I’ve recently considered investing in some Geotagging equipment. But, besides the cost factor, I’m still not overly convinced about the general benefits for my photography of such capabilities. But first things first…
What is Geotagging?
Geotagging is simply the process of including geographical information to the photographs, such as latitude and longitude coordinates, which is then kept as part of the EXIF information on the files.
How does Geotagging work?
Unfortunately, camera manufacturers are not keeping up with technology on this field. Either because including a GPS device would make the camera more expensive thus putting off some costumers or simply because geotagging is still not a mainstream requirement, the fact is that cameras with in-built GPS receivers are more the exception than the rule, although some high-end cameras are already equipped.
If you are fortunate enough to have opted for such a camera (probably you did it because of the other camera features and not because of the GPS) you don’t have to battle with yourself as I’m doing to figure if it’s really worth the investment. Just use it, you have nothing to loose.
If, on the other hand, your camera is devoid of a GPS receiver, there are several off-camera choices available and all of them are based on a very simple principle: time synchronization.
Basically, all you have to do is synchronize the clock on your camera with the clock on your GPS receiver (a one time process). Now, every time you turn on the receiver, it will record your position at defined intervals (15 seconds, 1 minute, etc.) and store this information on a flash memory card. When you are back at your computer to download your photos from the camera, just plug the receiver and the software compares the exact time at which a photo was taken with the closest time a geographical information was recorded and add the coordinates to the metadata of the photo file. Very simple.
What are the benefits of Geotagging?
From a “photography as art” point-of-view, the benefits of Geotagging are virtually non-existent. It will not improve your photos per se.
Geotagging is more an organizational tool than anything else. It will allow you to see on a map the exact location where a photo was taken. It will also allow you (and others if you share your photos online) to search for photos taken on or nearby a specific location. Although on a short time scale it will probably be very “boring” to see your photos just concentrated on a very small portion of the map, if you tend to photowalk a lot and do some traveling, the range will broaden and it will become much more interesting to have a large scale view of where all your photos were shot. Back to photowalking, it can be fun to be able to track your route on a specific date and it will probably improve the plan for future photowalking tours. Besides the software that comes with whatever receiver you acquire, there is a multitude of software available that allows for interaction with either Yahoo! Maps or Google Maps and Google Earth.
If you are into photography sharing networks, since August 2006 Flickr also supports geotags and, together with Yahoo! Maps, can display the locations of your photos. Same goes for other networks like Zooomr.
As an added benefit, yesterday (Nov 28), Google launched a new layer to the Google Maps – the Google Terrain – which gives a more 3D view of the existent maps and can, together with your geotags, provide a more spacial arrangement to what your surroundings were when a photo was taken.
Limitations of Geotagging
Although I’ve almost managed to convince myself to go for a GPS receiver, there are still some limitations to the technology that I’d like to see addressed.
First, any external GPS receiver is an extra thing that you have to carry around. Ok, it’s not big, it’s not heavy. But it’s an extra thing. With an already cluttered camera bag, any extras will need to be evaluated to see how worth it they are.
It’s not cheap. Ok, it’s also not expensive. For something like $100 to $150 you can get a receiver specially designed for photography geotagging. Nonetheless, for that amount, you can always get an extra battery or an extra memory card or start thinking about your next lens. When the budget is tight, even the smallest amount of money available to invest in photography needs to be well thought.
Battery limitations. A normal AA battery on such a device will give you something between 10 to 20 hours of continuous use. Although this is more than enough for a normal photowalking tour, if you go on vacations on a place where normal batteries might not be readily available, it is another something to have to think about.
Precision. Although most GPS receivers are very precise, they are not perfect. There will be always a percentage of your tags that will be “off the mark”. For the more common (and cheap) GPS receivers specially designed for photography, there are some complains about how precise the device is.
Photographer or Object. This is a big one if you are a perfectionist. The receiver is with you, so the tag will be your location and not the object of your photo’s location. Can’t do much about it except manually editing the tags. I don’t see myself having a problem with this one, but for some applications it can arise as an extra complication.
Bearing. Another of those things that you can’t do anything about, but would be nice to see implemented, specially if you are much into landscape photography. With such high-tech features such as image stabilization that works by countering the movement of the camera and adjusting the sensor, it would be nice and not hard at all if metadata would also include a bearing and tilt angle. Together with focal length (which is already recorded) and coordinates, it would be possible, on a map application, to “see” exactly the photographed area. Too geeky?
Overall I think that Geotagging has a true potential to improve the photographer’s experience. It has some limitations, but every technology has them. Nonetheless, at this moment, I still am not completely convinced that a GPS receiver simply for the ability to add coordinates to the metadata is the best choice for my money.
Can you help me on this one? Do you think it is worth it? Do you have experience with automatic geotagging? Share your thoughts with us… any help is appreciated.