How to Geotag Photos Even If Your Camera Has No GPS

Boise foothills with a dark blue sky and a tree.
Photo by Jim Harmer. This is one of those spots that is difficult to remember if you don't have a geotag.

My camera does not have GPS built in. Most cameras don’t have GPS built in; for whatever reason, the camera manufacturers have for the most part left these to be expensive add on modules. I will tell you though that despite this, I have been accurately geotagging my photos for over two years, even though my primary camera in that time doesn't have GPS built-in.

In short, geotagging photos from your DSLR or any camera is simple even if you don't have GPS in your camera.  The process is to simply record the geotags using an app while you shoot that is time-synced with you camera.  Then, import the photos on the computer and use the phone's geotags.  Once you learn this workflow the first time, it's easy to do each time.

I started geotagging because I really like the map module in Lightroom; yes, I know I’m probably the only one that does, but stick with me here! I love travel, so I wanted to be able to see where I shot my photos with a method easier using standard tags. Tags with place names don’t do the trick for me because unless I’m searching for the exact place name I may be out of luck. For instance, I have some shots taken at Belle Isle Park in Detroit. I may tag them with those terms, but what if I’m looking for something in Southeast Michigan? What about anything in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway? Whoops, I’m out of luck in that situation. Now, whenever I’m in Lightroom, I can just look in an area in a map and see what I’ve shot. I could even get inspired to try to discover new spots in an area where I obviously haven’t shot, all based on the map.

Now that the free Really Good Photo Spots app is out, I’ve been able to add several locations with DSLR photos because I already had them tagged. My purpose in writing this post is to show you my standard workflow for geotagging photos without in camera GPS, with the hope that it may help with the organization of your photos, and that you may be able to better contribute to the RGPS database, making it better for all of us. The great news is that it is not a difficult process. Once you get in the habit of doing a couple things at the beginning and the ending of your shooting time, you’ll be set up almost as good as if you did have in-camera GPS.

What do you need?

  • An app that will record your GPS track. I use a free one for iOS called “GPX Master,” but there are several other free and paid options, and I have not shopped around to find the best. I like that GPX Master automatically uploads my .gpx file to Dropbox.
  • Your camera set to the correct time. Ok, this is not a “thing you need,” so to speak, but as you will see, it is crucial to the process. Get in the habit of checking the clock on your camera before you start shooting.
  • Lightroom or GPicSync (available for free at https://sourceforge.net/projects/gpicsync/)

The Workflow During the Shoot

  1. When you get to your location, turn location tracking on in your GPS app. This will depend on the app you are using, but as long as its tracking you and will give you a .gpx file to export in the end, the specific app doesn’t matter. Keep in mind that it may take a few minutes to acquire satellite signal, so it is best to do this a few minutes before you begin shooting. Sometimes I will start it before I leave for the location if I’m relatively close, just so I don’t have to wait when I arrive. Your GPS app is going to make use of your phone’s battery, so be prepared for that. I carry a small portable power supply and a charging cable in my camera bag for this purpose.
  2. Check and correct the clock on your camera. GPX Master shows the current time on the settings page, and I set my clock to that time. In the end, this is all going to work because we’ll use software to read the timestamp on the image, find the GPS coordinates nearest in time to that timestamp, and then write the coordinates to the images metadata. This will not work if your clock is wrong. It can be corrected, and I will cover how to fix this if you forget to check your clock, but the only way to guarantee real accuracy is to make sure that your clock is right.
  3. Shoot. From this point out, it’s pretty easy. Your phone is tracking your location, your camera is taking pictures. Go wherever, do whatever, as long as your tracking is on, you will be able to tag these photos just as if you had in-camera GPS.
  4. Stop tracking, deal with the file. As I mentioned before, GPX master syncs my .gpx files to Dropbox, so all I have to do is stop tracking and I’m all set. Regardless of app, you will need a .gpx file on your computer that contains the track that you recorded while shooting.

Lightroom Workflow

I’m honestly a little embarrassed that it took me so long to find out that Lightroom had this function built in. I used GPicSync (detailed below) for quite some time, and it is a fine option if you don’t own Lightroom, but it is way easier in Lightroom.

You can do this at any point in your Lightroom workflow. I tend to do it at the end when I’m working on titles and tags, because I believe it saves time to only do it on my keepers, rather than on every photo that I import. That said, you could do it either way and it wouldn’t be a big deal, so find the spot that makes sense to you.

  1. With the collection or folder that you want to work on in the filmstrip, click over to the map module.
  2. In the menu bar up top, click Map, click Tracklog, click Load Tracklog…
  3. Locate your tracklog. This is your .gpx file from your phone. Mine is in my Dropbox, so I will find it there.
  4. Select the photos that you would like to tag. If you’ve come in to the Map module with the folder or collection you want to tag in the film strip, you can simply click one and then press Ctrl+A (Windows) or Cmd+A (Mac).
  5. In the menu bar click Map, click Tracklog, click Auto-tag photos.

That’s it, your photos are tagged! One additional step I take is to filter to the untagged photos and see if any were missed due to not having satellite signal. I will then drag those on the map to be where they were, if I can recall. It’s usually easy to figure out because you have all the nearest neighbors right there. If for some reason I am not completely sure, I will skip tagging them so that I don’t have inaccurate information. It is extremely rare that I even have untagged photos, let alone ones that I can’t place on a map.

What to do if your clock was off- Lightroom

Ok, ok, sometimes it happens. You forgot to look at your camera clock and adjust it before you started shooting. This is easy to fix if you can determine by how much it was off. That information is essential though, especially if you were moving around a lot. If you have that information, you can follow these steps:

  1. Select the photos with incorrect timestamps while in the library module
  2. In the menu bar click Metadata, click Edit Capture Time…
  3. Since you have multiple photos selected, you’ll want to shift the time, not change all of them to one new time, so be very careful here. Shift the photo shown to its correct time based on the determination you’ve made about how off your camera was. The rest of the selection will follow.

All better! Now you can follow the workflow steps above. Just keep in mind that this only works if you can accurately determine how much your clock was off, so while it make be a step you can take if you’ve messed up, you should not rely on it. Just remember to check your clock whenever you start shooting. It’s a good habit for many reasons.

The workflow- GPicSync

If you don’t have Lightroom, don’t worry. You can use a free program called GPicSync. I used it for about a year before I found out that Lightroom has this feature built in. It’s not the most elegant program, but the functionality is fine; it will get the job done. It is available at https://sourceforge.net/projects/gpicsync/.

Here’s what you need to know to use GPicSync effectively:

  • You should run it on your files prior to editing. Unlike with Lightroom, we’re dealing with the metadata on the actual file, not in a catalog, so it is best to do this step first before things like capture dates could potentially get manipulated or lost.
  • Because this is going to write data to your original file, it is best to make a copy of your files first in case something goes wrong. I never had anything go wrong, but you should never take this risk. Protect your images by making a copied folder. If all runs fine, you can get rid of the copies. GPicSync has a function built in for this, but I don’t trust any software to save me from its own errors, so I do the copy first just using my OS.

Here are the steps:

  1. Using the button labeled “Pictures Folder,” select the folder containing your images.
  2. Using the button labled “GPS file,” select your .gpx file.
  3. I leave everything else unchecked. GPicSync has some other options that you may find useful, but I do not use them, and they do not need to be used for simple geotagging.
  4. Select your timezone- note that if you are currently in daylight savings time you may have variance of an hour. You can always use Manual UTC offset, which you can calculate here: https://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/timezone/utc
  5. Click “Synchronise!” and your photos will be geotagged. Watch the window for errors, that will make it clear if your time zone was set up wrong.

What to do if your clock was off- GPicSync

Just like with Lightroom, having images with incorrect timestamps is not a big deal if you can determine exactly how much those timestamps are off. To correct for an incorrect clock, take the following steps:

  1. Click “Options,” click “Local Time Correction”
  2. The dialog prompts you to enter the current local time on your GPS (phone) and your camera. If you haven’t corrected the time on your camera, this will work fine. If you have already made the correction, just enter two times that differ in the way that your camera and phone would have differed when your camera clock was off.
  3. Click “Apply Correction,” and close the dialog

I can assure you that once you get in the habit of starting your GPS app and checking your camera clock before you start shooting, and stopping your GPS app once you stop shooting, this will become an almost automatic process.

Now, let’s get to geotagging, for better Lightroom organization, and a better database for RGPS!

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