What Is Geotagging?
Geotagging is adding longitude and latitude co-ordinates to the metadata in your photos, so that your photos remember exactly where they were taken.
Preferably, this is something you want your camera to do for you at the time you take the photo. You can geotag your photo when you’re sat in front of your PC when you’ve returned home by using software on your computer, but this approach relies on you clicking on a map in the right place, and it can be surprisingly hard to remember where you took every single photo.
But what’s the point of going to all this trouble in the first place?
Why Geotag Your Photos?
My main photography project, Merthyr Road, is all about trying to track down what remains of the industrial heritage of the South Wales valleys. Many of the photographs from the time have been published in books … but the problem is, many of the places in the photographs no longer exist, and many of the authors of the books never anticipated that the landmarks they described in the text would change beyond all recognition.
In short, it can be bloody difficult to work out where a photo from yesteryear was actually taken. By geotagging your photos, future generations will know (within an accuracy of a few metres) where your photo was taken. Perfect for the historians of tomorrow to refer back to! But it isn’t just about history.
Photo sharing websites like Flickr can plot geotagged photos onto a map (here’s my map of recent geotagged photos) helping your friends, family, and passing strangers to see what photos have been taken in the vicinity (here’s the map of geotagged photos taken in Cardiff). There are apps for the iPhone et al that you can use when you’re out and about to see what photos have been taken wherever you happen to be. That’s a great help if you want to practice a popular photo of a landmark – or avoid what has become a cliqued shot!
If you’re convinced about geotagging, I’m sure you’d like to know how to go about geotagging your photos. First, we have to pick the right Nikon camera.
Choosing The Right Nikon Digital SLR
I’m a lifelong Nikon fan, so if you’re a Canon/Sony/Panasonic/Samsung/etc/etc photographer, I’m sorry, but I can’t really help you geotag your photos with cameras from anyone but Nikon.
First, a bit of bad news, potentially. To geotag your photos, you need a Nikon digital SLR that has a Nikon 10 pin serial port. That normally means you need one of Nikon’s pro-sumer DSLRs (e.g. Nikon D200) or higher. If you have a Nikon D90, then you’re also in luck … but if you have one of the lower-end models (such as a D40x, D60, D5000 et al), as far as I know you’re shit out of luck for now. If you do come across a way to geotag photos on these models, feel free to leave a comment below.
Assuming you do have a Nikon DSLR with the 10 pin serial port, or a Nikon D90, then there’s a number of ways you can go about geotagging your photos.
Using A Garmin GPS Receiver
Before TomTom came along and spoiled the party / breathed new life into satnav products (depending on your point of view), Garmin made the best GPS receivers for Joe Public and his hillwalking friends. Like me.
The Garmin eTrex runs for days on end on a pair of Duracel batteries, is far more weatherproof than my Nikon D200, and is light enough to live in my camera bag and go everywhere with me.
Using the Nikon MC-35 connecting cable (there are third-party alternatives available too), plus the right cable from Garmin, you can plug an eTrex into that 10-pin serial port on your Nikon DSLR. Once your camera is receiving GPS data, you’ll see “GPS” appear on your camera’s LCD panel on the top-right of the camera body, and you’re ready to take geotagged photos.
This technique should work with a wide variety of third-party GPS units too.
This is the approach I took for many years, and it served me well. But ultimately there were two problems that made me look for another way.
- The GPS unit has to stay physically cabled to the camera when you’re taking photos. That can get a bit awkward, depending on your type of photography. It certainly did for me, as a landscape / industrial landmark photographer.
- Eventually, the cable broke, somewhere inside. It lasted a long time – several years of long walks and scrambles – but that’s what happens to all cables in the end.
Faced with the cost of replacing the cable, I decided to look around for a wireless alternative.
New Kid On The Block – Nikon GP-1
This wasn’t an option for me at the time, but it might be something suitable for you.
When the Nikon D90 was announced, Nikon also introduced their own dedicated GPS module, the Nikon GP-1. I haven’t played with one myself (I hadn’t heard of it until doing the research for this article), but DigitalReview.ca has done a very nice review of the GP-1.
The key thing about the GP-1 is that it sits in your flash shoe on your camera or on your camera strap. It still has a cable, but it’s a very short cable that shouldn’t get pulled and twisted around too much, so it should last a long time before it finally breaks.
If you have a Nikon D90, then this appears to be your only option for now anyways, but it’s also worth considering if you have a Nikon D200 / 300 / 300s or higher. Please share your experience of using this unit in the comments below.
As I mentioned earlier, what I really wanted was a totally wireless solution, and thanks to the forums of DPReview.com, I found one.
Introducing The Foolography Unleashed
My perfect geotagging solution is one that is completely wireless. There are many excellent GPS receivers on the market today that run for hours, fit inside a fleece pocket, and that use bluetooth to share GPS data with other devices.
Unfortunately, for reasons that I’m not privy to, Nikon has yet to build bluetooth support into their digital SLRs. It’s such an obvious solution to the problem that I’m sure they will do so one day, but until then, if you want to use a bluetooth GPS receiver, you need to find a third-party bluetooth module for your Nikon digital SLR.
And that’s where Foolography come in.
Oliver Perialis founded Foolography, and came up with the Foolography Unleashed, a bluetooth receiver that neatly plugs into the 10-pin serial port on high-end Nikon digital SLRs. Here’s one I bought off him in 2008, attached to my Nikon D200:
You’ll see that it has a little USB port on it, and a Canon-compatble cable release connector port too (that has proved very handy since the wife went over to the dark side and switched all her gear to Canon, but that’s another story). The USB port is for plugging into your PC so that you can pair the bluetooth module with a GPS receiver. Alternatively, you can buy a GPS receiver from Foolography too, and have both bluetooth module and GPS receiver arrive already paired and ready to go … which is exactly what I did.
Here’s the GPS receiver I bought from Foolography to go with the Unleashed:
My Experience Using The Foolography Unleashed
The Foolography Unleashed plus bluetooth GPS receiver is not a cheap piece of kit, but it was worth every penny. Provided you don’t do something silly, like forget that bluetooth signals don’t go very far or travel through people very well, you’ll find the Unleashed to be so reliable you start taking it for granted. I certainly do. It’s such an integral part of my camera kit that, when I was doing the research for this article, I was surprised to find that I only bought mine back in the summer of 2008. I feel like I’ve been using it for much longer than that.
I found that the most reliable way to use the kit was as follows:
- The GPS receiver stays on the whole time, and sits in my left fleece pocket to be closer to the camera.
- I leave my camera on between shots, so that the bluetooth link remains connected, and only switch the camera off when I’m confident that I won’t be using it for several minutes.
The GPS receiver will happily last all day off a single charge. By leaving it on, I can forget about it and focus on my photography. I don’t leave it in my camera bag (which is normally on my back) because the bluetooth signal seems to get blocked by my body. Stashing the GPS receiver in a front pocket sorts that out nicely.
Once the bluetooth link is established, if you switch the camera off and then back on quickly, the bluetooth link doesn’t re-establish. This happens on both the D200 and D300s camera bodies, so I assume it’s a quirk of the Unleashed and/or the GPS receiver. Once you get used to it, it isn’t a problem; you just get used to leaving the camera powered on if you’re likely to take more shots within the next minute or so.
I’ve geotagged many thousands of photos using the Unleashed, and I’m looking forward to many more years to come of geotagging photos with it. At least until Nikon start building bluetooth directly into their camera bodies.
I’ve read recently about another option – the Eye-Fi Geo card. This is a memory card that also geotags your photos as you take them. Sounds great, and I’m sure it is a good option for plenty of people. I don’t have one because it doesn’t use GPS. It works out where you are by listening to all of the wifi networks around you, and then comparing that with a big database of known wifi networks (see their site for details). I tend to wander to places where there are no wifi networks, so this isn’t an option for me – but it might suit your photography. And the great thing about it is that it works in any camera that accepts SD cards.
Where The GPS Data Is Stored
Digital photographs contain two things:
- The image itself
- Metadata about the image
This metadata includes your aperture size, shutter speed, focal point selected, date and time the photo was taken … and if you geotag your photos using one of the solutions I’ve mentioned, the metadata also includes the longitude and latitude reading from the GPS receiver. This happens automatically when you take the photo.
If you upload a geotagged photo to a service such as Flickr, Flickr will automatically look for the GPS data in your photograph’s metadata and use it to plot the photo on a map. All the hard work does into getting a GPS unit slaved to your Nikon. It’s all easy after that.
If you have the right Nikon digital SLR, then the Foolography Unleashed is a great solution for geotagging your photos. If you have a Nikon D90, then the Nikon GP-1 is your only option. Pro-sumer Nikon owners (Nikon D200 or later or better) can also go old skool, and cable up a traditional GPS unit – until the cable breaks.
I hope you find my own experience from geotagging photos over many years to be helpful. I’d love to have your feedback in the comments below.