Technologies, necessary and otherwise (part one)

I recently blogged about what I think of as the four questions each photographer should ask themselves. The fourth, and newest question was “What technology/software/camera gear will keep me focused on what I do best…?” The idea was that we are so overwhelmed with new digital imaging technology offerings that sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. A recent email exchange prompted me to think about that question again. This will be the first of a few blog entries exploring my thoughts on digital imaging technologies, necessary and otherwise.

First, if you want to read the blog entry, about the four questions, start at: When I wrote that blog I was thinking about how I spend too much time in front of the computer. With all the various “technologies” I use, one of my major goals is to find ways to have less time at the computer, not more. So when a new digital imaging technology comes along, my default is to say, “I probably do not need that.”

A classic example of that kind of technology was GPS recording devices that track/record the photographer’s location when photographing. That certainly did not interest me and I thought it had few uses outside of photographers doing maybe map-making and surveillance work.

Then a friend wrote me:


I wonder if you have any counsel/experience with GPS systems for cameras? (I am using a Nikon D300s.)

He was working on a project he describes as:

My work, barn photographs, focuses locally in my Connecticut town and also range nationally. I photograph barns because I am attracted to their combination of simplicity and aesthetics. They combine some of the primary compositional forms that we find attractive. They are vernacular in design. I am drawn to how they tell about our own past and connect us with this text from our lives. A third motivator is preservation of a record. Many of the classic barns are disappearing.

Then he went on:

One of the options for directions I am considering for my work is expanding my barn photography from CT and local environs to the Connecticut River Valley, which would include CT and MA but also VT and NH. I have been in touch with a cooperative extension dairy professor in NH who has written and spoken on restoring barns and he has offered to help me locate NH barns in the Connecticut Valley in June. I keep records on where barns are located (photographing mail boxes and using Google Maps) but think a GPS might be very helpful in automatically recording such data for me.

Do you think any of this would be helpful in my situation? Do you have any other counsel? (Like I am being too much of a techie)?



The last line was the best. “(Like I am being too much of a techie)?” This was from a retired minister/educator, who has long struck me as a “people” person first and foremost. His point was well taken and “too techie” was my initial starting point when I first was thinking about who might ever really need a GPS for their camera.

But I thought about his question and I responded:

I know nothing about GPS systems for cameras. I have long wondered what they would be good for but…… In your case, especially if you expand it as you describe, that would be valuable. I understand that they take time to learn, so get to work. But with your work being so place specific, yours is one of the first cases I have personally encountered where I would say, yes, yes, yes.

Hope that helps,

So, Lowell, being the diligent guy that he is, went out and researched the various options for a GPS for his camera (a Nikon D300s.) He sent the summary of his research/purchasing process:

GPS for Photography: Research and Experience

1. My goal: I was seeking a GPS unit so I could locate my barn photographs after I had taken them (other than writing down street addresses and photographing mail boxes). My camera is a Nikon D300s.

2. Key issues: I sought an efficient means to locate/geotag my barn photos without a lot of hassle. Focused issues began with how long does it take to “lock on” to a reading. It reportedly takes longer to lock in cloudy weather and inside a building, although the latter was not a major concern for me in my photographing barns. Second was breakage problems noted in reviews. Cost was a third issue since I was not sure how well this technology would work for me. All units I considered draw on the camera battery, requiring more frequent battery changes. The unit also must be turned off separately from the camera or it will be a drain. All units fit on the shoe above the flip up flash, so the flash cannot be used when the GPS is located there. Since the unit does not use an electronic connection on the shoe, it is possible to allow the GPS to dangle or fasten it to the strap in order to use the shoe or flash.

3. Options rejected: My research caused me to reject two options. First was the Nikon GP-1 GPS. Its price is the highest of all the units I considered ($200), and the reviews were very mixed on how well it worked, including “lock on” time, and customer service. The Geometr GPS Receive Nikon DSLR ($146) was the second I decided not to consider further. Several reviewers reported it broke very easily. There were mixed responses about service in the reviews.

4. Final options for decision were two: First was the Promote GPS N-1 ($150). It had none of the breakage reports of the ones I rejected. Its “lock on” time was also faster than the others. It got excellent reviews including for its service. (The first reviewer on the Amazon site for the Promote provides a helpful basic primer on GPS SLR camera units.) The other option was the Columbus nGPS Unit for DSLR. It appears to be most recent on the market. Its price was the lowest ($110), its “lock on” speed was reported to be faster than all the others. There were not as many reviews but they were all rave with some mention of good service.

5. Choice: After much deliberation, I picked the Columbus nGPS, for its fast “lock on,” excellent reviews and lower price. I conjectured the fast times might be because it had newer technology.

6. Purchase: I bought the Columbus nGPS unit for DSLR through Amazon for $109.95 plus $7.99 shipping and handling. (It came quickly, although shipped by a different outfit than listed by Amazon.) Included with it is the cord for the GPS unit plus a hand held shutter release that plugs into the GPS (a bonus I had not expected), with another cord and a short strap.

7. Experience:

a. Set-up. This was done almost accidentally. I figured, given other electronic experiences with my camera and computers, it would take a lot of study of the manual plus trail and error. The package arrived just a few minutes before leaving for a trip so I brought it along. While eating lunch on the way I read the first two pages of the manual. (I had already checked my Nikon book and saw the place for GPS menu settings.) While waiting for my food, I went outside in the sun to see how the unit’s indicator light functioned after I put the GPS on my camera and plugged it in. The flashing searching light quickly turned constant, indicating “lock on.”

b. Field testing. I have just used the Columbus nGPS unit in Vermont in the rain, the type of weather when “lock on” is reported to be much slower. It locked on within 5 seconds, and did this repeatedly even after I turned the unit (and camera) off and started over in other locations. (It “locked on” in 30 seconds inside my office at home.)

c. How it worked: When I downloaded the pictures to Lightroom 2, GPS data appeared at the bottom of the metadata list for each photo. An arrow appears to right of the GPS data. I clicked on the arrow and voila up came a Google map showing an aerial view of where I was standing when the picture was taken, along with street address! I could clearly see the barns I had photographed. I had not expected the whole process to be so simple and to do just what I had wanted it to do.

d. Other reflections. The unit is quite small, smaller than I had expected, and does not impact how I carry and pack my camera. The cord has not proven to be in the way. My battery, which had been in the camera for quite a while, did run low in the day I used it. It seemed easy to remember to turn off the GPS off between locations because the single green “on light” is on the back of the unit right above the off/on switch. Further time will determine more about durability and battery drainage, but everything is off to a very good start.

Then he followed up with a great question:

I can send a Zenfolio link to some of the Vermont pictures I have taken with the GPS. I put some there to test it out. On the “photo info” tab in the upper right of the image, however, it does not show GPS information.

Which raises an interesting ethical question, at least for me. On most of the first of these pictures I have permission to photograph the barns. (The others I took from the highway right of way) Is it appropriate/ethical to provide the GPS co-ordinates on the barns, especially if given permission? One person asked me how I planned to use the images, but did they ever think that if my photos with the metadata were available, someone would be able to precisely locate their barn? Perhaps it is not an issue since (1) I am not sure why anyone would be seeing the GPS data from the metadata but me, and (2) there may be other ways to locate the barns.



I replied:

I strongly urge you not to have the GPS info publicly accessible. Not because that is a secret of yours, but just out of respect for the privacy of the barn owners. Yes, there may be other ways to locate the barns but why make it easier?

Hope that helps!

So the whole exchange of e-mails and then Lowell’s decision making was an example of technology evaluated and used wisely. The GPS will help him keep track of where he was he was photographing for a project about historic barns. Though that same location information could be disseminated and give the exact locations of the barns, I think he is wise not to make that information too widely available. This was a good example of a technology that is necessary and is being used appropriately. I wish all decisions about technology were this clear cut.

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