Geotagging of photos is one of those technological advances that vaguely impressed me, but it is also one I was sure I would never use. It all seemed so “gear-head-esque” to me. I am here today to eat my words, having just finished a project where Geo tagging was a savior (and a bit of a headache.)
I was on assignment for one of my favorite editors, photographing the region of Western India called Kutch (which is 45,652 square kilometers in the far Western part of the state of Gujarat.) We traveled thousands of kilometers across the region over nine days for a “survey” article about the history, culture, geography and people of the largest district in India. My editor, wisely, wanted me to Geo tag all the still images and videos that I made during the shoot.
The idea was that the final web version of the article would start with a map of Kutch, with lots of buttons showing you important landmarks in the region (and where we went.) When it is finished, the site will work so when you click on a given button you will see a short (30 to 90 second) video exploring one small part of life in Kutch. The key to that kind of interactive map would be recording the exact location of every image and video clip that I made.
After we agreed on that approach, I started researching Geo tagging technology. Friends had sent me information on the topic in the past and I reread all of that (and found lots more to read.) Then I started asking around. Many people pointed me towards using an iPhone based system where the phone does the tracking. In all cases, I would end up also using software to align the images with the Geo tags based on which pictures I took at exactly which time.
Then I asked someone at Olympus the same question and he asked where I was going. I mentioned rural India. He pointed out (rightly) that most of where I was going would be places where there would be no Wi-Fi. Yes, the iPhone based systems also use GPS info as well as WiFi to fix locations, but this person advocated a system that used GPS information only. Having gone to “the ends of the earth” in parts of Kutch, I can assure you he was right and the system that was GPS based was the right choice for me.
I ended up getting (and loving) a GiSTEQ PhotoTrackr Mini DPL900. It is a freestanding device not much bigger than a USB thumb drive. It plugs right into my laptop for both charging and transferring the Geo tracking data. Read more at: http://www.gisteq.com/PhotoTrackr/PhotoTrackrDPL900.php It is pretty inexpensive (around $50) and very easy to use. It spent each day clipped to the belt bag that I wear around my waist when I am working. It was so simple. Turn it on in the morning, turn it off in the evening. Then download the data and charge the built in battery. Repeat it all the next day.
So what were the headaches? Most are NOT the fault of the system I was using.
First, you can’t embed the Geo tag information directly in videos in any way that others watching those same videos can easily read (which is something you can do with still photos.) I have been working with digital images long enough to know that it was not so long ago that you couldn’t embed much data in still images either, so I am sure this will change, but for right now it is an annoyance.
India is 10 1/2 hours ahead of the U.S., so I always need to be very diligent about keeping the clocks on my cameras right. Thankfully, the Geo tagging software I am using actually has a setting for India, despite the fact that it is an outlier in terms of time zones, being on the half hour. Nepal, where I was working recently, is on neither the half hour or the hour but rather on the point of 45 minutes after the hour. Sadly, the software I was using does NOT have setting for Nepal. I was able to create a work round for the Nepal images but it was headache.
The one headache that was software-related is involved the default settings on the Geo tracker that I was using. Out of the box, it is set to only record locations if I move more than 1000 meters or once every hour. Needless to say that did not work. After a couple of tests which showed only about 20% of my image as being Geo tagged I started nosing around the software and found those settings. I am now using it with revised setting so every time I move more than ten feet and every one minute it takes a new reading. To date the increased recording does NOT seem to eat much more battery power or memory space. It does mean that 95% of my images have been successfully Geo tagged. The other 5% were made when I was indoors and the Geo tracker could not get the signal from the GPS satellite, which makes sense. Now I see how that’s the real point of the technology for Geo tagging images. If you know how it works and when to use it, like any other technology, it can make life easier.
When the finished project is posted on the web, I will certainly link to it from this page (and probably write another blog about the Geo tagging benefits based on the reaction to the final work.)