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!