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Photography

Building a Location Database with Lightroom

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:MediumLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Travel Photography.
Travel Photography Mistakes to Avoid
Travel Portraits: Methods for Making a Connection
This post is part of a series called Adobe Lightroom Workflow: Import, Edit and Beyond.
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Divide and Conquer: Creating Virtual Folders in Adobe Lightroom with Collections

If you are a busy photographer with frequent shoots, you might struggle to keep variety in your shoot locations. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to build a location database using your smartphone and Adobe Lightroom. Once you've built a collection of locations to utilize, you can easily reference and plan locations for your upcoming shoots.

Think of a location database as a collection of scenes you can keep at your fingertips for later use. With this database, choosing locations for your shoot takes seconds and removes the anxiety involved with planning a shoot. Today, I'll give you the recipe to combine your smartphone with Lightroom to build a handy tool to keep variety in your photo shoots.

A key part of this guide is to use a camera with GPS functionality. The GPS will automatically record the location of the photo. When combined with Adobe Lightroom's Maps module, we can build a collection of scenes, tagged with the GPS coordinates so that you can return anytime.

For this guide, I'll be using a combination of iPhone and Android devices. A number of modern cameras also feature built-in or add-on GPS options, but because I'm most likely to have a smartphone in my pocket as opposed to a heavy DSLR, I think it is the ideal scouting tool.

If you're using a smartphone, make sure that the camera app you're using has the proper privacy settings to tag images with location information.


Scouting and Planning

As part of this guide, I want to share some of the tips that I've found most useful in building out my personal location database.

One key factor to consider is how locations change according to the time of day, or even the time of year. Therefore, make sure you consider how your locations will appear at the time of the shoot versus how it appears when you capture the scouting photo. I've captured photos that looked amazing while scouting, only to return later and find that the light or scenery was radically different and unusable.

In my experience, I've found that the best locations are found from a combination of planning and accident. With tools like Streetview on Google Maps, you can take virtual trips ahead of time and explore areas around you. I'll typically start off a deliberate exploration trip by using an overhead satellite view to find unusual landmarks.

Ultimately, my best location finds have often come from taking the long way around while traveling. I've found some of my favorites hidden on the back roads.

If you want to find the uncommon locations to photograph, you have to commit to taking the road less travelled. Photo by Forrest Lane, who grew up just miles from this abandoned building but found it many years later.

If you want to find the uncommon locations to photograph, you have to commit to taking the road less traveled. Photo by Forrest Lane, who grew up just miles from this abandoned building, but found it many years later.

Public places on main roads and streets are typically going to be permissible for photo use, but it can certainly vary by locality. If you see a location that appears to be on private property, it's best to protect yourself by getting permission from the property owner. Finally, one tried and true exploration method is to ask locals and friends.

When exploring, make sure that you are complying with laws regarding trespassing. I have often found that if I approach the property owner and request permission to shoot on their property, they will usually accommodate requests.

No matter the route you travel and the road you take, capture the locations you find intriguing with your GPS enabled camera or smartphone. Even if the camera you're using isn't the highest quality shooter, the goal here is to collect reference photos to build the location database. The more locations that you have, the more scenes you can choose from on future shoots. When in doubt, snap that quick reference photo.


Connecting to Lightroom

Once you've captured images of locations you might want to use, you can start utilizing the power of Lightroom to chart and map the locations of your images.

Moving images to your computer from a smartphone can be cumbersome, especially if your smartphone lacks a removable memory card. I recommend using the Dropbox app and setting your smartphone up to automatically sync photos to your computer. Otherwise, you'll likely have to go through iTunes for your iPhone. In either case, having a solution that syncs with the cloud will eliminate the need to connect each time you want to feed the location database.

The Dropbox camera upload feature, available in both the iOS and Android apps is one of my favorite photography tools. It will automatically upload photos to a "Camera Uploads" folder in my Dropbox. Combined with the Location Database, I always have my latest, GPS tagged images available on my computer with no need for iTunes.
The Dropbox camera upload feature, available in both the iOS and Android apps is one of my favorite photography tools. It will automatically upload photos to a "Camera Uploads" folder in my Dropbox. Combined with the location database, I always have my latest, GPS tagged images available on my computer with no need for iTunes.

If you've used Lightroom in the past, you might be familiar with the Catalog concept. The Lightroom catalog stores your images and the edit data that goes along with them. Think of each catalog as a workspace that contains the images and the edits that have been applied to it.

Keeping all images in a single catalog is a popular approach, but I actually prefer to keep my location database in its own catalog to keep it separate. If you want to follow this same approach, click File > New Catalog on the menu and give it a name.

Once you have the images stored somewhere on your computer, you can import them to Lightroom by choosing File > Import from the Lightroom menu. I typically will choose to Add images, which leaves the files in the same folder undisturbed, and adds the images into the catalog for use.

When adding images to the catalog, choose the "Add" option to leave images in the same folder but add them to the catalog.

When adding images to the catalog, choose the Add option to leave images in the same folder, but add them to the catalog.

Utilizing the Maps Module

One of the lesser utilized modules of Lightroom is the Maps module. This module is the key to building the location database, as it places the images on a map. Enter the Maps module by choosing it from the modules in the upper right hand corner of Lightroom.

Using the Maps module, we can review the GPS data that's built into the image. The first time that you utilize the Maps module, Lightroom will ask to access the location data attached to the images. Be sure to allow it.

As soon as the images are open in the Maps module, you'll begin to see the power of the location database system. The images in the catalog are now plotted on the map at the spot they were captured.

Once you're working in the Maps module, Lightroom will plot images with GPS data on your map.

Once you're working in the Maps module, Lightroom will plot images with GPS data on a map representing where the images were captured.

Having high level views of the images is handy, but the real power comes when you begin to zoom in. As you drag the slider on the left side of the navigator to increase the zoom, the points will start to "break out" and show more precise locations of where your images where made.

As you drag the slider to zoom in, the points will break out into more precise and detailed mapping information. If you continue zooming in, the precision of the image placement will be at the street level. Note that you can also change the type of map being shown by clicking "Map Style" as shown in the lower left of this images.
As you drag the slider to zoom in, the points will break out into more precise and detailed mapping information. If you continue zooming in, the precision of the image placement will be at the street level. Note that you can also change the type of map being shown by clicking "Map Style" as shown in the lower left of this images.

If you know you're going to be in a specific region for a shoot, you can easily reference the location database to plan your shoot. The more images you have to choose from, the better prepared you can be to introduce variety in photos.

Finally, you might also want to work in reverse and find an image in your collection and trace where it was made. From the film strip, you can click the small marker that's on the thumbnail to jump to it on the map.

Click the map marker icon on images on the filmstrip to jump the spot on the map where the image was made.
Click the map marker icon on images on the filmstrip to jump the spot on the map where the image was made.

If you're using a camera that doesn't tag images with location data, you still have the option of manually positioning the images on the map. Keeping notes of where images are shot while in the field and manually positioning them later is tedious, but is a viable alternative if a GPS-enabled camera is not available.


Build Your Location Database and Put It to Good Use

With the location database approach, you will always have a catalog of scene ideas to tap into. Free days with open schedules are ideal for scouting locations and building the location database.

Once you've built a significant number of locations into your catalog, you can use it as a sales tool. By presenting your location database to clients, they can participate in selecting a place to shoot and they'll feel confident that you'll always have a back-up location is something goes wrong. Remember that the images are simply low to medium quality reference photos, so be sure to convey the full potential of the scene.

If you're really ambitious, you can start building separate location databases for each season. The possibilities are endless.

How do you build your archive of photo shoot locations? Will you be trying the location database system? Leave a comment and let me know how you keep your shoots interesting!

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