What does a Cartographer do?

Licia Morrow

A cartographer, a person who uses aerial photographs and data surveys to collect information about the geography of an area, is a member of a bigger career group called mapping scientists. Cartographers use collected data to create charts, maps, and pictures of large sections of the world’s surface geography. There are many sub-groups within the larger field of cartography.

Cartographers are mapmakers.
Cartographers are mapmakers.

For example, supervisors in this field coordinate the processes involved in making maps and drafters give specifics on structures. Additionally, photogrammetrists create scaled maps that represent aerial photos and mosaicists collect and arrange photographs in specific sequences. A geographic information specialist uses Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, that contain computerized data, and enable the combining of mapmaking and surveying.

A cartographer creates maps and charts that show data of a certain area.
A cartographer creates maps and charts that show data of a certain area.

Interpreting photos and drawings, and creating new representations of them is an important element of cartography. Some cartographers focus on creating new maps, while others work on revising old ones. A cartographer must be able to do this through the use of stereoplotting, mathematical formulas, computerized drafting tools, and photogrammetric skills. They might also be responsible for analyzing the politics and culture of a specific region. The work of cartographers can include any number of projects including city plans, street atlases, country maps, navigation maps and charts, or weather maps.

A cartographer may have a degree in forestry or surveying.
A cartographer may have a degree in forestry or surveying.

Using a Geographic Information System, which combines hardware, software, and data, is the focus of many cartographers. By combining these elements, a GIS allows a cartographer to capture, manage, analyze, and display information about geography. The GIS gives cartographers information in three ways: a database of geographical information, map views, and model views. The combination of these views allows a cartographer to map changes and patterns, answer geographic questions, map densities, and locate geographic features.

Rather than simply creating and revising maps, a cartographer may be responsible for studying the most current mapmaking techniques, especially the use of these new technologies. For example, a GIS specialist is yet another career opportunity in the larger realm of cartography. The range of responsibility in this career field can be very wide, or very narrow, depending upon current projects and employment opportunities. In order to meet the demands of the job, cartographers must have expert skills in a range of subjects including math, science, technology, current events, and design.

A Bachelor of Science in cartography, though not always a requirement, is a standard degree for this field. A cartographer my also hold a degree in either engineering, geography, forestry, or surveying. Additionally, most states also require a license for surveying. Sometimes, cartographers begin their careers as technicians, entering the field through experience, rather than education.

During the Age of Sail, cartographers often created charts that were intended for navigational use.
During the Age of Sail, cartographers often created charts that were intended for navigational use.

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Discussion Comments


I love the idea of cartography. Especially back in the days when they were still discovering new bits of land. But, they are still discovering some things.

One of the things I read about recently was an interesting bit of trivia. They have no idea how long the US coastline is, or any other coastline for that matter.

Oh, they can estimate it according to different scales. But, when you think about it, the coast grows longer the closer you do the measurements. If you actually held a string against the shore and followed it as closely as possible it will be much longer than if you fudged the shorelines and measured them as though they were straight.

And then there are tides and other things like rockslides.

It's interesting that something I took for granted was known by cartographers is actually something that for practical reasons cannot really be measured, not for an absolute answer anyway.


@KoiwiGal - Actually stereogram pictures are still being used. In 2003 they used special cameras on the Mars lander so that it could take pictures the scientists could view as stereograms.

This was for basically the same reason as the cartographers use them, so that they can use human eyes to look at pictures but still see them in three dimensions.

In theory they could get a computer to generate a 3D landscape from the photos but it might be distorted and this is much cheaper and perhaps even more reliable. Plus it makes it much easier to judge distance. Cartographers still use stereograms as well, so that they can keep a 3D record of an area they are mapping.

It's definitely an interesting thing to show to students and I think showing them pictures of Mars as an example would be even better.


If you are teaching kids about this field one of the more interesting things you can show them is how cartographers used to look at 3D landscapes using stereograms. This is when they have two pictures, each taken from the point of view of the left and right eye and a person focuses slightly away from the pictures so that it seems like they are looking at one picture.

It's similar to those "magic eye" pictures that were all the rage a few years ago and I believe that modern 3D films use the same technique with the glasses helping your eyes to focus in the right way so that you blend two images to see depth.

There are plenty of examples of landscapes that have been photographed to be used as stereograms, so you can find some for your students and show them what cartographers used to do.

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