China's Map Gap

Geotagging isn’t the problem, your map is just broken. Learn what you can do about it.

Can I geotag my images in China?

Because there is a maze of red tape and corporate CYA surrounding geolocation tech in China, consider a different approach. Wait until you are back at the studio to geotag your images.

Gulou at night

Gulou at night. From the Photographers Field Guide to Beijing.

Understanding the problem

Be a smart traveler and you’ll be fine.

Maps and geolocation are a messy topic in China. Confusing regulations and corporate strategies leave you, the visiting photographer, in no man’s land.

  1. There are technical challenges that are likely to break your workflow.
  2. There are legal gray areas – so consider leaving any external GPS receivers at home.
  3. It is your responsibility to follow local laws.

Many cameras that do have onboard GPS disable the geotag feature when the camera picks up a signal from inside China. (This is weird because not all manufacturers shut it off. Mobile phones don’t seem to be impacted at all.)

Check your manual: Usually there will be some obtuse verbiage about international travel if the camera automatically shuts off geolocation around The PRC or other countries.

How to geotag your images: back in the studio

Copy and paste is good enough.

If you don’t collect geodata when you shoot an image, how do you add it later? Copy and past the coordinates from a map. For keeping images organized and searchable, it is enough to approximate the location.

This approach won’t work for everything, I admit. You might need more precise location info. You might not want to deal with the hassle at all.

Onboard geotagging is a really useful tool for travel photographers – but in China you’ll need to improvise.


Use the right map.

There are a myriad of specialized coordinate systems out there but the global standard is WGS-84. Most consumer-oriented maps use this coordinate system. (China doesn’t.) Again, since the idea is to organize your images, consistency is everything.

Ready for red tape?

BTW, the map is wrong. On purpose.

Do not pull your geodata from Google Maps. Their China map data, which is licensed from a 3rd party, is intentionally offset. What you see is not what you get. And, if you drop a pin using the standard map interface, you’ll be pulling coordinates that are offset by 1/2 a kilometer.

The offset phenomenon has been explored at length by folks who are smarter and more energetic than me. You might start with Geoff Manaugh’s Why you can’t trust GPS in Travel and Leisure. Otherwise, ehm, just Google it.

The problem also applies to any services that rely on Google Maps – for photographers that includes apps like PhotoPILLS, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Lightroom and Photo Mechanic. You can get around this by switching from the standard map view to satellite view.

So where do I get geodata?

Start with Wikipedia or Google Earth.

Start with the easy option. For famous landmarks, just check Wikipedia. On the desktop-version of the website, notable places have a little blue coordinates label at the top right. Click it, and get ready to geek out.

Otherwise, you can pull WGS-84 coordinates from a number of sources, like OpenStreetMap, Google Earth or even the satellite view of Google Maps. (Unlike the standard map, the latter 2 Google options are not offset.)

Copy location data into your preferred image catalog software and go.

Screenshot of geolocation dialog in Photo Mechanic.

The only photo software I consider truly essential to my workflow is Photo Mechanic. I’ve used it for over a decade now. It's easy to input geodata with PM, but, again, the included Google Maps view is offset.

Why I geotag my images

To paraphrase Peter Krogh: The value of an image is directly tied to how quickly you can find it. A photo might freeze the moment, but my memory is more… ephemeral. Good metadata hygiene can make all the difference. Alongside my images, I keep notes in English and Chinese.

Lost in translation?

Most visiting photographers can’t speak Chinese. That’s okay. But I’ve also seen this lead to typos when photographers transliterate place names for captions and keywords. That is not okay. The language barrier might not be the most obvious use case for geotagging, but geodata can help with troublesome translations.

Cover from the book

Don’t get lost. Get the Photographers Field Guide to Beijing. It’s free and you can read it anywhere.