Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: geotagging photographs

Geotagging: adding location information to images

This item is prompted as much by my wanting to hear people’s opinions on the subject of geotagging images as it is by my own thoughts on the subject. That’s actually true of most of my articles – feedback and comment are always very welcome – in this case, however, I’m really somewhat ambivalent on whether it’s a good or a bad thing. More precisely, I’m entirely convinced that it’s a very useful thing to record location information within each image captured, but I’m somewhat equivocal on whether it’s necessarily a good idea to publish that information when uploading to services such as Flickr.

Why record location data in the first place?

I have no qualms about doing this. I use a tiny, on-camera device (Foolography Unleashed) which communicates via Bluetooth to a small GPS receiver attached to my camera strap. Every image file – give or take a few where the GPS receiver has failed in its task of determining where it is – therefore contains very precise information on where the camera was at the point of capture, including altitude. I see this as no different from having date and time set correctly in the camera, and similar to adding information to the file later along the lines of ‘storm’, ‘limestone pavement’, and any other keywords which might help me find groups of similar images at some unspecified future date; it’s all potentially useful information about what’s in the file. Along with all the exposure, camera and lens information, this is collectively termed metadata.

Using all these bits of metadata together, I can search for a whole string of terms and find, for example, every image I have which features a hawthorn tree, on a stormy day, and taken in the evening (there are more than a few of those!). Conceivably, I could use the embedded location data from the GPS to add ‘in North Yorkshire‘ to the search, to take a fairly trivial example. In practice, I’ve not gone so far as to catalogue things in such a way that the GPS data could be used in that way, but it’s possible if you really want to; and if the file has the information in it now, it’ll be possible to do it in the future, should you decide that this would be a ‘useful’ thing to do….or just fun perhaps. I do add tags describing the location roughly, in words, but I don’t yet use the GPS location. I would if it was trivial to set up, but it isn’t!

At this point in time, then, the GPS data isn’t useful for searching, at least not for the vast majority of people, but what it does do is provide an exact location; very useful indeed, should I wish to revisit a composition or show someone where to go to find the subject I’ve used in an image. It’s also entertaining and informative for people viewing tagged images on-line; at least, I like it, and I’m confident that I’m not the only one! Many software tools – Google Earth, several of the file importing utilities, and most mapping software – recognise embedded geotags and will conveniently display the site where the photo was taken on a map. Flickr’s most recent major change, for example, placed a location map prominently on the main page showing where the camera was positioned, and it does this automatically using the GPS geotag in a digital file, if it exists.

I think this is immensely useful. I’ve travelled around various distant parts of the World, and being able to open an image and view its precise location on a map is invaluable. Well, it’s certainly very interesting, and it may be invaluable in some cases where I want to return to certain places. A particular, recent example comes to mind: I was in Chile and took a 4×4 trip into Bolivia and across the Altiplano. This is a vast area and my sequence of photos was very helpful in showing me where I’d been when I returned home. Not only that: I shall be returning and will be able to find a couple of compositions I would like to improve on. Yes, perhaps I’d be able to anyway – probably, in fact – but with the geotags, I know I’ll be able to find the locations.

To summarise:

capturing the location data in the first place is, to me, an unequivocally good thing.

And the problem with this is?

Some would say “none whatsoever”. I think, but I’m not entirely sure, that those ‘some’ would currently include me. The main argument against geotagging is that, once your image is out there on the web, complete with rather accurate positional information, anyone can find it, nip over to wherever you took the photo from and copy the composition. And ? Is this really a problem? To be pedantic about it: does the problem outweigh the benefit to you, as the photographer, of being able to locate the site again at some point, or illustrate the location to friends, easily, on a map?

Clearly, to some people, this problem does outweigh the advantages. I know at least one photographer who removes the location data from their files before uploading them anywhere, citing fear of plagiarism – and that’s entirely fair and reasonable – but is it seriously an issue? And how about the arguments in favour, such as ‘helping the photographic community’ by letting them know where a good location is? What about simply providing added interest and entertainment to on-line viewers who would like to see where the image was taken?

I can certainly see the argument that, if a particularly good composition is uploaded with location information, there may be a flood of photographers heading there to copy the image; but, in reality, I suspect that the classic locations already suffer from that, and the more esoteric ones probably won’t attract people anyway, since they’re not likely to be right by a handy lay-by or car park (otherwise, they’d already be known about and swarming with photographers….). This is, however, the line of reasoning which has prompted me to write this article. Since my images do, for the most part, contain accurate geotags, a couple of people have suggested that I strip that data out before releasing them into the wild. I haven’t, as yet, since I assessed them and decided that none represented anything remotely close to a ‘unique find, to be closely guarded‘ – I’m not entirely convinced that anything would, but I am open to persuasion.

A few secondary issues

I’m not going to dwell on this, but there certainly are other arguments for not uploading geotagged photos to public web sites. In the same way that any data thrown out onto the web can tell third parties all sorts of things about you, uploading images with embedded time and place information clearly says “I was here at this time” – there are all sorts of reasons why that might be a bad idea in some circumstances. Equally, there are many situations where it really wouldn’t matter. I’m not considering these non-photographic concerns here; it’s up to the individual photographer to consider whether publicly stating their own geographical location has any possible downsides.

What do you think?

I’m genuinely interested in what you think about this. Is there some compelling argument against uploading geotagged images that I’ve missed here? Yes, as above, there are numerous secondary reasons why you might not want to say “I was here then”, and even more for avoiding stating that “I am here now” (as people somewhat unwisely do all the time in tweets and other social media updates!). Ignoring those, however, since they’re not strictly related to the photograph, and confining this solely to the idea of revealing the location of the photograph, rather than that of the photographer, here are the questions I think need answering.

  1. Is there a problem beyond the ‘risk’ of plagiarism?
  2. Is the problem one of creating ‘honey pots’ in new locations?
  3. And, if plagiarism is the only real reason for not geotagging, then why is plagiarism itself perceived to be such a huge issue?

My answers would currently be: ‘no’, ‘not likely’, and ‘not bothered’, respectively, to those questions. I’d be interested in yours, either as comment or email. After all, if I become persuaded not to upload geotagged photos in future, the sooner I start stripping the data, the better.

And, just for the sake of putting a photograph in here that will act as the icon on tablet devices, here’s a geotagged image from somewhere. Anyone who wishes to duplicate it is entirely welcome to try….
'Painted desert'

6 Responses to “Musings on: geotagging photographs”

  1. Anonymous

    It’s a subject that I have a hard time caring that much about – I think people have a right to keep their little spots to themselves if they think it makes a difference, for whatever reason – privacy, livelihood etc. I often don’t geotag my shots, but that is a mixture of laziness and sometimes not knowing exactly where I am :)

    If an image isn’t geotagged people will eventually discover the location (apart from in extreme cases) – there is always someone, somewhere that recognises it.

    Plagarism is an interesting concept though – as more often that not the key elements of a landscape photograph (to fall into a genre) are so much more than just “location” – lighting, interpretation, endeavour. Photography itself is often only the act of recording things, and if someone else can make a better job of it, then unfortunately that is life. What it does highlight though is that at times (and I am as guilty of this as the next man) photography becomes nothing more than stamp collecting.

    • Mike Green

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that people are entirely entitled to do whatever they like, but I think trying to hide a location is probably futile in the long term, as you suggest.

      Good point re ‘stamp collecting’. I’m not inclined to go hunting around for images to copy myself, but then it’s certainly nice to have an idea of the sort of thing that can be made in a given area – I certainly have no issue with people wanting to do it. That said, if someone wants to make a precise replica, the light never will be the the same so it’ll never be identical. And even if it is, I don’t think I mind. I’m more concerned by the idea of adversely affecting other photographers who are trying to protect a location – which cycles back to the first point on the probable long-term futility of so doing…..


  2. Julian Barkway

    I have to say that the issue doesn’t really bother me, either. I tag most of the images I share on the Internet and freely give location info on my own website because it often adds to the ‘story’ behind the image and because I keep returning to places. If people want to duplicate my images then good luck to ’em. Very few of my images are from ‘easy-to-reach’ spots and most are details anyway.

    I don’t really understand why people want to duplicate the work of others (rather than discovering and visiting another photographer’s ‘special place’ to see what you can do, given the same raw material to work with). It’s not creative and one wonders why such people don’t take up a more appropriate hobby – double-entry book-keeping, for example. :)

    • Mike Green

      Very true, Julian: I think location information adds to the story too; helps people engage with the image perhaps. The issue doesn’t bother me either, other than when slightly when someone suggests that there is a ‘dark side’ to geotagging ;-) And that’s happened a few times. I’m hoping to hear a good argument against it! Not that I WANT to be persuaded, but debating is fun….

      And as to plagiarism, I’d probably be pretty flattered if anyone made the effort to try and copy something of mine. I think it can be creative though, if it’s a different ‘take’ on the shot. Maybe another ‘musing’ there somewhere.

      Thanks for commenting.


  3. Dave Moorhouse

    Hi Mike,
    Thought I’d add my two peneth.
    I don’t have a problem revealing where I took a photograph. I do carry a GPS with me if I’m out for a longer walk, but I’ve never bothered to record any exact image co-ordinates, prefering to do the easy thing by giving the approx. location on Flickr’s map.
    The questrion did occur to me this Spring when I was fortunate to photograph the rarest wild flower in Britain. I did record the general area in Flickr in the knowledge that the exact location would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, so I was comfortable with that.
    I drove past the area a week later to find that the local gaurdians of the nature reserve had planted directions to the site at the side of the road to encourage people to take a look, so I suppose I need not have worried.
    It is becoming harder to find locations that have not been visited & recorded by others, should we be worried that in years to come every landscape has been captured from every angle, under every sky, in every weather, with every lens?

    Great blog by the way!

    • Mike Green

      Hi Dave,

      Good to hear that you like the blog; encourages me to keep writing! Thank you :-)

      My take on the ‘easy thing’ is that, if images are geotagged, then I don’t have the, admittedly minor, hassle of placing them vaguely on Flickr’s map. Spectacularly lazy, hey?!

      Interesting story about the rare flower. I suppose it’s different when it’s actually in a reserve, but, even so, I’d have expected it to be somewhat secret, for fear of damage! In many ways, it’s nice to know that it wasn’t a big secret; that implies that the wardens have not experienced problems with directing people to them; rather reassuring really :-)

      I slightly share your reservation about everything ultimately being recorded, though that obviously has good and bad aspects, and I don’t really think that knowing the position enables people to make the same photograph; not in most cases anyway. I like the idea of there being ‘wilderness areas’, but I think we’ve gone beyond that in much of the World now, so I’m inclined to think that a bit more information is no longer an issue. Now, if the whole of Scotland, for example, was entirely uncharted north of Edinburgh, that would be fabulous!



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