GUIDE: Where was that photo taken? How to locate (almost) any place on Earth

Not sure if a photo matches its caption, or just want to find where it was taken? Use our step-by-step guide to checking the location of images found on the internet.

In the age of fake news it’s more important than ever to verify the information we receive. Image-altering apps can make this trickier.

But sometimes the fakery isn’t in the images themselves, but how they are used. News articles are sometimes illustrated by genuine pictures used out of context. The photo is real, but it doesn’t match the story.

Here’s how to check if a picture was taken in the place an article claims it’s from. Free image verification and mapping tools make it possible to locate (almost) any place on Earth.

Step one: Check if the image file has exif data

Most modern smartphones store the exif data from an image file. This data can tell you the device used to take the picture, the camera’s shutter speed and lens type, the date and time the picture was taken and, sometimes, even its location in the form of GPS coordinates.

To find an image’s exif data, right-click the photo and select either “properties” or “information”. If the GPS coordinates appear, simply type them into Google Maps to find the location.

But you often won’t be able to view an image’s exif data. Cameras only save this information when location or GPS services are enabled. Social media such as Facebook and Instagram also automatically strip exif data from images as they are uploaded, for privacy reasons. But there are other ways to check an image’s location.

Step two: Do a reverse image search

Your next best bet is a reverse image search. This scans the internet for any earlier versions of the image, letting you trace it to its location and original source or story.

Google reverse image search

Google’s image search engine can find other websites that have published the image, and possibly its location, too. Google will also find similar photos, which can help you identify famous landmarks and tourist attractions.

Here are four ways to do a reverse image search on Google:

  1. Upload the image. If you can save the picture to your computer, upload it to the search box by clicking the camera icon, then selecting “upload an image” and “choose file”.  
  2. Drag and drop. If you use the Chrome browser, click the image you want to search for and, holding the mouse button, drag the image into the search box.
  3. Image URL (address). If you can’t save an image to your computer, right-click it and select “copy image address”. You can then paste the URL into the search box.
  4. Download the extension. On Chrome and Firefox you can download an image search extension for Google. You then right-click a picture and select “Search image on Google”. A new tab will open with the results.

TinEye reverse image search

TinEye is an advanced image search engine. Like Google, it finds other web pages that have used the image, as well as similar images.

But TinEye’s filters take image-checking to another level. You can sort its search results to view the oldest, newest and “most changed” versions of a picture.

This makes it easy to find out when an image first appeared online, when it was last uploaded, and if it has been manipulated in between. You can often find the location of a picture even if it has been cropped, resized or edited.

There are two ways to use TinEye:

  1. Upload the image. Save the picture to your computer and upload it to the search box by clicking the arrow icon.
  2. Image URL (address). Right click the image and select “copy image address”. You can then paste the URL into the search box.

TinEye is great for doing reverse image searches on your mobile phone. But both tools should get you a step closer to checking the location of an image.

Step three: Look for visual clues

If you’re still having no luck it’s time to consider visual clues. Does the picture show a distinct building or mountain range? Can you identify a language from a visible billboard or shop sign?

Also look out for schools, hospitals, statues and towers. Even vehicle licence plates can reveal the location. Plug these details into Google – for example, by searching for GKB number plate – and see what comes up. Even if you can’t find the exact location, visual clues can help you narrow your search to a region, country or city.  

Step four: Map it out

You’re pretty sure the photo was taken in a certain country or city. Now you can use mapping tools to find its exact location.  

Wikimapia is a community mapping project that collects information about places on the globe. Anyone can contribute to the maps by tagging pictures and adding descriptions, categories and locations. Browsing through these could reveal the location of your image.

You can also filter the map using categories. Filters are available for stadiums, hotels, restaurants, hospitals and more. A search for “churches” in Windhoek will return all churches in the city. Click on each result and browse the map to see if the surroundings match your image.    

You may find it useful to use more than one mapping tool. Once you’ve found a location in Wikimapia, Google Maps can help to identify structures and terrain. Its satellite imagery lets you zoom in on and rotate different views.

Google Street View shows ground level imagery of locations, in all directions. It’s then possible to measure distance and figure out where a picture was taken from.  

Tips for geo-locating:

  • Google is your friend. Sometimes a simple and seemingly obvious search like “gold statue in Mexico” can return the image you are looking for.
  • Visual clues are important, but don’t investigate too much. You could spend hours sorting through possible locations that a reverse image search could find in seconds.
  • If you can’t save a picture, screenshot it. Image search engines will still be able to pick it up.
  • Be aware that images may be flipped to trick search engines.
  • Also be aware of the foreshortening effect, in which an object can appear closer than it actually is because of the way the picture was angled.
  • If you suspect a picture may have been taken in a certain location but still can’t verify it, contact someone who may have more information.  

Think you’ve got a handle on these tools? Try to find the location of these images and tweet us your answers (including as much detail as possible) to @AfricaCheck, or email them to info@africacheck.org. Have fun!

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