A Few Thoughts on Time Stamps, and a New Year’s Resolution…

Two Burmese Women

Photographs © George A. Jardine

Time stamps are hard.

They shouldn’t be, but they are. Nearly every photographer I know has trouble getting their time stamps right when on location. To make matters worse, I never remember to set my camera’s clock for changes in Daylight Savings Time. Then when you get back home, you sit down at the computer, and you’re once again faced with that question. Should I change these? How should I change them? And if I do decide to change them, should I write the changes back into the proprietary raw files?


Over the holidays I took several days to go through my entire digital library from top to bottom, to finally try and clean it up, mostly from the standpoint of folder organization and file names. And it was well worth the effort. But in the course of literally examining each and every digital shoot going back to into 2003, I found that not only did I have lots of folders with incorrect shoot dates and missing metadata, but I also was reminded of how many of my photos had incorrect time stamps. And because I had traveled overseas a fair amount, those incorrect date stamps frequently meant incorrect file names. (See my previous posting on using time stamps in file names.) So I decided it was time to fix that little problem, too.

It proved to be an interesting exercise. And I wouldn’t be writing this blog posting if my conclusion was simply that ‘you should remember to set your camera’s clock’…. or anything as simplistic as that. In the end (again…. more than a week later) I think I finally hit on the solution.

So, here’s a couple of questions for you. If you regularly travel and photograph, do you set your camera’s clock religiously? If you do, do you set it before you get on the plane? Or do you try to set it immediately after you hit the ground, before an interesting picture presents itself? If you set it before you get on the plane, what do you do with a shot like this, that you are lucky enough to get out the terminal window during a layover in Tokyo?

Or, one like this, that you actually took out of the airplane window? (Cliché, I know. But I just couldn’t let this perfectly random arrangement of puffy little clouds get away.)

Let’s see… what time zone was that one in? And at this point, does it really matter?

Or…. let’s say that you’re traveling cross country. When you’re crossing time zones, are you religious about setting the camera’s clock forward or back right when you cross the line? And if you do, does it sort of make you crazy that then you have some pictures that appear to be out of sequence because of the time change? (‘How could this frame, have been taken before this one???’)

The more you dig into it, the crazier it gets.

Don’t even get me stared on Daylight Savings Time. What a strange idea that was. DST drives photographers nuts, me included. Ultimately, you might get to the place where you’re wondering why the camera doesn’t simply take care of all this time stamp stuff, like our laptops and cell phones do. And eventually they might.

But until then, back to my screwed up library. I started sniffing around in there, starting at the top of 2004, with my very first digital camera purchase. A Canon Rebel. By this time I had been growing orchids in California for several years, and I was particularly proud of this one.

The photos of this orchid are the first frames that I have saved from this camera. They are in a folder labeled 20040321, but I honestly have no way to know if they were indeed shot on that particular day in March. I have nothing to correlate them to except the folder name. It’s certainly possible… but again, does it matter? Looking just a little bit farther, I see that the time stamps reveal a different problem. They read 1/1/80, at 12:01 AM.

Hmmmmm. Not likely. I do remember shooting this on my porch in bright afternoon sunlight, and so it was clearly not in the middle of the night, and I would never have set such a time stamp myself. Also, it looks suspiciously as if they were just inheriting some default camera or computer starting date that might be applied to a photo with an unreadable time stamp, or something like that. Looking at the metadata with ExifChanger, and I see that the Exif.DateTimeDigitized and the Exif.DateTimeOriginal fields are both empty. OK…. so that probably explains the default 1/1/80 date. I guess we’re going back into prehistoric time with this camera, when Canon was just shifting over from the .TIF raw format that they used in the first 1Ds. And despite the fact that these .CRW files do not have any EXIF time stamps, they do have an embedded TIFF.DateTime tag. And that’s where Lightroom seems to be picking up the 1/1/80 exposure date. Subsequent shoots with this camera also have TIFF.DateTime tags… and those dates correlate with the dates in my shoot folder names, so that makes me feel better.

Anyway, it was not the early digital captures taken with the Rebel that I was worried about. The weird or missing time stamps was a curiosity, but I was not going to let that consume me. It was a bit later that year that I started doing some serious shooting with an assortment of random cameras that I was able to borrow from the Photoshop team. Of course the Photoshop team had all the cool new cameras, and I could check one out for a day or two, anytime I wanted. And these cameras were a heck of a lot better than my Rebel.

Having a cache of the very latest 1Ds and 1Ds MKII bodies at my disposal was too much to resist and so I tried to get out with these cameras and photograph as much as I could. It was with one of these borrowed cameras that I captured this shot of the Golden Gate Bridge, which I still use as my desktop photo, no matter what color of gray the printing geeks say I should put back there.

I continued to shoot with this somewhat random bunch of cameras for the next 18 months. But again, I never really bothered to look to see what their clocks were set to. As it turns out, some of them were set properly to PST, while others were set to EST, probably because they came from Canon or Nikon reps in NYC, and no one else on the Photoshop team was bothering to set them either. In any case, I was busy shooting with a different camera every week, sometimes in California, sometimes in Denver, and occasionally on the east coast. And so you can imagine the random assortment of time stamps I was collecting.

More determined than ever to straighten out this mess, I started going through my library shoot by shoot looking for clues that might help adjust the time stamps. If I could find just one clue in each shoot, or even just one clue per camera serial number, I would then have a strong enough correlation to correct all the photos that I had taken with that one camera body. I didn’t know this when I started, but two methods eventually revealed themselves as useful in finding such time stamp correlations. First, with the help of timeanddate.com, locating either a sunrise or sunset shot in a group gave me a very strong clue about what the time offset should be for any given shoot. The date stamp on the photo of the Golden Gate Bridge was 3/4/2005, and that matched the date in my folder name. But the time stamp was 9:05 PM, which couldn’t be right.

This page on timeanddate.com showed that sunset on that day in San Francisco occurred at precisely 6:07 PM, and here I was shooting right into the setting sun. So this correlation told me that this particular camera had been set to EST at the time of this capture. And then being able to identify all the shoots that I had done with that camera by its serial number (which is recorded and searchable in the EXIF metadata…) gave me an easy way to correct several other shoots.

But the more surprising clues that I started finding here and there were wrist watches and wall clocks that I had inadvertently captured.

Not a photographic work of art, but in the process of trying to record the wines at this particular event, I ended up with a peek at my watch, that I could then correlate to the time stamp… years later.

In October of 2005 I finally bought a Canon 5D and began shooting with that. Did I ever bother to look at the camera’s clock? Not a chance. And I shot with it for nearly a year, in time zones from California to Iceland without ever setting it. In reviewing my shoots from Iceland, catching a glimpse of a wrist watch for correlation was a lot easier than trying to determine the precise moment of sunrise or sunset. With nearly 18 hour days, sunset was not so much a precise moment, as a long, slow descent into semi-darkness with the sun never truly seeming to set. In this photograph, I found correlation in two wrist watches, and zooming in to 1:1 clearly showed the correct local time to be 9:36 PM.

I admit that it wasn’t until I started capturing GPS information in 2008 that I finally began to pay attention to what my camera’s clock was set to. At this point I was forced to, in order to help the GPS software make the correlation of GPS coordinates to the correct photos. And if you were moving, that time stamp correlation had to be down to the second, or the coordinates you were matching up to wouldn’t be very precise. This is when I started photographing the display of my GPS every once in a while, so that I could know the exact offset of my camera clock relative to GPS time.

And in the long run, this is what finally brought me around to my solution. You see, when you dig into it a little bit, you realize that there is nothing magical at all about the camera’s date and time stamp. The camera’s software expects you to set a local time, and there is absolutely no correlation to GMT, or offset for DST, or any other invention of mankind. It’s just… a local time stamp, that may or may not be “correct”. And nothing more. The GPS unit, on the other hand, is always simply recording GMT. It only requires a time zone setting so that it can show you… the local time. Open up the .gpx file in text editor, and it’s all recorded in GMT. As far as the GPS unit is concerned… there really is only one, true time. And that’s GMT… or UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) as most people in high-tech like to call it.

There really is… only one standard time, no matter where in the world you are. Everything else is derived from GMT. That… makes sense!

Long story short, it took me about a week to correct my entire library. And in that process I found myself asking, over and over again, why should I ever have to struggle with this… on the camera? I never seem to get it right anyway, and just when I do, Daylight Savings Time rolls around and screws it up again! So I wrote a few of my friends who travel and shoot a lot, and asked: Do you always try to set your cameras for every trip? And, how often do you forget? And, does trying to keep on top of it drive you crazy? And the answers were all pretty much the same. To the first question, I got about 50/50. Some do, some don’t. To the second question, about the same. 50/50. And does it drive everyone crazy? Yes. That part was nearly universal.

The fact that the GPS is always, only recording one standardized time caused me to wonder why I just didn’t do the same. Why not just set my cameras to GMT, and then forget about it? It’s when I get home and I’m in front of the computer that I want to worry about what the time stamps are, anyway. Why not just standardize everything to GMT and then fix it later?

And so, that’s my solution. My New Years resolution is to synchronize all my cameras to GMT, and never look back. From now on, I’ll be adjusting my time stamps to the place and time of the shoot, after I get home. And I’m pretty sure I won’t forget to do that, because my file naming depends upon it!