Digital cameras are fast becoming as essential to birding as binoculars and a field guide. A digital camera is a great tool to document unusual sightings, study field marks, refine your identification skills, remember a field trip, or share photos of beautiful birds with others. But have you ever taken so many photos you forgot which bird was where? In the past, the hassle and expense of using film cameras kept us in check. But with today’s digital cameras, it’s all too easy to rack up hundreds — even thousands — of photos on a single memory card.
All digital cameras record the time and date in each photo’s EXIF (Exchangeable Image File Format) file. But as birdwatchers, we’re often most interested in location: to document the observation of an accidental species, log a nest location for a breeding-bird survey, or communicate a find’s whereabouts to other birders.
Precise position data also is becoming more commonplace — and more important — for citizen-science projects. Many sighting databases, such as those managed by eBird, breeding-bird atlases, and regional or state ornithological unions, now incorporate latitude and longitude to document location. And what about out-of-town birders, reading about local hotspots discussed on web forums? An exact location, communicated with pushpins and links, is especially helpful to birders unfamiliar with an area.
The good news is that it’s now incredibly easy to georeference your photos. Geotagging technology is now available in cameras (including the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7 and the Leica V-Lux 20 super-zoom compacts), smartphones, and photo-editing software. Photoshop, Photo Mechanic, and Apple’s iPhoto and Aperture are among the software products that incorporate GPS coordinates into file data, and several of them can display maps with pushpins showing where photos were taken.
No matter what camera equipment or computer you use, it’s a snap to embed latitude and longitude data. Here are three ways to add location data to your bird photos.
1 Manual methods
The simplest and least expensive method, suitable for any camera, is to estimate location information at home using a free online map site such as Google Maps, Yahoo, or Bing. This approach makes the most sense if you want to log a single sighting to remember where you saw the bird, based on geographic landmarks.
For example, on a recent Christmas Bird Count in Minnesota, our group spotted a Hermit Thrush with a flock of American Robins, well north of its usual winter range. No one carried a GPS device, but we could recover the approximate location by noting where a nearby stream crossed the edge of a ski-resort parking lot.
After the count, we geotagged the documentation photo using Picasa, a popular free software application for organizing, editing, and sharing photos (http://picasa.google.com). It has a “places” panel that allows you to drag and drop a pin on a map to mark the spot where a photo was taken.
You can make geotagging easier and more accurate by utilizing a GPS-enabled device you already own, such as a cell phone, handheld unit, or high-end sport watch. Now that many cell phones integrate cameras and GPS receivers, the georeferencing process is a snap. A quick picture at each new location with your cell phone logs the location and serves as a proxy for all your “real” birding photos. Don’t try for the bird; you’re recording only the positional data. At home, use your software’s easy “paste location” command to transfer the GPS data to your high-resolution photographs from that place.
Go anywhere, shoot often
You can add location data to photo files without spending $200 for a geotagger. The less expensive option is a geologger, a pocket-size GPS unit that records your position as you shoot photos. Accompanying software matches the GPS data to your photos on your computer. Many geologgers are available, including the three pictured here: the Holux M-241 GPS Datalogger ($65), the GiSTEQ PhotoTrackr (three models, $69-$99), and the AMOD AGL3080 GPS Photo Tracker ($65).
If you’d rather not hassle with manual geotagging, you can buy either a geologger (for less than $100) or a geotagger (for about $200) to automate the process. Or if you have an iPhone, you can purchase an inexpensive geotagging app.
A geologger is a GPS unit that continuously logs your position and later matches the GPS data to your digital photographs via accompanying software that you install on your home computer. A geotagger instantly adds GPS coordinates to photo files. (More on geotaggers in a minute.)
The downside of a geologger is that the georeferencing is not entirely automatic. Geologgers produce a bread-crumb trail and then transfer positions to each photo by matching the time-and-date stamp. It’s a simple, effective concept. Both the camera and the geologger have a clock, and since you can be at only one place each time you shoot a photo, the data from both devices can be synced. The key is to make sure, before you start shooting, that the camera’s clock and the geologger’s clock match, preferably to the second.
A geologger is a good choice for a birder who covers a lot of distance and takes many photos but would rather not spend $200 on a geotagger. And if you own a Canon camera, it’s your only option since Canon models are not yet compatible with geotaggers.
Geologgers (such as the three shown in the sidebar) are small, weigh only a few ounces, and can be carried easily in a pocket or clipped to a backpack. Before buying, be sure to check that the accompanying software application is compatible with your camera make and model.
In addition, at least five geotagging apps are available for the iPhone, including PhotoTrip ($1) and PlaceTagger ($10). Like geologgers, they track your position as you move and can be synced with your photos later with software.
If you take photos at many different locations, or if you’re planning a dream birding trip, nothing compares to the convenience of a geotagger.
A geotagger is a GPS sensor that connects directly to your camera and tags each image instantly and automatically with location data. Just as the camera’s shutter release can trigger a flash, it can trigger a GPS unit to add position information to EXIF files.
We use a Nikon GP-1, a featherweight GPS unit that connects directly to our camera’s hot shoe, the mounting point for a flash. It automatically places UTC time, latitude, longitude, and altitude (fun for mountain birds!) into the EXIF files. The information is also instantly displayed on the camera’s preview screen.
The device is compatible only with higher-end Nikon camera models; it sells for about $190. Also on the market: the GeoPic II for Nikon and Fujifilm cameras (about $200) and the Blue2CAN Bluetooth Adapter, a tiny device that attaches to Nikon cameras and receives GPS data via a Bluetooth signal ($195).
Like all technologies, new geotagging and geologging devices come on the scene regularly. But the great thing about georeferencing is that you can use the technology you already own to get started for free. And if georeferencing becomes more important to your total birding experience, it may be the reason to justify a new camera purchase. Then, even if the photograph of your lifer White-faced Storm-Petrel or Colima Warbler comes out as a blur, at least you’ll know exactly where you saw it!