For travel photography, location matters. Whether you're trying to track your adventures on a map or enter caption information in the image metadata, it helps to know exactly where a photo was taken.
For travel photography, location matters. Whether you’re trying to track your adventures on a map or enter caption information in the image metadata, it helps to know exactly where a photo was taken.
There are all sorts of things you can do with that location information paired with photos or videos. You can pin the photos automatically on Google Earth orea Flickr or 500px and have them show up on a map view that traces your route. It’s also very helpful when adding metadata for editorial assignments or stock photography. Photo editors at magazines and newspapers expect something more specific in the caption information than “a church in Granada” or “a fish market in Istanbul.”
It would be nice if my memory was perfect and that when I sat down to edit my photos when I got home from a trip I could remember exactly the spot where each photo was taken. It all seems crystal clear at the time, but after several days or even weeks of travel, details like that can become a bit of a blur. Even if I’m entering caption information with a laptop while on the road, it takes a lot of time cross-referencing with maps to relocate the spot precisely.
A much better option is to have information about the precise spot where the photo was taken embedded with the photo itself. It’s known as geotagging.
It’s entirely possible to manually geotag photos. There are quite a lot of apps that let you pin photos on a map manually. And some cameras, especially smartphones, have the built-in capability to embed geographic data into the photos.
But what if your camera doesn’t have built-in location tools or you have no interest in manually geotagging hundreds or even thousands of photos?
That’s where a GPS tracker (or GPS data logger) comes in. It’s a device that picks up the signal from GPS satellites and records a track of location. Some trackers are wristwatches. Some are handheld devices. Others are dongles you attach to a camera. And some are designed to be hidden discreetly.
Here’s a roundup of what’s available. It’s not exhaustive by any means–especially true of the many other handheld GPS navigation devices that are available–but it includes some of the better and more interesting options that are likely to be of interest to photographers.
There’s a huge variety of devices that can log GPS data, and over the years I’ve tried quite a few different ones. Some only log tracks, while others can do all sorts of other things as well like acting as GPS hubs for other devices, serving as emergency beacons, providing directions, or sending two-way text communications. Each has its own mix of features and its own pros and cons. Some might be better for boating, some for hiking, or maybe even for sneakily hiding under a car chassis to track someone secretly. Some even have specialized functions that help automatically align telescopes for night-sky photography.
For geotagging photos, there are some features that matter more than others. A make-or-break feature is the ability to export the track file so that you can then import it into your geotagging software. Some trackers use a proprietary system that locks you into their own software applications. But you want something where you can download the track file. GPX is the most widely-used standard format, although it can also be possible to convert other formats. If you can’t download the tracking file then you’ll have no way to cross-reference it with your photos.
Another thing to look for is a long battery life. Having to recharge or replace batteries every few hours isn’t much good. GPS systems take a reasonable amount of power to operate, but newer generation devices are getting better about battery efficiency with better quality batteries and strategies like intervals between tracking points that help extend battery life.
There are also things that are nice to have. The latest generation of GPS receivers tend pick up satellite signals more quickly and reliably than older models, and higher end models lock into alternative and complementary satellite and location systems to make them more accurate and reliable. There are a number of things that can affect how quickly the receiver will lock onto the satellites’ signals, and you’ll almost inevitably find times when you’re wishing it would just hurry up and lock in already, but the latest generation of receivers can often lock on in under 30 seconds or so from a cold start and in far less than that from a warm or hot start. It’s handy to be able to have some kind of indicator so that you can get visual confirmation that the receiver has locked onto the satellite signals. On some that’s a small LED, while on others it can be on an LCD screen.
A device that can put up with the rigors of travel–that can take some bumps and isn’t too worried by water–is also important for out-and-about travel photography.
Some high end trackers phone home via satellite or cell system to show your location on a website in real-time so that friends and loved ones can see where you are at any given time. Many also have a personal locator beacon function for emergencies, and some have the ability to send text messages via satellite (known as satellite messengers). The devices that fall into this category typically involve a subscription fee and can end up being quite pricey. Among the best known is the SPOT tracker, but others, like DeLorme have entered the market in recent years. Those kinds of features are well over and above what’s needed for geotagging photos, but many of the same devices also work quite well for creating simple GPS tracks.
These little devices plug directly into the camera itself. Some draw from the camera’s power supply, and some have their own battery. Most can embed GPS data directly into the photos’ EXIF metadata as you take them. They will only work with one camera at a time (an issue if you’re using multiple cameras), some draw down the camera’s power supply, and they tend to stick out from the camera and can be pretty easily knocked off if you’re putting a camera in and out of a bag.
Canon makes two GPS devices for its cameras; this is the more widely-compatible one. It is powered by its own AA battery, has its own built-in compass, and can act as a standalone GPS logger. One small feature I like is that it can automatically synchronize the camera’s clock based on super-accurate GPS data. Be sure to check that it’s compatible with your camera model. It’s available from Amazon | B&H Photo.
These are standalone GPS devices that you can attach to the outside of your camera bag, belt, kayak, or anything else that you’re taking with you. Features vary quite a lot between the devices–some, for instance, are more water resistant than others–so be sure that the features match your needs. Some are quite inexpensive, while others can be very pricey indeed.
These don’t embed the GPS information directly into the photo’s EXIF metadata at the time you take the photo, so geotagging your photos involves an extra step of using software to correlate the GPS tracklog with the image file. But one of the biggest advantages of using a standalone device rather than a dedicated camera one is that you can use the GPS track on photos taken with any camera, whether that’s a DSLR, compact, or GoPro. And if you’re shooting with multiple cameras, you can use the same track for all of them (having the cameras’ clocks synchronized makes that much easier).
This category is designed for people heading off the beaten path. They log GPS, can share your tracks in real-time on the web, and have text messaging capabilities. They’re also designed to offer peace-of-mind as emergency locator beacons if you run into trouble and need to send an SOS for emergency assistance (though they’re not a substitute for a proper commercial-grade emergency beacon like an EPIRB if you’re heading into potentially dangerous situations like out to sea). They also require subscription to work, which can add to the cost considerably.
The upside is that you probably already have your smartphone with you and a cheap or even free app can turn it into a GPS tracker that you can then use to geotag photos taken with cameras other than the built-in phone camera. There are two main negatives. The first is that GPS tracking tends to burn through battery power quickly. If you’re heading out for an hour or two that’s not big deal, but if you’re heading out for a 2-day or more hike, or even walking around town all day, it’s more of an issue, especially if you need your phone for other things. The second is that the GPS reception in smartphones is okay but not great. If you want to beef up the reliability and speed, you can use a separate device like this one that enhances the GPS reception and feeds that data wirelessly to your phone or tablet.