Geotagging links photos to locales

Attaching location data to images enables new ways to search photos, give slide shows or be a virtual tourist. For now, early adopters only need apply. Photos: A look at geotagging technology

An array of maturing technologies is poised to add a new dimension--geography--to the digital photography revolution.

Today, people can retrieve digital photos based on the time they were taken. A nascent technology called geotagging, though, enables people to organize photos by where they were taken, not just when.

Mark Gillespie, a photographer who with his wife runs Noir et Blanc Photographie, is one convert. The pair recently shot 5,000 pictures on a trip to Austria and Italy.

"I wish I'd had a GPS log to help me remember just where some of those little villages and mountain views were," he said, and now he uses geotagging to help with just that problem.

Today, geotagging is not for the faint of heart. It requires a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver and either software that adds GPS data to photo files or an expensive camera that communicates directly with the GPS device. But as the technology takes off and sites such as Yahoo's Flickr or Google's Panoramio show off the possibilities, the elements of geotagging are starting to come together.

New horizons
Geotagging doesn't just mean a new way of sifting through a hard drive for a shot you know you took somewhere in the Alps. It also opens up possibilities for virtual tourism and for slide show narration.

"Every photo was taken somewhere. That's almost always part of the story of the photo," said Stewart Butterfield, general manager and co-founder of Flickr, which now houses 36 million geotagged photos--roughly 3 percent of its total archive.

In the old days, people often invited friends to watch slide shows in the living room. But in these online photo-sharing days, geographical data can add extra flavor to photos viewed by strangers or faraway friends who don't have an in-person guide.

Looking at a map sprinkled with photos also gives a way to scout possible destinations, relive memories, see how an area has changed or see if a hotel is in a sketchy part of town.

Location data "gives a context to a lot of information in the world," said Chikai Ohazama, product manager for Google Earth. "Giving that context provides a new way to discover information or get a sense of what it's like to be there."

Green, but maturing
Geotagging rates only about 4 on a maturity scale of 1 to 10, said geotagging expert Joost Schreve. "It's possible, but it still requires some tech-savviness," said Schreve, the chief executive and founder of a start-up EveryTrail and its new GlobalMotion offshoot, Web sites that let users display GPS journey tracks and geotagged photos.

"Most of the people doing it now are geotagging nerds. But there's no reason for that. We want to make it universal," adds Kakul Srivastava, Flickr's director of product management.

One sticky point in the geotagging process is the unification of the GPS data with the image files. GPS track logs--which come in a variety of formats--must be transferred from the receiver to the computer. Then software stamps the photos with the GPS location from the time the picture was taken--a process that can be complicated if the camera's time isn't set precisely.

GPS products from DeLorme and Sony include their own software for adding the geotags, but photographers who shoot higher-end "raw" images--the unprocessed camera sensor data--have to try other programs such as GPSPhotoLinker or Breeze Systems Downloader Pro. Alternatively, some online tools such as GPSTagr can geotag Flickr photos once users upload a GPS track log.

The big boys of image editing, Adobe Systems, have their eyes on this geotagging grunt work.

"The rise in popularity of GPS recording devices and geotagging software solutions make this a logical inclusion in a future version of Lightroom," said Tom Hogarty, product manger of the Adobe's high-end image-editing program. "I think GPS data as a method of categorizing your images is as important as organizing your images by date."

Cameras with built-in GPS
Of course, geotagging would all be a lot easier if the location data were written into the image file as a photo was taken. The geotagging today is small, but it will explode in interest once it's automatic instead of a laborious manual process, said Ohazama. "If that happens, it'll be everywhere," he said.

Camera support today is only at the early stages. Ricoh has developed two GPS-enabled models, the 500SE and Pro G3, both with detachable GPS modules. Nikon's new higher-end D300 and top-end D3 digital SLRs, like their predecessors, can be connected to a GPS receiver with a special cable. And Canon's new higher-end EOS 40D and top-end EOS-1Ds Mark III both have optional wireless transmitters that can be connected to a GPS receiver.

GPS integration with cameras is held back by issues such as added cost and power consumption. But it will be added, some predict.

"Someday it will be integrated," said Richard Campbell, vice president of imaging in Panasonic's marketing group. "It's a question of when and how it can be integrated cost-effectively."

An intermediate stage might be a standardized connection between cameras and GPS units. "It sure sounds ideal," said Jake Jacobson, a marketing manager at GPS device maker Garmin.

For now, geotagging is a labor of love. But the time spent on geotagging now can pay off later.

"I do it with a certain eye to the future," photographer Gillespie said. He's betting "that I'll have an ever-increasing number of digitally stored images, that over time I'll forget and need a means of finding them, and that in the future new tools will let me take advantage of my efforts in ways that are productive and, hopefully, fun."

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