June 5, 2008

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Playing geotag
Where were you when you took that shot?
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

The number of digital photos floating around out there is staggering, and at some point, every sunset, mountain, dog or party looks the same as another.

One way many enthusiasts are enhancing their photos is with geotagging — basically, embedding location information about where the picture was taken right into the file itself.

The nice thing about geotagging is that you can get into it at a number of price points. It gets easier as you spend more money, of course, but if you have any digital camera and computer you can get started with no laydown of cash at all.

You can begin with a simple search of the locations at which you took your pictures. A few Web sites, like www.geocoder.us and www.gpsvisualizer.com, will give you rough approximations when you enter an address. I say “rough” but really, latitude and longitude to six decimal points is pretty darn good. It’s only if the address isn’t quite correct in the searched database that you’d get any error. (Google and Yahoo!, for instance, both put my apartment about a block away from where it actually is. Keep trying, Big Brother!)

Then you can add geotagging software. Most photo management software supports the reading and editing of geographical information stored in image files’ metadata, but finding and manually entering latitude and longitude, especially for a large number of pictures, can quickly get monotonous.

Some free software will let you edit the coordinates of many photos at once — useful if you take lots of pictures at each stop on a trip. But the real fun starts when you add a GPS receiver to the mix. When the camera and GPS clocks are synchronized, the software can match them up next time you’re at your computer. Take a look at RoboGEO and NDWGeoTag, both available from your favorite freeware and shareware site.

The problem with the software is that it can’t always talk to your particular make and model of GPS receiver. GPSBabel (www.gpsbabel.com) aims to bridge that divide by converting the data on your device to a standard file type called GPX. It’s not guaranteed to work, and the list of supported formats on their site is not exactly crystal clear, so download and have a go. Geotag (geotag.sourceforge.net) can use GPSBabel directly to import files and then write the data to your photos. You can also use it without GPS data by dragging a marker on a map or manually entering coordinates. Both programs are open source and free.

Looking to shop? For about $100, GiSTEQ’s PhotoTrackr line of GPS receivers (www.gisteq.com) and the Pharos PTP10 (www.pharosgps.com) each come with ready-made software that does pretty much what the above free software does. ATP’s Photo Finder (photofinder.atpinc.com) is a GPS receiver with a Secure Digital slot that automatically writes location data to every JPG stored on your memory card. It’ll also set you back about $100.

Even taking your memory card out and putting it in a different device is kind of a pain, though, right? And if your camera doesn’t use Secure Digital memory (or CompactFlash, which the Photo Finder supports with an optional adapter at extra cost), you’re out of luck. Ahh, but what about a camera with a built-in GPS receiver? Like, say, the Ricoh 500SE? Introduced more than a year ago, the camera hasn’t been a big hit in consumer circles. Could be because it’s $1,400. But is that really too high a price to know not just where you are, but where you’ve been?