Protecting sensitive locations in Lightroom: Geofencing 101

I got into a discussion on twitter today where I suggested someone should put a Geofence around their house, and then had to explain what geofences are. Since this is something I think everyone should be doing — but it’s a rather obscure concept that hasn’t gotten wide discussion, I thought I’d go into this with a bit of detail.

Do you encode GPS data onto your photos? Do you publish them? Does your camera have a GPS built in?

What about your phone? Is it encoding GPS coordinates onto those images you put on Twitter or Instagram? Are you sure?

I geo-encode all of my images, since it helps me remember where I took a shot and how to go back to that location later. I also (usually) include those coordinates when I publish images. I don’t use technology to auto-encode that GPS info, though, but add it manually during my keywording phase, choosing to, as I put it, add GPS coordinates to the location of the shoot, but not to the bush.

That’s my way to quietly encourage people that are interested in a location to be able to find it, but to go and find their own shots and not to simply duplicate someone else’s shots. It’s a compromise between disclosure and sharing of knowledge and enabling the kind of behaviors I don’t feel are constructive in photography (hey, if you really like that shot, buy a print of mine, don’t go and replicate it in your camera. But if you like a location, feel free to go create your own shots there)

There are times when distributing that GPS data is a bad idea. One time I feel it’s a very bad idea is when you’re taking pictures at your own home. I still want the GPS data to tag an image as being shot at home, but — no offense — I’d rather not have uninvited visitors using that data to show up, especially if I’m on a trip or otherwise not there at the time (if you get my drift). That’s a real and legitimate worry online, unfortunately, especially for a craft like photography that might cause someone to think there are expensive and sellable baubles in the house.

Even if you don’t GPS tag all of your photos, if you’re like me, you’ll use your phone to take photos of things along the way and some of those will end up in your library, and phones have GPS devices on them; even if you normally turn that off, I’ve found it’s far too easy to re-enable it for some purpose or have it turned on as a side effect of doing something without realizing you did it and end up with images geo-tagged with locations you’d rather not share.

I’ve also learned — the hard way — that any process that begins “I’ll remember to not do that” is going to fail sooner or later. With me, sooner. So if I can find a way to make sure my tools remember to do it FOR me, I’ll do it.

The way to do that in Lightroom is with a Geofence, and the Lightroom Map capabilities support them. Here’s how to enable one:

In the Lightroom Map module, over in the left side, you click on the Plus side, which lets you create a new Saved Location preset:


In the dialog you’ll see there’s a checkbox for Private. If you click that, any GPS coordinates located within will not be exported. I have a geofence around my house and the surrounding areas, as well as my family’s house (holiday photos!) and a few other locations of a personal nature. That way, I don’t have to remember to check the GPS status or make sure things aren’t encoded: it’s done for me.

I strongly suggest everyone does this, even if they don’t routinely GPS-encode images. All it takes is one image where you zig and your iPhone zags to put your home’s GPS coordinates out on the internet, and that’s a risk that’s easy to avoid and one you don’t want.

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(if you want to turn an existing location into a Geofence, you can right-click on a location to bring up the dialog to edit it and turn on the fence.)

Geofences are shown with a black border and a dark grey fill instead of light grey, so they’re easy to see within Lightroom, and the saved location is displayed with a lock on it so it’s clear this one’s a private location.

One of the ongoing questions among many nature photographers is whether or not to share GPS locations of sensitive locations. I’m firmly on the side of being careful about sharing the locations of at-risk areas, which is another reason I choose the “location not bush” style of GPS encoding — but some places are just too sensitive and hard to protect. There have been too many cases of vandalism and artifact theft tied back to online images being GPS encoded, and some areas just can’t survive the stress of becoming too popular.

Everyone has to make their own judgement calls on this — a great overview of the problem and some suggestions on options was written by G Dan Mitchell — but this is another place where I’ll use geofences, so that those locations are protected from the idiots and vandals, or simply too many feet on too few paths for the location’s own good.

Geofences are one of those fairly obscure but useful tools everyone should be thinking about; even if your camera doesn’t have a GPS in it, your phone does, and do you know 100% of the time whether or not it’s encoding?

Geofences protect you from that, while still allowing you the flexibility to use those GPS locations encoded into the photos for your own use later. It should be a tool in your photo processing toolbox.