After confessing my addiction to camera bags, I have yet one more thing to fess up to:  I’m also addicted to maps.

I spent last May traveling through Ireland and bought … uh … 14 maps and guides in preparation for the trip.  I had a 109 page Ordnance Survey road atlas, a Rick Steves’ Europe map, a Rick Steve’s Ireland map, seven Ordnance Survey Discovery Series maps (1:50,000), one Ordnance Survey Discoverer Series map (1:25,000), a Tim Robinson map and companion guide to the Aran Islands, another Tim Robinson walker’s map and guide to the Connemara, and the obligatory Rick Steves’ guidebook to Ireland.  So many maps, in fact, that I decided that it was all too much to even take with me on the trip!

Not only that, but I had even more map sources cached on my Android smartphone.  Since my Verizon phone doesn’t work in Ireland, I went so far as to download UK Ordnance Survey Explorer and Open Cycle maps onto my phone’s memory card to view in BackCountry Navigator, along with road atlas data for the entire island of Ireland to support turn-by-turn navigation in the car with an off-line navigation app.

And then there were all the maps I picked up along the way on the actual trip!

What is it about maps that I love so much?

Well, here’s what I know.

First, after 27 years of mountaineering and backcountry travel, I have become really good at navigation and map reading.  I am readily able to look over a map and build a 3-dimensional mental picture of the scale, orientation and arrangement of a landscape.

Second, I really like to do my research before I invest in a long photography trip like this.  There are so many photographic opportunities to discover from studying highly detailed maps.  Where might road crossings over streams have interesting bridges?  Are there old cemeteries in the area?  What about viewpoints, lighthouses, churches, waterfalls and covered bridges?  How about castles, megalithic tombs or holy wells?  I simply examine my maps closely for marks  or clues, many of which lead me to unique and interesting photo subjects.  Some also lead me on wild goose chases.

Map detail showing location of Minard Castle, Ireland
“Caisleán” translates from Gaeilge as “Castle”
Minard Castle on bluff overlooking Dingle Bay, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland
Minard Castle overlooking Dingle Bay, Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland

Third, maps help me plan my shots.  I’m able to assess whether a site is best photographed in morning or evening light, for example.  Or whether a mountain might reflect off the surface of a lake, or a stream may offer a sweeping curve leading towards a distant mountain, or a ridge might give an “aerial” perspective across a valley.  Where is there a good angle on that lighthouse?  I will mark this information right on the map.

Fourth, maps obviously help me find may way there.  Sure, I’ll sometimes use turn-by-turn navigation in the car when I don’t care about the terrain I’m driving through, like when I’m driving long distances between towns with no intention to stop for photography.  But my first choice is to use a paper map or atlas so that I can maintain spatial awareness of my surroundings, including an instinct for orientation, distance and travel time.

Map detail of Glencolumbkille area, Republic of Ireland
Cross pillar and St. Columba's Church, Glencolmcille, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland
Cross pillar and St. Columba’s Church, Glencolmcille, County Donegal, Republic of Ireland

Fifth, I mark up my maps in the field with notes that could be useful for future trips.  I’ll highlight particularly scenic stretches of road.  I may discover an old schoolhouse or an interesting barn, and will mark it on the map so I can find it again.  I’ll also make notes on best lighting conditions to return in.

Map detail from Washington Palouse
Map detail from Washington’s Palouse region marked up with windmills and other features of photographic interest
Windmill in wheat fields below blue sky with clouds, Palouse area, Washington.
Windmill, Palouse area, Washington

Finally, maps help me caption and keyword my photos after the trip.  I can include the English and non-English names of topographic features, streams, counties or relevant land management agencies.

And yes, I also have a big stack of natural history field guides handy too (but that’s an “addiction” story for another time).

So I hope you can appreciate that there is some method to my map madness.

Now, where to go next?

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