Because maps are flat, some of the simplest projections are made onto geometric shapes that can be flattened without stretching their surfaces. These are called developable surfaces. Some common examples are cones, cylinders, and planes. A map projection systematically projects locations from the surface of a spheroid to representative positions on a flat surface using mathematical algorithms.
The first step in projecting from one surface to another is creating one or more points of contact. Each contact is called a point (or line) of tangency. A planar projection is tangential to the globe at one point. Tangential cones and cylinders touch the globe along a line. If the projection surface intersects the globe instead of merely touching its surface, the resulting projection is a secant rather than a tangent case. Whether the contact is tangent or secant, the contact points or lines are significant because they define locations of zero distortion. Lines of true scale include the central meridian and standard parallels and are sometimes called standard lines. In general, distortion increases with the distance from the point of contact.
Many common map projections are classified according to the projection surface used: conic, cylindrical, or planar.
- Learn more about the conic projection.
- Learn more about the cylindrical projection.
- Learn more about the planar projection.
Projection types illustrated
Each of the main projection types—conic, cylindrical, and planar—are illustrated below.