This tutorial is about creating shaded relief the old fashioned way—by hand, but with a modern twist that focuses on the latest graphical software and hardware. I discuss how to use Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom tablet for applying shading tones as pixels rather than the graphite pigments used in the past. The goals are to provide a retrospective about a cartographic art form in which few present-day cartographers have hands-on familiarity, and to show how traditional methods can be used to enhance digitally-generated shaded relief.

Today, when automation has largely supplanted traditional relief shading methods, it is ironic that digital technology has also delivered the best graphical tools ever invented for its manual creation. Compared to my mechanical Paashe AB airbrush and compressor, Photoshop and a Wacom tablet deliver faster and more accurate shaded relief, forgive my mistakes, are quiet, and, perhaps best of all, are clean. Despite these new digital tools, only as a last resort will I manually airbrush shaded relief in Photoshop completely from scratch because of the time and tedium involved. But, when Digital Elevation Models (DEMs) are unavailable, or their quality is atrocious, or their resolution is too low, I fall back on my 20 years of manual shading experience to create a shaded relief that wouldn't be available otherwise.

Most of my shaded relief pieces are created from DEMs using push-button software, the results of which I then invariably import into Photoshop for manual enhancement. This approach melds the efficiency of digital production with the customization possibilities of traditional production. With just a few deft strokes of the airbrush tool in Photoshop, pedestrian computer "output" can be transformed into a more informative graphical piece—the point of this "retro" relief shading tutorial.

Tom Patterson
U.S. National Park Service

How to set up and use a Wacom tablet with Photoshop
Some thoughts about shaded relief presentation
Beautifying digitally-generated shaded relief
A time-lapse animation of relief shading in Photoshop

Shaded Relief home

NPS Cartographic Resources (contains the largest collection of hi-res traditional shaded relief on the Web!)