Geotagging. It's not exactly a long, lost art, but it's certainly not something most folks bother to do after a trip. Avid travelers, hikers and the general outdoorsy crowd have been embracing the feature for years, though, and it's actually seeping into the mainstream without most individuals even noticing. How so? Smartphones. Given the proliferation of iPhones, Android handsets and Windows Phone devices making their way onto the market -- coupled with the explosive use of geo-minded social networks like Path, Instagram and Foursquare -- an entire generation is now growing up in a geotagged world. Phone users have it easy; so long as there's a data connection and an embedded GPS module (commonplace in modern mobile devices), there lies the ability to upload a photo with a patch of metadata embedded. Snap a shot at a national park, upload it, and just like that, viewers and friends from around the world now have an idea as to what a specific place on the Earth looks like.
For travel hounds like myself, that's insanely powerful. I'm the kind of person that'll spend hours lost in Google Earth, spinning the globe around and discovering all-new (to me, at least) locales thanks to the magic of geotagging. It's sort of the photographic equivalent to putting a face to a name. By stamping latitude, longitude, altitude and a specific time to any given JPEG, you're able to not only show the world what you saw, but exactly when and where you saw it. It's a magical combination, and with GPS modules finding their way into point-and-shoot cameras -- not to mention external dongles like Solmeta's magnificent N3 (our review here) -- there's plenty of opportunity to start adding location data to your photos. For more on the "Why would I want to?" and "How would I best display 'em?" inquiries, let's meet up after the break.
Explaining the art
I'll keep it as short and sweet as possible: geotagging an image pins location and time information onto its metadata. It's the same blob of information that houses data about what camera and lens were used to capture the show, what ISO level was chosen and what aperture was selected. If you've never cared much to look into that data after stumbling upon an outlandishly beautiful snapshot on Flickr, you probably won't appreciate the art of geotagging. If you're a stats nerd through and through, you probably will.
The general idea -- where geotagging adds the most value -- is to use geolocation data in order to tell stories. To show progress. To track paths. To remember spectacular places that one's feeble mind may forget without a precisely stamped image that leaves no doubt as to when and where it was taken. In fact, a lot of this links back to my personal uses of Facebook; life moves too fast to rely on my own brain to recall it all. Things like automated geotagging definitely help relive memories, and there's no better time to start taking advantage.
Acquiring a lock
In order to grab geolocation data, you'll need a GPS module within range of your camera. Perhaps the most convenient method is to use a modern smartphone -- the latest iPhones and most Android / Windows Phone handsets have GPS or A-GPS built right in, and if you enable it in your settings, you can have each image stamped with the location at which it was taken. Before setting off, I should mention two important caveats here. First, many smartphones require a data connection to properly tag images with location; if you're traveling internationally and keeping your phone in airplane mode, that'll put a stop to your geotagging bliss. Second, most smartphones take an annoyingly long time to acquire a GPS fix. It's also often difficult to tell from most camera applications whether or not it's still working to get a lock, or if it does indeed have one.
The general idea -- where geotagging adds the most value -- is to use geolocation data in order to tell stories.
Alternatively, you can turn to a camera with a GPS module built into the hardware itself. Casio's Exilim EX-H20G (our review here) is a solid example. The issue here, however, is twofold. For one, it's rare to find a point-and-shoot with GPS built in. Secondly, these cameras generally exhibit ho-hum feature sets and lofty prices, making them quite unappealing for those who already own an iPhone 4S or the like. It's still baffling to me how few cameras have GPS from the factory, but I'm hoping that as circuitry shrinks and power efficiency improves, these modules will become more feasible in both mirrorless and DSLR ranges.
Solmeta's N3 geotagging module atop Nikon's D3S
An option that's more universal is a Bluetooth-based geotagging accessory. These units effectively capture time and geolocation data independent of your images. Then you're forced to use any number of software programs to sync up the time data from your Bluetooth logger with your image gallery. It's an absolutely painful and tedious process; so much so that I'd just outright not recommend it. If you have extraordinarily specific camera needs -- using a body that has no compatible direct-connect GPS logger -- it's still better than having no geolocation data at all. But go ahead and be prepared to deal with missed tags, inaccurate readings and lots of consumed time syncing metadata after a shoot.
My preferred method is using a direct-connect module -- a GPS device that's specifically made for a camera body, enabling it to tap right into the camera's menu system and embed location data directly onto each image. The downside here is that you'll need to carry around an accessory, and generally, it sucks battery life from the camera itself in order to keep track of your whereabouts. The upside, however, is that there's no mess after shooting. So long as you confirm that you have a fix prior to shooting, each image will boast precision location metadata right out of the memory card. Most major DSLR manufacturers offer GPS add-ons from $150 to $300, but oftentimes, the first-party solutions aren't the best. For example, I recently took Solmeta's N3 for a spin on Nikon's D3S (though the company makes models for a huge swath of Nikon bodies) and found it to be far superior to other alternatives, despite costing "only" $189. (If you haven't guessed by now, these GPS modules aren't what I'd call "cheap.")
Mapping your results
Procuring a camera setup that geotags images is the first (major) step, but the magic only truly shows itself if you choose a proper display method. For me, the art of geotagging plays two huge roles. It not only gives me the ability to showcase trips by way of pictorial paths -- after all, a photo is worth a thousand words or so -- but it also gives me the ability to tap into something far larger than myself. Allow me to explain.
Being able to see when my photos have been ushered into Google Earth provides a geeky rush that's tough to top.
For personal showcasing, Mac users are spoiled. The iPhoto app, bundled gratis with every OS X-based Mac, touts a 'Places' section that automatically recognizes standardized geolocation data in photos. So long as you're connected to the internet, tapping that section will automatically display your photos by location, grouping nearby shots under red pins that are labeled based on locale data pulled from Google. (As an aside, Apple's recent shunning of Google Maps for its own iOS 6 mapping solution may mean that iPhoto is destined to follow that same route.)
If you're familiar with navigating via Google Maps, you'll be right at home here. Just zoom into a pin, hover to see the locale, and click in to see the images that were taken at that point. I do wish that iPhoto allowed for more customization when it comes to viewing shots with Places; as it is, you see pretty much everything at once, making it somewhat difficult to view pins specifically from a single trip. It's also worth noting that Apple's Aperture application offers a similar mapping view, for those already using it to manage and edit photo galleries. For a look at how iPhoto can be used to beautifully display stories without saying a word, have a look at the overview video below.
For those who wouldn't dare touch a Mac, you've a few other options. In fact, given that even iPhoto can't display geotagged photos in Places without an internet connection, I actually prefer the web-based alternatives. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is Picasa. That's Google's own photo-hosting tool, and one of the best aspects of it is its ability to ingest and display metadata. Opening up an account is free and, naturally, those already invested in Google's ecosystem -- relying on Drive, Google+, YouTube, etc. -- will reap even more benefits in terms of integration. Space will certainly be a limitation (though additional storage can be purchased), but it's important to note that even resized photos can maintain geolocation data. My preferred method is Adobe Lightroom; if you're already using this to touch up photos, just export to a smaller size and it'll keep all metadata perfectly in place.
One of the benefits of Picasa is that each gallery you create generates a separate map. That way, you can use a pinned map to tell individual stories instead of automatically having them all clustered together. For those worried about privacy, Google defaults to not showing location data to viewers -- even if the galleries are marked "Public on the web," but I've enabled that on this demo gallery just to show you what's possible. Click here to visit the gallery, and feel free to zoom around on the map view to see which image was taken where. I should also mention that Flickr provides a similar service, but with absurdly low storage quotas for free accounts (200 images, compared to 1GB from a free Picasa account) and no real ties with a major ecosystem, I'm convinced that Picasa is a better entry point.
Contributing to the world
Beyond personal mesmerization, there's another incredibly compelling reason to geotag: education. Google has embarked on a number of efforts to map the world -- from entering the Amazon to enabling Street View in Antarctica. But even Google can't do it all -- as least not with any level of haste. Thankfully, there's a painless way for you to contribute your own geotagged images to Google Earth, and in turn, open the eyes of potentially millions of internet users who may only ever view a section of the world by way of your camera. Go on, call it cheesy; I call it mind-blowing.
Due to Google's ownership of Panoramio -- also known as the portal for delivering images to Google Earth -- it's brilliantly easy to port images over that were originally loaded into Picasa. Strangely, you still need a Panoramio username (though you can tie that to your existing Google account ID), but once you're in, adding new photos is as easy as clicking a link to select from Picasa, ticking the ones you want ported and confirming those selections. If your photo is geotagged in Picasa, it'll be geotagged in Panoramio. At some point after you've mapped your photo (usually between five and 10 days), Panoramio reviews its appropriateness for Google Earth and Google Maps. If the photo meets the acceptance policy, it's usually approved – assuming that location isn't already overloaded with brilliant submissions. Soon after, you can indeed surf over to a spot on the globe that you've shot at and view your own masterpiece. After you get over yourself (kidding!), think on this: folks with no access to transit, but limited access to the internet, can now better educate themselves on this crazy place called Earth with a simple mouse click.
Panoramio also provides a slightly different map view to showcase the photos that you've uploaded; the site in general is a bit more cluttered, as it caters more to the science and discovery crowds than the public at large. That said, I appreciate the detail in the maps, and being able to see when my photos have been ushered into Google Earth provides a geeky rush that's tough to top.
Geotagging may not be a new concept, but I'm optimistic that the masses are on the brink of embracing it. Not only will it allow you to create walks down memory lane with the photos that you bothered to take along the way, but those who take the extra leap and contribute to Panoramio will also be building out a global view of our own planet. For those awestruck by travel, it's easy to understand the impact of this. For those that aren't just yet, give it a whirl on your next excursion, even if using only your smartphone to reduce entry costs. It'll add a whole new level to those "Don't you remember when we visited [insert obscure locale here]?" conversations, at the very least.