Defining Scale using Mountains

Using Mountains to Define the Scale

I’ve been asked a lot about how to depict different scales recently. The question is – how do you tell the viewer of one map that they’re looking at a zoomed in region of a small area, and on another map convince the viewer that they’re looking at a large area, zoomed out. The easiest cue for the viewer is mountain ranges. These are the feature that’s different enough at different scales that they can act as a defacto scale-bar.

On the left I’ve shown a section of a mountain range pretty zoomed in. Here you can see the individual peaks, and the slopes and crests of the mountains. They take up a large amount of the map and we know we’re looking at a detailed map – similar to the kind of map you might get when exploring hiking trails. This is perfect for a detailed map of the environment around a town, perhaps showing the location of some nearby monster lair or other location of adventure.

On the right I’ve shown a similar map, but the mountains are now just a range. You can’t see the individual peaks, and all you get is the overall sense of a barrier. This is closer to what you might see if you look at the Andes zoomed way out. The lack of distinct detail tells the viewer that you’re looking at a large expanse. You can add a scale of course, but ideally a scale should reinforce the impression the viewer has of the map, rather than being a necessary tool for interpretation.

You can also vary the amount of detail in the coastline. Coasts are fractal, so that’s not strictly going to be a good measure, but it can trick the viewer into thinking that a map is of one scale rather than another.

As always, check out more tutorials in the Tutorials section or follow along on G+ or facebook where these originally appear.

4 thoughts on “Defining Scale using Mountains”

    1. Agree about John’s tips & tricks, they’re awesome but technically he is correct. In topographic maps small scale, i.e. 1:25,000 (insert preferred unit of measure) is more detailed and used by explorers for a given region, whereas large scale maps, i.e 1:100,000 are less detailed and used for planning general routes over a long distance.

  1. In your Top Down Mountains video, Jonathan, you said you might do a tutorial on the larger ranges like you do in this article… that doesn’t happen to be on your agenda, does it? 🙂 🙂 🙂

    In any case, your work is incredible and beautiful and wonderful, and I love these tutorials!

    Much love!

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