging to pick out what’s good about a map than it is to discuss what’s bad. This, again, links to what I said above about how, when things are well done, they’re harder to notice. A bad color scheme sticks out. A good color scheme draws little attention, because it just feels like it’s suppose to be that way. Likewise with the text — above, Mr. Patterson does a fine job of separating text styles. The type used for glaciers looks different than the type for islands and the type for the ranger station, because those are all different classes of things. It looks good, but you don’t think about it because it’s generally what you’re supposed to do.

As I do more of these posts, I hope to get better at pointing out the good side of things, as well. It is, in fact, one reason that I am engaging in this exercise. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to chime in about your favorite (or, if feeling critical, least favorite) parts of this map in the comments section. And keep sending me maps you like (or don’t), and tell me why.

I’m flying out to California next week to attend the annual meeting of the North American Cartography Information Society. I may be off the radar for a bit, but I hope that I will have a chance to meet some of you there.

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4 Responses to “Two Steps Removed From a Photograph”


  1. 1 Kyle
    20th October, 2009 at 10:58 am

    I was just curious, as there are no times on the map, if this map is supposed to be representative for all seasons? I’m only curious as I would think (but perhaps not) the vegetation and the snow capping would shift on the season. Which brings me to the question about whether the snow and vegetation are an artistic touch as to its placement and arragement, or if it is based on a specific satelite photo or other imaging. The textures, shading and all of that are gorgeous, I was just wondering if it looks as nice and natural as it does because it takes the patterns from nature or if things have been adjusted to be aesthetically pleasing. I especially thought about this as some snow capping did not end in streams or the like, they just ended, even though the snow looks as though the run-off would create a body of water, as the others had.

    • 2 Daniel Huffman
      23rd October, 2009 at 11:40 am

      You make a very interesting point, which had totally escaped me. At NACIS recently, Tom talked about some of the maps he was currently working on, and my impression is that he does do a lot of the snow/vegetation from satellite photos + land cover data sets. I’m not sure what his rules might be as far as seasonal adjustments, though.


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