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.
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.
- Is there a problem beyond the ‘risk’ of plagiarism?
- Is the problem one of creating ‘honey pots’ in new locations?
- 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….