The Free Map App All Photographers Should Be Using

It doesn't matter what type of photographer you are, having the ability to accurately document and locate hard-to-find spots is worth its weight in gold. This app is about to revolutionize how we all shoot on location.

While ZIP codes and street names are what most of us use to find a location, they are far from perfect. All too many times in my career I have been unable to get to a place because the address given didn't point to the exact spot. I like to think I'm reasonably au fait with maps, so if I'm having trouble, that means others on my team may be having similar problems. Anything that can derail a shoot needs to be avoided at all costs and nothing can throw a spanner in the works more than people getting lost.

If you want accuracy, you could resort to using numerical coordinates but in reality, this method is just too involved and prone to user error. Relaying long strings of unmemorable numbers in the hope they are typed correctly is a headache waiting to happen. I can just picture it now, one mistyped digit sending a member of my team to another state entirely. What would be great is if you could have the shortness and memorability of a ZIP code with the accuracy of coordinates. Thankfully, there is such a thing and its name is What3Words.

What is What3Words?

In a nutshell, What3Words has given every 3 meters square in the whole world a unique 3-word address. Their free app looks similar to the likes of Google and Apple maps, yet instead of typing in addresses or coordinates, you just type in the three assigned words instead. So for example, a popular place to view The Grand Canyon would look like this:

///photocopier.raged.outcome

Browser version of the app showing the precise location of a popular spot to shoot The Grand Canyon.

Those three random words may seem a bit odd but they are infinitely more memorable than the equivalent coordinates of 36.093215300853856, -112.11612068794766.

How Can Photographers Take Advantage of What3Words?

Locating More Accurately

I hope the cogs have started to turn in your photographer's mind as they did for me when I first learned of this new way to locate and navigate. Using a What3Words address eliminates any confusion of where you, your team, or your clients need to be. If you happen to be working at a large venue with multiple entrances and exits, a What3Words address ensures everyone knows exactly where they need to be. This becomes even more valuable when you are in more rural locations where you may not have the luxury of roads or even buildings to navigate by. You could literally be parachuted into the middle of the desert and with nothing but your phone and three words get to the precise spot you need to on the map.

A Great Location Scout Tool

By using the "Photo Mode" function in the app you can quickly record possible locations along with a handy visual reminder of what is there.

When shooting on location it can sometimes be difficult to retrace your steps if you find the perfect place to shoot. This can be especially true if the surroundings are very similar without many stand-out features. What3Words would have been useful for the time I once found the perfect sand dune for a shoot while out location scouting. This was in the days before smartphones so I marked the dune's location with some sticks and stones. Less than 24 hours later, I returned to the spot but could not find the place in question amongst the other hundreds of dunes that were there. If I had documented the location with a 3-word address I could have easily found the place again.

Latecomers and Changes of Plan

If you're shooting in a location that isn't easy to find or is off the beaten track, it can be a headache when people come late to your shoot. There have been times when I have had to wait for everyone to arrive as they would never find the location otherwise. This can eat into your setup time and adds unnecessary stress. With What3Words an area can be marked and the address given to those who do not arrive in time. If plans have to dramatically change, a new address can also be given which I can see being particularly useful. One great thing about the What3Words app is that it can work when no service on your phone is present. This video goes into more detail about how that works, but the crux of it is that it uses your GPS and compass features on your phone instead. This is a game-changer as you can't always guarantee you will have phone service at the location where you are shooting.

Documenting Things for the Future

Maybe your memory is better than mine but after the years go by my shoots start to blur into each other. Sometimes, I look back at old work and struggle to remember the exact spot we shot in. This can be especially true in a commercial context when the background is not always the main focus of the image. Maybe you're shooting fashion and found an amazing wall that you shot against. Years down the line the client asks to shoot there again but you just can't quite remember which street that wall was on. With What3Words you could drop the unique 3-word address into the metadata of the images themselves so you'll always know where you were. If you'd rather not publicize this information you could always leave an image of the map and address in the folder of the photos in question. Either way, you'll always be able to revisit the spot as long as you have your unique 3-word address.

Security and Emergencies

What3Words can be valuable in an emergency while on a shoot. If the worst was to happen and you needed help, many emergency services can now accept a What3Words address. Time is often of the essence in emergencies and being able to navigate help to a 3-meter square could make all the difference. Relaying three words over the phone is much easier than trying to read out complex coordinates. You can also tell loved ones where you will be shooting before you set off which adds some extra peace of mind and security for those who work alone in remote places.

Possible Inspiration

Having used What3Words for some time now there are occasions when the random 3-word combination can sometimes be rather poetic. If you require a little inspiration, jumping on the app and sticking a pin in the map could get the juices flowing. For example, the address ///posters.demolished.candidate could be a great starting point for a politically themed narrative. I think it would be an interesting concept to make work in a particular place and use the 3-word address as the inspiration and title of the image. For those of you with a studio, you may find your 3-word address is an interesting combination which you want to work into your branding, etc. The address ///photos.shot.today is a real address in the UK and while the chances of you having such a relevant What3Words as your address are incredibly slim, you may still find some fun combinations that you can use. What could be better than having a photo studio with a 3-word name that is also handily the What3Word address? No one could ever have an excuse for not finding you!

So there you have it, the app that I believe all photographers should be using. While I think you should download this app yourself, you'll be relieved to know that you don't have to badger your clients too. It would obviously be better if they did, but for those who don't want to, they can easily use What3Words.com in their browser of choice on their phones. For me, What3Words feels like a no-brainer when it comes to using an app to document and locate with. The simplicity of the 3 words paired with the fact that the whole planet has been mapped out in this way feels game-changing. I'm really not sure why photographers wouldn't want to embrace such a powerful free tool to make their lives easier.

Do you already use What3Words? Could you see yourself and your clients making the switch? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Lead image originally by Cup of Couple, used under creative commons.

Log in or register to post comments

31 Comments

Timothy Roper's picture

Sounds a lot like the Military Grid Reference System, although that goes down to 1 square meter. If it's good enough for them, it should be good enough for photographers. Although, sometimes the wrong location does get targeted!

Paul Parker's picture

Many moon ago I used that very system. These new apps like What3Words sure do make this process a lot more universal and accessible. I think for most people the 3m square used will be plenty.

Thanks for your thoughts! : )

Paul Parker's picture

The best 3 word coordinate I have found while using this app was ///Nurses.Blink.Quicker.

Made me chuckle anyway.

Anyone else find any funny ones??

Matthew Lacy's picture

///cool.cake.enjoy

I'd enjoy some cool cake.

Paul Parker's picture

hahaha amazing! and that square looks to be in school! how fun.

Thanks for that, made me laugh out loud! : )

Matthew Lacy's picture

Imagine if it's in the foods class.

Paul Parker's picture

hahaha! I really hope so!

Jon Kellett's picture

///proper.highs.fall - Kinda intrinsic, ain't it?
Also, summing up this website ///deeply.useful.bits

Paul Parker's picture

Two great ones Jon! I must say it's fun putting a pin in the map and seeing what words you find.

Thanks for these : )

J.d. Davis's picture

Weight in gold? 4GB of data is 1.0 × 10-18 grams; and what3words is 50mb, a scant percent of 4GB...so 45 bucks seems a bit salty! (OK, that was a bit silly - )

Paul Parker's picture

haha! I really should have upgraded "gold" to bitcoin for both my metaphors and investments a long time ago?!

Thanks for the math! : )

J.d. Davis's picture

Chuckle - a million bucks ain't what it used to be!

Paul Parker's picture

Very true! The Million Dollar Man TV series would need to use the term billion now!!

Fred Teifeld's picture

Looks like a cool idea.

For the past 10+ years, I've been using the Nikon GP1 and GP1a attached as necessary during my travels. The exact GPS coordinates are input into the EXIF and all is good. If I'm scouting locations, I use whatever GPS unit in my possession. All can be output to Google Earth.

Paul Parker's picture

Thanks for the insights Fred, I must admit that I've never really embraced the GPS functionality in cameras partly because my workhorses never had such features. I have always been a little wary about stamping even my cell phone pictures with their GPS meta data for security reasons.

It sure would save a lot of time if I did embrace such a feature.

I'm guessing its easy enough to switch it off in camera? Does such a thing drain batteries more? I have no idea.

Thanks for your time : )

Kenneth Lenard's picture

The UK emergency services uses this. In fact they urge people to download it here. It is a neat tool and has saved quite a few lives.

Nice writeup Paul.

Paul Parker's picture

Oh that's good to here Kenneth. I believe the Mongolian postal service have also adopted What3Words for mail which is interesting.

I think the more it's used the better. Seems pretty fool proof to me.

Thanks for stopping by : )

Anthony Worsdell's picture

The end of my garden is ///rivers.create.music, which is pretty cool!

Paul Parker's picture

How wonderful! If you ever sell your house be sure to mention the three word address in the listing!

Thanks for sharing. My fav so far : )

Martin Dennis's picture

Quadruple. Reinforced. Nutmeg. 😂😂😂

Paul Parker's picture

hahaha love it! I am a fan of nutmeg but I'm not sure I could stomach quadruple reinforced amounts of it!

Thanks for the share!

Robert Bell's picture

Sorry to lower the tone but ///Best.Hand.Jobs is a real address. 🙈

Paul Parker's picture

Hilarious! I must admit I had to check for myself and can confirm it is real!! Thankfully, It's the address is not over someones house or the property may have got some unwelcome attention...

Thanks for the share!

Steve White's picture

The comments make me think the best use of the app is simple amusement.

For my part, I haven't figured out the point. Degrees expressed as decimals to 5 places is sufficient to divide the world up into 2x2' squares. You're not going to remember the latitude and longitude as easily as 3 words, but if you need a phone or computer to find out what the 3 words are or where that place is you're already using the device you're probably going to use to share the data with somebody else. Doesn't that make it just as easy to accurately share/save the latitude and longitude? And make it possible for the other person to easily find the location even if they don't have access to the app?

I'm imagining Nigel Tufnel waving his phone at me and saying "But this uses words".

I do see one upside. If you're kidnapped by terrorists I suppose you could send a coded message by saying "Tell mittens, floppy, and fluffy I'll take them for a walk when I get home." At least you could do it if the terrorists let you have your phone, open the app, and make a call.

Paul Parker's picture

Valid points Steve. For me, it's the ease and memorability of three words that sells it. When dealing with people much less tech savvy what3words seems much more fool proof.

Three words is less prone to user error over a long string of numbers and there's also the inspirational element of the 3 words generated.

Have you ever given coordinates to clients, customers, or team members? In the areas I work in it wouldn't go down very well at all...

Thanks for your time : )

Steve White's picture

After a bit more consideration I still see this as just another solution in search of a problem.

C Fisher's picture

My mailbox is hanging.gear.hobbyists 😳

chris bryant's picture

The location of my house is GEAR.AQUISITION.SYNDROME

Paul Parker's picture

I think many of us have spent time at that address

Paul Parker's picture

haha like it! Hope you enjoyed looking at the squares by your house.

You'll have to try that memorable address when your order a pizza sometime!