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How to Find Locations

With old photographs or works of art, finding the location it was taken from may be a combination of research, playing detective, time detective and looking at various possibilities to confirm the location.

In some cases you may have a lot to go on, in others you may not. Rather than starting with the assumption you know nothing, I am going to start from the more common situation where you know enough to identify a town, village or area. This may be from the title, from other work the artist or photographer has done or where you have seen it said before that it was based upon.

Within the photo or art image we will have a lot of clues, the landscape for example, perhaps we can see distant items, hills, church spires. The type of properties will also give a good clue, be it their size or what they are being used for, however don't jump to conclusions too readily.

From the shadows, and far easier from noticing where moss is growing and any churches are pointing, you may be able to identify the direction the camera is pointing. Moss by the way, grows on the northern side of trees, walls and posts where the sun does not strike. In some locations you will see trees bent very much in one direction by the wind, and this again is likely to help you in deciding the direction the camera is pointing.

You may be able to see streets or roads joining at specific angles, or there may be something about their spacing or position in relation to each other. Similarly the road may go up left, right or be straight, and may be level, go up or down hill or perhaps have something within the view that represents a rise and fall, or a bridge.

When I started to take 'then and now' photos and they were first being run regularly in magazines, this was as far as I could go, and with the aid of an Ordnance Survey Map it was time to get out and do some research on the ground.

While we could just take the information we have and charge off out today to find it, today its far easier in that with the internet we now have more tools available to us, and frequently now we can identify exactly where to go.

Knowing an area we can look on a variety of geographically relevant websites:-

  • local websites that may cover the location

  • Geograph

  • Multimap

  • Google maps, including often Streetview

Local websites may talk specifically about the topic and if it does is likely to give clues if not an address. Some specialist websites may also be relevant, as well as the specialist sections of our website for items like Fords , Windmills , Lighthouses , and many more where we have every occurrence listed.

Geograph, allows you, starting with a grid reference, to see many images of items in the area and to move from one area to the next in any direction looking at what images have been submitted from that area. The coverage varies from a small number up to hundreds of images for a small area. While you can search by area and it has a small mapping system, I usually start with Multimap with the Ordnance Survey map, and when you centre this map, (right mouse button option), it shows underneath the grid reference of that location, giving you an easy grid reference to feed into Geograph. Geograph images are shown on the map on the page but also have a grid reference the item was taken at, this can be copied and pasted into Multimap to get a location shown on a larger map. You need to take out the spaces having pasted before hitting enter.

Clicking once or twice on the map on Geograph throws up a small separate map that you can move about. The position on the map that you click on is automatically centred and it shows you the grid reference underneath this map.

Multimap has a number of advantages, the main ones being the ability to show Ordnance Survey maps, and the second that you can use grid references to search with as well as identify grid references. As well as the different map styles you can select an aerial map or in some areas a birds eye view. The Birds Eye view is a closer 45 degree look, so you see 3D items, and in many places you have 4 views available allowing you to move around and look from the 4 main compass positions. You can drag the map about to explore as well as zooming in and out. You can often see things on the birds eye view that is not obvious when looking straight down from an aerial photograph. Multimap is owned by Microsoft who also own Bing Maps, and these two will probably merge at some time, but at this time Bing does have OS maps, but does not handle grid references so is inferior for UK use to Multimap.

Google Maps has generally, where available, better aerial photos, but does not have Ordnance Survey maps or allow the use of grid references. It also does not have a birds eye view as such, as it has a Google Earth view that can be turned.  Google can search for places and postcodes as can Multimap. Google strengths are in its quality aerial photographs, flexible directions system and the 'streetview' display. 

With 'Streetview' you get to very many streets, and can look around in 8 directions, can zoom and see the view as you do. Streetview is activated by grabbing a small orange man from over the zoom control and putting him onto a road, while you have him selected all available roads are highlighted with blue edges, plus some locations of photographs that you can select are also shown. The road coverage is growing all the time with many small roads and lanes now covered in many areas. The position of the street view camera is from a high bracket well above a car, and so you can look often behind hedges, but cannot often get to the same camera position yourself, which can mean that a view is possible in Streetview that you cannot get.

Just about all mapping systems are written to use the available window space so you will find you can close down the left hand display areas expanding the map coverage from left to right of your screen and then by toggling F11 you can remove the browser area so as to get maps that are full screen size. Particularly when using aerial photos its helpful to have as large an area available as you can. The only disadvantage is that map refreshing may slow down when the internet is busy.

Rather then going for one service or another, using them in combination gives a more powerful package. I have two large screens on my computer so can see two items at the same time, if not you need to use tabs, or separate windows.

Identifying the location in towns and villages

Over time developments will occur, extra buildings will be built, often as infill and some areas may be redeveloped, however over time a lot stays the same, and if you look at photographs of 100 years ago, you will see that although business premises have changed in name, frontages will have changed and street furniture and markings are different there are still some things that do not change. The basic position and shape of buildings rarely changes, and the most clear to see is the sequence of roof shapes. If you use a combination of the road shape, i.e. bends, rises etc and building shapes together with roof shapes you will find that identifying the location that the photograph was taken can be matched without too much difficulty. This is not to say that you will be able to duplicate it exactly.

One of the major differences you will find is in the size and number of trees, we have far more and larger trees than were present in previous times. This means that some views that were available historically are not today, it can also mean that some items that could be seen historically can not be today. The reason for this, besides the current 'green politics' and the craze for planting trees, was that historically wood was used in construction and for production, as well as for heating and cooking fuel, so farmers and landowners saw wood in hedges and in other places as a crop to be harvested.

Other challenges you will come across are wider roads, infill buildings and the problem of traffic and parked cars.


See Also:

Maps within the Reference Section - for more mapping sources

National Grid for converting OS Grid References and other useful sources.

Identifying the subject or location


By: Keith Park  Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: Find_locations Topic: Comparative Photography  Last Updated: 08/2010

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