I have a planet I created. I have the water and land boundaries, and I have the important mountain ranges, forests, and deserts defined.

Now that I've done this, I want to turn my cartoony world map diagram into a real topographic satellite map, the way my planet would look from space.

Question: How do I create realistic topographical features? I've tried generating and applying bump maps, height maps, or drawing manually but nothing seems to work.

I know this question is vague, but that's simply because I don't know how to do any of it: not mountains, not forests, not islands, not deserts, etc. I don't know how to transition different biomes, I don't know how to subdivide them so there isn't countless miles of one type, etc. I just really need help and I don't know where to start.

  • $\begingroup$ I've edited the tags to attract the attention of those who are watching those specific ones as I feel that they could help with your issue, please feel free to revert them if you think appropriate. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ The new tags actually fit better with my question. I appreciate it. $\endgroup$
    – overlord
    Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 19:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This video explains the general concepts, while this video is a drawing tutorial based on the concepts explained in the first. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Could you edit to say more about what's not working? When you apply bump maps and height maps, what is it about the results that is unsatisfying? (Different approaches are helpful for different aspects, so knowing more about what you're trying to do/not do should help in answering.) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2019 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ What is a "topographic satellite map"? Satellite pictures are definitely not maps... (And do you have an idea how large a topographical map of Europe would be?) Anyway, a true topographic map for an entire planet is a lifelong endeavour for a large team of people... Anyway, one possible approach is to take a map of a real interesting place on Earth, say for example the Greek peninsula, and (1) rotate it a bit, then (2) apply judicious partial deformations (twirls and skews) and finally (3) move some features around (e.g. peninsulas or gulfs). Hey presto, a very realistically looking map. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 14, 2019 at 0:01

1 Answer 1


If you have photoshop (or similar programs), then it is fairly easy. Load your map and, on a new layer, start using the free-draw selection tool (lasso in phsp) to trace an elevation line over the topology. Edit>stroke make the stroke thin. Then repeat the process for each elevation. You can use another layer and the rings to make color-coded terrain demarcation (like most topo maps differentiate between hills, relatively level areas, bodies of water, etc). You can then blend layers to create hybrid maps, etc.

Old school method of doing this is tracing paper and a light table (or glass coffee table and a flashlight)

Edit: if you want less Tolkien and more high school geography style, that is mostly a matter of replacing the artwork. I'd recommend using photoshop(or another art prog) to replace AFTER you make the topo-ring overlay. Then, either use a free 3d prog like blender to extrude and texture your mountains/hills, or (if this project is not for commercial use) there are several sources for pre-generated photorealistic art tiles for maps. You can find them fairly quickly with google. I know roll20 has a lot of good free and paid map-making tiles.

Terrain/biomes generally transition based on elevation and availability of water (forest gradually becomes scrub, then plains, then desert, etc.). Soil density speeds or slows this transition (a hard rock edge creates a more drastic border between biomes, where soft soil makes a much more gradual shift).


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