How to create a map in Photoshop with hills?


I am an aspiring author, and am creating a map of my fantasy world in Photoshop. The map is very detailed, containing information on wind patterns, temperature changes, and tectonic plate movement, amongst other things. I've been able to successfully convey all of this. What I'm having trouble with are the mountains/hills.

I've been able to represent a mountain/hill with a symbol from a custom brush, but I'd also like some way of having the ground 'bulge' outwards so that it looks like there is actually a hill there.

How can I do this?


A fairly generic example of what I want to achieve:

Terrain map

A slightly more accurate example of what I'm looking for. Note how the hill in the lower left corner just seems to 'rise up' from the city:

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What I do not want:

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Further details, and what I've tried:

I've been able to get around this problem for mountains, by actually drawing the snow and glaciers. This doesn't make the ground bulge, but you can at least see where the mountain extends. This won't work for smaller mountains or hills though, where there is no snow.

I experimented with the Emboss function, which does make a nice plateau/lava flow effect. It does not look like a hill though.

I tried the Pinch function, going into negative numbers so that it would bulge instead of pinch. Unfortunately, the function is so large (effecting the entire image), that I can't localize it enough. Also, I cannot seem to target it on any one area of the image.

The best idea I've had is to make a 3D hill somehow, rasterize it to a flat image, and then somehow turn that into a brush. I could then use the brush to tint the ground so that it looked like a hill. The problems with this are that my 3D creation abilities are questionable, and the brush has to be only black/transparent black to work. Grays, which would be included in the flattened image of the 3D hill, would not convert into a custom brush.

The best result I've had: drawing in black, embossing, and setting the layer to 'Overlay'. It looks halfway decent, though still rather amoeba-like.

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3/9/2017 2:00:00 AM

Accepted Answer

I have discovered another method which achieves the effect I was looking for far better than any other answer I've seen here. It has the added bonus of being 'non-destructive', meaning it can be changed or edited at any time, and does not effect the image beneath. It also very closely resembles satellite imagery of mountains.

The drawbacks are that the elevation is difficult to control. All valleys are at the same elevation, and the elevation of the mountains is determined purely by the size of their base. Elevation increases at a steady rate, and that rate cannot vary. The mountains also have a tendency to look a bit wierd about the outside edges, but that can be remedied with sufficient time. So if you're picky about the exact elevation, this method might not be for you. But if you're just after the perfect look with a fully editable shape, then you might want to use this.

I start out by creating a base. I'm using a green cloud background with added noise to simulate grass, but you can use whatever you want. The more realistic you can make it look, the better.

Grass BG

Add another layer, fill it with 50% gray (solid, not 50% transparency), and set the layer to overlay. Your image might be a shade brighter, but it should look basically the same (you can play around with different shades of gray if you want it to be exactly the same hue as before).

Working with the gray layer, add a bevel and emboss effect. You'll want an inner bevel, and set the technique to 'chisel hard'. Depth can stay at 100%. Change the direction to Up, and scale the size WAY up. Depending on how 'close' to your mountains you are (what elevation you are viewing them from) you can tweak this later. I set mine to 100 px.

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Now comes the fun part. You're going to draw your mountains. Or more accurately, the valleys that shape the mountains. You need the eraser tool and you should set it at a fairly small size. 3 or below should work. Then simply draw where the valleys should be. Larger brush sizes can be used for larger valleys.

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You may notice parts of the image where the top of the mountain sort of flattens out. That can be fixed by adjusting the size in the bevel&emboss options. The higher the size, the higher your mountains can go. Do be aware that this puts some strain on low/medium end systems. If you have two many layers in a single document with a high pixel count, Photoshop can lock up when trying to open it. Keep your images small and rasterize as many layers as you can.

Once you get familiar with creating valleys, you can mold the mountain layer to your liking, and change it any time.

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3/9/2017 9:48:00 PM

Start with a very loose idea:

Loose Idea

Marquee tool to quickly go over the High:

Marquee the high

Add your high color:

Plateau color

If I press Cmd/Ctrl+Plataeu thumbnail on Layer Panel it will select it for me. Then do SelectModifyExpand. I used 15 pixels. Notice the bottom of the Plateau and the Selection now have an offset to it:

Plateau with offset

Create a layer beneath, color it, repeat. Use progressively smaller expansion sizes. The more you do the nicer it'll look:

(Note: If you have Adobe Illustrator you could use the Blend function to do this a bit automated for you)


Add in your Water:

Added Water

Add a very thin stroke to your water:

Water with Stroke

I then used a drawing tablet to add some small lines to it. Lower you get the less pronounced they become. This can be done with mouse or even strokes and masks, but a drawing tablet certainly helps:

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Alright let's add a bit of a drop off on the bottom to the water. At this point I'm going to use brushes and drawing tablet but you could again use the selection > expansion > fill method like you used earlier. After I have a base shape since I'm going to do a little airbrushing, I'm going to add a layer mask:

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Then I can use my airbrushes to smooth it:

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Again add a few lines here and there just for some texture and such:

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Alright so now it's at a pretty good place without any manmade structures or trees yet. That bottom right looks a bit more ridgy though and a key part is having at least something look less like a ridge and more like a hill. Let's try to go back and fix that up a bit. I just used airbrush here, if you don't have a tablet then use lots of colors with your mouse and possibly smudge it as well:

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But still hills have some drops so add just very very few lines.

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I'm gonna stop here. The more detail, texture, colors you add the better. Next thing to do is drop-off to water on bottom left now that the hill is fixed. After that I would probably start with buildings. Once the buildings are in I'd add lighter and darker areas to the ground, then trees between the buildings, and finally details like bridges, walls, maybe some textures and labels.

Notice the light is coming from the left side so after I add in the structures and whatnot I would want to adjust the colors to indicate this. The left side of the valley should be a bit darker than the right. I'm not sure what the "correct" way to do this is but I would do that after adding buildings. See like here how much lighter this section is:

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Hope this helps you out. Entire process took me an hour, would've been less if I wasn't taking screenshots and documenting as I went. Final look:

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