The Global Positioning System is one of the most useful innovations of the last 40 years. Over 30 satellites orbit the Earth at 20,000 km with no other purpose than to help people triangulate their position anywhere on the surface of the planet. As landscape photographers, the surface of the planet is probably one of your favourite things 😉

During the course of your outdoor shoots, you’ve probably made use of GPS to navigate to a particular place. Whether it was through your car’s navigation system or your mobile phone’s mapping system. It’s a handy thing to have in your camera bag, especially once you find yourself in the backcountry in search of that great shot.

One of the biggest problems that you’ll find as a landscape photographer is that you don’t always find yourself in a place at the best time to photograph it. You may be passing through on your way to somewhere else, in a hurry, or you may find yourself with a dead battery or full memory card and no way to capture a masterpiece. Worst of all, you might find that you’re just out for a stroll without any camera at all! So what do you do?

You could use your trusty GPS to note down the exact position of the shot, but keeping track of all those numbers is a huge pain. Especially when you get extremely precise and you’ve got to copy down two 10 or 12 digit numbers for each location you want to track. A single transposition error could leave you quite a ways off from where you intended to be, and when you out in the wild that’s a good way to find yourself lost.

Enter the Smartphone

Fortunately, almost everyone carries around a smartphone with GPS nowadays, and the other great part of a mobile phone’s GPS capability is that you can supplement it with apps. There are a huge number of apps relating to the global positioning system, but not all of them are created equal.

Ideally, you should be able to take a photograph with your mobile phone and immediately tag it with your GPS coordinates. This will allow you to keep track of what you intended to shoot in addition to exactly where it is. By default, your phone’s camera app is probably already tagging every photo you take with the relevant GPS data – but how do you view it?

Which phone do you have?

For those of you using an Android phone, probably the best app is the rather redundantly titled ‘Photos on Map – Polo Photomaps’. It will look through all the images saved in your phone camera and parse the GPS data, and plot each photo on a map. You’ll be shown a little thumbnail of each image plotted on the map, and provided that you have internet access you can select the photo and click the ‘Navigate’ button. This will open Google Maps (or your chosen mapping application) and provide you with directions on how to get back there!

If you’re using an iPhone, the ability to track your images on a map is actually built into iOS 7 and up, which makes it extremely easy to manage. You can simply open up the Photos app, and tap on any of the locations listed. This will open Apple Maps and showcase your image thumbnails matched to their location on the map. Unfortunately, of course, Apple Maps is still not quite on par with Google Maps, so you may want to use another application to handle any navigation.

Ensure Location Services are Enabled

In order for any of this to work on Android or iPhone, you have to ensure that your mobile phone’s location services are turned on and that your camera app is able to access them. After a number of privacy concerns were raised about people unwittingly uploading GPS tagged images to the internet, some manufacturers disabled these features by default so be sure to double-check before you start your tagging adventure.

On iOS, go to Settings, then go to Privacy. Ensure that ‘Location Services’ is enabled, and then scroll down through your list of apps until you see ‘Camera’, and ensure that it is allowed access to your location.

On Android, it can be a bit trickier to manage as every manufacturer has their own slightly different version of Android. Ensure that your GPS is enabled by going to Settings and finding the ‘Location’ section. After that, it may be a bit more complicated. The relevant setting may be displayed in the Location area of the Settings panel, but you may have to open your camera app and enable Location Services there.

Of course, the mapping will only be as good as your mobile phone’s GPS settings. Unfortunately, like geotagging apps, these chips are not all created equal, so there may be some variance in the precision of your recorded locations. Additionally, heavy weather can make it difficult for your phone to get completely precise coordinates from the satellites.

The Return Journey

When you’re navigating back to your tagged locations, you may find yourself having some trouble if you’re in an area where there’s no mobile phone service coverage. Google Maps and Apple Maps both require active internet connections to work, but it is possible to use your GPS service anywhere in the world.

If you need to find a location far out in the wilderness, your best course of action is to download an offline map application that works with your GPS and doesn’t require an active internet connection. It’s a bit more cumbersome, but you should still be able to find just about anywhere!