Planning Your Next Photo Tour: Visualizing Locations with Google Maps

Touring regions of the United States with my Canon Rebel & tripod in tow tops my “Things I Enjoy Most” list, and planning those excursions is close behind. Heck, it may even be higher. The anticipation of new places to experience & photograph is something that is hard to beat.

As I daydream of my future adventures, I usually have places in mind … national parks, zoos, monuments, etc.¬†As Spring is in full swing, I have got the itch to shoot some flying flowers … butterflies! I would like to observe a variety, and the easiest way to do that is to visit a few butterfly sanctuaries. But I only have a list, and it is difficult to visualize when plotting my driving trip. Enter Google Maps Engine.

Google Maps are not only great for directions, but you can plot a group of locations using zip codes, city/state or latitude/longitude points.

All you have to do is create a csv (comma separated values) file. Any spreadsheet program can write out csv format, but it is also easy to do by hand. If you are using Google Docs, it is even easier. Import the file, and Bob’s your uncle (where did that saying come from, anyway?)

Here is a listing of butterfly sanctuaries in csv format. The first line provides the types of information that each of the following lines has (also called fields). This file has two fields. Each sanctuary has its own line: the name of the sanctuary and the zip code of where it is located, separated by a comma.

List of Butterfly Sanctuaries

List of Butterfly Sanctuaries

After heading on over to the Google Maps Engine homepage at, you are greeted with this:

Google Map Engine Greeting

Google Maps Engine Greeting

Click “Create a new map”, and you are presented with a brand-spankin’ new map. Click on “Import” on the left side of the screen to bring in the csv file.

google map engine basemap

Google Maps Engine Basemap

Select your csv file by dragging the file into the window and dropping, or click the blue button to get a dialog that allows you to select it. You also have the option to import from Google Drive if you have saved your information in a spreadsheet there.

google map engine load

Google Maps Engine Import Dialog

You will be prompted to identify which label you gave your location information (on the first line of the file). Here I used zip codes with a field name of “Zip”.

google map engine zip

Google Maps Engine Location Selection

Each marker has a label so you can identify it. Select which label you want to use (on the first line of the file). I only had one other piece of data to go along with the location – the name of the butterfly sanctuary. You may add more information if you’d like (addresses, phone number, descriptions, etc.) as all information will be imported. But only one field is used as the marker label.

google map engine name

Google Maps Engine Marker Label Selection

If all is well, the information is plotted on the map. Each location is identified by a marker.

Map of Butterfly Sanctuaries

Map of Butterfly Sanctuaries

From here you can customize your map with a title (click on “Untitled map”) or change the color of the markers. You can share the map via the “Share” button in the upper right corner of the window.

Different types of information can be added too. If I wanted to see where the national parks were located in relation to the butterfly sanctuaries, I would import the national park locations in a new layer. The markers would be a different color, so I could differentiate between them. The free version of Google Maps Engine allows up to 100 locations per layer, and up to 3 layers per map.

So now I can see that the sanctuaries are primarily located in the eastern half of the United States, with clusters around New York city, Chicago and the Gulf coast. Now I can plan my Butterfly Photo Tour 2014!

What photo tours will you be planning this year?


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