Towards Less Blender-y Relief

In the years since I stumbled across the idea of creating shaded relief in Blender, I’ve been amazed at the extent to which the cartographic community has adopted this technique. This was wholly unexpected: I’ve seen plenty of relief tricks come and go without achieving widespread adoption. This makes sense, given that there’s no “right” way to do terrain — it’s all down to your personal taste. But, for whatever reason, Blender has stuck, and I’m gratified to see that.

And now I’m here to push back on Blender relief. Or, rather, I’d like to make an appeal: consider making your Blender relief less Blender-y.

As more and more people adopt Blender, I have begun to notice that many relief images made using this technique have a fairly common look. Here are a few examples I found by looking at Reddit posts that linked to my Blender tutorial (worth clicking to see in detail):

(Sources: Iceland by u/EncompassGeographic, Imperium Romanum by u/boytutoy, Mediterranean by u/Xamos99, and Scotland by u/irishliam)

Notice the dark, dramatic shadows, and the highly detailed, very bumpy land surface in which each individual peak and hill sticks out. They all have what I might call the “Blender Look”: exaggerated terrain that almost looks cinematic. I’m not calling any of these particular authors out — they’re just handy examples of a widespread style trend. Interestingly, though, there’s nothing intrinsic to the Blender method that requires reliefs to look this way. Here’s one that I made in Blender that doesn’t have The Look (it’s also got a subtle hypsometric gradient blended in):

I’m not wholly sure how The Look came about. My suspicion is that the Blender’s particular strengths just steer cartographers in that direction by default. Blender is amazing at generating realistic shadows, and if you’ve just come from years of making more rudimentary hillshades in GIS software, that’s really attractive and interesting to play with.

Now, maybe you like The Look. It’s quite trendy in present-day terrain mapping, and I’m assuming that’s because many people find it attractive. Maybe that’s also why there are an innumerable number of shops out there selling prints in which someone has attached a Blender relief to an out-of-copyright reference map.

But I’m not really a fan of the Blender Look. If you are, that’s fine: keep making what you enjoy, and what your clients/customers/employers like. I may have helped to popularize the Blender technique, but it’s not my place to tell you how to use it. However, I’d like to offer some of my thoughts about how to get different-looking outcomes from Blender. Maybe you’ll like them, maybe not. The more alternatives you know about, the more variety you’ll be able to bring to your work.

Smooth It Out

My first concern about the Blender Look is that I often find it too detailed. Shaded relief of any sort can fall into this trap, whether made in Blender or not. Here’s a screenshot from the Shaded Relief Archive comparing a manual relief and one made using a standard hillshade algorithm from a GIS program.

According to the website, the manual relief “provides a clearer picture,” but really, that’s not because it’s manual, it’s because it’s simply more generalized. In the image on the right, you see many small mountain bumps — every detail of the terrain is captured. On the left, everything’s been smoothed out and you see the larger ridges that those bumps form. Oftentimes (whether we’re dealing with terrain or other datasets) the small details can obscure the bigger picture, and cartographers can help readers by aggregating those details.

Here’s a Blender-based example. Two reliefs of the same area, made using the same program and settings, but with different levels of detail in the underlying elevation data:

Notice, again, how the big terrain structures are more apparent in the image on the left. I’ve circled an area that exemplifies what I mean by that — you can click the image to see a larger version. On the right, we have just a bumpy texture. On the left, we can see the specific ridges and mountains that those bumps belong to.

For fun, here’s a snazzier version of the comparison, which I made to promote this post on Twitter.

I think that the less detailed relief is more suitable for a lot of purposes. It’s probably better, for example, for communicating the basic landforms to a reader — letting them see the big picture, without the details obscuring it. It’s also less noisy: without all those little bumps, it takes up less attention, meaning it works better as a background, where we usually don’t want many distracting, rapid changes in contrast (i.e., edges). Backgrounds are also areas where fine details aren’t noticed as well, anyway, so it’s probably best to keep things general.

I suspect that highly detailed terrain became part of the Blender Look because many mappers switching to Blender were used to using detailed DEMs as part of their process. The standard GIS hillshade algorithm doesn’t produce dramatic shadows, and it consequently doesn’t produce nearly as much noise when you’re feeding it a high-resolution DEM. Here’s the same DEM rendered in a hillshade, vs. in Blender:

Obviously you could tune the parameters in each of those to get slightly different looks, but you get the idea: Blender can make details stand out more, so if you’re not used to that, it can lead to things looking more chaotic, in my opinion. Of course, even GIS hillshades regularly need some simplification, but I think Blender often needs it more.

Here’s the simplest method to reduce detail: blurring. If you take your DEM and apply a blur filter in Photoshop/GIMP/etc., or you use a mean filter via a neighborhood statistics tool in GIS, you’ll start to merge those tiny bumps into the bigger structures. Do this to your DEM before you make your relief, not to the relief you’ve already made.

Now, that look can be a little too soft for some tastes and some mapping situations. There are ways around that. On option is to play around with other raster generalizations, such as median filters in GIS or image editing software, or a combination of mean/median filters, or other noise reduction tools available in programs like Photoshop. This isn’t a tutorial per se, so I’ll leave that idea for you to explore.

But I will give a plug for the method that I use most often to get around the soft look: resolution bumping. This is a technique by Tom Patterson with a basic idea that is simple but powerful: smooth out your DEM, then add back in just a little bit of the original, detailed DEM. This gives you the clear landforms of the smoothed version, while also giving you some visual texture from the detailed version. It’s definitely worth trying. Below, I took 90% of the smoothed DEM, and added in 10% of the full-detail DEM, to get something that looked good to my eye.

Again, my personal issue with the Blender Look being too detailed isn’t intrinsic to Blender as a program or a technique. Cartographers have long struggled with how to make digital relief that looks neither too detailed nor too soft, and many mappers have their own recipes for combinations of mean/median filters, or mixing different levels of smoothing, or other software trickery, to get things just right. And all of these ideas predate Blender relief. However, I think Blender relief is particularly in need of the application of these kinds of smoothing techniques, because it is simply more likely to produce a noisy result from a high-resolution DEM.

Less Exaggeration

The other aspect of the Blender Look, besides high detail, is its dramatic shadows. Every peak is separated by a deep black chasm, and every mountain stands impossibly tall, blocking the sun for large swathes of terrain behind it. Again, this is all very cinematic. But it’s not my preference, and maybe that’s simply because I’ve seen a lot of it over these recent years.

I think that, if you’re used to the somewhat more pedestrian GIS hillshade algorithm, the shadows that Blender can generate are exciting, and there’s a temptation to make them front-and-center in terrain work. I definitely get that — it’s much like any time we learn about a new tool: we want to lean into it and show it to our audience.

If your terrain needs to play nicely with other things (labels, water, roads, etc.), consider toning down the vertical exaggeration some. This is just a matter of changing the displacement scale in Blender, as seen in my tutorial. A little exaggeration can go a long way, but too much can blow out the rest of your map. Even if you’ve adjusted the particulars of the light-to-dark gradient used, to ensure that it doesn’t make your map too dark, an overly exaggerated relief can still make it seem more like you’re drawing text/lines on top of an aerial photo, rather than embedding them in the map.

Getting vector and raster to play together can be tough, and the more exaggerated and shadowy your terrain, the farther apart the vectors and rasters can feel. I speculate that this is because vector components are unaffected by the shadows — the terrain has shadows cast upon it, but the vectors don’t, and so the more shadowing you have, the more and more the vectors float atop the landscape rather than feel integrated with it.

Even if your relief is standing by itself, not having to work with any other layers, extreme exaggeration can still be detrimental. Those dark shadows are hiding parts of the terrain.

What’s going on in the circled area? The version on the right makes it much harder to tell.

I think terrain relief is much like a lot of other cartographic effects like glows, haloes, drop shadows, etc: they often work best when they’re subtle enough that people can’t tell they’re there. I think the urge to crank these effects up comes from a concern that readers won’t perceive the effect. But they will: it takes less than you think for the effect to work.

Make What Looks Good to You

The Blender Look isn’t to my taste, and if you love it, or you love it under certain circumstances, go for it! I’m not here to shame you for your preferences. I wrote this because I thought that maybe some people have been steered into The Look without thinking about the alternatives. So I hope you’ll take it that way: just a few thoughts on other ways you can make your relief look, if you want to mix things up.

Shaded relief doesn’t always need to be dramatic. You might like that look, and it can be serviceable in some contexts, but I think it’s valuable to have a few other styles in your toolkit. Blender can help you achieve those, too. There’s a lot of amazing terrain on this planet (and others), and I understand the urge to try and throw a lot of detail at the reader. All I ask is that you take a moment to weigh much they, and the rest of your map, can handle.

If you’d like to support essays like this one, one of the easiest ways you can do that is to spread the word — tell your friends and colleagues about my tutorials, YouTube videos, or whatever else you think they may like. And, if you’re interested in lending financial support to my effort to remain an independent teaching cartographer, I have these two handy buttons for you!

Annual Report: 2021

Friends, colleagues, and patrons, it’s time for my Annual Report. You’re all so kind as to support my work each year with donations and with spreading the word, and I try to be transparent with you about what exactly you’re supporting.

This year it felt like I had a lot less time to devote to side projects and tutorials. Maybe that’s just my perception, and it’s not actually true — it’s been a confusing year for many of us. But in whatever quantity I was able to, I’m glad to have been able to give back to the community that has taught me so much, and to repay your faith in me. With your support in 2021 I was able to (in no particular order):

Organize a mapping exhibit at the Overture Center, here in Madison. My colleague Tanya Andersen and I assembled a group of maps to help show the people of our area just how much cartography is connected back to our community. This is actually something that’s been in the works for a couple of years now, and we’re so pleased that we could finally make it happen. It’s up through January 16th if you happen to be in Madison.

Organize a special NACIS Map Gallery exhibit in Oklahoma City, Map Where your Heart is. It was great to see people share maps of places dear to them!

Answer a lot of questions via email, Twitter DMs, YouTube comments, Slack, etc. I spend a lot of my pro bono time out of the public eye. People write to me each year asking for software help (especially Blender), career advice, interviews for school projects, etc. I try to take the time to write back to everyone. It’s not really something I’d considered, when writing tutorials: the more resources you put out there, the more of these kinds of interactions they generate. I’m happy to help, and will try to keep up as long as the the volume remains manageable.

Volunteer to teach a class at UW. Tanya Andersen and I teamed up to run an independent study class at the University of Wisconsin. We met weekly (remotely) with our three students, advising them as they developed projects and carried them through to completion. This is some of my favorite work — being able to show people, hands-on (virtually) how to accomplish practical cartographic steps, and then watching them make great things with those tools.

Continue my “Live Carto” series from 2019–20, with four new broadcasts. It’s been fun to be able to work on a project and have people there alongside me to keep me company, especially during this pandemic isolation. I’ve appreciated being able to meet people from all over the world, and to be able to share knowledge with them in this format. I’ll continue doing this on occasion in the coming year!

Keep my tutorials updated. As software changes, often these resources need updating to stay useful (it can be frustrating and confusing to read through a tutorial that doesn’t quite match what you’re seeing on screen). I recently upgraded by Blender tutorial with new screenshots and workflow adjustments in response to that program being updated.

Create new tutorial content. Besides keeping old things updated, I also want to keep making new things that help people. This year I put out a tutorial on background blurring, and one on making semi-randomized dot patterns.

Create non-tutorial musings. That background blurring tutorial pushed me to consider some larger concepts that ended up as both their own blog post and a NACIS presentation.

Release short, ephemeral tutorials. It occurred to me recently that I also post mini-tutorials on Slack groups and on Twitter — things that don’t make it onto my blog or YouTube. These usually happen because someone asks a question about how to get something done, or because I discovered a neat trick I want to share, but it’s too short to be worth a formal writeup. Maybe someday I’ll collect these into a blog post.

Create a bunch of random one-off mappy things that get released to the winds of Twitter. Last year, I collected some of them into a free PDF book, An Atlas of Minor Projects. I haven’t done enough of these projects for a second book yet, but I am keeping track of them better this time around, so that maybe in 2022 or 2023 I’ll be able to assemble a second volume. Here’s one of those minor projects for you: a Halloween-themed map of the Murderkill River, in Delaware.

Make some non-live video content. I’m continuing to try and grow my tiny corner of YouTube. Besides the dot pattern tutorial, I also put together a walkthrough of how I make my cyanotypes, since it’s prompted a lot of questions from curious folks on Twitter.

I promise that I do not have that beard anymore.

Continue my long tradition of pitching in to help NACIS, the main professional society for mappers in North America. It’s an all-volunteer organization, so the more we all help out, the better it becomes. In the last year I:

  • Served on the Diversity & Inclusion subcommittee
  • Served on the Nominations Committee
  • Helped oversee logistics details for getting reprints of the first three volumes of the Atlas of Design to customers
  • Served as guardian of our projectors. I keep all four of them in Madison, and make sure they get to the conference site and back, without losing too many cords and connectors.
  • Co-led a special presentation with NACIS Past President Leo Dillon, in which we helped people better understand how the organization functions and how to get involved.

Present to various conferences and classes. Besides sharing some of my thoughts with the NACIS crowd as usual, I was also invited to present to WLIA, as well as a colleague’s class.

So, maybe it wasn’t as quiet a year as I thought!

Your patronage helps me justify taking time away from my freelance work in order to write, design, and help others. It also pays for things like conference fees, the fees I pay to keep ads off my blog, domain names, and other direct costs associated with all these side projects. Thank you for making this list possible!

As we move into 2022, I hope to continue to merit the support you have shown me. I never know exactly how much I’ll be able to do so in a given year, but I do know that I fully intend to keep up my efforts to contribute to the cartographic community. You have all taught me so much, and I will continue repay the favor as best I can.

If you’d like to support my ongoing work, one of the easiest ways you can do that is to spread the word — tell your friends and colleagues about my tutorials, YouTube videos, or whatever else you think they may like. And, if you’re interested in lending financial support to my efforts in the coming year, I have these two handy buttons for you!

Landforms of Michigan: A Mini-Tour

Today I’m going to steal an idea from Anton Thomas. A while back, he released North America: Portrait of a Continent, which is a masterpiece well worth looking at. As part of that release, he also used pieces of the map to take people on virtual tours of the map, and the landscape it depicts.

My Landforms of Michigan map is not nearly as detailed as Anton’s work, but there’s still a lot going on within it, and I’d like to try the same thing: taking you on a tour of a few interesting features of my homeland, as seen on the map. That’s one major reason I made the map: to understand and express the complex geography of a place that most people (including plenty of Michiganders) dismiss as flat and monotonous.

First, here’s an overview of the places we’ll be visiting.

1. Beaver Archipelago

There are tens of thousands of islands in the Great Lakes. Most of them are near the shoreline, but a small number of them require crossing miles of open water to reach. Several of these comprise the Beaver Archipelago, located in the midst of Lake Michigan.

I suppose I grew up thinking of archipelagoes as collections of islands out in the ocean, and so it’s always been fascinating to me to realize that, in the middle of the United States, there’s a freshwater archipelago, with small bits of green scattered amidst the great expanses of water.

The largest of the archipelago is Beaver Island, home to a few hundred people. It was once the center of a semi-autonomous kingdom run by a breakaway Mormon sect. It’s a wild story, and one worth checking out.

This is, incidentally, probably one of my favorite labels I’ve ever placed on a map. I spent a very long time tweaking it to get the spacing, curvature, and placement just right — something that would build a strong visual relationship between the islands and the text. I’m still so pleased with how it turned out.

2. Fruit Ridge

West Michigan is a fruit growing powerhouse. This is owed largely to the unique microclimates that Lake Michigan creates to its immediate east.

Fruit Ridge is a low range of hills just east of Lake Michigan that’s dedicated largely to apple production. It’s in just the right spot, with just the right soil, to form an “agricultural mecca” (according to the people who live there).That slight grey-tinged mass just to the south is Grand Rapids, the state’s second-largest city, sitting on the Grand River.

Given the state’s agricultural output, I’m sometimes a little surprised that more places in the state aren’t named “fruit hill” or “fruit plains,” etc.

3. Copper Range

Extending for over a hundred miles along the shore of Lake Superior, from the Wisconsin border up through the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll find the Copper Range — which, you might correctly guess, is known for its copper deposits.

The first known metalworking in North America began in this area, about 7,000 years ago. Indigenous peoples made use of the deposits here to craft tools and jewelry, and traded them throughout the continent. Much of the copper in the area was in “native copper” form, meaning it was not in an ore, and didn’t need to be smelted. It could be taken right from the ground and used.

Commercial mining in the nineteenth and twentieth century depleted the reserves, and now there are various abandoned mines & ghost towns.

4. Maumee Plain

Moving from the northwest corner of the state to the southeast, we come to the Maumee Plain, upon which Detroit sits.

Maumee Plain is not a name that probably almost anyone in the area would know, unless they were a physical geographer. It’s named for Lake Maumee, which doesn’t exist anymore. Fourteen thousand years ago, the Detroit area was underwater. But as glaciers and rivers moved and evolved, the more familiar present-day Lakes Erie and St. Clair formed, and the land was uncovered.

This area is sometimes referred to in sources as the Maumee Lake Plain. But, that’s a name with a physical geographer’s perspective, rather than a colloquial one. It calls attention the glacial past and the process that formed the plain. Here (as in a few other places on the map), I edited the name to something that would fit more along the lines of how someone without a physical geography background would call such a place. Except, of course, mostly no one calls it anything at all. Which is a shame. I think giving names to these features helps reify them. It makes us more aware of their amazing histories and the powerful forces that gave them their shape.

If you want to know more, I’ve documented my naming sources and rationale for the entire map here.

5. St. Marys River

Along the eastern edge of the Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior flows into Lake Huron via the St. Marys River.

The St. Marys river flows along multiple channels, which widen and pool into a series of lakes, such as Munuscong Lake and Lake George. Amidst the river’s lakes and channels are a series of islands divided between the United States and Canada.

The St. Marys Falls give their name (in French) to two identically-named cities on either side of the US–Canada border: Sault Ste. Marie. The falls are bypassed by the Soo Locks, allowing ships to transit along the river between the lakes. By cargo tonnage, they are the busiest locks in the world.

Also, it is indeed St. Marys River and not St. Mary’s River, because the US Board on Geographic Names doesn’t like apostrophes in names.

6. Nordhouse / Ludington / Silver Lake Dunes

Michigan has a great many sand dunes, and they are, as with many other features in the state, the result of glaciation.

Ancient glacial lakes created sand bars that eventually rose up as the dunes we are familiar with. There are many along the shore of Lake Michigan in particular, including these three above. These unique micro-ecosystem along the state’s fringes tend to be in various protected areas (such as Ludington State Park), and draw tourists. While you shouldn’t climb just any dune you find (these are fragile ecosystems), some are open for people to walk up.

I have climbed a sand dune before, and I will tell you it is a lot of work. It may look like a low hill, but sand is very difficult to trudge up.

Also do yourself a favor and do a Google image search for “michigan sand dunes snow.” You’ll see desert-like terrain covered in snowfall. It’s such a wonderful mix.

So there you have it — a quick tour of a few of the state’s landforms. There are plenty more to be found on Landforms of Michigan. If you’d like to browse through a larger image, click here. And if you’d like to take a copy of the map home, click the button below!

Dividing up the Continents

Friends, I wanted to share with you a project that I recently completed: Continental Divides, a series of six 42 × 51cm (16.5 × 20.1in) cyanotype posters.

We’ll dive into the details, below, but first: you can indeed buy copies of any (or all) of these if you’d like. Each one is hand-printed, so there will be some variations from print to print, and yours won’t look exactly like the ones above.

Update: I’ve also made a series of smaller (23 × 19cm) versions as well!


Roughly, continental divides are lines that separate the rivers that flow into one ocean/sea, from the rivers that flow into another. So, for North America, there are the lines demarcating which waters flow into the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, etc. There are also various endorheic basins — places where the rivers do not reach the sea.

The choice of which divides to show on a map can be somewhat arbitrary. The water that flows into Gulf of Mexico eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean, for example, so is it really fair to separate them? And, of course, all seas and oceans flow together in the end. The lines I’ve drawn are simply one interpretation, and not the only way it can be done.

While North America’s continental divides are depicted on many maps, I was surprised to find that this concept, as near as I can tell, isn’t often applied to other continents. Searches for the term “continental divide” mostly turns up results related to North America. Maybe that’s just because I’m performing my searches from an IP address in the United States. Or maybe people on other continents just don’t find this concept as interesting to map out.


For some years, I’d had an idea of how I wanted to depict continental divides: as uniform ridges, sloping evenly down to the sea. That’s an abstraction; in reality, divides can be great mountains, or they can be barely-noticeable bumps, all depending on where you are.

It took a few intermittent failed experiments before I happened upon a way to make the process work, and it turned out to be simpler than I had expected. Here’s how it works:

First, I grabbed vector data for the divide lines — these came mostly from HydroSHEDS, though it took a fair bit of manual selection and adjustment to get the lines that I wanted. These are the high points for the final map. For the low points, I grabbed ocean vectors from Natural Earth, to which I added some hand-drawn lines that went roughly through the centers of the endorheic basins.

I rasterize those two layers, and for each, I create a proximity raster. So now I have two datasets: distance to the high areas (the divides) and distance to the low areas (the seas).

Then I divide the sea proximity raster by the sum of the two proximity rasters.

This gives our slopes running from the high point of the ridges to the low point of the seas (or endorheic basin centers). From there, I can use this as a DEM and generate a shaded relief in Blender, clipped to the shape of the land.

And finally, I apply some gratuitous halftones. They’re sized so that you can’t see them from a distance, but when you get in close, they’re large enough to be obvious. It’s an effect that I quite enjoy.

Each poster is then printed in the sun using the cyanotype process, on some nice kozo from Awagami Factory.

I think the end result is a fun and interesting way to think about the relationship between the land and the sea. Partly art, partly educational. And if you’d like one to take home, here is that button again.

A Call for Maps from the Heart

I have long been interested in the intersection between the cartographic and the personal. While we make maps for clients or employers, many of us also use our cartographic skills as an outlet for self expression. At this year’s NACIS Annual Meeting, I’d like to assemble an exhibition of more personal pieces. I invite you to engage in the joy and vulnerability of sharing, by mapping where your heart is.

How it Works

  • You make a map that answers the call to “Map Where your Heart is.” There are a lot of directions you can take that prompt, and it’s up to you.
  • You submit the map file, and I’ll print it out and bring it to NACIS.
  • Or, if you’d like to print it yourself, or you want to draw/paint your map, you’re welcome to do so and bring it to NACIS yourself for inclusion in the exhibition.
  • All maps will be on 8½ × 11 inch paper, so make sure your design fits, and, if you’re having me print it, please leave a margin of ½-inch all around.
  • Maps can be in color. These will probably be printed on a laser printer; the resolution won’t be bad, but it won’t be amazing, either, so plan accordingly.
  • Everything should fit on the piece of paper; there won’t be space for a separate title or credit or explanation.
  • You don’t need to attend the conference to send in your work.

Deadline: September 30th, 2021

I hope you’ll consider joining in! I look forward to seeing everyone’s personal expressions of place and of love, and to seeing the conversations that they spark when these are all exhibited in Oklahoma City.

Questions? Drop me an email at I’m making this up as I go along, but hopefully I’ll have something useful to say.

On Edges

I use a lot of subtle effects in my mapping work. Knockouts, inner glows, blurs, and other such tricks help me separate land from water, or keep my text legible. Until recently, I thought of all of these tools separately, each one for use in its own situation. However, in the last year or so, I’ve slowly come to understand how they’re all related to each other, and how, when I’m using any of these effects, I’m getting at the same overall idea: the manipulation of edges.


By an edge, I mean a shift between colors. The stronger the contrast between the two colors, the stronger the edge. Likewise, the more abrupt the shift, the stronger the edge.

I’m sure there are more refined definitions, used by people who study visual perception, but I’m making this up as I go along.

In any case, edges help our brains separate objects (or perhaps we might say graphical marks) from each other and understand their shapes. In fact, I recall reading once that our brains even have special cells that detect edges. In the example above, the sudden shift in color sets off those edge-detecting cells, and they then allow you to perceive the shape of a circle, as a separate object on the page.

As I have come to understand, many of the cartographic tricks that I regularly use are, in essence, about making edges stronger or weaker. 

An Example: Glows

Let’s consider glows. Here I have two islands, one with a glow, and one without:

On the left, the edge between the two shapes is weak because there’s not a lot of contrast between the colors, so it’s not easy to perceive (though you can probably manage it). On the right, the edge is stronger. Let’s zoom in on what’s going on:

The glow has darkened the color of the land by a small amount at its edge. This means that the contrast between land and water is much greater there than it was, and the edge is thus stronger and easier to detect. The glow then fades away quickly, so that most of the land polygon remains the original color. In essence, we’ve changed the color of the land temporarily, just to give the edge a boost and help our brains tune in to the shape.

It’s also quite possible to use glows to make edges weaker. Here again I have two islands:

The one on the left has no glow, but has a good color contrast and so the edge can be perceived. On the right, the glow has muddied things. By darkening the water along the coastline, I’ve made the water’s color closer to that of the land. Thus I have weakened the contrast and made the edge harder to see.

Understanding all this has been very helpful to me. For a long time, I knew that glows could help one part of my map stand out against another, but I would apply them rather naively. I would often accidentally make an edge worse, as above, because I either put my glow on the wrong side, or made the polygon darker when I should have made it lighter. Understanding that glows are all about edge enhancement has helped me pick the correct option the first time.

But glows are just one example. There are plenty of other little effects I use in my work that are also about edges. And we can break them down into two groups: techniques that enhance edges, and those that reduce them.

Edge Enhancements

Let’s quickly go through the list.

Inner & Outer Glows

We just went through these, so you probably get the idea. While they are generally used to increase edges, you could also use them to weaken edges, but that’s not usually how they get applied. Note that outer & inner glows are really the same thing, but are separated in software like Adobe Illustrator, where the terms just refer to whether the glow effect goes on the outside or the inside of the polygon you’re applying it to.

Drop Shadows

These are actually just glows that are slightly offset:

Once again, I’ve simply darkened the edge of the island, thus improving the contrast between the land and the water and making the edge stronger. The island on the left relies on a contrast between pale yellow and pale blue. The island on the right is defined by the much better contrast between pale yellow and dark grey (which then fades down into the pale blue). The fact that the shadow is a little heavier on one side of the circle also tricks our brains into perceiving a little 3D effect, but that’s a separate matter.


Sometimes people put a stroke around their text to help it stand out against a busy background.

Notice that the text on the right is easier to read. Here, I haven’t really enhanced the old edge so much as I’ve replaced it with a new one entirely. On the left, there’s a weak edge between the dark green text and the busy green background. On the right, there’s now a strong edge between the green text and the white stroke around the text. And then there’s another strong edge between the halo and the background. So we’ve effectively doubled the number of edges and strengthened them, meaning the shapes of the letters are much easier to pick out.

Sometimes I (and other mappers) use the term “text halo” to refer instead to an outer glow or drop shadow effect applied to text. It still works to make text legible by enhancing edges, but it’s subtler (I’ve exaggerated it a bit here so you can see it easily):

It draws less visual attention because there are fewer edges. There’s still a strengthened edge between the text and the rest of the map, but now there’s no hard edge between the halo and the background. That’s been made to gradually fade away.

Edge Reductions

Sometimes we want to make edges weaker, instead. Why? Because they draw attention. Here’s an example I used in a recent tutorial:

Notice how the text can easily be read when it’s against a light or dark grey background, but when the background gets striped, things get more difficult. Those stripes make edges that demand your brain’s attention. They act as a form of noise, making it hard for you to pick out the important edges: the ones that define the shape of the words.

Sometimes we want to get rid of competing edges that pull attention away from the ones that we want readers to notice.


In the above example, the solution was to blur the background:

By blurring things, the stripe edges get weaker and draw less attention, letting us focus better on the harder edges of the text.


Another solution (again, often used with text) is to do a knockout. This simply hides features that are getting in the way:

The red lines vanish near the text (and the black dots, for that matter). Now the only edges that are in the vicinity of the text are the ones formed between the text and the background, meaning there’s nothing interfering with our ability to perceive the shapes of the letters.


A feather is often not much different than a blur. Instead of giving an object a hard edge, you can let it fade away gradually, on one side or all around. Here, I’ve feathered one side of a dashed line:

There’s a hard edge on one side of the line, but a weak edge on the other. In this particular case, I used the distinction to subtly indicate to the reader which area was inside of the polygon (the area bounded by the feathered edge) and which was the outside (the area bounded by the hard edge).

Parting Thoughts

Blurs are sort of like feathers, and feathers are sort of like glows, if you think about it (a glow is just a stroke with a feathered side). Again, these various techniques, each with their own name, are all aspects of the same central idea: strengthening or weakening the contrast along an edge.

And that’s really the point of this whole post. Most of these techniques are probably already in your toolkit, or are at least not unfamiliar to you. However, I think it’s valuable to not only understand that a tool can make your work better, but to understand why it does so. For my own part, I think that understanding the bigger picture of how these techniques fit together will help me use them more intelligently in the future.

Blurring Backgrounds to Improve Text Legibility

In past years, I’ve talked about how to improve the legibility of text using both knockouts and halos. Since I wrote those guides, I’ve added one more tool to my arsenal: blurring. This is a technique that was shown to me by Joshua Stevens, who suggested it in a Twitter conversation a few years ago.

Below, we have some text on a busy background. Have a look at the labels for Cold Bay and Unalaska. I’ve given them a hand by knocking out the coastline, but they are still a little tough to read.

Of course, I could have also adjusted the text color/size to help further, but sometimes that’s not always practical or desirable. So, let’s keep the text as-is, and just blur the background a bit.

The difference is significant. The text is foregrounded now, and more easily legible. It’s a simple change, conceptually, but it makes a big difference, especially if the text is smaller or lower-contrast.

Why does this help so much? Because it reduces the number of edges! Humans have special cells in their brain to detect edges, where one color abruptly changes to another. We’re attuned to them, and so they draw a lot of attention. They’re also what text depends upon. For you to perceive the shape of a letter (or any other shape for that matter), your brain has to pick out its edges. And having too many other edges around can make that harder. Notice how you can easily read the black text below when it’s placed against either a light or dark grey background, but it suddenly becomes difficult when those same two background colors are striped.

The problem is all those edges, demanding your attention and adding, in effect, noise. The many edges in the background are distracting you from the important edges that define the shape of the words. If we blur them, the edges of the text become much easier to perceive.

This is also one reason why making knockouts can be helpful — by getting rid of lines underneath our text, we’re reducing the number of competing edges.

So, let’s dive in to how to make this happen. We’ll cover Illustrator and Photoshop, starting with the former. As usual, though, the concept’s the big thing, and if you have a handle on that, you should be able to make this work in plenty of other programs. And in future versions of Illustrator/Photoshop, if they end up changing what the interface looks like.


Let’s go back to the first example. I’ll zoom in on the Cold Bay label.

You can see I’ve got a bunch of layers with text, thematic data, and more. The bottom-most layer happens to be a raster file containing the terrain and the hexagons. By itself, it looks like this:

To begin, I’m going to duplicate that base layer. In my case it’s just one file, but you can do this with a bunch of artwork if you want. The technique is the same, no matter what you have in your basemap layer (including other layers inside that layer). I put the copied layer atop the original, and then I click on the layer’s appearance selector (the little hollow circle to the right of the layer name). It’s important to click the appearance selector for the overall layer, rather than targeting the individual appearances of each item in the layer. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, have a look at my Even Fancier Type Knockouts in Illustrator tutorial, which goes into the distinction.

I’ll head up to the top menu and choose Effect → Blur → Gaussian Blur. The amount of blurring that gets input here will vary based on what’s going on with your basemap, so I can’t give you a number. I’m going to start with 6 pixels, and I can always change it later.

Now it’s blurry. If we turn on our other layers, we can see how it’s starting to look.

Of course, we really only need it to be blurry around the text. Everywhere else, we want to keep our data looking sharp. To do that, we’ll turn to our old friend the opacity mask, which we’ve relief on heavily in some past tutorials. I recommend you have a look at those before we go on, if you’re not familiar with what they are or how they work — I’ll be skipping over the details this time.

First I create an opacity mask for the blurred layer. By default, Clip is set, and (for once) we want that to remain checked. Clip tells Illustrator to hide the layer by default, and only show areas that we specify via the opacity mask’s contents. So at first my blurred layer will disappear. Next up, I select all my labels, copy them, and paste-in-place them into the opacity mask.

Next up I’m going to get rid of the dark halo I have on some labels, and make all of these label copies white. In an opacity mask, remember that white = 100% opacity, and black = 0% opacity. That means that the blurred base layer should show up where the text is. If I quickly switch back to the main map view (outside the opacity mask) and then turn off the text, you can see that happening. Since Clip has been selected, any part of the blurred raster beyond the text areas is hidden.

See how there’s a bit of blurred raster where Cold Bay is? That’s not enough, of course. We need it to blur somewhat beyond the text to be effective. So, I’ll go back to my opacity mask, and give all my labels there a white stroke. I’m going to go with 3 points, though you may want to play around with that. Since my text is white, and the view of my opacity mask is white, there’s not much to see. But if I go back outside the mask and have a look (and turn my text layers back on), we can see that it’s working.

Now the blurred layer extends beyond the text! We’re pretty much done, though there’s one fine-tuning bit that I prefer to do. I like it if the transition between the original and the blurred part is smoother. So I’m going to go back to my opacity mask one last time and select all my text in there. Then I’m going to go to Effect → Stylize → Feather. Note that “Stylize” appears twice in the Illustrator menus; you want the first one.

Feather creates a softening effect on edges. Again, because my text is white, there’s not much to show here. But, here’s what it would look like if my text were black:

I just quickly changed it to black to make things visible, but the real thing needs to be white. The text in the opacity mask controls where the blurred raster shows up, and now it has a fade-in effect, so the blurred raster will, too.

And we’re all set! Note that doing this in Illustrator tends to slow the program down a bit, and lead to large file sizes, so I recommend saving it for the end when you’re finished up the rest of the map. And the labels in the opacity mask are fixed, so if you move a label on the map, don’t forget to move it in the opacity mask, too.

As I mentioned, you can do this to a layer, or a layer that contains layers, or just to a single background image. It’s all the same. You can also make use of the Appearance panel to go back and tweak the amount of blurring. Or you might adjust the feathering or stroke width of the text in the mask, as you prefer.


As you might imagine, you can do the same thing in Photoshop, via a pretty similar process. Here (in this somewhat contrived example), I’ve got some text against a shaded relief background. It’s not too illegible, but it could be a bit better.

Once again, I duplicate my background layer, and I give it a blur (Filter → Blur → Gaussian Blur). In this case I went with 8px, but it will vary with each map. I just turned it up until it seemed like the text was standing out well against the background.

Next we need to once again confine our blurred raster to just the areas around the text. I’m going to hold Cmd (or Ctrl on a PC) and click on the “Some Text” layer. This will select all the pixels in the text. Next, I’ll make that selection a little bigger by going up to the top menu and choosing Select → Modify → Expand. I picked 14 pixels, but, again, your mileage may vary depending on the map.

Next, I go to the Layers panel and make sure I’ve highlighted the blurred layer. Then I hit the Add Layer Mask button along the bottom of the Layers panel, which looks like a dark dot in a light rectangle.

Clicking that creates an opacity mask for the blurred layer, and confines it to the area of our selection (around our text).

Once again, it would be nice to soften that transition a bit. For that I’ll go to the Properties panel (if you don’t see it, go to the top menu and choose Window→ Properties). The contents of the Properties panel vary depending on what you’re doing in Photoshop. I’ll click on the opacity mask in the Layers panel to highlight it, which causes the Properties panel to show me options for adjusting my opacity mask. Then, I can drag the Feather slider, or just type in a number, to soften the edge of my opacity mask.

And now it’s got pretty much the same effect as we achieved in Illustrator. Improved legibility, without having to add a halo or change text/background color. It’s very handy in these sorts of monochrome situations where your palette is restricted.

So I hope you found that useful! And don’t just confine yourself to text — consider using this to boost other parts of your map. Here’s a before/after example of a situation where I used it on a river:

Besides giving the text a boost, it also helped the river stand out better without needing to change its color. The blurring, in effect, smoothed out the terrain underneath the river, giving it a clear valley to flow through. My vector rivers lined up pretty well with the terrain, but this is a good solution when you have a misalignment between the two: just use blurring to carve new river valleys.

I hope you found this useful! Blurring is a great way to get people’s eyes to focus on the edges that are important, and tune out the background.

This tutorial is, and will remain, free. But if you draw value from it, I hope you’ll consider supporting my teaching work using the links below. Thanks to all my patrons who keep content like this going!

Trying a Kickstarter

Kindly readers, the time has come, as it must for all Internet denizens, for me to venture into the land of Kickstarter:

Over the years, I’ve featured a lot of maps on this blog and on my Twitter account, and almost none of them have been printed. Those that do get end up in my store are offered as print-on-demand products, produced one at a time. But I’m hoping your support on Kickstarter will enable me to try something new: getting my work out there as an offset print poster.

My Landforms of Michigan piece recently won Best in Show & Best Reference Map at this year’s CaGIS Awards, and now I’d like to move it from my hard drive and into people’s homes.

So, if you’re so inclined, please check it out. And if you know people who might be interested, I hope you’ll help me spread the word!

And if this goes well, there are more than a few other map posters I’d like to try getting printed. Some already exist as files on my computer, and some remain in my imagination. This is a new frontier for me, and I hope you’ll consider helping me reach it.

Financial Transparency: 2020 Edition

As is now my annual tradition, it’s time for me to tell everyone how much money I make!

Why? Well, I find the financial opacity of the freelance world a bit intimidating, and I suspect that some others do, too—particularly those who are interested in freelancing, but haven’t yet jumped in. So I’d like to do my part to lend transparency by laying out my financial picture for all of you. And if you’re interested in more stuff like this, check out the results of the 2020 Cartographic Freelancer Survey.

My business income comes from a few different sources:

Freelance Cartography:

I mostly make my living by doing freelance mapping (and an occasional bit of freelance GIS) for clients. This number, like others here, represents my gross earnings, before taking out business expenses, etc.

Other Freelancing:

I also earn money from some other non-mapping freelance work. I do editing and layout for Cartographic Perspectives, and I’ve done some bits of paid writing, other design work, etc. I also got a $2,500 coronavirus relief grant that’s counted here.


I do a fair amount of pro bono work, and I’ve been much more shameless about asking for support for my tutorials, Project Linework, and other resources that people seem to draw value from.


Instead of making maps for clients, I sometimes (or often) spend time making maps for no one in particular. And then I’ll put them up for sale in case anyone wants to buy them. This year’s value is super-high because I sold one of the only copies of my cyanotype atlas for $1250.

The Summary

So, that works out to a gross business income of $48,654.68. Here’s how that compares to the last several years:

My Income is not Quite a Salary

If you’re only familiar with earning money as a salaried employee, my income might seem higher than it really is. After business expenses, I earned about $46,000 in self-employment income. For my personal tax situation (single, living in WI), my take-home pay would have been similar if I had worked a salaried job (with health insurance, but no other benefits) that earned about $37,000.

This difference is because self-employed people pay a much higher tax rate, and have to cover their own health insurance. This comparison doesn’t figure in any other benefits an employer might offer, like retirement savings contributions. If we count the amount that I should be saving for retirement (but can’t afford to), then the gap is a few thousand dollars larger.

Concluding Thoughts

As mentioned above, I earn income from prints of my work. Most of the things in my storefront have never sold more than a few copies. It’s pretty much all income from River Transit maps. But, it doesn’t cost me anything to offer things for sale, so if I can earn $10 from one of the less popular items every once in a while, I might as well take it.

I greatly appreciate the kindness people have shown me over the years through donating to support the unpaid parts of my work. It’s becoming an increasing fraction of my overall income. If you’d like to add your own support, here are some handy buttons:

Finally, I hope all this stuff above offers some useful insight as to one freelancer’s life. I’m sure some others earn more, and some others earn less. I’d encourage others who are comfortable doing so to share their own financial information, to make the picture a little broader.

Critique with Empathy

When I gave my NACIS 2020 talk, A Few Thoughts on Critique, I was very careful to avoid the appearance of telling people what to do. I offered only suggestions that people might consider if they chose to improve their critique practices. I feared that any stronger language, saying what I thought people should or should not do, would probably just lead to endless squabbles over details that did not matter, and which only distracted from the problem that needs addressing: how often we fall into the trap of critiquing for the needs of our own ego, rather than for the benefit of our community. And how the effects can, and have, caused real damage to our colleagues.

But today I feel bolder, and my thoughts have grown new wings. And so I will tell you directly what I think you (and I!) should do to reduce the toxicity that can creep in when we opine on the works of others.

Critique with empathy.

Assume that the designer is, like you, a human being capable of both complex thought and honest mistakes.

Ask yourself how this competent and well-intentioned person could reasonably end up making decisions that you consider laughable, erroneous, or ill-conceived. That was unlikely their intent.

Consider the tools, privilege, and knowledge that this person did not have access to, and which you might.

Ask questions before offering assumptions.

Remember that the answer is always more complicated than “the designer is just stupid.” You know that the real world is richer than that.

Reflect on the ways that you could have fallen into making that “design mistake.” Perhaps you did once, in the past.

Don’t mock your past self for the sin of combining honest effort with inexperience. Critique yourself with the same compassion that those around you deserve.

Accept that other designers’ goals may differ from yours. Realize that the things that you want to change, may in fact be unimportant to what they are trying to do.

Remember that most of the design details that we teach and debate at conferences are usually unimportant in the big picture. This is liberating.

Admit your goal to yourself. If you offer a public opinion because you want attention, that is natural. It feels good to be acknowledged as an expert, or as entertaining. Own this honestly, and without shame.

Ask yourself how you can earn this good feeling without demeaning or otherwise harming someone else.

Remember that critique is always personal. There is no clean separation between the artist and the art that allows a wholly dispassionate discussion of someone’s work.

Think about how you’ve been stung in the past by critiques, no matter how well-intentioned, or how much you agreed with them.

Be kind when wielding the benevolent scalpel.

Understand that it’s OK for a designer, including you, to not want feedback. Sometimes it’s fine to let a work be what it is, and move on to other things.

Enjoy the unintended laughter that you sometimes find in the works of others. Share that quietly among friends, not with the world.

Never feel bad for wanting to improve someone else’s work, but accept that it is not always productive to share those ideas.

I offer this semi-poem as a moral framework for giving critique that can enlighten, without resorting to shame or ostracism. Add to it, remix it, or ignore it. It’s a list that I’m going to try to keep living up to, and continue to think about.