Friday, January 7, 2011

Reading Maps. The Lost Art.

Whether you're a landscape photographer, amateur, or simply like stumbling across scenic places that would make a great photo to share with your friends then understanding maps is very important.  I'm not talking about GPS systems, but rather good old-fashioned paper maps.  

I am a huge fan of paper maps.  While GPS systems are great you can't get as much out of them as looking at an actual map you hold in your hands.  When you already know where you'd like to go a GPS is perfect, but you need a paper map to see what is beyond the road you are one and in a different direction than you're heading. 

This is my map.  A simple $30 map of the state that I bought at a gas station several years ago.  I use it every single time I go out taking photos and I will show you why.  

1. It shows towns , even the little tiny villages that aren't labeled by the big green signs along the road.  Its these little towns where I find the quaint churches and empty roads where I can wander around at my leisure and not feel like I am a spectacle or bothering someone.

2. It shows covered bridges and other interesting places of note.  There are hundreds of 'hidden' covered bridges on various back roads all across this state and I would never find them if it wasn't for this map. 

3.  You can see which areas are tree covered or open land.  In Vermont that is huge.  Much of what makes a great landscape photo is nice, open land and you can see this on my map. 

4.  Elevation and Mountain Peaks.  Elevation equals views, especially if its on open, cleared land. I can easily pick out spots where I am likely to have a nice view by looking at the map.

5.  I can plot out loops and look where roads connect based on where towns, interesting places, open land, and elevation are.  If I come to a cross roads and am unsure of which way to go I can see what lies ahead in both directions by looking at the paper map.   

Now, don't get me wrong, I do utilize a GPS occasionally.   It helps me pin point where I am when I end up lost, which does happen.  Anytime you are on backroads where roads either aren't signed, the intersections are two hundred years old and mis-marked, or not marked at all you are bound to end up taking a wrong turn or two.  When that happens I look at my GPS to get myself oriented again and then go back to the map to see what lies ahead on my new path of travel. 

Tips for Reading a Paper Map

1. Don't turn the map!  
This is a hard concept for some.  I suggest when you are at an intersection and are sure of your location to look at the map and then orient your current location to what the map says.  If you are traveling south your left on the map will be a right in real life.  That may not make sense so look at the example below. 

2. Don't read and drive!  
If your eyes are on the map then they aren't on the road.  

3.  Don't worry if you don't know where you are.  
If you are lost keep your eye out for a landmark, a road sign, or a town.  Pull over and look for that location on your map.  Then you'll be 'found'! 

4.  Don't be afraid to use a map!
You'll find so much more than you ever imagined when your route isn't confined to a little screen on your dashboard.  There is much more to the world than that. 

Now go forth and navigate for yourself!  You'll be amazed what you stumble upon.  


  1. Great post... thanks for the reminder that maps work, and great tips on planning the trip!

  2. Oooo, inspiration! I read maps and give directions for a living (work for a law enforcement agency) but I never ever thought about using a map for my photography! I did use my knowledge of north/south/east/west to get myself home after getting a bit lost before Christmas tho

  3. I love this idea. There are so many back roads that you would never know about without looking at a good old-fashioned map. Maybe tomorrow I'll convince my husband we should go for a drive!

  4. There is a lot of usefulness to maps for scouting out interesting places to see and photograph, as you say.

    Sometimes a GPS and Google Maps can be a better planning tool though. I've just returned from a three day trip seeing and photographing 23 0f 24 New York Covered Bridges (I'd visited Jay CB previously). I was able to plan out an efficient route that I think would be much more difficult with a map

  5. Very interesting. I ALWAYS turn the map. Maybe it's a spacial relationship thing, different brains work different ways.

    It kinda makes me sad the number of people who don't know how to read a paper map at all. My Dad, who was a courier for many years, always had really nice plat books that we used to mark out good blackberry picking spots in the national forest so I learned young.

  6. Great post Jen....although I do have a habit of turning my map sometimes.

  7. I wonder if the increasing prevalence of GPS devices in cars is going to lead to a generation of map readers who expect maps to turn so up is always the direction you are facing?

  8. Sorry, I haven't been reading the posts, just looking at your stunning photograahy. Great work.


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