How to Use Natural Earth
Unlike many datasets which were designed for measurement and analysis, Natural Earth was made for cartography.
Available on Natural Earth are shapefiles of the world, individual countries, states, communities, railroads, airports, parks, physical features, raster imagery, and much more-- all of which can be easily stylized to make any map look visually stunning. Many of the features come paired with corresponding attribute information.
Step 1). Decide which scale you want to use.
Natural Earth offers their data in three scales: 1:10,000,000, 1:50,000,000, and 1:110,000,000.
You should make this decision based on how “zoomed in,” or detailed your want your map to be. For example, the following images are from the Natural Earth Countries layer zoomed in on the Aegean Sea at the three available scales.
When depicting smaller areas, the more detailed 1:10,000,000 scale displays features better.
On the other hand, the 1:110,000,000 scale can be better for mapping larger areas. Observe the Countries layers at each scale when zoomed out on the entire world:
Most of the detail in the 1:10,000,000 and 1:50,000,000 scales is unnecessary. These detials makes the map look too busy and like it lacks neatness. To represent larger areas, the 1:110,000,000 scale works better.
Step 2). After deciding which scale to use, the next step is to decide what kind of data you want.
Natural Earth organizes its data into three categories:
The available Cultural Vectors are: Countries, Disputed Breakaway Areas, First Order Admin (Provinces, Departments, States, etc.), Populated Places, Urban Polygons, Parks and Protected Areas, Water Boundary Indicators, Roads, Railroads, Airports, Ports, Timezones, and Cultural Building Blocks (Labels, Points, Seams, and More).
The available Physical Vectors are: Coastline, Land, Minor Islands, Reefs, Ocean, River and Lake Centerlines, Lakes and Resevoirs, Labels for Major Physical Features, Playas, Antarctic Ice Shelves, Glaciated Areas, Bathymetry, Geographic Lines, Graticules, and Physical Building Blocks (Labels, Points, Seams, and More).
The available Raster Data are: Cross-blended Hyspometric Tints, Natural Earth 1, Natural Earth 2 (used in the banner of this guide), Ocean Bottom, Shaded Relief, Gray Earth, and Manual Shaded Relief of Contiguous U.S.
Descriptions of each feature are available on Natural Earth's Features Page.