These days, the increasing availability of low-cost digital cameras, coupled with the fact that nearly every cellphone has a camera, means people are taking more photographs than ever and putting them on-line. In November, Flickr announced that its users had uploaded three billion photos. Flickr is one of a handful of services that act as both digital shoeboxes and galleries, allowing users to store and display their work on the Web.
So how do we organize all these pictures? One method, known as geotagging, uses where they were taken. Geotagging goes beyond labelling a photo with a place name. It entails recording the latitude and longitude of the location where the picture was snapped. On Flickr, the 97 million photos that have been geotagged can be displayed on a map of the world. This month, Apple released iPhoto ’09, the latest version of its desktop photo-management software, which allows users to organize their pictures using geotags.
“I think it adds another dimension of discovery,” said Roland Tanglao, a technology blogger and software developer at the Gastown-based Raincity Studios. “I live in East Vancouver, and I use this app on the iPhone called Exposure that has a feature that, wherever you are, it will find photos taken near where you are. In my neighbourhood it’s mostly mine, but I’m sure that’ll change, and downtown is different. I think it’s also good for your personal history. You want to know where the photos are from.”
An avid cyclist, Tanglao takes photos during his rides and has more than 44,000 photos on Flickr, a great many of them geotagged. Recently, he’s been taking pictures with a Nokia N95, a smartphone with a five-megapixel camera whose image quality rivals that of some basic stand-alone digital cameras. With a built-in global-positioning-system receiver, the N95 automatically tags photos with geographic data.
However, at this time, only camera-bearing smartphones like the N95, the iPhone, and the BlackBerry Storm come with GPS capability right out of the box. For many photographers, adding geotags to photos requires dragging images onto a map on Flickr or another on-line service and placing them where they were taken. It’s a cumbersome process that Tanglao admits he’s only tried with a handful of photos.
Another method of geotagging photos requires you to synchronize route data saved by a handheld GPS unit with the time stamp on a photo. It’s another process that Tanglao found too hard to do regularly. This made me feel better, as he’s clearly more technologically inclined than the average person. For this article, I spent hours trying to figure out how to synchronize the GPS data I had captured on a Garmin eTrex Venture unit with my photos. I tried a handful of different software options for my MacBook, the best of which was Ovolab’s Geophoto. But even then it was difficult, and certainly not something I would want to do on a regular basis.
In fact, I found it easier to take another photo at the same time with my iPhone and upload that to Flickr. Then I could drag photos snapped with my stand-alone camera to the same location on the site’s map.
Even if the process of combining GPS data with photographs becomes easier, Tanglao doesn’t think stand-alone GPS trackers will be the answer for geotagging enthusiasts.
“It’s another device that you have to carry,” he said. “It’s a dedicated unit, and I don’t think that’s the future. I think the future is [GPS capability] integrated into every device.”
Cameras with built-in GPS receivers, including Ricoh’s 500SE and Nikon’s Coolpix P6000, have already begun appearing in the market. Late last year, Nikon introduced a GPS attachment called the GP-1, for its D90 and other digital single-lens reflex cameras, which geotags photos as they are taken.
However, GPS drains a lot of battery power and only works outside. Smartphones with GPS receivers have the advantage of being able to use nearby cellphone towers to triangulate their location, a feature these cameras don’t have.
Geotagging also raises privacy issues. “Do you want to expose where you took the photos to everybody by default?” Tanglao said. “Like, if you took a picture of a child, do you want to expose that it’s near the child’s home?”
While it’s certainly a great way of organizing photos, geotagging is too complicated to really take off in popularity yet. This will change as cameras and GPS units merge, and more cellphones incorporate cameras and GPS receivers, but that’s still a ways off.