With the launch of iPhoto ‘09 and its Places feature—capable of showing the map locations of a user’s photos, provided they contain geographic coordinate information, called “geotags”—our camera-loving editors started a hunt for ways to automatically geotag their photos. The challenge: there are only a handful of GPS-enabled cameras and GPS accessories for existing cameras, and we didn’t want to buy new and generally expensive hardware for this purpose. Thankfully, we were already carrying perfectly acceptable alternatives right in our pockets: the GPS-equipped iPhone 3G and iPhone 3GS make fine geotagging instruments, and with the right apps, they can create solid tagging data for far less than the cost of new cameras or GPS accessories.
Today we look at five different geotagging apps for the iPhone, but before we begin, there are a few concepts and facts that are worth pointing out for those who might be unfamiliar with the concept of geotagging. Geotagging is a computerized process for adding GPS-based location data to an image for later reference. Since most cameras don’t include GPS hardware, but the iPhone 3G and 3GS do, you can run an iPhone application to record your location while shooting the photos. The best apps of the bunch are PhotoTrip and PlaceTagger; read on for all the details.
A Brief Primer On Importing Photos You Want To Geotag
Depending on how you currently import photos from your camera to your computer, you may need to change things up a little in order to make geotagging easy. To save yourself hassles in the process, and skip the following paragraph, you’ll need to import the photos to your computer with something other than iPhoto—for instance, Image Capture, which is included with Mac OS X—so that the photos appear in a selected folder on your computer. At that point, you use the PC or Mac companion software mentioned below to add the location information, and then import the tagged photos into iPhoto ‘09 or a comparable PC photo storage program.
If you’re accustomed to importing photos directly into iPhoto ‘09 or a comparable PC photo management program, you’ll have an additional challenge to face. Because iPhoto ‘09 keeps its photos in a closed Library file by default, it is more difficult to tag the photos after importing them than it is to do so beforehand. Using iPhoto ‘09, and assuming that you have the location data on your iPhone, with iPhoto set to “Copy items to the iPhoto Library”—a setting which can be changed in the Advanced pane of the iPhoto preferences—you will need to right- or control-click on the iPhoto Library you want to access and select “Show Package Contents,” click on the Originals folder, and then navigate through your photos until you find the photos you’d like to tag. Keep in mind that if you have “Copy items” turned off, you need only navigate to the folder where you keep the images you’d like to tag and go from there.
Due to the added complexity of tagging files that are inside iPhoto, we once again recommend Mac owners use Image Capture to import the photos you want to tag into a specified folder, tag them, and then import them into iPhoto.
A Couple Of Caveats Regarding Geotagging Applications For iPhone 3G + 3GS
Two additional facts are worth noting, as well. First, most of the apps below export geotag data in a universal format called GPX. If an app does not offer an on-computer companion application, you’ll need to download a program that can take the location information and correctly add it to your photos. For the purposes of testing, we used the free GPSPhotoLinker application for Mac OS X; equivalent applications, such as GeoSetter, are available for free for Windows users. While GPSPhotoLinker handled both our JPG and RAW Nikon D90-based NEF files, each camera produces slightly different RAW files, so your mileage may vary. Second, all these apps disable the iPhone’s sleep mode by default so they can continuously monitor your position. While most offer settings so you can reduce the frequency of these updates, all of them will cause your battery to run down faster than when the phone can sleep, and the rate at which the battery drains will correlate to how frequently you want the app to update your position. Plan accordingly, and consider a spare battery if you plan to make frequent use of the feature.
And Now, The Apps
Geocorder ($1) and GeoCorder [FREE] (Free) from Oliver Drobnik are competent, bare-bones GPS “track” (or path) recorders, with identical feature sets save for small, unobtrusive ads in the free version. Each app initially presents a plain, empty list on which saved tracks are shown; to start a new track, you simply press the plus button in the upper right-hand corner. This brings you to the main recording screen, with a horizontally scrolling display used to visually show the signal’s accuracy, along with values for last update, more accuracy figures, and the current latitude, longitude, and altitude. Two buttons in the lower left corner let you begin, pause, and stop the track recording, while two other buttons in the lower right corner offer the ability to change the desired accuracy—it’s set to “Best” by default—and return to the track listing screen.
Unlike some of the other apps in this round-up, GeoCorder doesn’t offer any built-in geotagging feature, instead offering to email tracks to any of your contacts in the standard .gpx format for use with a separate application. Using the software and the .gpx file provided by GeoCorder, we were able to successfully—and accurately—geotag test photos taken with our digital camera. While its spartan interface leaves something to be desired, and it doesn’t offer any sort of built-in tagging capability, GeoCorder and its free counterpart do the job for a minimal price. A more visually appealing interface and clearer accuracy options would make them even better; unless you want to look at the advertising, we’d opt for the paid version, if for no other reason than to support further development. iLounge Rating (Both): B.
With a bottom-tabbed interface and promises of direct geotagging, GeoLogTag ($5) and GeoLogTag Free (Free) from Galarina are decent geotagging apps. The free version offers the full functionality of the paid version, but only keeps logged locations for 2 hours, as opposed to 90 days. Upon launch, you’re presented with a sparse, black interface with a button for .gpx export—via email or a web browser—a slider for turning on tagging, and options appear to control the frequency of location updates and corresponding battery icons to help identify which is the most conservative. A small capsule-like display below the slider updates to show how many times the software has updated the position since it began logging, and an unnecessary human shadow icon that prompts you to tell a friend about the software appears above the bottom tab bar.
A second tab on the bottom takes users to the tagging screen, where two options are offered: one is meant to let you tag photos by accessing them via a shared folder on a Mac, while the other allows you to connect to Flickr and tag photos directly on the service. In our testing, the app was able to connect to our Mac, but was unable to list the photos in the shared directory, and therefore failed to tag them. It did successfully connect to Flickr, placing the photos on our Flickr map, but strangely did not add the GPS coordinates to the photos’ EXIF data; it is unclear whether this is an omission by the developer or a constraint of the Flickr interface. Exporting .gpx data via email also functioned correctly, although the data provided by GeoLogTag was among the least accurate we received from any of the apps, despite using a mostly consistent setting—within 10 meters—across the board. It’s worth noting that even this data was within a few hundred yards, and would be perfectly usable for all but the most exacting users. Overall, a comparatively high price tag, paired with a so-so interface and some oddly- or non-functioning features leave GeoLogTag short of our recommendation. A more refined, colorful interface, a fixed Mac-based tagging system, and a lower price tag would make this a better solution; users who care primarily about Flickr may find it worthwhile anyway. iLounge Rating (Both): C.
The only app of its kind to be completely tied to a companion application, GeoTag ($2) from Salt ‘n Pepper is unfortunately undone by its Mac OS X assistant. The iPhone app offers users four tabs for navigation, the first of which—collect—displays the current location, the current image name for manual tagging, and a collect button for manually stamping the listed image name with the current location. Luckily, the app is set to Auto Collection by default, making the entire manual process unnecessary. A manage tab lets users view and edit manual tags, a settings tab lets users set the image name prefix—such as “DSC_”—the photo number to tag, and toggle sleep mode on and off. The fourth and final tab, share, allows you to turn on the app’s built-in server to share photos with the desktop client, and also offers a button to purge the database, reclaiming storage space.
Notably lacking from the above list is an option to export the tag data as a .gpx file, and that omission immediately rules out Windows users, as there is no Windows-compatible companion app. Mac OS X users need to download GeoTag Desktop to interact with the app, and it is here that things go woefully wrong. While its interface is nice enough, and it successfully found and downloaded the geo data from the iPhone app—after entering in the iPhone’s local IP address, which is displayed inside the app once the server is turned on—the application won’t allow users to select individual or groups of image files, confusingly forcing them to select entire folders of images. It only gets worse from there, as it automatically tags the images it believes it has data for, and in our testing, that included 11 photos that were taken while testing a different app, all of which it said were taken in the same spot. Luckily, it duplicated each photo it edited and placed the new version in the same folder with a .tagged extension, so the original test photos were not compromised. In addition, it also incorrectly tagged one of the photos it was actually supposed to tag, saying it was taken in the middle of a lake. We would have gotten a screenshot, but the Desktop app began to eat up system resources almost immediately, to the point where a Force Quit was required to resume using the computer. The iPhone application itself isn’t bad, but it’s forcibly paired with a buggy, bloated desktop companion. With an added .gpx export option, and perhaps a completely overhauled desktop client—including a Windows version—it might be worth another look, but in its current state, we’d avoid this one. iLounge Rating: D.
With a clean interface that’s one of the best in its class and simple, straight forward operation, PhotoTrip ($1) from Ambertation is a great little geotagging app with a few well-polished if arguably unnecessary features. The app opens to a list of recorded trips, with a plus button in the corner to create a new trip. Once in the trip view, users are offered a slider that adjusts how often the app updates the user’s position, a slider to turn the screen lock on and off, a small display with the time and current location, a radar-like circle that indicates signal strength, and a list of previously recorded waypoints. Selecting a waypoint brings up a new screen where users can see and edit the recorded location and date/time, access a map showing the point’s location, enter a description, and even add a photo. While most of these semi-hidden features seem frivolous, they do make the app stand out, as PhotoTrip is the only application to offer them.
In the Export view, users have a choice between sending out either a .gpx file or a “plugin export,” which works with Ambertation’s companion Aperture plugin. Users may also choose to send the data as an attachment or as plain text, and a slider to turn on a “scan for server” feature is also available, presumably to allow for the setup of an SMTP server, something the developer claims is required for sending attachments; we had no trouble sending an attachment without setup. The .gpx data supplied by PhotoTrip worked fine with our desktop app, and for the most part delivered accurate results—any inaccuracies were more likely the fault of our setting the automatic waypoint setting a bit too slow than the fault of the app itself. Although it lacks a more wide reaching companion application, PhotoTrip offers a pretty interface, solid feature set, and the ability to export in a universal format as well as to an Aperture-specific one, and does all that for a very reasonable price tag. It’s highly recommended. iLounge Rating: A-.
Perhaps the easiest to use geotagging application we’ve tried, PlaceTagger ($6) from return7 is also the most expensive; it somewhat justifies its expense by offering unique features and a robust choice of tagging options. The app is split into five tabs: a record tab for starting and stopping the recording feature, complete with a map (when a network connection is available) to show the current location, a settings tab for clearing the database, adjusting the distance filter, and setting the accuracy and frequency of the location recording, a help tab with instructions on how to use the app and its companion desktop program, a sync tab for synchronizing the camera with the iPhone’s clock, and an export tab, which also allows you to choose a start and end date for the data to be exported, and in what format. The app offers both traditional .gpx and proprietary .xml options, which enables it to export files that Mac or Windows users can use.
Perhaps the neatest trick of PlaceTagger, at least for Mac users, is that no export is needed at all. The Mac OS X companion application of the same name lets users import the photos to be tagged, then grabs the correct location information from the iPhone, as long as the computer and phone are on the same Wi-Fi network: you simply open the app on the phone, and everything is handled automatically. Our NEF RAW files were handled fine by the application, but different formats may see different results, and all original files were saved with an _original tag so as to preserve them should something go awry. In our first round of testing PlaceTagger, we initially had trouble getting the application to work, but it turned out to be a problem with time zones—we had taken the photos in Hawaii, but tried to tag them back home. As it turns out, the app uses the computer’s time zone to match the time on the photos to the time in the log, and a manual switch of the computer to Hawaii-Aleutian standard time fixed the problem. Notably, we had no such problems with photos logged and taken in our normal (Eastern) time zone; neither did we have a problem verifying the .gpx data exported by the app.
Because of the Mac-only nature of PlaceTagger’s companion app, we’re going to offer two ratings for the iPhone version: one for Windows users, and one for Mac users. Since there’s no PC companion app to help justify this app’s higher price, we’d recommend Windows users opt for the much cheaper, but still nice PhotoTrip, unless they often use the Maps application for navigation—PlaceTagger is the only geotagging app that offers real-time mapping while in use. Thanks to the solid Mac app, OS X users have a much tougher call to make, but we believe that with the combination of interface, features, and automatic integration with the companion app, PlaceTagger offers the most “Mac-like” experience of any currently available geotagging app, and is worth the extra money if you can afford it. iLounge Rating (Mac): A-. iLounge Rating (Windows): B-.