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Playing Tag Part 1

If you’re at all like me, it is quite easy to come back from a birding trip with thousands of pictures.  Once home, organizing the photos can take many dimensions (and indeed be a topic for a book, not just a blog post!)  One important element of photo cataloging to consider is keeping track of locations where bird photos were taken.

A traditional way to keep track of photo locations is through field notes.  Often I can look at one of my bird photos and remember the spot where I took it, especially if I go there a lot.  By pulling up the photo’s date I can also look at eBird to see what checklist and location I have associated with the species photographed.  There are many birds I’ve photographed that left a big enough impression on me that I can find the exact square meter on Google Earth or Google Maps where the target was acquired.


Some birds leave a big enough impression to remember their exact location without geotagging or even written notes, such as this Barnacle Goose in Grimsby, Ontario, December 2009.

But as my photo stock grows and my memory diminishes I really appreciate my photos telling me where they were taken.  Enter photographic getotagging, basically the ability of a camera to associate GPS coordinates along with the other metadata recorded with each digital image.  With geotagged images, I can just pull up the location data and see precisely where my camera was positioned for the shot.


Birding jaunts often take us to places without familiar landmarks, or any landmarks at all!! But I know exactly where this Cook’s Petrel was: 33° 25′ 21.4″ North, 120° 46′ 55.9″ West, thanks to my camera’s GPS receiver. Offshore from Santa Barbara, CA, July 2009.

Interestingly, improved features don’t always filter from the top down in the camera industry.  Naturally, some innovations first show up in top-end DSLRs before finding their way “down” to more affordable price points in successive generations of camera body offerings.  Advances like reduced noise in sensors at high ISO and more sophisticated metering and autofocus systems would be examples of top-down improvements.  But built-in geotagging has been frustratingly slow to appear in DSLRs (even the most expensive pro models) despite its ubiquity in smart phones and ready availability for years in selected digital point-and-shoot lines.  For a while many DSLR cameras have had the ability to support geotagging with the addition of aftermarket GPS accessories, but at additional cost & bulk (not to mention your flash shoe being occupied by a GPS receiver and a stray cable to snag stuff & generally annoy whenever possible.)  I’ve used an external GPS receiver through several generations of camera bodies and have come to rely on it, but the outlook for integrated geotagging in DSLRs is getting better all the time.


My trusty rig with a GPS receiver mounted on the flash shoe & connected to my camera body with a cable. Wouldn’t it be nice if all that was built into the camera body?  I have a feeling this is coming soon to a DSLR near you!

In November Nikon will join Canon by each offering a DSLR body with built-in GPS receiver (Canon’s EOS 6D and Nikon’s D5300.)  Sony also has a couple of DSLR bodies with this feature (the a77 & a99, though Sony doesn’t seem to have the birding market penetration of Canon & Nikon yet.)  I hope these are the vanguard of many more DSLR body choices soon to come with integrated GPS receivers for geotagging.

Next episode:  How do I access and use my geotagged photo coordinates?

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Bill Schmoker

Bill Schmoker

Bill is known in the birding community as a leading digital photographer of birds. Since 2001 he has built a collection of digital bird photos documenting over 640 species of North American birds. His photography has appeared in international nature publications, books, newspapers, interpretive signs, web pages, advertisements, corporate logos, and as references for art works. Also a published writer, Bill wrote a chapter for Good Birders Don't Wear White, is a past Colorado/Wyoming regional editor for North American Birds and is proud to be on the Leica Birding Team. Bill is a Colorado eBird reviewer and is especially fond of his involvement with the ABA's Institute for Field Ornithology and Young Birder Programs. Bill is a popular birding guide, speaker, and workshop instructor, and teaches middle school science in Boulder, Colorado. When he isn’t birding he enjoys family time with his wife and son.
Bill Schmoker

Latest posts by Bill Schmoker (see all)

  • Ted Floyd

    Thanks, Bill, for an informative and practical post–as always.

    To come at this from a slightly different, er, angle, I hereby note that photo selection for Birding magazine often depends *more* on date and location than on species. Indeed, for an upcoming article in Birding, the actual time of day (along with a quite precise location) is the determining factor for photo selection.

    Occasionally, we need just a generic Barnacle Goose or Cook’s Petrel–photographed anywhere anytime. But more often we need, say, a Henslow’s Sparrow on the wintering grounds in the Southeast, a Red-necked Phalarope on stopover at the Great Salt Lake, or a Sagebrush Sparrow singing from a sagebrush (birders, know your plants!) in summer.

    And note again that sometimes, the bird species doesn’t even matter. Thus, we might need sandpipers at Quivira, raptors at Cape May, a warbler from Magee Marsh, or anything with wings and feathers from Yosemite.

    So, remember, photographers: Location, location, location; and date; and sometimes species.

  • Christopher Eliot

    There is another solution for easy geotagging that for many readers will not require buying or carrying new hardware. Many birders already carry smartphones. Certain smartphone apps can easily map your track as you’re walking, driving, or boating. I use the popular EasyTrails app on iOS and have used My Tracks on Android, and there are other options. You can then automatically sync your photos with your map locations by time!

    In the field, you just open the mapping app, hit “start” when setting out and “end” when done, and then save the track. Sometime between birding and photo-editing, export the track in GPX format. In EasyTrails, this is a matter of tapping the “open in” button, tapping “GPX” and then tapping “open in” again to select a way of transferring the GPX map file to your computer. One easy way to do this is through Dropbox, if you have that on your phone.

    Then, in photo-editing software like Aperture or Lightroom, select a set of photos and then select the maps or location module and import the GPS track by opening it as you would any other file. Confirm you want to associate the track with the photos by time, and you’re done! All the photos should appear along the track, and have individual lat-long coordinates associated with them.

  • Guest

    Please note that there are few alternatives to geotag our pictures, especially with the popularization of smartphones. Personally, I use the gps4cam app ( Just start this app during a photographic excursion, then take a picture of the generated QR code, and all pictures taken during that excursion are geotagged!

  • Pingback: Playing Tag Part 2: How do I access and use my geotagged photo coordinates? « ABA Blog()

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