I noticed that an increasing number of cameras include a built-in GPS device. How do these work and how effective and how complicated are they? Also, is GPS for photography a really useful option?
Yes, several digicams with built-in lenses (Sony DSC-HX5V, Lumix DMC-ZS7 and the Samsung ST1000 and newer WB650) are equipped with a GPS receiver as is one D SLR, the new Sony a55. You can also buy accessory GPS devices such as Nikon’s GP-1 (compatible with some of the newer Nikon D SLRs), a Samsung device for the brand new NX100 and Sony’s GPS-CS3KA (compatible with any camera that uses SD or Memory Stick Duo cards). Whether built-in or external, either type can record data as to the exact latitude/longitude for each of your photos for later recall with imaging software or with an app such as Picasaweb, Panoramio or Google Map.
These GPS receivers acquire data from three of the satellites orbiting the earth and use triangulation to calculate your exact coordinates at the instant you take each photo. This data is added to the EXIF (or metadata) file that also contains information as to camera settings that were used to make the photo. After downloading the images to a computer, you can view all of the information with imaging software by accessing the Properties or EXIF Data. You can also view each photo on a map when using one of the applications mentioned above.
Note: The Sony GPS-CS3KA (like other devices that work with many different cameras) requires an extra step to transfer the information from its internal memory to the image files’ EXIF data folders. This step is not complicated but it’s unnecessary with in-camera GPS or the Samsung and Nikon devices. After shooting for some time, insert the memory card from the camera into the Sony device. Pressing a couple of buttons causes it to apply the geo-tag data to 60 images per batch, taking a couple of minutes.
A camera with a built-in GPS is the most convenient and adds little to the price but it does consume power so you’ll want to buy a second battery. Of course, this feature is available with only a few cameras. As well, the Sony and Nikon devices that I tested also provided faster signal acquisition than the digicams’ built-in GPS receivers. Especially if you’re a frequent traveler who shoots a lot of images that you plan to upload to photo sharing sites, geo-tagging will be a real benefit. While location mapping is not essential, it’s definitely nice to have and it’s a cool extra that your friends will appreciate while viewing your on-line albums.