What Geocoding Is and How to Do It

Geocoding adds information about where the picture was taken to the photo. The information isn’t a description, such as the corner of Third and Main, but the latitude and longitude coordinates. For example, the GPS coordinates for La Sagrada Familia, a spectacular church in Barcelona, Spain, are 41°24’15” N 2°10’30” E. Not very human friendly, but at least it provides a location id that you could return to using a GPS device. Plus, mapping software has the capability to associate a geocoded photo with a place on a map using the GPS coordinates. Take a look at this map, which shows where we took some photos in the Antarctic. A click on any map marker shows the photo taken at that spot. Some mapping software packages also connect the photos to each other with lines to help retrace one’s journey.

Why bother with geocoding? The best reason is for those born long after us. I’ve restored many old family photos over the years and wish I knew where they were taken. Geocoding preserves a little bit more of our personal history and it’s not that hard to add.

For existing photos with no geocode data, the best ways I’ve found to add it include the excellent, free program GeoSetter or Adobe Lightroom. The biggest downside for Geosetter is it’s PC only. Adobe Lightroom is total overkill for just geocoding, but it’s an incredible program for photographers, runs on Macs and PC, and is relatively inexpensive. It’s the focal point for all my photographing processing.

For many recently purchased cameras and almost all smart phones, GPS trackers are either built in or available as an accessory. Check with your camera manufacturer. Nikon makes several different GPS units each tied to one or more of their cameras. One of the first ones they made was the Nikon GP-1. I used one of these on numerous shoots with a D700 and it worked fairly well. It’s biggest downsides were fairly long satellite acquisition times when first turned on and how fast it consumed the camera’s battery. Because of the long satellite acquisition times, sometimes a minute or longer, I had to shoot with the camera turned on all the time. Doing that meant I needed three fully charged batteries for a eight hours of shooting.

I now use a Solmeta Geotagger N3 with my Nikons. It acquires GPS satellites much faster than the Nikon GPS-1, uses a number of tricks to greatly reduce battery drain, and remembers the last GPS location in case the signal is briefly lost. If left attached to the camera, it wakes up every few minutes to try to get a GPS fix, even if the camera is turned off. This is fantastic for those grab shots that just happen. I pick up the camera, turn it on, frame/focus, immediately shoot, and I have at least an approximate GPS location stored. To check how much battery it used in this mode, I left it on a D800 that was turned off for 24 hours. The battery wasn’t depleted even a full segment! I do have to remember to completely remove it when I’m done with a shoot, though. I think it’s a spectacular little device, but it is not a factory authorized solution! Improper and even proper use of this device could fry your camera. Use at your own risk.

A downside to the current GPS satellite network is a possible loss of the signal in downtown areas with tall buildings and inside buildings. You get no GPS data until you’re back out in the clear and can reacquire the GPS satellites. The Solmeta receiver inserts the last known GPS location when this happens, which is usually an acceptable solution. When there are missing GPS locations, I add them using Adobe Lightroom. Note that smartphones often perform better here. They also lose the GPS signals, but they have the ability to triangulate their position using cell towers to fill in the geocode data when that happens.

In closing, please geocode at least your most memorable shots. It will be greatly appreciated by folks you’ll never meet; who are trying to connect with you the best they can.


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