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Geotag your photos without wires--or fuss

Adding GPS data to digital photos isn't as hard as it once was, but it can still be a pain. We explore a recent solution.

In just a few weeks it will be the beginning of summer, and with the change in season comes a rise in the number of photographs you're bound to take. Yahoo-owned photo site Flickr, for instance, gets an average of 4 million photos uploaded a day during the summer months, which amounts to a 30 percent increase versus the rest of the year.

Summer shooters are also likely to be taking these photos while out and about, be it a weekend trip or a vacation. And if that's the case, the argument for geotagging is becoming increasingly strong.

Why geotag? For one, it makes your photos easier to organize in software like Google's Picasa, Adobe's Lightroom, and Apple's Aperture 3 and iPhoto software. More importantly, it can add an extra level of interactivity to your photos once they're hosted on photo-sharing sites like Smugmug, Flickr, and Picasa that group together user-shared shots on a map.

The sad truth though is that unless you're snapping photos with your smartphone's camera, you're not going to be getting that sweet, sweet GPS data appended to your shots. But fear not, there are plenty of solutions out there, and they're getting cheaper and more plentiful. One of the ones I tried out this past weekend proved to be remarkably simple and effective. Best of all, it will work with just about any camera--past, present, and likely those from the future.

What I chose to use was an Eye-Fi X2 Explorer SD card, a $99 Wi-Fi-enabled Secure Digital memory card with a built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi antenna and embedded software that can add GPS data to your photos as soon as you've taken them. The one prerequisite is that you need a Wi-Fi connection for the Eye-Fi to figure out where you are. I solved this by linking the card up wirelessly to my Android smartphone (a Nexus One) that was running Android 2.2 (aka "Froyo")--the latest version of the operating system that lets users turn their phone into a wireless Wi-Fi hotspot.

This combination works in perfect harmony; as I took photos with my digital camera, it ping-ed my phone's Wi-Fi signal to grab GPS data. These coordinates are not from your phone's GPS signal, but from your location as guesstimated by the embedded technology from Skyhook Wireless. This is the same company that furnishes the location estimator for Apple's iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, as well as for third-party Web sites that use the company's "find me" button to let visitors share their location. It may not have the extreme accuracy of "real" GPS, but it's almost instantaneous, works indoors, and is accurate to around 20-30 meters.


Getting rid of more wires, middleware, and proprietary hardware

Beyond adding simple geotags, the Eye-Fi card can also be set to beam photos up to places like Facebook and Flickr, as soon as they're taken. This cuts out the need to haul around a computer with you if you're on vacation, since you can make edits later on down the line. The company's Explore X2 and Pro X2 cards are also able to automatically hop on to AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots.

All in all, this is a particularly more convenient system than what was previously possible on mobile phones that didn't have a Wi-Fi tethering mode. I, as well as my CNET colleague Stephen Shankland, had explored using an alternate geotagging method using an Android application called My Tracks. With it you could set your phone to record your GPS location as you moved around; it, in turn, would spit out a log of your whereabouts.

Software like Apple's Aperture 3 had a handy feature that would let you drag and drop the GPS log from My Tracks into its library to have it map out that particular trip, then link it up to a "roll" of photos you had taken. Apple's implementation of it was not automated though; you still had to tell it where you started taking photos, and pick that particular shot. From there, it would assign GPS coordinates to the rest of the photos in that roll based on when you took the shots.

Free Android apps like My Tracks can record your travels as a GPS log that can be used to add geodata to photos, but it sometimes requires pricey software or many extra steps. Stephen Shankland / CNET

My other option was to shell out for Nikon's proprietary GPS module, the GP-1, a $200 gadget that had gotten mixed reviews. Its main selling point was that it could be strapped onto the top of your camera and share its power supply while feeding in GPS info to your shots as you took them (note: there's a Canon counterpart to this). It was also able to work in areas where you might not get cell phone data reception, like out in the woods.

The main problem I had with wanting to buy such a piece of hardware is that it would work only with Nikon's cameras, and wouldn't necessarily be compatible with future models. The Eye-Fi card, on the other hand, would work with nearly any camera with an SD card slot, or in older model cameras with a Compact Flash to SD card adapter. Many user reviews on places like Amazon had also pegged the GPS signal lock time on the GP-1 unit to be more than a minute, which for shooting a few photos at a time was undesirable.

The downsides and fine print

While the wireless system works with great harmony, there are a few downsides--the primary one being cost. The system I was using, which utilized the unlocked AT&T Nexus One, and an Eye-Fi Explore 8GB SD card, totaled close to $700 after taxes (not including cellular phone service or the price of the camera). Then again, the most expensive part of that combo doubles as a very functional mobile phone.

To get the same system to work on your Android phone you're going to need a recent model that will be upgraded to the 2.2 firmware, as well as a carrier plan that's tethering friendly. HTC's EVO 4G, which is due to be released on Sprint's network this Friday, includes the feature but charges users $30 a month for it. Others who get the 2.2 update may simply get it, unless their carrier and OEMs have opted to keep it out of the software update. There are also third-party applications like PDA Net that can turn your pre-2.2 Android phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot for $19.

Those who don't have an Android phone can achieve similar results with a standalone Wi-Fi hotspot product like the MyFi or Sprint Overdrive. There are also a handful of other smartphones that offer the hotspot feature, like Palm's Pre and Pixi Plus, though again these options can be just as expensive in the long run when taking into account service contracts and up-front hardware costs.


On the Eye-Fi side, the main caveat is that you're going to need the Eye-Fi card that includes geotagging. This is a feature that comes standard on the company's Eye-Fi Geo, Explore X2, and Pro X2 cards, which run $70, $100, and $150 respectively. Users with older models can upgrade to having the feature for $15 a year. And if you're a RAW shooter, you'll have to go with the Pro model to upload your shots either to social networks, or back to your computer.

Along with the hardware costs is the battery hit on both your phone and your camera. Every time you take a shot, the Eye-Fi card is checking in with your phone. And if you've linked up your Eye-Fi card to places like Facebook and Flickr for instant uploads, it will drain both devices as the data is transferred. That said, with the instant uploading turned off, you'll burn less of your camera's precious juice. My phone also did not get nearly as hot, or go through as much battery, as it does when running My Tracks, or Google's Navigation app.

The free way


The system detailed above works incredibly well, but like we said--it's pricey. That doesn't mean you can't add geodata to photos you've taken in the past. The two easiest ways to do it involve offline software and free online services, and/or a smartphone that can capture GPS coordinates to add to your photos later on.

The software/Webware route
Many online services like Picasa and Flickr, and software like iPhoto (which comes free with new Macs), let you do a simple search on a map to add this data to your shots. If you were visiting a landmark at the time, this is easy. The hard part is trying to remember where you were in an old photo without some sort of geo identifier. In the case of using a local software program, the geotag is actually added to that source file's metadata, so it will come along with it when you upload it to an online service, or offload it to a backup drive.

The camera phone route
If you already have a smart phone with a camera that records geodata, it's worth taking a quick snap with it if you're shooting any photos in that area with your regular camera. Consider it like a tracer round, just to get a record of you being there. Then, when you get back to a computer, there are plenty of ways to pull that information from the camera phone photos over to your other shots. For more on that, check out my CNET colleague Stephen Shankland's 2007 story "My geotagging trials, travails, and tribulations," which is still startlingly up-to-date a little less than three years later.

One thing to note is that these two options may be free, however the main joy of a wireless and instant geotagging system is that it ends up being less work when you get back to your computer. And in the case of using a mobile hotspot and the Eye-Fi card system, you can cut the computer out of the equation completely.

Built-in GPS in point and shoots as well as DSLRs is destined to one day be a standard feature. But in the meantime, you'll be hard-pressed to find a solution that's as versatile, or as individually useful, as the Eye-Fi and a Wi-Fi hotspot cellphone. Separately they are good, but together they are great.

Update: Changed the number of photos uploaded to Flickr during the summer months. Also, reader NoToSpam suggests Sony's GPS-CS3KA in the comments. It provides a similar GPS logging function to My Tracks, but without the need to use a phone. It works with Sony's digital cameras and camcorders.

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