One of the first things I do when I get a new smart phone is open up the camera app and make sure it is set to save the location with the photo. I do this because one of the great things about the GPS feature on your phone is that it works all the time. It even works when you’re in airplane mode. It’s wonderful to be able to pull up the exact location a photo was taken later when you’re at your computer.
However, I’ve never had the luxury of having a GPS built into my DSLR. For the longest time when I was out shooting I would snap a photo with my cell phone, for no other reason than I knew it would capture my GPS coordinates. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than nothing. But I felt there had to be a better way.
A few weeks ago my coworker was out on a site visit and took his DSLR. When he got back to the office he showed me something that blew me away. It seemed so simple yet somehow eluded me for all this time. He showed me how he used a tracking app on his cell phone and a built-in feature in Lightroom to add GPS coordinates to all of his photos. I’m going to go through the steps below so that others can utilize that great piece of hardware that we all carry with us to add valuable information to our wonderful photos.
Recording you GPS data
The first step is to find the right mapping app. It needs to be able to do two things. One is to create a map log based on your location. And two it has to be able to export that log in GPX format. The GPX format is the format used by Lightroom. My co-worker pointed me to the Geo Tracker app. Unfortunately that app seems to be defunct now so you’ll have to find another. GPS Logger for Android appears to be a capable app that is still available. iOS users will have to do a little searching. Feel free to recommend any in the comment section below.
Now as you embark on your photo walk the first thing you have to do is remember to start tracking your movement on you GPS app. (This was surprisingly hard to do at first. But don’t worry I found some tricks if you start shooting before you start logging.) It’s as easy as opening the app and tapping “Start Logging.” Then just shoot away on your DSLR as you normally would. Most apps will just run in the background and have controls for how often they store data points. Review these settings so you don’t inadvertently kill your smart phone battery. I find that logging a point every few minutes is sufficient.
The great part of this setup is that GPS does not require a data connection, or any connection for that matter, to work. Your phone will track your location even when you’re out in the middle of nowhere or mid-flight on an airplane, for example. Some apps provide a more graphic interface and overlay your position on Google maps but others are more basic.
When you’re all done you just need to stop the logging feature in the app. The app should now generate a log file with the GPX extension. The location and naming of the file is dependent on the app and I’ve found that most apps let you customize both of these. I like to have my files titled year-month-day (e.g. 2018-01-02) so that they are properly organized on the computer. I’ve also updated the file location so that it’s more easily found for the next step.
Tagging your photos
You’ve now captured your location during your entire photo walk. But you still need to attached that data to your images. Download your images in Lightroom just as you normally would. Copy the GPX log file to computer, as well. There are several ways to do this but personally I’ve found uploading it to a folder in Google Drive is easiest because I can do it anywhere, it doesn’t require any cables and it’s there, ready for use when I’m in Lightroom. My preference is to drop the file in the same folder as the images.
After you’ve imported your images in Lightroom click on the Map module. Up on the menu bar select Map –> Import log file. This will allow you to load the log file generated by your GPS app. Navigate to the location of the file and open it. Now go back to the library module and select the images that were taken during that period. Then jump back to the Map module. Up on the menu bar again click Map –> Auto assign. Yes, it’s a lot of back and forth but I haven’t figured out a more direct method yet.
Viola! Hopefully now Lightroom will tell you that it has tagged all of the selected images. They’re organized based on the log file and the GPS data is added to the EXIF data.
There are a couple things I’ve learned doing this a few times.
- Time zones – At first I thought it was going to be difficult traveling to another time zone. After all my cell phone would automatically update with the local time while my camera would not. However, I found that this is not an issue because you can modify the time of the log file by using the offset time zone control in Lightroom
- What happens if I start shooting and forget to start my logger right away? I mentioned this above and again I’ve found a quick and easy fix. Follow the steps above for tagging your images but you’ll notice that the photos taken before you started logging will not have GPS coordinates assigned. Use the offset time zone control to capture the initial photos taken before the logging was started. I found that interestingly the offset time zone control does not have to be full hour increments. If you missed the first few minutes of shooting just put a -0.1 in the offset. Obviously the GPS won’t be totally accurate but it’ll be better than no GPS at all.
- None of my photos are being tagged. I noticed this little bug in my Lightroom sometimes. I found that closing down the program and restarting will fix this. But double check the images are falling in the right time frame too. You may have to use the offset time zone control.
Hopefully this helps you start geotagging your images. It adds another layer of information to your shooting and another way to group your images in Lightroom. I only wish I had been doing this for far longer.
Note: You may want to consider stripping the GPS data when sharing your photos. Here’s a good article on why that might just help save our endangered species. “Your Travel Photos Are Helping Rhino Poachers” in Outside Magazine.