Geography Tools: Photographs, Globes & Diagrams

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson takes a peek into the geographer's toolkit to examine how they use photographs, globes, and diagrams to study our planet. This includes both aerial and satellite photographs, virtual globes, and diagrams we see every day.

Inside the Geographer's Toolkit

Geography is much more than just a study of maps or navigating travel routes. It is a complex field of study that tries to understand the physical, biological, and human aspects of our planet through careful measurement and creation of detailed representations of data as it relates to physical space. Geographers study political boundaries, natural features of the landscape, and changes in the Earth's surface as well as many other topics. With their diverse interests and the magnitude of the Earth's size and complexity, how do they manage to gather and represent their data? Well, there are many resources in the geographer's toolkit. Here, we'll take a look at photographs, globes, and diagrams.

Photographing the Earth

Photography offers geographers one of the greatest advantages in their field, especially when it is combined with flight. After the invention of flight, for the first time, geographers could rise above the earth and see it from the same, removed perspective of the maps they created. Aerial photography is the process of taking these pictures from the air, but geographers use special techniques and types of photos depending on what they want to study.

Aerial photo of Chicago
Aerial photo of Chicago


Two primary techniques used in aerial photography are oblique angled photos and vertical photos. Oblique angled photographs are taken at an angle to the earth's surface, usually at a 45-degree angle but other perspectives are sometimes required to determine the details of specific features, such as a small ridge from buried, ancient ruins. Unfortunately, this can distort some features so it should be used carefully. Vertical photographs are taken from directly above the desired subject, usually at a standardized elevation to aid comparison to other photographs of the same subject over time, such as a city's growth.

Types of Photos

Three kinds of aerial photographs help geographers. First, black and white photographs are still used today because their simplified colors and sharp contrast can reveal details easily overlooked in color images. Color photographs, however, help identify other important features like algae blooms and the changing colors of autumn leaves. Finally, we have infrared photographs, the most recent type of photography, which uses light reflected at the infrared end of the spectrum to study vegetation growth and health.

Newest Imagery - Photos from Space

The latest development in geographic photography uses orbiting satellites to take photographs we could easily call extreme aerial shots. Satellite imagery helps geographers study features and changes on the earth's surface on a larger scale. Satellite images of weather patterns now help geographers map changes in air and ocean currents while assisting meteorologists in forecasting extreme weather like hurricanes. In the image below, we see a satellite image of a sandstorm in the Middle East covering the Red Sea and several countries. Not only would a plane be unable to reach an elevation necessary to capture a shot of such a large area, but the sandstorm would be too dangerous for a plane to fly through it.

Satellite photograph of a sandstorm over the Red Sea
Satellite photograph of a sandstorm over the Red Sea



Now that we've thoroughly explored the diversity of photographs in the study of geography, let's take a look at one of the ways geographers represent their data, globes. Many of us are familiar with a globe, a spherical representation of the Earth. Some globes show countries with different colors to help define their boundaries while others show natural features like forests and deserts. Topographical globes show natural features like mountain ridges and canyons in raised or sunken parts of the globe's surface. Nearly any type of data can be represented on a globe. What's more, globes provide a more accurate representation of the world because they are presented in three dimensions instead of the two dimensions used by maps.

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