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Geotagging pictures with an iPhone

It used to be that geotagging required quite a bit if effort, and that to do it you were forced to buy an expensive GPS device that ended up being yet another gadget that you had to carry around all day. But nowadays many of us have smartphones with built-in GPS capabilities, which combined with the right app gives you all you would need out of a GPS unit and then some, and all in a device you already carry in your pocket. This is a small guide on how to (fairly easily) geotag your images with an iPhone, the FollowMe app and Lightroom. But if you have another brand of smartphone and/or image organising software it's highly likely you'll still be able to use a similar workflow .

Fujifilm Finepix X100s and iPhone
Fujifilm Finepix X100s and iPhone

Nowadays I geotag pretty much every picture I take. The first thing I do before I leave the house to take pictures is to make sure to set the time in my camera in sync with the time in my iPhone. Then I fire up my GPS app (I use an app called FollowMe), and I pretty much focus in taking pictures and forget about it until I get back home.

Once I'm back, I import my photos into Lightroom and I email the GPS track from FollowMe to myself. The app records tracklogs in three formats: csv, gpx and kml.  Of those three the one you are interested in is gpx, as it is the one that Lightroom understands. Once I've downloaded the tracklog file from my email, I import my pictures into Lightroom. Then I follow these steps:

  1. Make sure I'm in the folder that contains the newly imported pictures (the Map module will make available the pictures from the folder that is selected at the moment of opening the module).
  2. Open the map module.
  3. Click on the tracklog icon (the squiggly shape next to the lock icon right under the map panel) and select Load Tracklog. Load the gpx tracklog I emailed myself (the tracklog loads should then load in the main map panel).
  4. Select all the new images from the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen, and click on the trackog icon again, then select the option to auto tag all the selected photos (see image below).
Tag photos in the Map module
Tag photos in the Map module

Presto! All the images are now geotagged.

Something to keep in mind is that having a GPS app running on the backroung will drain the iPhone battery quite fast. So if you are going to be out taking pictures for extended periods of time you may want to invest on a battery case that will buy you a few more hours (I have the Mophie Juice Pack Plus, which roughly doubles the battery life of the phone). Having wifi and 3G turned off also helps.

Good shooting!

EDIT: I thought I should point out a couple of things that I've discovered since I wrote this article. One good and one not so good. Read below for more...

THE GOOD:

A few months after uploading this post I starting using a new app called Geotag Photos Pro. It's not free ($4.99 in the US app store at the time of this writing) but works very well. I find it less clunky than FollowMe and well worth the price, so if you are looking for something a bit more polished and with some interesting extra features you may want to take a look at it. I contacted the developers a couple of times with questions and in both instances they replied to me quickly and solved my queries, which is a really good thing in my book.

THE BAD:

I just came back from a trip to Burma and the geotracks that came out of the iPhone for that trip were many times quite inaccurate, sometimes spectacularly so (I was once getting a position that was off by about 2km from my real one). I'm not sure why this happened exactly. I know that if you have roaming turned off the phone can't use mobile phone towers to aid positioning and has to go purely by satellite positioning, which apparently the iPhone is not as good at doing as a conventional GPS unit. But I've used that same method when travelling through Europe (iPhone with roaming disabled), and I've had pretty good GPS tracks with just some occasional "out of position" spikes.

I've scoured the internet trying to figure out why that is, but haven't found a clear answer. But the bottom line seems to be that you can't be sure to get good positioning with an iPhone outside of roaming areas. So I'm afraid I'll have to get a GPS unit for when I'm outside of the UK. Having to carry one more gadget when I travel is something I was hoping to avoid, but I don't want to risk getting GPS data as bad as I got on my last trip. Your mileage may vary, but just be warned.