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Automated Photo Geotagging

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Issue: 
Fall 2011

John Porter (VCR)

The value of ecological photo archives is greatly enhanced when the location from which photos were taken, as well as the date and time, are known. Now for less than $100 you can purchase a "GPS Photo Tagger" that will allow you to capture and incorporate into the EXIF headers of your digital photos the locations where the photos were taken. No physical connection between the camera and "GPS Photo Tagger" is required. Timestamps are used to match up the GPS locations with individual photos, so any camera that records the date and time in an image can be used.

There are a huge number of "GPS Photo Tagger" models, varying in size, power requirements, interfaces for digital media (e.g., SD cards), and even interconnection to cameras.  The things they have in common are

  1. a built-in GPS unit;
  2. frequent position logging (typically every 15 seconds) accompanied by sufficient memory to record hours to days worth of locations;
  3. long battery life for continuous use - typically in the range of 8 to 24 hours;
  4. time-stamped positions for use in relating position to photos taken at the same time;
  5. USB connections for data download;
  6. included software that edit existing .jpg image files to add geographic coordinates to the EXIF information in the file.

Things that tend to vary between units are

  1. size  - varying between a keyring fob (small) to a pager or cell phone (large);
  2. display - some use only flashing lights to indicate proper operation, others have display screens for location and satellite information;
  3. controls - some have only an on-off switch, others have multiple buttons and menu-based systems;
  4. interfaces - some units depend on software running on a computer to do the photo geotagging, others have sockets for SD cards and other media and can do the geotagging using the unit alone. Some units have vendor-specific connectors that allow them to physically connect to a particular brand of camera equipped with a GPS interface or Bluetooth connection.
Another thing that varies, though not terribly much, is cost. GPS Photo Taggers range in price from about $50 to $200, with most in the $100-$150 range.  Costs are a function of size (smaller=more), battery type & life (internal lithium vs. external, internal=more), amount of memory, interface (USB only vs. slot for SD card), software, display capabilities, motion detection (only record data when moving) and whether it has specialized support for particular brands of camera that allow it to do the geotagging internal to the camera.

An advantage of using these units is that the location information is inseparably encoded into the images themselves, so that even years later the location will be discernable.  There are also a many tools, both on a local computer (e.g., Picasa) or on the web (e.g., Flickr or Panoramio) that allow the display of photo locations either on a map or in tools like Google Earth.