Illuminated and shadowed contour lines: improving algorithms and evaluating effectiveness

James D. Eynard, Bernhard Jenny

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


Shadowed contour lines vary line width. Illuminated contour lines additionally vary color based on an angle of illumination. Illuminated and shadowed contour lines date back to the mid-nineteenth century, but their effectiveness compared to conventional contour lines has not been fully examined. Currently, illuminated and shadowed contour lines are not widely used in computer-based cartography because they are not included in most GIS apmaking software. This article introduces improvements to existing algorithms for creating illuminated and shadowed contour lines from digital elevation data. A software package is made available to allow mapmakers to more easily make customized illuminated and shadowed contour maps. A user study comparing illuminated and shadowed contour lines to conventional contour lines and shaded relief with approximately 400 participants was conducted. Results indicate that map-readers can interpret relative height differences between points better and quicker with illuminated contour lines than regular contour lines or shaded relief. Study participants were able to select absolute maxima on an unlabeled illuminated contour map and a labeled regular contour map with equal accuracy and speed. These findings suggest that illuminated contour lines could be used more frequently for improved visualization of terrain and other surface data on maps.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1923-1943
Number of pages21
JournalInternational Journal of Geographical Information Science
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Illuminated contour lines
  • shadowed contour lines
  • Tanaka contour lines

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