Geotagging Aerial Photos: The Joys and Frustrations of Using GPS on an Airplane

Colorado River, Lake Powell, and nearby mountains.

Colorado River, Lake Powell, and nearby mountains.

When I am taking pictures from an airplane I am curious where I am and what I am seeing down below. Sometimes it is obvious, like the Grand Canyon, and sometimes it isn’t. GPS on a plane should help a lot. At least that’s the theory.

Southwest's flight tracking app.

Southwest’s flight tracking app.

Some airplanes have a flight tracking app that you can access over the plane’s wifi but even when you zoom in they only give you a general area where you are. I want something more specific.

Southwest Airlines magazine.

Southwest Airlines magazine.

That is why I was so pleased to learn in the Southwest Airlines magazine that GPS receivers are permitted on airplanes. This will make my life so much easier, or so I thought.

Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver

Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver

I plugged my Canon GP-E2 GPS Receiver into the hot shoe of my camera, and turned it on. If you’ve used a GPS unit before, you know there is a delay while the GPS connects to some satellites. That process becomes more complicated when you are in a thin metal tube rocketing through the air at 500 plus mph. So give it some time.

Magellan eXplorist 210 GPS

Magellan eXplorist 210 GPS

If you don’t have a GPS until built into your camera (like the Canon 7D Mark II) or a separate GPS unit designed to plug into your camera, you can use a stand alone GPS unit. Of course you have to keep track of which GPS coordinates go with which photos which can be a bit of a pain, but it will get the job done.

Crop circles in the Nevada desert.

Crop circles in the Nevada desert.

This image was one of my first test photos to make sure everything was working correctly. The distinctive arrangement of isolated crop circles would be easy to verify in a satellite photo. I knew they were in the Nevada desert on the way to Las Vegas. I couldn’t wait to get to my computer when I got home and check things out.

Adobe Bridge and Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

Adobe Bridge and Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

With Adobe Bridge I opened the folder with the crop circle image to check out the GPS coordinates, and then I opened Google Earth. I copied the GPS coordinates (on the right)  from Adobe Bridge, converted them (this article shows you how to do that), and dropped them into the search box in Google Earth and clicked Search. The image above came up with a yellow pin (with my photo’s GPS coordinates) in the middle of nowhere. The GPS coordinates indicate my camera and I were located when I clicked the shutter, not where the crop circles were. Note the altitude of 9152 meters.

Adobe Bridge and Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

Adobe Bridge and Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

So I clicked the minus button in the Google Earth controls to zoom out. There were my crop circles to the northeast of the plane’s location. I was thrilled. It worked.

Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

I zoomed in on the crop circles to see where they were located. I could read the names of the streets and the bottom of the screen gave me the GPS coordinates for the location of my cursor (which is not visible in this screen capture) which was in the middle of the crop circles.

Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

Then I zoomed back out to get a look at the area. The crop circles are in the Amargosa Valley, northeast of Pahrump, Nevada. So far so good.

But I noticed something odd while I was taking pictures on the plane, “GPS lag”. I would take several photos several minutes apart (dozens of miles apart in term of plane travel) and they would have the same GPS coordinates. I knew that wasn’t right. I had the same set of coordinates for photos taken over the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado as I did for photos taken over the Sange de Cristo Mountains in south central Colorado.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes

Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes

So I pulled up one of my favorite images from the flight (which I talk about in this article) to check it out.

Adobe Bridge and Google Earth.

Adobe Bridge and Google Earth. Click for a larger version.

I dropped the GPS coordinates into Google Earth and they were way off. The yellow pin to the left is where the GPS unit thought we were when I took photo #9562. The yellow pin to the right (labeled “Plane – 9562″) is my educated estimate as to where we actually were when I took the photo. Thanks to GPS lag the GPS unit was feeding coordinates into the camera that were about 100 miles behind our actual location.

Sometimes the GPS unit was right on target, sometimes it lagged by a little, and sometimes it lagged by a hundred miles or more. So frustrating.

All my photo related GPS units work great on the ground. Everything is just different up in the air.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes

Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Great Sand Dunes

Fortunately for me I know Colorado well enough from the ground and by air that I knew where I was when I took the photo of the Sangre de Cristos.  I could go right to the area in Google Earth and look up what I wanted to know.

That isn’t always the case. It took me an hour in Google Earth to find a location of an aerial photo I took over an unfamiliar area of the Utah Desert. GPS should make it easy.

When it works it is great.  When it doesn’t it is maddening.

Incidentally, I had a second GPS unit with me on this flight. Sometimes both GPS units worked, sometimes one worked but not the other, and sometimes neither worked. Go figure. But it works enough of the time to save me some time looking for things when I am back on the ground.

Just be prepared when your terrific ground based GPS unit goes weird on you six miles up in a commercial jet.

GPS Series Links

“How To” Series: Using GPS in Photography – An Overview

“Where Were You When You Took Those Photos?”

The Why and How of Adding GPS Information To Your Photos

How To Get GPS Coordinates Into Google Earth

Checking the GPS Location Accuracy of Your Camera, Part One

Checking the GPS Location Accuracy of Your Camera, Part Two

Comparing the GPS Accuracy of Three Cameras

Using Google Earth to Find the Name of a Mountain (and How to Get GPS Info Into Google Earth)

Geotagging Aerial Photos: The Joys and Frustrations of Using GPS on an Airplane

Using Google Earth in 3D Mode to Label Aerial Photos

Satellite Communicators: The GPS Messaging Devices That Can Save Your Life

Geotagged Photos: Posting Photos Online Can Put Your Family at Risk

Related Links

How to Process Aerial Photos with ACR

Canon GPS Receiver GPS-E2 for use with the Canon 5D Mark III, Canon EOS-1D X or Canon 7D.  More GPS-E2 compatibility information at the Canon web site. The Canon 7D Mark II has a built in GPS receiver which is one reason I upgraded from the 7D to the 7D Mark II.

 

 

 

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