My cartography toolkit

I’m constantly reading blogs and social media posts of other cartographers who share their map-making tips, to learn how they solve problems. And the Spatial Community on Slack is a wealth of information and advice. Cartographers are a friendly and collaborative bunch!

I enjoy reading Daniel Huffman’s Practical Cartography tips (#PractiCarto), and am amazed at Tom Patterson’s workflow for creating his U.S. National Park maps. At one of the first NACIS (North American Cartographic Information Society) conferences I attended, I asked Tom about his process – he uses a combination of Natural Scene Designer, Geographic Imager and Photoshop, with Illustrator and MAPublisher to make really beautiful maps.

Cartographic Tools

My toolkit includes several software programs, with some more on my wish-list to streamline my workflow. I spend most of my time in Adobe Illustrator. Daniel’s tips for using the Appearance Panel have helped me a lot in many of the maps I’ve designed. For importing GIS data into Illustrator I use MAPublisher, software that integrates with Illustrator and allows the use of multiple GIS formats and can rescale or reproject with just a few clicks. This software is made by Avenza, a small company in Toronto. They answer email questions the same day, and if I phone, a real person answers!

The only limitation I’ve found with Illustrator is that it sometimes chews up CPU and memory and can crash, often when I’m working with large or complex datasets, such as road networks. That’s when I use qGIS, open source GIS software. I open the dataset in qGIS and can clip it to a smaller area, or select features based on specific attributes and save the selection as a new shapefile, which is smaller and easier to import into MAPublisher/Illustrator.

Working with Raster Images

I also use qGIS to pre-process raster images. When clients want terrain on medium- or small-scale maps, I download raster data from Natural Earth and reproject it to the same projection as my MAPublisher project, then crop it to my project extents. Then I use MAPublisher to import the raster into Illustrator.

Working with Elevation Data

For large-scale maps, if I can find contour line shapefiles then I create a DTM (digital terrain model) with the qGIS GRASS plug-in, then create a hillshade from the DTM. Sometimes I’m able to find open source DEM (digital elevation model) files online, which I open in Pyramid Shader (another wonderful open source tool) to create shaded relief images. If the resolution of the DEM files is too low I can use qGIS and its plug-ins to extract contour lines from it at specified intervals, then create a new DEM from the more detailed (although interpolated) contour lines.

Aside from Illustrator and MAPublisher, the tools I use (qGIS, Pyramid Shader) are open source. I used Pyramid Shader and open source DEM files to create relief for island insets for a map of Micronesia, so the tools are quite powerful and useful.

detail from map of Micronesia showing shaded relief of Pohnpei and Kosrae

I recently started playing around with Natural Scene Designer for my own projects, but still have a lot to learn. Here’s one of my first attempts at terrain for a Kitchener trail map I’m working on.

shaded relief map of part of Grand River trail in Kitchener

More to come…

I plan to invest in more tools to streamline my workflow. Hans van der Maarel of Red Geographics has talked about using FME to automate much of his workflow, and uses LabelPro (a MAPublisher add-on) to automate the labelling process. Even with these automation tools, manual intervention is still required – with adjusting labels, for example. But it would be nice to save a few hours here and there on editing road networks so I don’t dream about joining and smoothing lines, moving anchor points, adjusting bezier curves… Well, enough about my dreams.

Continuing Education

In the last year and a half I’ve attended some virtual cartography conferences, such as Avenza’s User Conference 2021, and the Canadian Cartographic Association’s Mapping from Home event in June 2020. One of the presentations at the latter event was by Morgan Hite, demonstrating how to create shaded relief with Blender, based on Daniel Huffman’s process. After the conference I spoke with Morgan, and I told him about some of the issues I have trying to find high resolution DEMs. He told me about resampling DEMs in qGIS to increase resolution, so I don’t have to interpolate contours anymore.

The 2021 NACIS conference is in October, and I’ll close shop for a few days to attend. It’ll be hybrid this year, but as it’s in the U.S. and I’m in Canada, I’ll attend virtually for one more year. I can’t wait to go in person again, but I do appreciate the virtual option as there will be 3 days of mappy goodness.

Being a cartographer means I’m always learning and always creating!

Follow me on LinkedInInstagram, and Facebook.

To make sure you don’t miss the next blog post, sign up to our newsletter to receive news and updates.