How GPS Can Help Your Photography

GPS DeviceI just recently started hiking with a handheld GPS device to log my hikes and so I could have elevation data wherever I go. But, I’ve also started using it as a tool for photography. Here are a few ways it’s helped me:

#1 – Keep track of good spots for landscape images

This probably happens to you a lot: you’ll be hiking on a trail and come to this amazing vista or perfect rock formation and you realize it would make a great landscape image if the weather or lighting conditions were just a tad bit different. Maybe you just want some of that nice sunset light shining on a mountain peak, or maybe you want a nice puffy cloud to hover over a particular rock.

Well, a GPS device can help you keep track of these spots, simply by adding waypoints. Then, once you get home later, you can write some notes about that particular spot (e.g. “come back in April when there’s more flowers in bloom” or “come back at sunset in winter, when the sun will be at the right angle to shine on this mountain peak”).

#2 – Keep track of burrows

Many animals live in underground burrows (especially in the desert), and are only active for a short time each day (usually around sunrise and sunset). So, one of the best ways to get a photo of them is to sit in a blind near their burrow and wait for them to pop out in the morning. And, with a GPS device, it’s really easy to keep track of these burrows you find while hiking, by adding waypoints.

If you end up sitting in a blind near a burrow, please be careful not to disturb the animal. You don’t want to scare them and force them to abandon the burrow, which could put their life in danger. Please be respectful of wildlife!

#3 – Geotagging your photos

Geotagging your photos can help you remember where you shot a particular photo. And, a GPS device can help you do this if your camera’s clock is set accurately (another great reason to always keep your camera’s clock updated). There’s lots of software out there that can then synchronize your photos with the GPS device: it’ll look at the time a photo was taken, and then look at your GPS log to see where you were at that time.

I’ll talk more about geotagging in a future post here on PhotoNaturalist, so make sure you’re signed up for free updates 😉

Do NOT rely on GPS as your primary navigation tool

As a safety reminder, please do not rely on a GPS device as your primary navigation tool. I think it’s okay to do that with your car GPS, but when you’re out hiking in the wilderness, too many things can go wrong (e.g. the batteries run out, or the device falls from your backpack somehow and you lose it). Always carry a printed map too, and be aware of your route beforehand.

What did I miss?

If you’ve found another great way to use a GPS device to help your photography, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below, thanks! 🙂

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.


  1. Good stuff as always, I have one extra safety note, bring a compass with the map. A map without a compass won’t help much in a forest where you can’t spot distant landmarks.

  2. When I travel to a new location to film, I also find local geocaches with my GPS. Usually the locals find some of the most interesting unique locations to hide a geocache. I’ve discovered locations and sights I never knew existed if I hadn’t gone geocaching.
    Even in my home town I’ve discovered natural areas that I didn’t know I had access to that are rarely visited by most people and were teaming with wildlife.

  3. Steve, how about a recommendation for a GPS unit? You show a picture of a Garmin unit, what model did you use and did you like it? There are so many units to choose from, it can be confusing…

  4. I’d also be curious to hear a recommendation… Right now I’m just using my smartphone for the GPS tagging on photos, but it might be nice to have a dedicated device instead of just trying to find a phone app to do it.

  5. Once the phone company quits supporting my 2003 flip phone, I’ll upgrade to one with GPS.

  6. I would love one of these. Living in the Northeast, there are many locations I would love to get the change of seasons, would make for a beautiful montage

  7. I always take my GPS along with my camera when hiking. One thing I do, especially in new areas, is to photograph my car and mark a waypoint on my GPS at the same time. Picture quality is unimportant. This gives me two things: one, I have an indication of any difference between my camera time and GPS time – most geotagging programs allow you to adjust for time differences, and two, my car is a the first waypoint. Keeping in mind that the GPS can fail anytime, it can guide me back to the car if I am off trail. I also carry a map and compass and do a map recce before I head out.

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