GPS data on photos: when I hide my shooting locations

One continuing discussion among photographers is the growing problem of sensitive locations having their locations publicized online. Whether it’s a sensitive archeological area or a habitat that can’t support having too many feet shuffle across it, protecting sensitive locations from being damaged by idiots or loved to death by crowds is a problem that is being grappled with by organizations and individuals.

As photographers, we have a key responsibility to understand and manage this problem, because a significant way that locations that should be difficult to find become easily found is through our habit of embedding GPS coordinates into our images and uploading them to the internet. That makes it easy for surprisingly easy for someone to see a location and figure out how to visit it — whether or not they have permission.

More and more photographers are starting to hide or obfuscate their GPS data. G Dan Mitchell has a good take on this and I agree with 99% of what he says.

To make things clear on my views, I thought I should discuss my policy on this: I GPS-encode all of my images in my collection, and most of my images that I upload have that GPS data embedded. What I rarely do, however, is encode the exact location of the photo. My images are encoded with a general location representative of the area — for instance, when I shoot at Merced NWR, I’ll tag the images with the entry parking lot. that gets you to the refuge; once you get there, it’s up to you to find the images you want to take. If you like a specific landscape or want to find a pretty tree I photographed, you’re going to explore the refuge on your own.

(why I do this: one, I’m lazy and I geotag all of the images for a shoot during post processing, not as I go; two, I’ve experimented with various “geo-tag” tools both dedicated and iPhone based and I hate them (more geegaws to complicate my photography? no thanks); third, I really hate the whole “I want to go get my own shot of this iconic image” movement, so I won’t encourage that kind of photography. You found a location I shot interesting and want to explore it? Great. You want to take your own version of a shot I took because you like how the trees look? Not gonna help.)

I also take advantage of a tool called a “geo-fence”. This is a software capability some systems have (Lightroom 5 does, for instance) where you can set up protected spots where the GPS data of images tagged within those areas will not be exported. That allows me to tag images with the GPS info, but I can define “private areas” where that GPS data never leaves my computer or gets uploaded. The areas around my residence and the places where my family members live are all geo-fenced, for instance, as are certain photo locations where I believe need to be protected from general access. If you look for the GPS data on one of my photos and it’s not there, it’s because I’ve chosen to protect that location (well, either that or one of the endless online sites that strip EXIF data when they shouldn’t has been at it again).

What gets protected? any place I feel is susceptible to vandalism or damage from people who’s ability to behave themselves is suspect and where I feel I might be disclosing a location that otherwise would be difficult to find.

This is the one place where Dan and I disagree slightly. Dan and various other photographers are obfuscating locations like the refuges. I’m not. Why not?

If you look up a location like Merced NWR you’ll easily find the government web site for the refuge. On that site is information about the refuge, including a map showing how to get there and driving directions.

I see no reason for my to obfuscate the location to a greater degree than the owner of that location. Dan and I have talked about this a couple of times, and we simply disagree about how to handle a location that is both open to the public and publicized as being accessible. One of the reasons I choose not to obfuscate those locations — these locations and the organizations that manage them are chronically underfunded. Part of my goal in starting my refuge project is to bring a better understanding and appreciation of teh refuges to the general public – and in doing so, hopefully help them become better funded so they can better accomplish the job they’re created to do. Hiding them from the public makes that goal harder to accomplish, not easier.

Publicizing the refuges might encourage the yahoos to visit one and vandalize the facilities, but I think you can be too paranoid and too careful, and by doing so, accomplish too little. You can’t avoid risk, you have to manage it. My general attitude is that there’s little advantage at going beyond the restrictions and security of the owners; if they’re hanging out driving directions and maps to the location and welcoming visitors, then hiding the GPS info to that location isn’t adding to their protection. The owners have already considered and evaluating the risks, and I feel it’s reasonable to follow their lead.

The big takeaway here is simple: think twice before blindly adding GPS data to your photos, and that includes the GPS data that your phone is probably adding to those images you’re sending to facebook and instagram. Are they pointing out where you live to anyone interested in finding you? Do you know? (if you don’t, you better check).

This is probably a fight we’re going to lose over time, as there’s no way to restrict the idiots from publishing this info no matter what we suggest. But there’s really no excuse for posting it by accident or because you didn’t think to tell your phone camera not to.

And before you do post photos with that info in them, stop and think: could you be pointing people to something that shouldn’t be publicized?

Because the sad reality is that you can’t control that info once you upload it, and you can’t trust everyone who will get access to that info. Not everyone out there is well-intentioned…

Sad, but true…. Think about the info you’re passing around, and whether you should…