Making 3D Terrain Maps

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It is fitting to end this series by discussing the task that I do last on a 3D terrain map project: placing type. After arduous 3D work—the Jenny Lake Visitor Center map below took 6 months to complete and 9 continuous days to render the final scene—type placement by comparison goes blazingly fast. An important transformation also happens. With labels, the 3D image becomes more than just a collection of pleasantly arranged pixels. It conveys information and meaning to readers. It is now a map.

I recently placed labels on the two maps below, which are for outdoor exhibits at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Labeling the first map, viewed from a high-oblique elevation, was much like labeling a conventional map. I took care when placing type and symbols not to cover up points of interest, such as buildings, the boat dock, and overlooks. Because the image is relatively dark throughout, I decided to use mostly white, yellow, and pale blue labels set in a semi-bold font and accented with drop shadows. Only in the lighter open area in the lower left do I use a black label.


Jenny Lake Visitor Center, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. Base map art by Tim Montenyohl, International Mapping. (Click map to enlarge.)


The second map for hikers shown below was a typographic challenge. The contrasting and juxtaposed mountain textures ranging from white glaciers and snow patches to dark cast shadows interfered with type legibility. I used a couple of tricks to ameliorate this problem. The black type is comprised of 100% black, 100% cyan, 100% magenta, and 100% yellow to make it as dense as possible. Behind the type I blurred and lightened the terrain image with a feathered selection, taking pains not to make the halo effect too pronounced. The cure should not be worse than the disease.

A second problem was deciding where to place mountain names and elevations. Placing the labels at the summits would have obscured a most interesting part of the map. I compromised by moving the labels down slope to positions where they would do the least harm.

This map has a north arrow and scale, which cartographic purists might find objectionable. Because of perspective built into the view, true north varies slightly from side to side. I decided that it was more important to give visitors a general inkling of north rather than to leave them wondering. The same thinking applies for the bar scale. The accompanying note "approximate foreground scale" informs visitors of its limitations.


Jenny Lake Hiking Map, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Click map to enlarge.)

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