How To: Geotagging Photos (with or without built-in GPS)

In Gear by Rusty Parkhurst9 Comments

Geotagging is the process of adding geographical coordinates to a photograph.  Geotags provide important information that allow the location of an image to be pinpointed on the globe. Landscape and travel photographers find this to be especially useful information to navigate back to a location or to provide details about where a photo was captured.

There are a few methods that photographers can use to geotag images, the least of which includes using an in-camera feature.  Fortunately, even though manufacturers have generally seemed to neglect including a geotagging feature in their camera bodies, there are other methods photographers can use to gather this information.

This article will take an in-depth look at how geotagging works, which camera bodies currently on the market include in-camera or external geotagging features, and alternative methods for attaching location information to images if your camera doesn't have these features.

 

Tools of the GPS trade (well…besides the camera, which doesn't have GPS built in).

How Geotagging Works

Maybe a more appropriate title should be “How Geotagging Should Work”, since it is such an under-utilized (or ignored) feature.  There are at least 24 global positioning system (GPS) satellites orbiting the earth, each transmitting a unique signal.  GPS receivers, such as those found in select camera bodies, use the information from several of the satellites to calculate a user's location.  Some cameras without an internal GPS chip have the option of connecting an external module for receiving the GPS coordinate information.  The data obtained is typically latitude and longitude, which provides fairly accurate (usually at least within 10 meters) location information.

GPS information captured by a camera is stored in the exchangeable image file format (EXIF) data for an image.  That's the same place where you find the shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and tons of other information.  After importing an image to a computer, the GPS information can be used to pinpoint the image location on a map.  That can be very useful for keeping track of where you have been and navigating back to a location in the future.

Cameras with Built-in GPS

With all the technological advancements today, one would think that all modern cameras would have a built-in GPS feature.  Sadly, that is far from reality.  Although the phones that most of us carry around in our pockets on a daily basis have the ability to pinpoint where on Earth we are, most cameras still do not have this feature.  That seems strange.  If a relatively small phone can have built-in GPS capabilities, surely the feature could easily be fit into the electronic picture-making boxes that we sling around our neck or over our shoulder.

Some form of GPS-enabled cameras have been around since the early- to mid-2000s.  Ricoh released a GPS-enabled camera in early 2005.  The high-resolution Pro G3 had a 3.34-megapixel image sensor and retailed for $1,149 with the GPS add-on.  Camera as well as GPS technology has greatly improved since then; however, the marriage of the two has been limited in its application.

The excellent Digital Photography Review website was utilized to research which cameras have GPS functionality.  From the main page, under the ‘Cameras' tab, the third option listed is ‘Camera feature search'.  Using this tool, you can filter by camera type and feature to determine which cameras have the selected feature.  This article will focus primarily on interchangeable lens cameras (DSLRs and mirrorless).  Of the 366 cameras listed in these categories, only 15 have a built-in GPS feature.  That's a paltry 4.1%.  The cameras, as well as their MSRP, are listed in the table below.

 

Camera ModelMSRP (body only)
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV$3,499
Canon EOS 6D$1,699
Canon EOS 7D Mark II$1,799
Canon EOS 1DX Mark II$5,999
Hasselblad X1D$8,995
Leica SL$7,450
Nikon 1 AW1$799.95
Nikon D5300$599.95
Pentax K-1$1,800
Pentax K-3 II$1,099
Samsung Galaxy NX$1,599.99
Sony Alpha a99$2,800
Sony SLT-A55$750*
Sony SLT-A65$999*
Sony SLT-A77$1,399
*includes 18-55mm kit lens

 

GPS-Enabled Cameras

Just because a camera doesn't have GPS built in to the body doesn't mean GPS isn't an option.  Some camera manufacturers produce GPS-enabled cameras, which require an external module to record the location information for images.  These devices are typically either wireless and plug directly into a port on the side of the camera body, or consist of a module that attaches to the hotshoe and connects to the camera using a short cable.  The Canon GP-E2 and Nikon GP-1A receivers are two popular options that work with most modern Canon and Nikon DSLRs.  Both of these receivers connect to the camera's hotshoe.  The Canon version operates using a single AA battery while the Nikon version connects to the camera using a cable.  These are both in the $250 range.

Widening the GPS feature search to include cameras that have manufacturer external GPS options increases the number to 95 out of the 366 cameras. That's still only about 26% of interchangeable lens cameras that have some type of GPS functionality available.  The earliest camera on that list is the Nikon D200, announced in late 2005.  Only 23 of the cameras listed were introduced in 2015 or later. The table below lists all interchangeable lens cameras introduced in 2015 or later with external GPS capabilities.

 

Camera Model (2015 or newer)MSRP
Pentax K-S2$799*
Nikon D810A$3,799
Nikon D7200$1,199
Leica M Monochrom$7,450
Fujifilm X-T10$799
Fujifilm X-T1 IR$1,699
Leica M$5,195
Nikon D5$6,499
Nikon D500$2,000
Pentax K-70$649
Leica TL$1,695
Nikon D5600$700
Leica M10$6,595
Fujifilm X-T20$899
Pentax KP$1,099
Canon EOS Rebel T7i$749
Canon EOS 77D$899
*includes kit lens

 

Further breaking down the list of cameras by manufacturer shows that Canon and Pentax each have 15 models with either built-in or external GPS options.  Nikon is the big winner with 33 cameras (pretty much all of their DSLRs) with GPS functionality.  Whereas Nikon and Pentax each only have two camera models with built-in GPS, Canon has four.  Notably missing from the list altogether are any of the Sony mirrorless camera bodies.

 

Other Alternatives

It's been established that most cameras today do not have a built-in GPS feature.  There are still other ways to geotag images and gather location information that can be used later.  We've touched on the use of external GPS receivers, and will cover that method in more detail below.  Another option is to use either a hand-held GPS unit or an app on your smartphone to record a tracklog and sync photos in Lightroom or other software.  Finally, if none of the other options work for you, images can be manually dropped onto a map on the computer.  Each of these options are explored in more detail in the following sections.

External GPS Receiver

As has already been discussed, some camera manufacturers offer GPS receivers that either work wirelessly or connect to the camera using a cable.  The Canon and Nikon versions have already been mentioned, but Pentax also has the O-GPS1 hotshoe mounted unit.  Not only does the Pentax unit perform geotagging duties, but on some camera models, the “astrotracer” function uses GPS data to track celestial objects and allows for long exposures (up to 5 minutes) while keeping stars sharp.  That's crazy!  Pentax always seems to be on the cutting edge of technology. Hopefully, the other manufacturers are taking notes.

In addition to the brand-name manufacturer models, there are many third-party GPS receivers.  The two brands that are most prevalent in my Amazon search were Marrex and Solmeta.  Another option for Nikon DSLRs is Aokatec.  They are manufactured in China and are a fraction of the cost of the Nikon-branded units.  A good friend reported having very good results using the Aokatec AK-G750 on a recent trip to London.

Many of the external GPS receivers run on AA batteries, which means they won't drain your camera's battery.  It does mean that you'll need to carry some extra AAs in the bag, but that shouldn't be a deal-breaker since most other accessories take the same size batteries. Brian Pex wrote an excellent article comparing AA batteries for flash units.  The best batteries for flashes may also be the best for GPS receivers.

If you are in the market for a third-party GPS receiver, make sure to do your research.  Some of these units get good reviews and some not so good.  Check out what others are saying before making a purchase.

Hand-Held GPS

If you have a hand-held or wearable GPS unit, it can be used to track your movements and photos taken along the track can be synced in computer software.  The important thing is that you be able to save the coordinate data in a .gpx file format.  The procedure for using this method is really pretty simple.  The first thing to do is to make sure sure that the time on your camera is synced with the time on the GPS unit.  This is very important, as dropping the photos into the correct place on the map will rely on the time they were taken.  Once that is accomplished, make sure signal has been acquired, start the GPS tracklog, and be on your way.

While on your hike or photowalk, just shoot as normal.  The GPS unit can be hidden away in a backpack or jacket pocket.  As long as it has battery power and maintains a strong signal, this method should work pretty accurately.

When you get back home to the computer, you will need to download the tracklog from the GPS device.  This can be done at the same time as downloading the images from your memory card. This is where the geotagging magic really happens.  There are other software programs that can be used to do this, but this article will focus on using Adobe Lightroom.  With your images imported into Lightroom, navigate to the Map Module by clicking on “Map” along the upper right side of the interface.  If you don't see the Map option, it can be revealed by right-clicking anywhere on the right side of the top ribbon and selecting it there.

Within Lightroom, you can load the .gpx file that was created by the GPS.  First, click the little squiggly line icon just below the map window and above the filmstrip.  When you hover over it, the hint GPS Tracklogs pops up.

 

 

In the dropdown menu, click Load Tracklog… and navigate to the saved .gpx file.  After selecting the file and clicking Open, you see the track displayed on the map.

 

 

Next, select all the images that are associated with the track.  In the filmstrip below the map window, click on the first image in the sequence, then Shift + click the last image to select them all.  Then click on the Load Tracklogs icon again, and select the Auto Tag Photos option.  All of the images will automatically be placed on the map along the track based on the time of capture.  This works really well, but there may be times that an image location may be slightly off.  If that is the case, you can click and drag the image to another location along the track to re-position it.

 

 

Using Your Phone

Using a smartphone is similar to using a hand-held GPS unit.  There are a variety of iOS and Android applications that can be used to generate a tracklog and .gpx file.  This is a great and inexpensive option if you don't have a GPS device.  Plus, you already have your phone with you all the time anyway.

Two apps that I have tried so far are Motion-X GPS and Geotag Photos Pro.  Motion-X GPS is an iOS only app, but I believe Geotag Photos Pro is available for iOS and Android.  With either of these apps, you can use your phone to track your hike and create a .gpx file.  As with the hand-held GPS, it is important to sync the time on your camera with the phone.  Once that is accomplished, simple start the track and begin taking pictures.

One of the nice features of these apps is that you don't have to connect the phone to a computer to download the tracklog.  The Motion-X GPS app can be set up to share the tracklog to yourself via email.  Geotag Photos Pro can be configured to share the tracklog to your Dropbox, iCloud, or Google Drive account.

At the end of the hike, share the tracklog to your email or cloud-based account and import the images taken into Lightroom.  From there, the process for geotagging your images is the same as with the hand-held GPS.

 

Using Your Phone, Part 2

As they say, “there's more than one way to skin a cat”.  Photos that you capture using your camera can also be geotagged by taking a picture with your smartphone's camera app.  This works well if you will be in one area for an extended period of time.  For example, while at the Improve Photography Retreat in Phoenix last month, we went out to Lost Dutchman State Park for a sunset shoot one evening.  After setting up my camera and tripod, I generally stayed in the same area the entire time.  I didn't have a GPS and I wasn't running a GPS app on my phone.  However, I did use my phone to take a few pictures while I was out there.

Now that I'm back home and all the photos from the trip are in my Lightroom catalog, I can geotag the images from that evening at Lost Dutchman.  All I need to do is import one of the photos from my phone into Lightroom and go to the Map module.  Since the photo was taken with my phone, there are already GPS coordinates embedded in the metadata and the image will be placed right on the exact map location.  Now all that I have to do is select all the other photos taken at that location and drag and drop them on the map in the same spot as the phone photo.  Voila, all of those images are now geotagged.

Furthermore, each time you move to a new location, just take a quick snap with your phone.  It doesn't have to be a work of art; just a way to document where you are.  All of the “good” photos you take with your camera from that area can then be geotagged.

 

This image taken with my phone has latitude and longitude coordinates, elevation, and even the direction I was facing when taking the shot.

 

Manually Geotagging

Finally, if you don't have a GPS, or a phone, or forget to record your tracks on a hike, images can be manually dropped onto the map.  This may not be as accurate as using a GPS, but it can get your images into the ballpark.  This basically involves selecting an image in Lightroom, going to the map module, finding the approximate location of the image, and dropping it onto the map.

For instance, I know that I captured some images at Monument Rocks on my way down to Phoenix.  I was not using a GPS or my phone to record coordinate data.  However, I can navigate to the approximate location and drop those photos onto the map. It's a rudimentary method of geotagging, but it may be helpful 5 or 10 years from now to glance at the map to see where I've been shooting.

 

Which Method is Best?

That's a tough question to answer, and opinions will certainly vary.  Some people would rather not geotag and potentially add more complexity to their photography.  Admittedly, I haven't fully bought into it yet, but do realize it could be beneficial.  Last October, I traveled to New York City and did a ton of walking and shooting.  After covering more than 60 miles of streets and sidewalks, and photographing random subjects around the city, there's no way I can remember where all those images were captured.

Let's take a look at some of the pros and cons of each of the geotagging methods below.  Then you can arrive at your own conclusions.

Built-in GPS

Pros: 

  • Relatively easy to use; just turn on and go.
  • No extra steps involved to tag photos.  The GPS information is automatically included in the image EXIF data.

Cons:

  • Signal acquisition could be an issue unless the GPS feature is left on for the entire shoot.
  • Leaving the GPS turned on all the time will decrease the camera's battery life.

External GPS Receiver

Pros: 

  • Much like the built-in GPS, the coordinates are recorded into the image EXIF data.
  • No extra steps involved to tag photos.
  • Some operate using a separate AA battery instead of the camera battery.

Cons: 

  • Units can be expensive, especially for the name brand models.
  • This is another piece of gear to worry about.  First, you have to remember it; remember to check the battery (if it uses a separate battery); then remember to turn it on.  Some of these take separate AA batteries, so plan to carry extras along just in case.  If it runs off the camera battery, then that battery life will be decreased.

Hand-Held GPS

Pros: 

  • Separate device that doesn't drain the camera's battery.
  • Usually pretty accurate.
  • Can be useful for navigating out of tough situations.

Cons:

  • Another device that you have to carry with you.
  • Need to make sure batteries are charged and carry extras.
  • Extra steps involved to import the tracklog and tag photos.

Smartphones

Pros:

  • Usually always have it with you anyway.
  • Inexpensive solution.
  • Separate device that doesn't use the camera's battery.
  • GPS apps work even without cellular signal.

Cons:

  • Uses phone battery, which could be an issue if you need to use your phone.
  • Extra steps involved to import tracklog and tag photos.

Manual Geotagging

Pros:

  • No extra GPS device to carry.
  • No extra cost.

Cons:

  • Can take more time to find approximate locations on map.
  • Generally not as accurate as using GPS.
  • More prone to errors.

Final Word

In a world where technology marches forward at lightning speed, it's hard to believe that all cameras don't have built-in GPS.  It doesn't seem to be about cost.  The table above shows cameras with GPS ranging in price from under $600 to nearly $9,000.  The smartphones that we use daily have GPS, so surely it can be fit into a camera.  Perhaps there are legitimate reasons that it's not found in all cameras.  Regardless, I would have to believe that as GPS and camera technologies improve, GPS will eventually be a standard feature.  Geotagging images certainly has a lot of value, so let's hope they figure this out sooner than later.


About the Author

Rusty Parkhurst

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Rusty has been passionate about learning photography and creating great images since picking up his first 'real' camera 5 years ago. He works in the environmental consulting industry by day, spends evenings and weekends trying to keep up with 3 growing boys, and squeezes in as much photography time as possible. He loves talking photography and welcomes any questions you may have. More of his work can be found on his website.

Comments

  1. For me, it would be essential that the GPS on a camera can be completely powered down so that for studio or event photography there is no reduction in battery life. Mytracks on iPhone works well for me.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, Dunstan. There has to be the ability to shut off the GPS for a variety of reasons. Not everyone would want to have everything geotagged. I assume it can be shut off in the cameras that have it now.

  2. Nicely done Rusty! I want to use the gps features in Escalante next month and wonder if the phone will work in the remote locations we’ll be shooting in. Your idea of a separate gps unit may be the way to go since I’ll be shooting with Sony gear. Thanks muchly for this!!

  3. Great article, Rusty. I’ve never seen an article on gps with so much relevant information covering all the options with pros and cons.

    1. Author

      Thank you, John! I certainly intended to be as thorough as possible, but probably still forgot a few relevant things. My hope is that this article will be helpful to anyone interested in exploring the topic in more detail.

  4. Thanks for detailed information. I think I am lucky to find out your article.

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