Whether you’re a seasoned travel writer or just trying to give good directions to a place, knowing where you’ve been can be critical. This goes double in countries where street signs seem optional (hello, Thailand!), or a street address doesn’t have any bearing on reality (hello again, Thailand!).
Even if you have a street address that’s readily recognized, Google Maps sometimes has a tough time with it.
All three ways below focus on associating your photos with GPS data, so let’s go over that first.
Who or What Is a GPS?
GPS is short for Global Positioning System — you’ve seen it in a car (“turn right in… 300 meters” or “reCALculating”) or when finding your current location on your phone. If you’ve heard of geocaching, this 21st-century game uses the GPS system as well. Up in space, a network of satellites orbits the earth on very precise orbits, circling the earth twice a day.
A GPS receiver (either a separate piece of hardware or your phone) receives these signals from multiple satellites to triangulate your exact location, down to about five meters of accuracy.
While they’re not always shown by default, the GPS coordinates (essentially, a string of numbers) can help us identify an exact location. Pretty cool, but how does that help us?
Simply put, knowing the GPS coordinates to a place means knowing a constant ‘address’ for an area. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a physical address system in the area or not, and it works with virtually any kind of technology out there. Much like how a phone number can identify a single phone, a set of GPS coordinates can identify a single location.
What Goes Into a Set of GPS Coordinates?
At its simplest, GPS coordinates are a pair of numbers, separated by a comma. These are all correct GPS coordinates:
The first number is the latitude (north or south direction) – 0 being the equator, 90 being the north pole, and -90 being the south pole.
The second number is the longitude (east or west direction) – 0 being the prime meridian which runs through Greenwich, England.
While the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, we still measure longitude and latitude with degrees. In this system, 0 degrees latitude and 0 degrees longitude equals a point on the equator in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 550 kilometers south of Accra, Ghana:
Some GPS coordinates can be given with a cardinal direction in mind, such as ‘N’ for north or ‘E’ for east. Personally, I ignore those, but you’ll see them used in place of a minus sign.
In other words, 45.3 S 13.7 W means ‘45.3 degrees south of the equator and 13.7 degrees west of the prime meridian.’ In decimals, it would be stated as -45.3 -13.7, since north and east are the default directions.
One more detail: a single degree of latitude is about 111 kilometers , so we’ll need to narrow this down a bit to be useful. Two systems are common:
- The ‘arc-minutes’ and ‘arc-seconds’ method – 60 minutes in a degree, with 60 seconds in each minute. The coordinates for the Grand Palace in Bangkok, for example are 13°45’01.2″N 100°29’29.5″E. That first decimal in the seconds narrows the exact location to about three meters – good enough to tell one building from the next in most cases.
- The ‘decimal’ method – add enough decimals to the degree until it’s precise enough for you. The Grand Palace in this system, for example is 13.750325, 100.491530. By default, Google Maps gives you a GPS coordinates with six decimal places – good enough to narrow the exact location to about 11 centimeters. This is perfect to identify the front entrance, for instance, or an interesting feature of the building you’re visiting.
While Google Maps supports both, you’ll find it easier to give (and type in) the decimal addresses. You may see the ‘minutes and seconds’ method used by some apps or devices, so don’t get confused. They’ll both work fine.
So Where Did I Take That Photo?
With that admittedly long introduction to GPS out of the way, there are three ways to get the GPS coordinates of where you took a photo (sometimes called ‘GPS tagging’).
Option A: An App on Your Device
First things first – let’s get the device into ‘collection mode’.
On iOS, head to Settings > Privacy > Location Services:
Turn on the Location Services first. In short, the phone’s asking ‘which services should have access to location data?’. Turn it on for Camera app on iOS and any other apps that you’ll use while traveling (e.g. Google Maps).
On Android, go to Settings > Location (or Location and Security) > ‘Use GPS satellites’. Tap to toggle it on or off. Open the ‘Camera’ app, then go to Settings (gear) icon. Tap the “Store Location in Pictures,” or “Geo-tag Photos” to get the green checkmark. Things might be a little different depending on the model of phone and version of Android, of course.
Either way, the phone should now be including GPS coordinates in the EXIF data (metadata) that’s part of every digital photo.
PRO TIP: give the phone a few seconds to determine your current location. It can take anywhere from a few seconds to a minute for the phone to know your current location. If you take pictures before it’s locked onto where you are right now, it may add the GPS coordinates from your previous location. That’s not ideal.
Option B: An Add-On to Your Camera
Personally, I find the smartphone option the easiest, but it does add an extra step – especially if you’re rocking a DSLR. What if there were a tool for your DSLR to let you know where you are…
You’re in luck, because there is.
So let’s be clear, these are not cheap pieces of hardware – although they’re meant to last as long as your camera does, which may help you justify the cost a little more easily. The time they may save you is also a consideration. Not having to guess or go between several programs is wonderful. The hardware automatically adds the GPS coordinates the instant you take the picture.
The GP-1a is compatible with the Nikon D5000, D5100, D7000, and D90 models. It connects to the GPS satellites and inputs the coordinates into the photo itself. Give it a few moments to connect to the satellites, and leave it on so it stays connected.
For the higher-end Nikon’s, you’ll want to check out the Geotagger Pro 2-d GPS Unit. It’s a third-party device that runs on its own Li-ion battery, and can also be used as a wireless remote and timer release. It comes with an AC adapter of its own to keep it charged.
Compatible models: D800, D800e, D4, D3-series, D700, D300-series, D2x, D2xs, D2hs and D200
For some of the newer Nikon cameras, there’s the Geotagger N3-c GPS Unit:
Powered from the camera itself, this power-efficient device ensures a fast start with a ‘wake up and sleep’ mode to keep you working as fast as you like.
Compatible models: Nikon D600, D7000, D3200, D5100, D5000, D3100 and Coolpix P7700
I haven’t forgotten about you Canon users! Presenting the Canon GP-E2:
Compatible with the EOS-1D X, EOS 5D Mark III, and EOS 7D, the device can act as a stand-alone GPS logger. The receiver uses a single AA battery to avoid using the camera’s battery.
For other Canon DSLR cameras:
- EOS 40D and 50D: pick up the WFT-E3A
- EOS 5D Mark II: WFT-E4A
- EOS-1Ds Mark III and EOS-1D Mark III: WFT-E2A
GPS Might Be Built-In!
Some of the newer cameras on the market, such as the Nikon D5300 and the Samsung Galaxy NX have GPS built-into the camera. It can automatically tag the coordinates when you take a picture (venture through the camera’s menu to enable that).
If you’ve bought a new camera in the past year, definitely check the instructions and look through that menu before dropping more money on an accessory.
Option C: A Hybrid Option
Let’s say you’re willing to spend some time merging data, and that you’d rather do that than spend hundreds of dollars on a dedicated GPS unit. I’ll give credit to the Cult of Mac for first putting this all together. Basically, it involves syncing the location-finding services of your smartphone with the picture-taking services of your camera.
For iOS devices, the app you’ll want is called GeoTagr ($4.99). Sync your camera’s and your phone’s clocks, then take pictures with your camera as you like. When you’re back at your computer, use the app to apply the recorded GPS coordinates to a folder of photos. GPS4Cam ($3.99 for Pro version and a free Lite version)
For Android devices, there are a pair of free apps called MyTracks and TrackMyPhotos. MyTracks records GPS coordinates as you travel, while TrackMyPhotos syncs the coordinates with your photos. Another option is GPS4Cam ($1.25), which pairs nicely with a desktop app (for PC or Mac, both free)
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Great! Now How Do You See Those GPS Coordinates?
If you took the photos with your phone, you have plenty of ways to see those coordinates. My personal favorite is a free app called Koredoko – an iOS app that looks at the photos taken with the device to show the GPS coordinates stored within.
This will be by far the easiest way to see where a photo was taken. For Android, check out the free GPS Photo Viewer, which does essentially the same thing.
If you’ve added GPS information to your DSLR shots as above, import the photos to your computer and use Google’s excellent, free Picasa or most any photo program you like. Many of them enable you to see the EXIF data, which is where the GPS data is stored.
In Picasa, look to the lower right corner for the following options:
From left to right, these are people (tag people in the photos), map (where the photo was taken), a place to add tags (for organization) and info, or the EXIF data. Click the red pointer icon to bring up a map of where the photo was taken:
This is pulled from Google Maps, and zooms in and out as per usual.
Click on the ‘i’ to see the EXIF data:
Yep, those are the GPS coordinates in the middle — type those into Google Maps, or pass them on to anyone that asks.
In short, you no longer have the excuse that you ‘don’t remember’. You may have to start saying ‘I’ll have to check my records, let me get to back to you’. You can then give out the GPS coordinates — and get people to buy you a drink in exchange for telling them how to use them!
Photo credit: Wikipedia (GPS network, public domain), Google Maps (screenshot), my iPhone (screenshot), Google Picasa (screenshot), and Amazon (Nikon and Canon GPS units).