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:
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
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.
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.