Introduction to Map Projections

Maps are usually seen in a flat, two-dimensional medium such as a drawing on paper or an image on a computer screen. Since the surface of the Earth is curved, or three-dimensional, the visual elements on the surface must somehow be transformed from three dimensions to two in order to display a map of the Earth's surface. Projections are a mathematical process by which the visual elements are transformed from three dimensions to two.


One of the simplest forms of projection is analogous to shining a light through a translucent globe onto a piece of paper and tracing the outlines. Other forms of projection may involve dozens of complex mathematical equations. Since no two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional surface can be accurate in every regard, a variety of different projections have been developed to suit different purposes. Some projections are accurate in terms of area but not in scale, some are accurate in terms of scale but not in shape, and so on. The selection of an appropriate projection for a map depends on which characteristics of a map are most important or most desirable for a given project or audience. MapViewer supports several of the projections that are used most often in modern cartography and related fields.


There are many excellent textbooks and publications on this subject, and we do not attempt to explain projections in full detail here. If you need or want more information, you might consider reading the references that provide good introductory discussions of map projections.


Data distribution is represented visually on a thematic map. Probably the most important consideration for thematic maps is the relative size of land areas. If a data value is represented for an area, the relative size of the area is important in the visual representation of the data, because size and value together imply data density. When you do not use projections, land areas can become distorted in shape and size, so some areas might appear relatively larger or smaller than they actually are in relation to other land areas and visual representation of data can become somewhat misleading. However, these problems only become significant when you are plotting large land masses, such as an entire continent. For most MapViewer applications, you might only be plotting a single state or a group of states, so this problem is minimal.


Available Projections

Albers Equal Area Conic

Azimuthal Equidistant



Eckert IV

Eckert VI

Equidistant Conic

Equidistant Cylindrical

Geographic Coordinate System


Hotine Oblique Mercator

Hotine Oblique Mercator 2-Point

Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area

Lambert Conformal Conic

Mercator Miller Cylindrical


New Zealand Map Grid

Oblique Mercator



Robinson & Robinson-Sterling


State Plane Coordinate System


Transverse Mercator
Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM)

Van der Grinten



See Also

Geometric Forms of Projection

Characteristics of Projections



Convert Projection

Latitude and Longitude Coordinates

Latitude and Longitude in Decimal Degrees

Using Scaling to Minimize Distortion on Latitude and Longitude Maps