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Mark Tebbe cautions cell phone photographers to be conscious of the info stored in their pictures

Mark Tebbe

Mark Tebbe

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Updated: March 21, 2013 7:03PM

It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I believe that is an understatement. A great photo cannot only capture an event, but also the emotion and reality of that recorded instant. But sometimes, a great photo can end up capturing even more information than you intended it to — especially if you’re taking the photo with your cell phone.

I started thinking about this during the recent election of the pope. Being Catholic, I was very interested in the conclave and in who the esteemed group of cardinals would choose to lead the church. While I was surprised and thrilled by their selection, it was a comparison of the above two photos that really moved me.

The upper photo was taken by an AP photographer in 2005 after Pope John Paul II’s body was carried across St. Peter’s Square into the Basilica for public viewing, while the lower photo was taken from a similar spot almost eight years later during the announcement of Pope Francis I. Looking at them together, I was struck by the overwhelming pervasiveness of cell phones being used as cameras — as well as how much that practice has changed the nature of photography.

As many of my friends know, I’m a huge photographer and rarely use my cell phone’s camera for anything other than quick snapshots of information. I still find the clarity and versatility of physical cameras worth the extra effort (which is why I chose to haul more than 30 pounds of camera gear during my recent vacation to Africa). Though I totally understand the convenience that smartphone cameras provide, when talking to my friends about my reaction to the pope photos, I was shocked — many didn’t realize that GPS information was embedded into their cell phone pictures.

Don’t get me wrong, I love having GPS on my photos, and I have it enabled on all of my cameras. Geo-
coding allows me to record my exact world location to help document that photo. But as I’ve also explained to my kids, a few casually uploaded photos could show everyone our home address, the location of their friends’ homes or similar information that they probably didn’t want to publish to the world.

If you don’t want your photos to record your location, you could turn off embedding GPS information in your camera settings. Those with iPhones can disable the recording of that information by going to Settings, then Privacy, then Location Services. Android users can do the same by selecting the Location icon in the Camera app and switching that option off. (If you have an older version of Android, you may need to open the Camera app, select the Menu button, select Settings and then disable Geo-tag photos.)

While some social websites now offer the ability to strip location information from uploaded photos, some actually require you to strip the EXIF information before posting them. Windows users can remove recorded personal information from the Details tab of their camera’s Properties. Mac users need to download an EXIF editor like SmallImage.

While I still don’t advocate using your phone for a camera (but I seem to be in the minority on this topic), I do think users should be aware that a simple cell phone photo often hides extra information — information that needs to be managed.

Mark Tebbe donated his fee for writing this column to the Chicago Field Museum to start photographically capturing the museum’s stored contents.

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