My geotagging trials, travails and triumphs

Adding location data to images is a pain right now, but geotagging is worth it, and it'll get easier. Here are my warnings and a wish list.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
5 min read

Geotagging and I are a match made in heaven. But we nearly got a divorce.

In the course of reporting a feature about geotagging--endowing digital photos with location data--I decided I'd better try out the technology. Being a fan of both photography and cartography, as well as a bit of a geek, it seemed like the perfect technology for me. Geotagging proved a frustrating experience, but I'm still sold on the idea.

Flickr lets you see geotagged images taken in a particular spot. Yahoo

For you early adopters, geotagging can be fun and useful. It adds an extra dimension to your photos--literally as well as figuratively. One obvious application is seeing your vacation photos arrayed on a map for a visual tour of your trip. Another is using a map to zero in on a particular photo buried somewhere on a disorderly hard drive. That could be a lot easier than trying to remember which month of which year you visited a particular spot if you're searching on the basis of time.

Casual snapshooters, though, should steer clear of geotagging for now. Not only do you need some kind of GPS receiver, you also need some software to add the location metadata to the photo files. For me, that process was fraught with peril. Web sites that can use the location technology also are fairly immature.

Here are some of the potholes I encountered in my geotagging journey and my advice on avoiding them:

• Set up your gear right. Make sure you turn the GPS receiver on and that it's loaded with charged batteries. Set your camera's time zone correctly--especially if you just hopped on a plane away from home.

I botched the time zone for my first four days of a trip to Ireland, and I spent hours trying to fix the problem. The slip-up eventually crushed my techno-adventurer's spirit, and I admitted defeat despite investing hours trying to fix it. I tried all kinds of avenues, including EXIF editors to adjust the timestamps of photos and GPSBabel to toy with the GPS track log. (I even found a bug in Microsoft's Photo Info software: when offsetting the timestamps of a selected batch of photos by a set amount, the software changes all the photos' time to the first picture's new time instead of adjusting them all by the proper offset. The bug will be fixed in the next version, Microsoft said.) I would have been better off if I'd realized earlier in the process that the geotagging software I chose, Breeze Systems' Downloader Pro, can handle the time zone offset during the geotagging process, but even then I couldn't get it to work for the Ireland shots. I did successfully geotag two backpacking trips and a visit to the zoo, though, so I know it can be done.

• Pick your software carefully. There are a number of packages out there for geotagging photos, but if you shoot raw images, the list gets a lot shorter. Downloader Pro worked fairly well (and I like other features), but it's Windows-only. Mac users have options such as HoudahGeo and GPS Photo Linker.

• Get the geotagging done as early as possible. As with all metadata, it's a bad idea to add it later. If all you do is copy your images to your hard drive, it's not a big deal, but you want the data in the photos before doing things like spinning off edited variations of pictures, backing up files or preparing low-resolution versions for upload to a photo-sharing site. Believe me, you don't want to enter that location data more than once.

• Be careful with what data you share, either by e-mail or posting to sites such as Yahoo's Flickr or Google's Panoramio. Even if you're willing to let the world at large see pictures of your children, it's another step of privacy loss when the world knows where your children live, too. Flickr's default behavior is to strip out geographic data, and if you enable it, you can restrict sharing of geographic information. But doing so is complicated, especially if the settings vary a lot from one photo to another.

In a perfect world
Having undergone my bruising conversion, I now know more clearly what I'd like in geotagging. Here are elements of the better world I envision.

For one thing, I wouldn't have to use a hodgepodge of different software utilities to unite my photos with the geographic data. Ideally, this would be a standard part of copying photos from the camera or flash card. There's good news on this front: Adobe said the unification feature is "a logical inclusion in a future version of Lightroom." ACDSee said it's "something we're getting feedback on and that we'll look to implement in our next major release." Presumably this technology will trickle down to more mainstream software in the future.

It would help software companies if there were better standards for adding metadata to images. I encountered reports of metadata being corrupted when location information was added, for example. Consider the plight of the programmer building geotagging support to an image editing program who must contend with dozens of proprietary raw image formats from higher-end cameras.

I'd also like to see a good way to add or correct location data on photos, individually or in bulk. My editing or cataloging software would present a map on which I could drag a virtual pointer around, and the photo would be relocated correctly. Or I could type in latitude-longitude numbers manually, or copy them from one image and paste into another. This could help correct the typical errors that even the newest GPS systems suffer.

Of course, unification of photos and location data would be unnecessary if the cameras recorded location in the first place when I snapped the picture. Some newer and higher-end cameras have GPS interfaces--among them, the Nikon D3 and D300, the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III and 40D with wireless communication add-ons, and Hasselblad's H3D-II. But I'd like GPS integration much further down the line, perhaps with some standard GPS-camera connector or communication method. Hello, Bluetooth!

Building the GPS receiver into the camera would be the ultimate integration, and perhaps that day will come. But given how power-hungry and imperfect standalone GPS receivers are, I'm not sure I'd want it built into a camera anytime soon. One obvious problem is that GPS systems must be awake at all times to keep track of their position, but cameras enter dormant states to save batteries. Even modern GPS systems in good conditions take more than a minute to get their first position fix from satellites.

Even without these pies in the sky, though, I find it worthwhile, and I'm now geotagging routinely. I just added another piece of electronic clutter in my life by buying a GPS receiver. But I'm betting having those location coordinates in my photos will pay off in the long run.