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Geophoto Puts Your Photos on the Map

Photography is a visual medium, and yet our tools for locating digital photos are mostly textual and temporal. When you open iPhoto, you can visually scan through the pictures, but that becomes a problem in large libraries when hundreds of thumbnails streak by as you drag the scroller. Instead, you’re more likely to search according to date: scrolling down the page, the names and capture dates of iPhoto’s film rolls appear. Or, if you’re thorough, you may set up photo albums that describe their contents (“Africa Trip,” for example). In each case, you’re using a text-dependent, non-visual approach to finding images.

Now, think about how your mind locates images. In addition to knowing roughly when the photographs were taken (“March,” or “Spring,” or “Sometime in the last two years”), you no doubt associate a location such as “home,” “Los Angeles,” or “Africa.” Unless you had the foresight to set up albums or keywords with that specific information (and instead of “Los Angeles,” the location could have also been specific nearby areas such as “Glendale” or “Anaheim”), there’s no good way to use that information in your search. At least, not in iPhoto or most other photo-cataloging applications.

Ovolab’s $20 Geophoto looks to add that visual element to finding your pictures, as well as images from around the world. Geophoto lets you place your photos on a map, so you can easily find the ones you’ve taken in Montana, Madrid, or Pretoria. It also lets you subscribe to photo feeds over the Internet, whether or not those images are tagged with geographic data. A trial version of Geophoto 1.3 is a 42.5 MB download; it’s a universal binary and requires Mac OS X 10.4 and a graphics card with at least 64 MB of VRAM.

Get Out the Map — Geophoto opens with a slowly rotating satellite image of the Earth, which you can manipulate by clicking and dragging with the mouse. It feels very much like starting up Google Earth. Zoom in or out using the mouse’s scroll wheel, menu commands, or keyboard shortcuts.

(An aside: The keyboard command for zooming in is Command-+, with the plus sign being a long-established common shorthand for “zoom in.” However, you actually must press Command-Shift-= because the plus sign is the shifted character on the equal sign’s key. I understand the literal context at work, that you’re not zooming in by pressing “Command-equals.” But since Command-= does nothing except produce a system beep indicating you pressed the wrong button, why not map that key to zoom in too? You can get around this by pressing Command and the plus sign on an extended keyboard’s number pad, but that doesn’t help laptop users. Geophoto is by no means the only culprit in this regard, but merely the program where I want to put my foot down
and beg developers to anticipate such minor user interface annoyances so users aren’t compelled to write lengthy parenthetical asides like this.)

Photo albums appear in a sidebar list to the left of the globe and the photos themselves run horizontally across a pane at the bottom of the window. Initially, a new Geophoto library is empty. To start adding photos, you can drag photo files to the Geophoto Library Pictures collection, but it’s more likely that you already have a bunch of photos stored in iPhoto. If that’s the case, you can import iPhoto albums directly by clicking the iPhoto Album button and selecting an album. Geophoto doesn’t duplicate the photo files (thankfully, so it doesn’t chew up hard disk space), but only references the files linked to your iPhoto library.

Another way to add photos – either your own or those of others – is to subscribe to online photo feeds – either an iPhoto photocast or a photostream from Flickr. This is a fun and interesting feature that provides an ongoing selection of photos that’s refreshed manually or when you launch Geophoto. You can specify a Flickr group (for example, the Flowers group) to see the 20 most recent photos without going to the Web, a handy feature if you want to view photos from several groups at once. Even if you’re not as interested in attaching geographical information to pictures, Geophoto turns out to be a nice image browser for online feeds.

You can also subscribe to the feed of a specific Flickr user, but you must take a roundabout way to get to it. The dialog asks for one or more tags (words describing the image; “geotagged” is automatically filled in) and the user’s name. It seems odd that I can’t instead just enter the URL of the RSS feed that appears at the bottom of every user’s photos page.

Unless you imported photos that already contain mapping information, the thumbnail images in the strip at the bottom of the window display a globe icon with a slash through it. The next step is to place your images on the map, which, surprisingly, is one of Geophoto’s shortcomings.

Mark the Spot — Geophoto offers a few different ways to tag your photos with location data; these methods range from easy to maddening, depending on how precise you want to get.

Of course, the real solution to recording location metadata will require that digital cameras have built-in GPS capabilities. A few cameras already do this, and there are various accessories and techniques for existing cameras, but until such capabilities are widespread, you can use Geophoto’s tools.

The preferred method seems to be Go To Location, a button and menu item (but not a keyboard shortcut) that displays a Mac OS X sheet with a Country pop-up menu and a field in which you can type a city or landmark name. Search results appear at the bottom of the sheet in another pop-up menu. Although most of my queries were successful, I encountered a few strange results, too: the search located teeny Bitter Lake in Seattle, but not the larger and more scenic Green Lake, although Green Lakes in Wisconsin, Alaska, and other states appeared. Actually, while typing just “green lake” brought no correct results,
typing “green lake washington” popped up several options that did appear to be in Washington, but weren’t the one I was looking for.

Another method is to drag a photo or album directly onto the globe. If you’re not zoomed in very far, this approach could result in your Paris vacation photos being displayed in Brussels or Berlin or Warsaw. So you’ll find yourself zooming in on sections of continent looking for more specific areas as you get closer to the ground. Bringing up the contextual menu (Control-click or right-click) offers a Zoom In command that centers the mouse pointer’s location in the window, which helps somewhat.

But you’ll soon get frustrated, because Geophoto ships with a limited amount of geographic detail. Unlike Google Earth, or Google’s satellite maps on the Web, zooming in doesn’t automatically increase the resolution of the terrain. To move beyond a thick soup of blurry pixels, you need to open Geophoto’s preferences, click the Imagery button, and download the next-best quality of satellite images. I say “next-best” because there’s no option to just download the highest resolution; you need to increase your view of the world in waves, downloading one set of files, then the next, and so on, four or five times.

The highest-resolution data (an average of 0.13 miles per pixel) is still pretty far away. Performing a search for Cornell University yields a patch of Earth roughly 50 miles square. I can zoom in further, but I have to take it on faith that dragging photos from the strip to the middle of the map will put them at the right place.

Fortunately, there are two options for fine-tuning your photo placement.

Selecting a photo and bringing up the Inspector reveals a Set button next to the Latitude and Longitude fields (which are not editable, so you can’t plug in those values if you happen to know them). Clicking Set takes you to the Go To Location sheet; after you get a search result, clicking the Set button positions your photo at that location.

(Selecting one or more photos in the strip and using the Set button is more efficient than finding a location and dragging photos onto it. However, Geophoto’s highly visual approach discourages one from looking for solutions in dialogs or palettes. Also, the introductory sticky notes that appear the first time the program is launched emphasize dragging photos to the globe and make no mention of the Set Location approach; you have to stumble upon it or find a reference in the getting started PDF.)

The other option is to display the Loupe. In traditional photography, a loupe is a magnifying glass that you place over negatives on a light table to inspect the quality of the images you shot. In Geophoto, the Loupe bridges the gap between the middle-altitude view of the globe’s highest resolution and street level. Within the Loupe’s square field of view is a Google street map; the resolution depends on how far you’re zoomed in on the map. Holding the spacebar and moving the mouse keeps the Loupe stationary and moves only its contents if you’re looking for something in particular, but clicking the mouse jumps you right back to where you were before pressing the spacebar.

If you find a more accurate location for your photo (like the city block where the picture was taken), you can move the picture to a new spot by Command-clicking it and dragging. A red crosshair appears to help you pinpoint, but its movement can be jerky depending on your zoom level.

Basically, placing your photos with any degree of accuracy beyond city level is a lot of work. Perhaps this is because we’ve all seen how the operation should work: like Google Maps on the Web or Google Earth, where the image resolution dynamically increases as you move closer to your destination. Using Google Earth and the Yahoo Maps feature in Flickr, for example, I was able to pinpoint the parking lot from which I shot a photo on Seattle’s waterfront. Geophoto couldn’t offer that level of detail, and even in cases where you might be able to narrow a location down to a city block, it’s not
easy to get there.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 under Windows provides just this type of geotagging, giving you a window to an interactive map that lets you drill down with usable resolution. (Photoshop Elements wasn’t updated beyond version 4.0 for the Mac.) Geophoto should adopt the same approach.

If you’re looking for specificity, the better approach is to tag the images with geographic data using Flickr’s tools, then import them as a Flickr feed in Geophoto. However, I don’t have a sense of how precise most people want to get. It may be enough to drop a folder full of images onto London to differentiate that set from photos taken in Seattle.

That leads to another problem, one which Geophoto is more adept at handling.

Find It Again — Once you start adding large numbers of photos to Geophoto, you’ll find yourself in the same situation that brought you to the program in the first place: searching for the photos you want to view. Assuming you’ve tagged your photos with locations, you can spin the globe and select stacks (multiple photos grouped together) based on their thumbnails; a slider in the lower-right corner of the screen controls the size of the thumbnail previews. But especially when you’re zoomed out, the stacks merge together so you’re still seeing only one thumbnail image with a number indicating how many photos are in the stack, not everything you’ve shot. (I actually like the way this effect operates, because
visual clutter can be just as bad as scarcity when looking for something.)

Geophoto’s tools for locating photos in its database are smooth and quick. Double-click a thumbnail to zoom one magnification level with the photo set centered, up to the globe’s maximum resolution. From there use the other zoom features to get closer if necessary.

But even zoomed out, clicking a group of photos makes them all appear in the strip at the bottom of the screen. From there you can double-click an image to view it at full size in an attractive slideshow screen.

A Search field actively narrows the number of visible images by searching the photos’ metadata, such as title and description, much the way the iTunes Search field finds songs as you type. And providing further textual filtering, a Tag Cloud floating palette lists every tag, with some sized larger than others to denote more frequent usage. Click a tag to view the photos it describes, as well as the other tags applied to those photos.

What I find most interesting about Geophoto, despite its difficulties in applying geographic data, is its focus on exploration. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Geophoto is primarily a fun application for photo discovery, and secondarily a tool that serious photographers might use to geotag their picture libraries.

For example, I’ve already mentioned how it’s possible to maintain a running collection of the most recent images uploaded to Flickr groups. But you can also create new, custom Flickr feeds by positioning your mouse pointer on the map and choosing Find Flickr Photos in this Location from the contextual menu. Geophoto casts a virtual net over the area visible in the globe area and grabs 20 geotagged images. (It’s not as entertaining as FlickrVision, but not as fleeting either.)

Photos in the Real World — The proliferation of digital cameras is dramatically altering photography, democratizing it in a way that I think few people thought would be so pervasive. Geophoto contributes, too, by enabling you to export the location data back to the photos in your iPhoto library (choose Update Original with Location Information from the Item menu); the metadata is added to the image file. So if you applied a location in Geophoto, you can upload it from iPhoto to Flickr (or another service that can pull the data out of the file’s metadata) with the location intact.

People all over the planet are not only snapping pictures, they’re uploading and sharing the images with anyone who happens to stumble into their corner of the world – a corner that’s easier to find when spotlighted on a globe. Geophoto may be only an early and somewhat awkward solution to this desire, but it shows where we – or at least our digital photos – will be going.

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