View Full Version : Using DEM data for fictional maps?

07-13-2008, 09:56 AM

I've had a look around, but can't really find anything concerning this.

After finding this tutorial (http://www.photoshoproadmap.com/Photoshop-blog/2006/07/17/rendering-a-map-using-relief-shading-technique-in-photoshop/) for creating relief shading using elevation data collected of the earth or known as DEM (Digital Elevation Map), I wanted to get some of that grey scale data to cut and paste into my own fictional maps.

Photoshop's Difference Clouds can only go so far (http://www.jezelf.co.uk/tutorials.htm) and though you can get away with something passable to the common eye, I think it's just not cutting it really for something realistic...


So my next step is to use DEMs and cut and paste real world 'bits' on to my fictional map before rendering out the relief. I have found some things on the web and in the process of trying to achieve my goal, but it's a lot of fumbling about.

After these kind of things...
(image taken from the tutorial (http://www.photoshoproadmap.com/Photoshop-blog/2006/07/17/rendering-a-map-using-relief-shading-technique-in-photoshop/) mentioned at the start)

...to make the relief on my maps to be more realisitc...


(image taken from the tutorial (http://www.photoshoproadmap.com/Photoshop-blog/2006/07/17/rendering-a-map-using-relief-shading-technique-in-photoshop/) mentioned at the start)

Does anyone know if a stash of free, donwnloadable, decent resolution, grey scale height maps of mountains, valleys, flatland , etc? in a TIFF or PS friendly format? Or gone through what I'm trying to do themselves?

I have tried the USCG seamless data distribution online application (http://seamless.usgs.gov/website/seamless/viewer.htm) but cant see anything in their viewer (even though I've followed their screen res instructions)

I've also tried Bryce, but it's height maps don't come out very defined in photoshop. I'll keep at it.

thanks for looking and any help you might have.


07-13-2008, 10:28 AM
Hi Jez,

Theres a few of us into 3D terrain mapping and we write a few apps to help. Firstly there is a member here called 'Waldronate' who is also JoeS who writes Wilbur and I believe this app can convert USGS topo data into height field format. The download and tutorial for that is here.


He has a CG tutorial with more on that here too.


I also write a 3D terrain viewer called DragonFlight3D. There are some static examples on RPGMapShare which were done off of the USGS topo database here...


and more recently were all involved in the Cartographers Guild Cooperative Map Building Project which has its own thread forum. Anyway, much of that is done in 3D and so there are some data sets for the DragonFlight Viewer here also.


Theres a few of us here that are members of the Middle Earth DEM group for which myself and Seer are admins and the main site for that is www.me-dem.org on there are some workflow documents describing how to draw maps in 3D and convert data sets and lots more. So they are worth a look too.

'Anna' is another member doing Greyhawk using Bryce and 'Patrakis' has recently said he is doing Forgotten Realms Toril in 3D also.

I would hit the index under 3D & the award section for Wilbur tutorials and see what else you find.


Edit --
Should also mention that I make a simple 3D terrain creator which outputs height maps too. You can find that here :-


and Waldronate writes Fractal Terrains for which there are lots of tutorials on here too.


There is also libnoise / terranoise


and terragen also which is geared up to creating and rendering photo real images of synthetic terrain.

07-13-2008, 11:19 AM
I don't know if it's of any help or not but instead of chopping up bits n pieces and pasting em all together I just brush in my elevations to emulate the dem look. Simple white strokes with a blur do the trick although recently I've been experimenting with dodge and burn. It's time consuming but it gives more control of the final product.

07-13-2008, 01:09 PM
here is an excellant site for free dem data, GIS Data Depot (http://data.geocomm.com/catalog/), you have to register, but it is free.
With free membership you can down load dems from each states county wide coverage, 10 and 30 or 90 meter coverage, depending on the area.
So you click on the state of interest to you, on the next page click county wide coverage, next page the county, and finally the locale you want.....so you kinda have to know what you want. If there is more than one resolution for the dem both are listed. The site also has alot of other mapping associated formats besides dem. Googling dem, download, srtm, should give a good list of sites, some of which will be free.

07-14-2008, 05:30 AM
Hi there. Thank you for your posts.

Redrobes : a lot of information there. Thanks for taking the time to put all that up! I'll explore those various options. I do like the rendered terragen cut away like that - I think Bryce can do the same thing?

Ascension: Yeah I had thought of that, but didn't try it because I didnt think I could get the intricate fractal like branch veins that are so distinctive on the DEM there. Do you have any examples? I'll like to see how it turned out for you.

SeerBlue: Yeah I found that site. I think I missed the registration bit. Probably why that when I explored the site it seemed to be showing fees no matter if I looked in country or not. I'll register and try again. That might be just what I'm looking for - thanks for the google tip too.

thanks for your help

07-14-2008, 05:34 AM
I do like the rendered terragen cut away like thatThat was my DragonsFlight3D - thats a free and quick way to get that image. Just take the images from your post, pad them up with black so that they are square, save as Color.bmp and Height.bmp and put in same directory as app and run it.


07-14-2008, 05:51 AM
I've done a bit of experimenting using simpler cloud-fractal hoo-hah for overall arrangements but then using DEM overlays to bring realistic definition to the upper elevations. Not much to report so far (too many other projects distract me, and I have no actual use for it beyond fascination), but the mutant beasts which have resulted do show some glimmers of promise.

I guess the main difference between what I've attempted and what you're working on is that I don't cut-and-paste fragments ... I combine complete DEMs with complete random hoo-hah in an automated routine which forces the DEM data to dominate the upper elevations while fading in prominence as they approach the waterline (and all submarine data is left randomized without DEM additions).

07-14-2008, 09:06 AM
Redrobes: Oh sorry. pretty cool stuff.

Ghalev: That sounds interesting. got anything up on the web to see the result? it'l be good to see how that comes out.

Today in PS I've been playing with the bevel tool on a selection of the land mass ( using the bevel and you can give it fall off and soften under the chisel settings and lighting at 0 (from the top)) - it give a similar mountain range with some randomness. Then overlayering difference clouds and manually drawing in the troughs with soft black brush at 20% opacity.

Still exploring the technique and will include it in a tutorial as another step on the way to DEM influecned maps. It'll be cool if there was a plugin that worked similar to bevel, but in a more fractual, mountainous way to create a height map for fictional maps. I guess simliar to Bryce's fractual mountain heightmap creations but for PS so it could be places over a larger selection area.

thanks folks!

07-14-2008, 12:49 PM
I have to say I like the hypsometric gradient used in the tutorial okay, but I really like the gradient you used in the Difference Clouds image. Could you post that?

Erosion really is the key to this. With good erosion and deposition you can make beautifully realistic terrains out of the stupidest noises. There are some tutorials here by waldronate on the use of erosion in Wilbur that are really instructive, not to mention astonishing. Wilbur is actually fairly mid-grade as to erosion tools. World Machine has the best erosion I've ever seen. From what I understand Geocontrol is superior to that, but it can't run on the Cow Machine at work. :(

07-14-2008, 12:59 PM
If you check the tutorial http://www.jezelf.co.uk/tutorials_map04.htm you can see it isn't a gradient. Splotches of colours were manually painted then blurred.

-Rob A>

07-14-2008, 01:10 PM
Nice tutorial. That whole climate variation thing is something I definitely need to work on. I'm a little disappointed though, 'cause that would have really been a nice gradient. Love those colors.

07-14-2008, 01:23 PM
Speaking of World Machine, World Machine 2 (http://www.world-machine.com/download.html) is out, and there is a free version that is real sweet. Take the tour (http://www.world-machine.com/wm2/upgradetour.html) as well.

it is well worth the money, and the developer is very helpful, as are the forums.

Also Terraconv (http://koti.mbnet.fi/pkl/tg/terragen.htm) is a easy way to get your ter file to tiff format, or GeoTiff, and back. So in and out of photoshop,,,,,.


07-15-2008, 06:19 AM
Hi there. Thanks for posting.

su_liam: You're spot on, errosion is really what I'm after. I did see Wilbur before but hadn't yet had time to explore, but I had a quick text last night and it's pretty cool.

Yeah I'm pretty new to the more serious side of map making - there's a whole new world out there (no pun intended) for me. So I only just realised about hypsometric gradients. The tutorials are aimed at the PS beginner and they were started because I was over at another forum for Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels and creative writing and people were wanting to make maps for their stories. (http://www.sffchronicles.co.uk/forum/37340-map-creation.html)

For the purposes of what I want to make maps for, as a back ground for fictional stories, I'm thinking there's little point cutting and pasting DEM maps, I would fair better with things like Wilbur. So thanks for your help.

RobA: yep that's right. My line of work has not really ventured into map making. It's a hobby thing through the creative writing. For the hypsometric gradient. I guess it could be created using photoshop's gradient tools. Sampling the finished artwork with the picker and work back from there? I've not created on before, so I'll see if I can look into it. Cheers.

SeerBlue: Hey that looks cool. I've got Mojo, but not really had much time to work with it (allong with other applications like z-brush -just not enough time :( ) The WM2 results looks great. I downloaded the trial, see what I can do.

Thanks all.

07-15-2008, 07:44 AM
For shaded relief maps and hyso tinting, Have a look at this tutoria (http://www.cartographersguild.com/showthread.php?t=1139)l - it may give you some hints?

07-15-2008, 08:52 AM

Ive done a test using Wilbur. The results are just what I needed! I'll post the results up when I do a tutorial on my site - I'll fold in the Wilbur program for it.

I'm sure I can take it much further, but I'll look into all that for next time.

Thank you everybody!


07-15-2008, 10:24 PM
I did this on my Nuusitu (http://www.cartographersguild.com/showthread.php?t=1893) map...Basically I used the clone brush to piece together bits of about 4 different DEMs to create the relief for this area. I've always been interested in building DEMs from real-world sources to match my world's topography.

I remember seeing a thread once where someone had taught their computer to pick up bits of a real-world DEM and lay them in an arrangement that they had specified, so you could rough in some mountain ranges and river valleys first, and the software would pick appropriate slices of the DEM to match. I couldn't seem to get it to work, though.

Best of luck!

07-16-2008, 07:36 AM
thats a cool map. I saw your other stuff and posted there. nice work!

Are you doing some of this (non relief) in Illustrator/ PS? Are the rivers and dashed lines paths, stroked or via some other method.

I like all the detail. What is that map for, may I ask?

07-21-2008, 07:05 PM
OK! This is the results of having 'fun with Wilbur' . There could be a lot more improvement, I feel I've only just scratched the surface, but it improved my map no end by adding the erosion that su_liam pointed out. I'll probably still study some DEMs ( nature is a good teacher ) and see what other details can be next.

Thanks guys! - and the fun with Wilbur tutorial helped me get straight to what I wanted to do (thanks Waldronate) . I'll be exploring the other aps mentioned. Also need to try out Fun with Wilbur Pt 2!



07-22-2008, 01:52 AM
Wow, that's pretty nice.

07-22-2008, 02:57 AM
<pant><pant>That's so hot!

Yeah, I know, but my wife would hurt me if I looked at the other kind of porn...

Honestly, it's frakkin cool what you could do with just Wilbur.

07-22-2008, 07:49 AM
Thank folks. It 's for a tutorial (http://www.jezelf.co.uk/tutorials_map05.htm) to show various relief methods in Photoshop and use of Wilbur.