Over the years, I’ve used a number of different ways to track my travels so that I can embed GPS data into my photos. Some of the devices embed the GPS data directly into the photo’s metadata when the shot is taken. Others create a track that can then, with the help of software, be synchronized to update the GPS data in batches of photos at once. Some new cameras even have GPS functionality built-in. I’ve put together a roundup of some of the best options for GPS trackers for photographers.
But I’ve never been entirely happy with many of the solutions. Most of them have battery issues. GPS requires a significant (relatively speaking) amount of battery power to function and needs to keep using it at regular intervals to maintain the signal from the GPS satellites. Some GPS receivers are slow to lock onto the satellites and pick up the location. Some are just plain inaccurate. Some get knocked too easily off the camera. And some just aren’t as convenient as they could be to take with you or involve too many pieces.
I have a new favorite. It’s the Garmin Fenix 3.
It’s not perfect. For one thing it’s much more expensive than other options. For another, the battery life is good but it’s still something that has to be managed. And, as with nearly everything to do with photography, there’s no one-size-fits-all that’s going to suit everyone. But this has become a good fit for me.
There are less expensive GPS watches, including Garmin’s own Forerunner series. What makes the Fenix 3 different is that its battery life when using the GPS tracker is a lot longer than the others–up to 50 hours of tracking (or up to 6 weeks without using GPS). Some of this is due to a bigger battery, and a lot of it is due to what’s called an UltraTrac mode that adjusts the interval of the tracking points to save battery life. So rather than having to recharge your watch after 5 or 10 hours, you can potentially go several days of real-world use of GPS tracking before having to recharge the watch. There are other GPS trackers that can provide longer battery life, but 50 hours is pretty good.
A Wrist-Watch GPS Tracker
There are a number of good options for photographers looking for a GPS receiver to geotag photos. You can get one that attaches to a specific camera, which has the advantage of embedding the geographical coordinates directly into the photo’s EXIF metadata. Or you can use a standalone device, which has advantages if you’re shooting with multiple cameras, whether they’re DSLRs or GoPros or anything in between. The Fenix 3 is a bit different to the standalone devices that area usually used for geotagging photos.
The Garmin Fenix 3 isn’t marketed to photographers. It’s aimed at runners, cyclists, swimmers, hikers, and even skiers. It has all sorts of features that would appeal to athletes, especially ones that relate to pace, distance, and calories burned.
Here I’m focusing on the features that matter for the purposes of geotagging photos, which uses only a relatively small subset of the watch’s features. And it turns out it can be a very useful tool indeed for travel photography and even for traveling generally. But the watch can do a lot more than that, including connecting by Bluetooth to your phone, connecting to WiFi, and switching out for more stylish watch faces or bands.1 For an in-depth review of those features, and a lot more, I recommend the review over at DC Rainmaker.
The killer features for the type of use I’m focusing on here mostly relate to the built-in GPS functionality. That enables features such as the GPS tracking, of course, but it also creates opportunities for using that location information in other ways such as real-time, location-specific sunrise and sunset times and even moon phases. Through third-party apps, you can also add things like multi-timezone information and moonrise and moonset times. There’s also a compass, which comes in very useful but doesn’t technically rely on the GPS. And lest we overlook the Fenix 3’s most basic function, it’s also a watch–but it’s one that automatically updates to whatever timezone you’re in at that moment.
There are also advantages to having a dedicated GPS tracker that’s not connected to a specific camera. It allows you to use the same track for photos taken with any camera, no matter how many there are. I often travel with two (and sometimes more) cameras. If my GPS device is attached to a specific camera, I’d have to buy and use two of them to cover two cameras. With a single GPX file that’s camera-agnostic, I can use that information with any photo or video I’ve taken on any camera, whether it’s a DSLR, a compact, or a GoPro.
I’ve found that wearing a GPS tracker on my wrist has a number of advantages. It’s on me and goes where I go. Hanging a GPS dongle off a camera bag is simple enough sometimes, but there are places I don’t carry a camera bag or I don’t want another piece of electronic equipment dangling about and catching on things or attracting attention from curious kids. The first GPS tracker I used, several years ago now, was a Sony tracker. While it looked discreet enough, it had a small LED light that flashed to indicate the status of GPS reception. Several times I found that that small light attracted unwanted attention, sometimes from street kids and sometimes from security guards. I ended up taping over it, but then I couldn’t tell when the device was getting a signal.
What completely sold me on a wrist-watch GPS was the experience of kayaking in Antarctica. At that time I was using the original Garmin Fenix and wore it as my main watch during the trip.
The band is long enough that I could wear it comfortably on the outside of the wrist seal of a drysuit, and I didn’t have to worry about unclipping and carrying yet another gadget (with cold, wet hands!) when we went ashore to explore. Nor did I have to worry about moving it when I switched kayaks or risk having it get knocked off when the kayaks were dragged up in a hurry from the water to the ship’s deck. It was just there, following me around, silently keeping meticulous notes on where I’d gone and when. If I got up in the middle of the night to go out on deck of the ship to take photos of a midnight sunset or whales playing nearby, it was still with me. You can see an example of some of the tracks in the screenshot at the top of this page, which is a combination of tracks while kayaking, while on the ship, and while ashore. Thanks to the Fenix’s GPS tracks, I know exactly where every photo was taken even in a place that’s a long, long way from the nearest street sign and where even Google Maps has trouble because of the constantly shifting ice. (In case you’re wondering–and I was before I went–yes, GPS works in Antarctica.)
Setting Up the Fenix 3 for Photo Geotagging
More recently, I’ve upgraded to the latest model, the Fenix 3. The Fenix 3 comes ready to track GPS out of the box. There’s really nothing to set up. But you can, if you like, customize some of the display screens so that it shows information that you want to see–things like confirmation that the GPS is locked on or the time of the sunrise or sunset. I’ve even created my own display set that shows the information I’m interested in seeing when I travel. If you want to extend the apps that come built-in, you can download apps developed by Garmin and third-parties that extend the functionality. The multi-timezone if especially useful for travelers. But there’s no need to hack any firmware or engage any special features.
The one thing that makes things a lot easier later on is to synchronize your camera’s clock with the GPS clock. Time is the crucial piece of information in cross-referencing the GPS track with the photo. The software looks at the time the photo was taken (embedded in the EXIF information by the camera) and finds where on the track you were at that specific point in time.
Strictly speaking, synchronizing the clocks isn’t absolutely required. The better geotagging software has a function to allow you to make corrections by adding an offset value. Camera clocks can and do often slip by a few seconds or even minutes after a while, in which case you can use the override to make corrections. And some photo software, like PhotoMechanic or HoudahGeo, lets you adjust the time embedded in the photo’s EXIF information. But having them synchronized makes things easier and reduces the risk of miscalculations and is especially useful if you’re using multiple cameras.
I’m in the habit of keeping all my cameras on UTC time so that I don’t have to worry about adjusting the whenever I move from one timezone to another. (UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time, is also sometimes known as Greenwich Mean Time, although that’s not entirely accurate.) If you want to take advantage of the timezone features in your camera, you can–you’ll just need to factor that in when you go to match up the photos with the GPS track.
Creating GPS Tracks
Creating the GPS tracks is straightforward. You simply start one of the built-in apps. For general travel wanderings, the built-in Hiking app is a good place to start. You can either customize that further or duplicate it and create a new one and call it whatever you like (which is the Photography and Travel apps you can see in the photo at the top of this page came from).
You have the option of continuous GPS tracking, which collects data constantly, or Garmin’s UltraTrac mode which spaces out polling to once every two minutes. Or, as the manual puts it:
The UltraTrac feature is a GPS setting that records track points and sensor data less frequently. Enabling the UltraTrac feature increases battery life but decreases the quality of recorded activities. You should use the UltraTrac feature for activities that demand longer battery life and for which frequent sensor data updates are less important.
I find that the UltraTrac mode works best for my purposes.
You have several options when it comes to creating GPS tracks. One of the headline features is that the Fenix 3 can receive data from GLONASS, the GPS-like system run by the Russians. In theory, that makes the tracks more accurate, but anecdotal evidence suggests that doesn’t always pan out in reality. GLONASS reception isn’t enabled by default, but you can turn it on. There’s a small penalty in battery usage. There’s no right answer as to whether GLONASS should be on or not beyond testing for oneself to see you find working best for you. Here’s what the manual has to say about it:
The default satellite system option is GPS. You can enable the GLONASS option for increased performance in challenging environments and faster position acquisition. Using the GPS and GLONASS options can reduce battery life more than using the GPS option only.
There’s also an option on how frequently to record activity data. In most cases the SMART option is going to be best–it provides the best battery usage savings. But you can, if you wish, change it to recording every second for more fine-grained recording.
Saving GPX Tracks
GPX is the most widely compatible of the GPS data file formats. The original Fenix allowed you to save the tracks directly as GPX files. You can’t do that with the Fenix 3. To get the data from the Fenix 3 into a GPX file format requires extra software.
Garmin makes good hardware, but their approach to software leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve never been much of a fan of Garmin software–it looks and works too much like it was designed by hardware engineers, and I find it infuriating that a single device requires you to use so many different Garmin apps to handle individual operations. For instance, for the Fenix 3 alone there’s Garmin Express for updates, Garmin Connect for overall management, Garmin Connect IQ to manage IQ widgets, and Garmin Basecamp for managing GPS tracklogs–not to mention the smartphone app. If you use a Garmin device in your car for driving directions then you’ll also need Garmin’s map managing software. So you end up with the ridiculous situation of using 5 or 6 pieces of separate Garmin software for just one or two devices. It creates a very poor user experience. All that said, the software is free and ultimately gets the job done.
I’ve found that the best way to do it is to use Garmin BaseCamp. That allows you to combine multiple tracks and export them as a single GPX file. BaseCamp is a bit clunky, and I’d prefer to be able to just download the GPX files directly, but it works.
You can also convert the tracks to GPX files with the web-based Garmin Connect, but with that you can only export each track individually, which can become tedious if you’ve been recording over several days or weeks. It is possible to combine GPX files later using something like Adze, but that means an extra step.
Once you’ve got your GPX file, you can then correlate that with your photos. There are quite a number of apps that will help you with that, and doing it is really outside the scope of this review. But I’ve put together a separate guide on geotagging software. Lightroom has basic functionality. PhotoMechanic is better. Much better still is a dedicated program like HoudahGeo, which is what I use most of the time.
These are some examples of geotagged photos where I used the Fenix 3 in different types of travel environments.
Other Useful Features of the Fenix 3
Creating GPS tracks is a pretty mundane function of what is really quite a feature-packed watch. Here are some of the other apps and widgets I find useful for traveling and photography:
- Sunset and sunrise times. It adjusts for your specific location for that day. Unfortunately there’s no way to move forward or back in dates with the default widget (but you can with the Sun & Moon widget (see below)), but it’s very handy for looking up the next sun couple of daytime transitions.
- Moon phases. If the moon factors in in any way to what you’re shooting this can be helpful, especially when used with a sun and moon widget.
- Compass. A very handy digital compass that’s useful not just in your wanders but also in working out the bearing of your shot.
- Altimeter. The built in altimeter is handy for any kind of climbing or even hiking. Calculating altitude accurately is a pretty complicated thing to do and requires calibration. The Fenix 3 has both a barometric and GPS altimeter functions, and the GPS altimeter information can be used to calibrate the barometric altimeter.
- Temperature. I’ve only found this to be moderately useful. Because the watch sits on your body, things like body heat and clothing sleeves can throw it off. If temperature readings are important to you, you’ll probably want to use the external sensor that Garmin makes (sold separately).
There are some useful third-party apps worth looking at as well:
- Daylight Left. Aimed at hikers, it’s still very useful for photographers relying on natural light.
- Sun & Moon. This widget displays sunrise, sunset, moon rise, moon set, and moon phase for the day on a single screen. It doesn’t give you all the information of something like The Photographer’s Ephemeris, but it’s very handy info to have on your wrist, especially if you’re in an area without cell reception or wifi.
This is the battery life that Garmin claims:
- Normal GPS Mode: Up to 20 hours
- UltraTrac GPS Mode (2-minute polling interval): Up to 50 hours
- Basic Watch Mode: Up to 6 weeks
Those specs are for ideal conditions, and while they’re useful guidelines for real-world usage, there are a number of other variables that come into play that affect battery usage, such as changing screens, turning apps on an off, and even the ease or difficulty that the GPS receiver has in locking on to the satellite signals. All of those will drain the battery more quickly. On the other hand, I usually wouldn’t use the GPS tracking continuously for 50 hours. I turn it off when I’m not using it, especially overnight. By turning on GPS only when I need it, I can go several days at least without having to recharge the battery.
These are also steps you can take to maximize the battery life:
- Reduce the backlight brightness and timeout
- Use UltraTrac GPS mode instead of regular GPS mode
- Turn off Bluetooth when you’re not using it
- When pausing your activity for a longer period of time, use the resume later option
- Use a Connect IQ watch face that is not updated every second (ie. one that doesn’t indicate seconds)
- Limit the smartphone notifications the device displays
- Limit use of features like activity tracking and storm warnings
The Fenix 3 has a built-in rechargeable battery that’s not user-replaceable. Charging the Fenix 3 requires a special docking cradle that plugs into a laptop or an AC or car adapter that outputs 5V 1A. The cradle itself plugs into USB, but you can’t just connect directly to the watch with USB. So if you lose or break the cradle, you’re in trouble. I bought a spare, just in case.
Garmin Fenix vs Fenix 3
A couple of years ago I started using the original Fenix. The first trip I used it on was kayaking in Antarctica. It performed wonderfully and was especially well-suited to the mix of conditions and activities. It sold me on the method.
I skipped the Fenix 2, so I can’t comment on that one, but there have been a number of big improvements since the original Fenix. One thing that hasn’t changed much is that they’re big, blocky watches. If you’re looking for something small and petite, this isn’t it. A lot of that has to do with the large battery they need. But the Fenix 3 definitely looks more stylish than the original Fenix, and it has a much more detailed display. And you can also go for the Sapphire model, which includes a more stylish band (and is more expensive).
The two big improvements that sold me on the upgrade from the Fenix to the Fenix 3 is that the new model more quickly locks onto the satellite signals and it has improved battery life. Both are better on the Fenix 3. And if you’re using it as a sport watch, there are a number of major improvements in that area.
But there are also things about the original Fenix that I like better. For one, it’s simpler to just start and stop the GPS function; you don’t need to go through an activity app, and there’s a little less button pushing required. For another, the original Fenix can save to the GPX file format directly, so you don’t need to use BaseCamp or Connect to convert the file. Even though the Fenix 3 has a much sharper and better-looking screen, the original Fenix is higher contrast and easier to read in low light (both have a backlight). And finally, with the original Fenix you had more control over specifying the interval used with the UltraTrac mode; with the Fenix 3 it’s just on or off. But the quicker lock on the satellite signal and the better battery life have made the upgrade worth it for me.
One thing to keep an eye on is that Garmin puts out firmware and software updates fairly regularly. Both watches benefit from the latest updates, and new features are sometimes added. With the Fenix 3 you can set it to automatically download updates over wifi, which is a very useful feature, but with the Fenix you have to do it manually.
Garmin Fenix 3 vs Apple Watch
Unless you’ve been off the grid for a while, you’ve no doubt heard about Apple’s much-ballyhooed Watch. There’s a lot of overlap. The Apple Watch can do much of what the Fenix 3 can do and then quite a lot more. It also looks sleeker and there’s a lot of more room for developers’ imaginations to run wild in creating apps.
But there are a lot of differences between them, too, and there are some key areas where the Garmin trumps the Apple Watch. Most important to me is that the Fenix 3 has its GPS built-in. The Apple Watch uses the GPS in your iPhone (and it won’t work without that pairing). So the Apple Watch doesn’t actually have GPS, but it can make use of the GPS data provided to it by the iPhone.
Another key difference is in battery life. With the Fenix 3 you can potentially get up to 6 weeks or more in basic watch mode or up to 50 hours using GPS UltraTrac mode or up to 20 hours in full GPS mode. You’ll get less if you enable more apps and features like Bluetooth, etc. The Apple Watch battery, with normal usage, lasts about 18 hours (or less) or up to 72 hours using a special power reserve mode that displays the time but disables everything else, and the GPS depends on the battery in your iPhone.
Another point of difference that’s important to me when traveling is that the Fenix 3 is a much more rugged watch. It’s built for action, not a night at the opera. That’s especially true when it comes to water. It’s rated to a depth of 100m. It’s not really designed for Scuba diving, and pushing the buttons underwater isn’t recommended, but there’s no problem taking it swimming or snorkeling (it even has both pool and open water swimming modes), or, of course, kayaking or boating.2
By contrast, you can’t really go swimming with the Apple Watch, let alone snorkeling, surfing, or diving. Kayaking or boating are also risky (I mean small boats where you can get wet, not luxury yachts!). As Apple puts it:
Apple Watch is splash and water resistant but not waterproof. You can, for example, wear and use Apple Watch during exercise, in the rain, and while washing your hands, but submerging Apple Watch is not recommended. Apple Watch has a water resistance rating of IPX7 under IEC standard 60529. The leather bands are not water resistant.
The Garmin Fenix 3 isn’t going to appeal to everyone, if for no other reason than it’s much more expensive than most other consumer GPS trackers. Or maybe you’ve already got a watch you like. And it’s easy enough to make the argument that it’s overkill for geotagging. But if you’re serious about geotagging or your livelihood relies on accurate location information, it’s an interesting option worth looking at. That’s especially true if you have interest in using it as a sports watch or location-specific information is of interest to you.
- In many of the photos I’ve included here, the watch body looks silver. There is a silver version of the watch available, but in this case it’s the light catching the sheen finish. In reality, the version I’m using is a dark gray. ↩
- GPS doesn’t work under water, so if you’re taking your Fenix 3 under water, the watch functions will work but the GPS tracking will stop when you submerge and can be reactivated when you resurface. ↩