Finding Photo Opps with Google Earth and a GPS Device

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In this tutorial I am giving away one of my secrets to finding good places for photos. It is actually quite easy to figure out. However this tutorial goes way beyond and shows you how to create Wayponts and even complete Routing Information to upload it to your GPS receiver.

While I planning trips to any large city in the United States, I find Google Earth a very valuable tool. Since I recently bought a Garmin eTrex Legend GPS receiver from Amazon, I quickly figured out a way to use the free Google Earth Client to create Waypoints for Navigation. The first part of this tutorial will be usufull for everyone, while the second part is particulary useful to people with GPS devices.

In the example below I will show you how to find a good spot for skyline photography in San Francisco, California. But first a little motivation. We are going to find this spot:

San Francisco Skyline from Treasure Island

Hopefully this low quality JPG image has gotten you excited enough to read on .

In case you are unfamiliear with google earth, you can download the software for free here. Natually we are cheap, so we are going for the basic version. The gps stuff will be handled by some freeware tools instead .

For all pictures below, you can get a larger version by simply clicking on the picture.

Google Earth San Francisco

As you can see, I am already in San Francisco. I simply entered it in the Search Window (upper left corner) and let Google Earth take me there. Now we should turn on the 3D view of to see the buildings. You have to check the mark next to Buildings (pink arrow in picture below). Now you should try to get a feeling for the largest building and see if you can spot a potential point of view. You can adjust the tilt of the map with the rightmost slider. Navigating in Google Earth takes a while to get used to. Once you have spotted a good point, you should always determine the distance to your skyline first. The point I chose is treasure island.

Google Earth Distance

Go to Tools -> Measure to bring up the ruler. Select Clear Line and draw a line from your potential Point of View to your skyline. I have found that distances of less than 2 Miles work best, but larger distances (up to 4 miles) may be feasable with long zoom lenses. Anything beyond that will not yield good results, due to haze and other atmospheric distorition, despite the fact that you will need a very long zoom, hardly available to most of us.

Lets go to our point of view and take a closer look:

Treasure Island Parking Lot

That small parking lot at the water is our point of interest.

San Francisco Skyline in Google Earth

Lets go to the exact same spot and tilt the view down (the slider marked pink in the picture above). You will also have to rotate the view to look towards the city.

Observing the picture above, it looks like a valid spot for a good skyline photograph. By pressing the button marked in the picture above you will reset the tilt to view the place from above.

Now we need to set a placemark. Go to Add Placemark and give the placemark a Name. In my example I named it SF_Skyline. Now move the placemark to the exact spot you want to mark by dragging it with your mouse.

Placemark for Skyline Shot

The placemark will now show up under My Places in the left part of the window.

Now right click on the placemark and select save as. Make sure you save the placemark as a kml file and not a kmz file.

The next step is to convert the placemark to something we can use in our GPS device. For this step I used a program called GPS Babel, which is the best program to translate any form of location marks. In fact its the Engine behind the Google Earth Pro client . Simply follow the link above to download the program.

With this program I will simply load the kml file and export is as a GPX file. GPX is a standardized markup language for GPS devices.

GPS Babel Program

Operation of GPS Babel is as simple as it gets. You simply tell it what file to convert, from what format into what format and press "lets go".

Now we have successfully used Google Earth to generate a GPX file. Fortunately GPS Babel can do a whole range of propriatary formats, that you can use with almost any navigation software that either comes with your GPS receiver or that you can buy. This will come in quite handy if I decide to buy the Mapsource Software for my Garmin device.

Since I am not a proud owner of mapsource yet, I am going to use another freeware to upload the found place as a Waypoint. My Garmin can still use this fo point me the way and my Pharos GPS should be able to calculate a route to this point. To upload the GPX file, I can recommend two tools, EasyGPS and G7toWin.

Both give you some basic options of manipulating Waypoints, Tracks and Routes and can communicate with most common GPS devices.

EasyGPS and G7toWin

Here you can see both programs open with the GPX file that we generated loaded.

In EasyGPS select GPS -> Send to GPS .. and in G7ToWin select GPS -> Upload to GPS to upload the waypoint to your GPS device for navigation.

There is a lot more one can do with Google Earth and a bunch of freeware tools. My GPS receiver has the capability to create track logs, logging every move I make. This will be great for keeping track of my travels. I tested this while driving from the AAA Office to the OSH Hardware store in Sunnyvale. Here is how it looks like on a map.

Naturally you can use this technique for a lot of other things. You could find Hotels or Restaurants and save them to your GPS receiver or do a lot of other fun things.

Creating a Route:

Now lets create a route and upload it to our GPS (this isn't even supported in the Pro version of Google Earth ).

Google Earth Create Route

First we will ask Google for Directions. In the Example above, I am asking for directions from the Hotel I will be staying in New York to the famous "Riverside Church". Google Earth faithfully plots driving directions for us. We then right click on the route in the left window and safe it as a kml file, just as we did with the placemark earlier.

The next Step is opening GPS Babel and converting the file to GPX format. We can then open the GPX file with G7ToWin.

G7ToWin Waypoints

Now that we have all Waypoints in G7ToWin, we will create a Route from these Waypoints. We will select Routes -> Create Dummy Route and double click on the Route that opens up.

Double clicking in the right window will delete route points. We do this first to delete the two dummy points. Then we add all waypoints shown in the left window by double clicking them.

Create a route for GPS

Make sure that you add them in the correct order. Rename the route and upload it to your GPS for navigation (Routes -> Upload Routes to GPS).

We have now found a totally free way of navigation. No need to purchase expensive mapping software or miss out on the routing capabilities of your GPS.

If you liked this tutorial and if it saved you a bundle on software, go ahead and donate some money for a good cause and feel good about yourself

Great ideas that helped me a

Great ideas that helped me a lot thanks.

Great idea...... but

This is a great idea, however, for long trips, such as the one I am going to take, Google Earth's file contains over 4500 waypoints which means that I would have to split it into many many many many routes for my Magellan GPS which only holds 50 waypoints/route.

Or get yourself a Garmin

Or get yourself a Garmin :-)
I haven't had any of those limitations on my unit.

Converting GE paths into Mapsource tracks

I've used a variation of this method to trace a GE path along a hiking trail, and then converting it into a Mapsource track, which I can then transfer to my GPSr - it works brilliantly!

Quick Inspiration From Others

When I'm visiting a specific place for a while, I often go to a tourist shop and grab a snapshot of the postcard rack. Obviously this isn't going to get you anything original or win you a Pulitzer prize, but when you only have a few days in a place, it at least gets you to see some of the more interesting (photographically) places.

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