Participatory methods: Photo Mapping

Photo Mapping, like Scale Mapping is a method that uses existing data as a basis in the process of community mapping. Unlike Scale mapping it is not using the classical topographic map, but as the underlying map is used the aerial photograph of the area (Müller & Wode, 2003). Aerial images are more suitable for outside observers, since the majority of users  can operate with them without difficulty. (Vlok & Panek, 2012).

Aerial photographs can be used as an aid in mapping a different methods (Panek & Vlok, 2013; Rambaldi et al., 2006), or as the final product of the process of community mapping (Fields, 2006).

To gain aerial photographs one can use an unmanned aerial systems (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – UAV), sometimes also referred to as a drone (drones are usually described as a remotely controlled robot, often used for combat purposes). It is an unmanned airborne vehicles that can be controlled either remotely or can fly separately according to a pre-selected plan. UAVs are used for military and civilian tasks and their proponents emphasize that this is not a substitution of the classical aerial photography or ground mapping. It is a product that tries to fill a gap in the market and is suitable for specific tasks in locations where conventional methods are not applicable – bad weather, poor accessibility, mapping of small areas, while there are advantages of the high flexibility of deployment in action, easy handling, mobility and significantly cheaper to operate compared to manned aircraft. Another way to get aerial photos is the Grassroots mapping.

If necessary, you can use a transparent foil on the top of the aerial photograph, one for a each topic that is mapped (eg. Hydrography, land use, boundary disputes, etc.). This approach is similar at Scale mapping too.

Difficulty: moderately challenging

Group size: small to medium – up to 50 participants (otherwise split into several smaller groups)

Time required: 2-3 hours.

Links to other methods: this is mostly independent method. It may, however, be used with simpler methods, as well as it may be followed by more complex methods.

The aim of this method is to work with existing aerial photographs, in which it is possible to interpret additional (thematic) information, and create new maps that contains new information. Photo Mapping is a method for group work. The group, however, can be divided into several smaller groups (division may be accidental, orintentional).

Discussion in presenting maps of individual groups can serve as a good introduction for the next steps in solving spatial problems in the community.

History and Present

Photo Mapping is developing primarily with increasing availability of aerial photographs.

Aerial images have the advantage that they are already in scale and are georeferenced. You can choose different images according to various needs – according to the spatial, time and spectral resolution. Recently, there is significant reducing of cost of acquisition of aerial photographs or satellite images, some (eg. Landsat) are even available for free.

Disadvantages can include the need for special software and sufficiently powerful hardware.


  1. Clearly define the scope of the area, ie the area which will be mapped.
  2. Decide which base map (aerial photograph) will be used (size, scale, etc.) and how you will record information (directly on the aerial photo, on a tracing paper or on a transparency – the differences are described below).
  3. Present the objectives of the project and the mapping method – explain why it is the most appropriate method chosen and how the results will be used further.
  4. Invite the selected group to the meeting place or public meeting. g
  5. Explain the principle Photo Mapping
  6. Give each group enough time to record their knowledge on the image.
  7. Process/record information arising from individual maps/layers/groups and establish group discussion.

Resources and tools

  • Space, where each group will be able to work.
  • Background picture on a sufficient scale, size and in proper quantity.
  • Sufficient material for scraps and drawings on the map – plastic film, tracing paper, etc.
  • Paper for notes – refers to the facilitator.


Plotting can take place either on tracing paper or plastic film, which for practical reasons, seems like a better solution (Panek & Vlok, 2013), or directly on the base map. When using tracing paper, which is not absolutely clear, there is a need for continual uncovering of paper maps, to improve readability, and returning the tracing paper back. When using the transparent film it is not needed to keep uncovering the map ans thus it significantly increases the accuracy of the resulting output.

It is also possible to draw information directly on the map, but in this case it is not possible to use the map again for another task and thus it increases the costs.

Examples experiences, literature, etc.

Muller, D., & Wode, B. (2003). Manual on Participatory village mapping using photomaps.

Panek, J., & Vlok, C. (2013). Participatory mapping as a tool for community empowerment – a case study of community engagement in Koffiekraal, South Africa. In MF Buchroithner (Ed.), 26th International Cartographic Conference (p. 26). Dresden.

Fields, P. (2006). Is there life after tenure mapping? In Participatory Learning and Action 54 (pp. 41-49). London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

Rambaldi, G. Tuivanuavou, P., at random, P. Vanualailai, P. rūpeṇa, P., & rūpeṇa, E. (2006). Resource use, development planning, and safeguarding Intangible cultural heritage: lessons from Fiji Island. In Participatory Learning and Action 54 (pp. 28-35). London: International Institute for Environment and Development.

Vlok, C., & Panek, J. (2012). CAMP for change in the Bojanala Region of North West Province. In GISS Ukubuzana 2012 Conference Proceedings. Johannesburg.


One thought on “Participatory methods: Photo Mapping

  1. Pingback: Participatory methods: grassroots mapping | geoparticipation

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