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Elements of Visual Interpretation

As we noted in the previous section, analysis of remote sensing imagery involves the identification of various targets in an image, and those targets may be environmental or artificial features which consist of points, lines, or areas. Targets may be defined in terms of the way they reflect or emit radiation. This radiation is measured and recorded by a sensor, and ultimately is depicted as an image product such as an air photo or a satellite image.

What makes interpretation of imagery more difficult than the everyday visual interpretation of our surroundings? For one, we lose our sense of depth when viewing a two-dimensional image, unless we can view it stereoscopically so as to simulate the third dimension of height. Indeed, interpretation benefits greatly in many applications when images are viewed in stereo, as visualization (and therefore, recognition) of targets is enhanced dramatically. Viewing objects from directly above also provides a very different perspective than what we are familiar with. Combining an unfamiliar perspective with a very different scale and lack of recognizable detail can make even the most familiar object unrecognizable in an image. Finally, we are used to seeing only the visible wavelengths, and the imaging of wavelengths outside of this window is more difficult for us to comprehend.

Recognizing targets is the key to interpretation and information extraction. Observing the differences between targets and their backgrounds involves comparing different targets based on any, or all, of the visual elements of tone, shape, size, pattern, texture, shadow, and association. Visual interpretation using these elements is often a part of our daily lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. Examining satellite images on the weather report, or following high speed chases by views from a helicopter are all familiar examples of visual image interpretation. Identifying targets in remotely sensed images based on these visual elements allows us to further interpret and analyze. The nature of each of these interpretation elements is described below, along with an image example of each.

image showing the variations in tone

Tone refers to the relative brightness or colour of objects in an image. Generally, tone is the fundamental element for distinguishing between different targets or features. Variations in tone also allows the elements of shape, texture, and pattern of objects to be distinguished.

image showing that shape can be a very distinctive clue for interpretation

Shape refers to the general form, structure, or outline of individual objects. Shape can be a very distinctive clue for interpretation. Straight edge shapes typically represent urban or agricultural (field) targets, while natural features, such as forest edges, are generally more irregular in shape, except where man has created a road or clear cuts. Farm or crop land irrigated by rotating sprinkler systems would appear as circular shapes.

size of objects in an image is a function of scale

Size of objects in an image is a function of scale. It is important to assess the size of a target relative to other objects in a scene, as well as the absolute size, to aid in the interpretation of that target. A quick approximation of target size can direct interpretation to an appropriate result more quickly. For example, if an interpreter had to distinguish zones of land use, and had identified an area with a number of buildings in it, large buildings such as factories or warehouses would suggest commercial property, whereas small buildings would indicate residential use.

pattern refers to the spatial arrangement of visibly discernible objects

Pattern refers to the spatial arrangement of visibly discernible objects. Typically an orderly repetition of similar tones and textures will produce a distinctive and ultimately recognizable pattern. Orchards with evenly spaced trees, and urban streets with regularly spaced houses are good examples of pattern.

Texture refers to the arrangement and frequency of tonal variation in particular areas of an image

Texture refers to the arrangement and frequency of tonal variation in particular areas of an image. Rough textures would consist of a mottled tone where the grey levels change abruptly in a small area, whereas smooth textures would have very little tonal variation. Smooth textures are most often the result of uniform, even surfaces, such as fields, asphalt, or grasslands. A target with a rough surface and irregular structure, such as a forest canopy, results in a rough textured appearance. Texture is one of the most important elements for distinguishing features in radar imagery.

Shadows may provide an idea of the profile and relative height of a target or targets which may make identification easier

Shadow is also helpful in interpretation as it may provide an idea of the profile and relative height of a target or targets which may make identification easier. However, shadows can also reduce or eliminate interpretation in their area of influence, since targets within shadows are much less (or not at all) discernible from their surroundings. Shadow is also useful for enhancing or identifying topography and landforms, particularly in radar imagery.

Association takes into account the relationship between other recognizable objects or features in proximity to the target of interest

Association takes into account the relationship between other recognizable objects or features in proximity to the target of interest. The identification of features that one would expect to associate with other features may provide information to facilitate identification. In the example given above, commercial properties may be associated with proximity to major transportation routes, whereas residential areas would be associated with schools, playgrounds, and sports fields. In our example, a lake is associated with boats, a marina, and adjacent recreational land.

Did you know?

Sometimes the 'impression' that a buried artifact, such as an ancient fort foundation, leaves on the surface, can be detected and identified

"...What will they think of next ?!..."

Remote sensing (image interpretation) has been used for archeological investigations. Sometimes the 'impression' that a buried artifact, such as an ancient fort foundation, leaves on the surface, can be detected and identified. That surface impression is typically very subtle, so it helps to know the general area to be searched and the nature of the feature being sought. It is also useful if the surface has not been disturbed much by human activities.

Whiz quiz

Aerial photograph

Take a look at the aerial photograph above. Identify the following features in the image and explain how you were able to do so based on the elements of visual interpretation described in this section.

  • race track
  • river
  • roads
  • bridges
  • residential area
  • dam

The answer is ...

Whiz quiz - answer

Aerial photograph

  • The race track in the lower left of the image is quite easy to identify because of its characteristic shape.
  • The river is also easy to identify due to its contrasting tone with the surrounding land and also due to its shape.
  • The roads in the image are visible due to their shape (straight in many cases) and their generally bright tone contrasting against the other darker features.
  • Bridges are identifiable based on their shape, tone, and association with the river - they cross it!
  • Residential areas on the left hand side of the image and the upper right can be identified by the pattern that they make in conjunction with the roads. Individual houses and other buildings can also be identified as dark and light tones.
  • The dam in the river at the top center of the image can be identified based on its contrasting tone with the dark river, its shape, and its association with the river - where else would a dam be!
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