Latitude and longitude are an important part of my photography. My images are all about going to different places, seeing interesting things, and ultimately learning something new. I take care that each image file I output contains lots of useful meta data, including location coordinates.

Geotagging without a GPS-enabled camera can be time-consuming. But with the right hardware and software, the process of plotting photos on a map can still be automated. I’ve gotten better at this over the years — I started with the map interface of Flickr’s Organizer, then progressed to using a program that grabbed the center coordinates from Google Earth and wrote them to my JPGs. Now I use either my phone or a camera accessory to automatically log my position in a file that can be imported into my Lightroom database.

Sunset on the 12 Apostles
Sunset on the 12 Apostles, Camps Bay, South Africa
33°56'52" S 18°22'40" E

Manually Tagging on a Map is a Waste of Time

The hardest part of geotagging photos is collecting accurate data without wasting much time. Done manually it’s a time-consuming process, but the right tools make it possible to quickly and efficiently gather coordinates.

The manual method is remembering where you were, navigating to that place in Google Earth, and using a program to attach those coordinates to your image. This gets the job done, but it’s terribly inefficient:

  • You have to remember where you shot the photo. Unfortunately, humans forget and/or misremember things.
  • Manually hunting for an exact location on a map takes a long time.
  • Using the map interfaces on sites like Flickr and SmugMug only tags your image in their database. If you publish the photo somewhere else, you must re-geotag.

Automate Your Geotagging

The efficient method of geotagging photos is to synchronize your entire memory card dump with a tracklog, which is a data file containing timestamped coordinates. You set an app or GPS device to record your position at timed intervals, photograph away, then later you can automatically geotag hundreds or thousands of image files in the time it previously took to do one manually.

Some cameras like the Canon 6D have built-in GPS. I have a point & shoot with onboard tracking, but recording a log drains the battery quickly so I keep that feature disabled. Instead I have two go-to methods of recording a tracklog:

  1. Canon GP-E2 Receiver The Canon GP-E2 sits in the hot shoe of my 5DIII, records a tracklog, and writes coordinates directly to images as I shoot. And if all I want is the log file, I can just switch it on and keep it in my camera bag.
  2. Trails for iOS app icon Trails is a GPS tracker app for iOS. It uses your smartphone’s location features to keep a tracklog. Other features include speed and trip duration, elevation graphs, and terrain maps.

Both of these options give me an accurate recording of where I was over the course of my day in a format that’s compatible with Google Earth.

Your Data Should Be Portable

Recording a tracklog makes your data portable, which is another great time saver. The coordinates of your photo walk are stored in a reusable plain text file instead of a photo sharing site’s database. Send the file to a friend, retag your photos, plot the coordinates in Google Earth. The data is yours, and it’s readily available.

My Chicago Photowalk, mapped in Google Earth
I used my Canon GPS to record three days worth of photowalking in Chicago, then converted the tracklogs to KMZ files that I can see in Google Earth.

Lightroom + Jeffrey’s Geoencoding Plugin

The key to syncing photos up to GPS data in Lightroom is Jeffrey’s Geoencoding Plugin. Here’s my geotagging process from start to finish:

  1. Make sure my camera’s clock is set to the correct time.
  2. Record a tracklog with my GP-E2 or the Trails app, then shoot some photos.
  3. Save the file to my computer, choosing the GPX file format.
  4. Import my photos to Lightroom, and select them all.
  5. Hit File → Plugin Extras → Geoencode… to start up Jeffrey’s Geoencoding Plugin.
  6. Use the first tab, Tracklog, to select my GPS file and kick off the Geoencoding process.
  7. Sit back and relax as lat & long data is automatically added to my photos at lightspeed.
Screenshot of Jeffrey's Lightroom Geoencoding Plugin
All the options needed syncing a batch of photos to a GPS tracklog, on one screen.

All Jeffrey’s Lightroom plugins are available as “Donationware”, which means you set the price. He does an excellent job so make sure to give a generous tip whenever you download one.

Tag Once, Publish Everywhere

Now that GPS data is associated with your photos in Lightroom, they’re automatically mapped everywhere you publish. iPhoto, Flickr, SmugMug, and 500px will all find this location data and show your photos on their maps, with no additional effort on your part. And if you want to go the extra mile, you can come up with all sorts of hacks. For example, I wrote a Ruby script to scrape the coordinates from my SmugMug RSS feed, write them to this site’s data files, then draw a Google Map under each photo with JavaScript.

Other GPS Gear

The GP-E2 receiver I mentioned earlier is only compatible with a few Canon DSLRs: the 1DX, 5D III, 7D, 6D, T4i, and EOS M. Nikon makes a similar hot-shoe GPS for their DSLRs, and Garmin & Amod manufactur generic loggers that write a tracklog file (but don’t attach directly to a camera). I haven’t used any of those devices though, so I’ll leave that research up to you.