Five months ago I started thinking about creating a map for a scifi setting (for a novel) a friend has been working on for quite some time. The story is set in a rather close area of space, all things considered, especially compared against other popular scifi like Mass Effect, Star Wars or even Star Trek. So, the local Orion Arm of the Milky Way it would be. And I started looking for templates. I searched and searched, and time and again I came across bartmoss' awesome work he has chronicled here.
His input and remarks were really helpful in getting this piece underway, and after a week or so fidgeting around with this map I can understand the monumental task it must have been to get his own map done.
Still, I do have the advantage of being able to look at his map, so I used his star and nebula placement to align my own. I admit that initially all I wanted was a simple copy of his superb work, but even if that had been possible I soon came to the conclusion that I'd prefer even an inferior original with its own touch to that, so here we are. This is the process I've gone through so far.
As far as the actual interstellar cartography goes this represents about the "50% done" mark.
I used a dark blue background layer, several plasma renders of varying intensity and different glow and shadow filters.
After playing around with fog renders I decided to go over the nebula layers manually which achieved a better and more natural looking result. The map as shown in the above presented piece contains ~60 custom made stars and two dark nebulas (Coalsack and IC4604), created through plasma renders, glow effects and/or color gradients. The rest of the stars were done with GIMP's sparkle brush.
The enlarged section represents the actual level of detail of the piece at that point in the process.
It shows the (real, existing) Antares supergiant star and the dark nebula (real, existing) close to it as well as the farthest away colony of any of the major human powers - Van Halen's Star (commonly called Orion Colony) -, a North American Union settlement. Star sizes are not to scale since they vary too much even for a map that's in the 6000px range (the real Antares has almost 900 times the radius of our sun).
After scaling up the map to 9000px it looks like this (the sample is smaller):
You can't probably see it there but despite still being somewhere in the 130dpi range it started to get a bit too blurry at full resolution, though it would have been sufficient for a 1.8 METER print-out. I added about 30 more custom stars, a few smaller dark nebulas, smoothed and extended the existing dark nebulas and added several bright nebulas/star clusters. The location names are in the same font and unrefined. Basically, they are just there to nail down what region is supposed to be where.
Ironically, creating the map itself has surprisingly been a rather, well... I won't say easy, but I'd call it uncomplicated affair so far. At this point it's back down to 8000px and a 160dpi quality. But as you can see even at that resolution a representation to scale is nigh impossible:
I suppose this is one of the problems you'll run in to if you try to make a somewhat representative starmap: if you want to maintain the resolution and don't want to blow your file size to kingdom come there are limits to how accurate you can portray the scale of things.
The segment shown above represents 1/100th (!) of the complete piece and I *still* can't get it to scale correctly. In reality the named star systems are all less than twenty LYs away from Earth, most of them even barely ten LYs. If I made the piece to scale SOL would be represented by the tiny red dot and most of the stars would be located within the tiny red circle or at best within the radius of the star itself!
At that scale it's also nigh impossible to represent political allegiances graphically other than with abbreviations behind the star system names (I intended to use icon, but they'd be too small to be identified).
Fonts used so far:
Sector names: Capture It2, white with black outline
Important stars: Capture It1, white with red outline
Star systems: Arial Bold, white with black outline
Pfew, I suppose that is a suitably long enough post to return to these forums.