Geotagging Photos With Cell Phones Or Other GPS Devices

Update 2/1/2010: I’ve written a new post about my current workflow for geotagging photos based on information from my iPhone

While some cameras and camera phones have the ability to geotag digital photos as they’re taken, most still don’t. However you can still geotag your photographs accurately and automatically with the use of an external GPS enabled device like a cell phone, navigation device, or a dedicated GPS logger. Any device that can record a “GPS track” that can be transfered to your computer can be used to tag photos. And photos taken with any digital camera can be tagged in this manner.

Here I’ll explain how I use GPSPhotoLinker on OS X to batch tag many photos from a day’s photo shoot with GPS tracks recorded on either a Sony GPS-CS1 or a Nokia N95 cell phone in order to create mapped photo galleries, like this one on Flickr.

Flickr maps screenshot

Recording Tracks

The Sony GPS-CS1 is a device made specifically for logging GPS points for use in geotagging and attaches to your computer via USB. To start recording a track you just turn it on and to stop you turn it off. While its on it will record a log file containing points every 15seconds in a format called “NMEA sentences”.

The Nokia N95 is a higher end cell phone with built in GPS and the ability to install applications. The 3rd party location recording application I’ve found is called GPSed. Like the dedicated Sony device, while the application is running it records a log of points that can be transfered to your computer later via USB. Unfortunately, it writes logs are in a custom format that have to be uploaded to their web site and then exported into a variety of formats.

Other GPS devices like those from Garmin will work much the same way as described above — just follow the manual’s instructions on recording the tracks and downloading them to your computer.

There are many different geotagging applications on the market here are a few for OS X compared but I’ve settled on using GPSPhotoLinker because I don’t need some of the extra features like tagging via drag+drop or looking at images on maps. My desire is simply to sync the geo data with the photos and then get on with the rest of my workflow.

Converting tracks for use with GPSPhotoLinker

GPSPhotoLinker is great application, but its main limitation is that it only reads GPS tracks in 2 standard formats: GPX or TCX, which means that you may often have to convert the output of your GPS logger into something that it can read. For the tracks recorded with GPSed I can just download the exported tracks in this format, but for the Sony tracks in NMEA sentence format I’ll need another free application: GPSBabel and its companion GUI, GPSBabel+.

GPSBabel+ screenshot

GPSBabel+ can be used to quickly convert from a large variety of different geo data formats into GPX files that can be loaded into GPSPhotoLinker.

Batch updating photo EXIF & IPTC metadata

Once the images are on the computer and the GPS tracks are in GPX format both can be loaded into GPSPhotoLinker where all images can be updated at once with its batch processing tools. The settings I use to update the photos can be see in the following screenshot.

GPSPhotoLinker screenshot

What next?

After the individual photos are tagged I then work with them as I would any other photo. I import them into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom where I add text based tags, adjust colors and other image settings, ultimately choosing some for upload to Flickr or printing service. No additional intervention is needed to ‘use’ the results of the image tagging process — the metadata is visible in Lightroom where I can click it and see a google map location, and images uploaded to Flickr with this geodata are automatically placed on the map for me.

Lightroom metadata panel screenshot

Quick Workflow Recap

  1. Download photos and GPS tracks to my computer
  2. Convert GPS tracks to .gpx with GPSBabel+
  3. Load photos and .gpx file into GPSPhotoLinker and batch process them
  4. Import photos into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, or similar application and get on with the image processing

Some additional notes and hints

  • Be sure to keep GPS device and camera time settings in sync.
  • I’ve found its best to pause your movement for a moment and check that the tracking device has a signal when shooting for most accurate results.
  • GPSPhotoLinker updates IPTC fields with location data it receives from terraserver-usa.com, unfortunately I have found this information to be quite flaky, particularly when in an area that cannot be tied to a specific municipality [resulting in often occurrences of NJ locations written as being in NY]

Devices and Downloads mentioned in this article

7 thoughts on “Geotagging Photos With Cell Phones Or Other GPS Devices

  1. This is an excellent post Chris and I should have remembered from talking with you last year that you were into this stuff. And, you’re a Nikon guy. Thanks for the link to this.

  2. Thanks for this, Chris.

    I tried it out using my Blackberry running GPSed as a logger which was all well and good. However, when it came time to link up my tracks to some photos in GPSPhotoLinker, I had to (temporarily) change the photo’s time zone to +12 – even though I’m in EST – in order for their timestamps to match up with the GPX data, despite the fact that I had synced the clocks on the camera and the Blackberry. Not sure why this happened, but perhaps that can save a bit of frustration for someone else.

  3. Hi, This is a really helpful page. I am keen to use this technology for scientific research and have a couple of questions I can hopefully twist your arm to answer – as my needs are slightly different than yours! Potential Application: What I am keen to do is to record, using a GPS of hand held (e.g. Garmin) accuracy or better, the locations of set items. I am not interested in the GPS location of the picture, but instead the object within a photo. I do not want to ‘track’ but rather collect certain points along my way (boulders I am monitoring on a beach) and ideally to have the GPS data linked to a photograph I take of the same rock. I want to be able to put the GPS on the object and record that location, rather than the location where the picture is taken from. Q:Is it possible to use the technology you suggest without a GPS track? I ideally want to be able to take more pictures than those which I geo-tag the rocks of – I typically take a close up of the rock (which could be tagged with the actual rock position using a GPS) and a context photo to place it in the wider beach environment (which would not need to be tagged).

    If you can’t answer but might know of someone who could help, please let me know.
    Many thanks in advance.

  4. Larissa,

    I don’t have any specific solutions for you but do have two ways I might think about doing it…

    First, if you’re using a GPS device that records tracks and doesn’t connect to the camera [like the ones I mentioned here] there’s nothing keeping you from having the thing on your person. If you can find a spot that won’t get in the way of your shots you can just drop it next to your subject and walk around and shoot whatever angle you’d like and the device will just keep tracking the non-moving rock and you can have all of your shots tagged with the location of the rock, not you standing 20 feet away.

    Another variation on that is to keep recording the tracks but in your syncing application [I’m using GPSPhotoLinker as described above] you don’t have to load every image you’ve taken to load. It would be fairly easy to just load

    If you’re worried about accuracy of using tracks [and the precision of finding a time stamp that’s between two recorded points] you might want to look into the devices that work with some cameras that record the GPS data to the photos as you click [which you could probably disable for shots you don’t want tagged] I guess there’s the old pen and paper method too… if you just have a typical Garmin GPS device you can jot down the rock’s position and then come back to your computer later and find an application that lets you manually enter position.

    OK, I guess that’s three ways to do it.

  5. iPhone owners can use my iPhone app GeoLogTag specifically made to geotag photos taken with any digital camera.

    GeoLogTag can export a GPX file, but also offers Mac & Flickr users the possibility to geotag their photos without the need for a separate geotagging app. The geotagging is done by GeoLogTag.

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