Photographers Have Several Camera Options for Geotagging Pictures with GPS Points
From the weekend camera buff to the sophisticated GIS user, 'geotagging'
photos with location coordinates has become a popular application of
GPS technology. Geotagging, which adds coordinates to a digital image
so that it can be accurately placed on a digital map, has spawned a new
market we call photo mapping that has compelled the manufacturers of
digital cameras, cell phones and GPS receivers to develop a variety of
products designed to make it easier to stamp images with GPS points.
In just the past two years, some of the biggest names in cameras -
Ricoh, Nikon and Canon - have released models that either have GPS
built into the camera body or are designed for direct inputs from an
external GPS device. Never wanting to turn their backs on a potential
new app, cell phone developers have gotten in on the photo mapping
action by integrating cameras and GPS chips inside the phones for
automatic geotagging of pictures. And GPS equipment developers like
Trimble are approaching the market from the opposite direction by
adding cameras to their newest receivers. GPS digital cameras are
popping up everywhere.
At GeoSpatial Experts, we introduced GPS-Photo Link in 2001 as the
first software developed specifically for mapping photos. At the time,
our software was geared almost exclusively toward professionals who
needed to document their photos in a GIS. Over the past few years,
however, the photo mapping market has expanded dramatically as camera,
GPS and Web-based mapping technologies have evolved and become
Today, we see three distinct groups of end users comprising the market
for photo mapping technology: GIS professionals, non-GIS business
professionals and recreational photographers. The application needs of
these groups are so different that we ultimately created two versions
of GPS-Photo Link to serve the GIS and non-GIS professionals.
The purpose of this article is to differentiate these three user
groups, and match their needs with the latest GPS digital camera
offerings. Ideally, this information will help readers select the photo
mapping hardware that best fits their budget and meets the needs of
As the name implies, GIS professionals use GIS or high-end digital
mapping software in the course of their daily business. For them,
accuracy is critical, sometimes in the sub-meter range. Photo locations
must be mapped accurately so they align with all of the other layers of
geographic information in their mapping system. The software adds a
photo thumbnail or icon on the map to denote where the photo was taken.
In terms of software needs, users in this group rely on photo mapping
to record the locations and conditions of features in their GIS. Not
surprisingly, they demand the most robust capabilities from commercial
photo mapping software. GIS users typically need to convert photo
location coordinates into their desired datum and projection, and in
many cases they need to record camera metadata that details the
direction of the photo as well as the field of view angle. And
ultimately, they want to generate reports of their photo mapped feature
inventories in a variety of GIS-compatible formats.
Photo mappers in this group are most commonly individuals and
organizations who rely on geospatial technology to manage facilities
and infrastructure. They use geotagged pictures to create a visual
record of where their assets are and what condition they're in at a
given point in time. Oil and gas companies, pipeline operators,
engineers, environmental consultants, public works departments, the
military, utilities, disaster relief workers and government agencies of
every kind fall into this category.
Camera Options - Because of the vital role their cameras play in
data collection, GIS professionals typically want a rugged camera body
with a built-in GPS so they don't have to deal with cables and can use
it under adverse field conditions. These users can benefit from a
compass linked either to their camera or GPS to record the direction
the camera was pointing when the photo was taken. If they need
extremely high accuracy, GIS pros also need Wi-Fi or Bluetooth
connectivity for differential correction via a base station GPS
receiver. (Differential correction uses GPS coordinates from a second
GPS receiver to correct, or improve the accuracy, of points collected
by the first receiver.)They also look for high-end optics, including
the option for interchangeable lenses usually found in a digital
single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, which will produce good image
The best camera choices for this group include the following.
Ricoh 500SE - This 8-mega-pixel camera is the only one designed as a
GIS data collection device. Offering superior optics and add-on lenses,
the Ricoh comes with integrated GPS and a virtual keypad, which allows
users to enter attribute descriptions that are linked permanently to
each photo along with the location coordinates. An optional compass
attaches to the camera body and provides direction data. If the
inherent 3- to 5-meter GPS accuracy isn't sufficient, the Ricoh has
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity making it possible to add a second GPS
device for sub-meter differential correction. It's ruggedized and
water-resistant. With the compass, users can expect to spend $1400 for
the Ricoh 500 SE.
Nikon DSLR Cameras - For GIS users who need to take the sharpest photos
possible, Nikon offers two GPS options for its higher-end cameras. For
the D5000 and up, Nikons have ports for a wired connection to a
handheld GPS receiver, allowing the camera to integrate the location
coordinates into the metadata field for each photo. And for
photographers who don't like wires connecting two pieces of equipment,
Nikon offers the GP-1 GPS receiver that mounts right on the hot shoe of
the high-end models (D3, D2xs, D2x, D700, D300, D200, D90, and D5000).
Although the Nikons aren't ruggedized like the Ricoh, the $239 GP-1
puts the best camera optics in the world into the hands of photo
Canon - Owners of higher-end Canon EOS DSLR models, such as the 1D Mark
III, will be pleased to know that Canon has released a wireless
transmitter device (WFT-E2) to link the camera with an external GPS
receiver. Canon makes terrific cameras and if you already own one, this
is a cost-effective option worth considering if the GPS receiver is
compatible with your particular camera.
Trimble Juno SC Handheld - Trimble's Juno series of products are best
described as handheld computers designed specifically for serious GIS
data collection. With built-in GPS, the Junos achieve two- to
three-meter accuracy but can be wirelessly linked to a second GPS for
differential correction. The SB and SC models include an integrated
3-megapixel pinhole camera. Its photos are automatically geotagged and
saved as attributes along with other feature data keyed in by the user.
Capable of running ESRI ArcPAD software, the Juno SC costs $749 without
data collection software.
Non-GIS Business Professionals
This group uses photography for the same purpose as the GIS users - to
inventory the locations and conditions of items and assets - but they
usually don't have the same stringent requirements for absolute
accuracy. More interested in relative accuracy, they may utilize a
simple desktop mapping package as part of their daily operations, but
they are just as likely to use Google Earth or a Web page map to
display the locations of their GPS photos.
This group is the most rapidly growing sector of photo-mapping users
because it potentially includes any individual who can benefit from
having a location-stamped photograph-record without a full-scale GIS.
Local government agencies are increasingly swelling the ranks of this
group as they look for simple and inexpensive ways to inventory
infrastructure without the use of their full-blown GIS, usually in
support of maintenance activities but sometimes to have a record of
asset conditions as a part of emergency preparedness. Police officers,
insurance claims adjusters, inspectors and zoning officials are among
the most recent to join this group.
Camera Options - Except in rare instances where extremely high
image quality is a necessity - such as in crime-scene mapping - the
non-GIS business professionals typically have their applications and
budgets satisfied by mid-grade camera equipment. Ruggedized camera
bodies and interchangeable lenses are less important to these users,
and their accuracy requirements fall in the three- to five-meter range.
Their best camera options include the following.
Nikon CoolPix P6000 - For under $500, this top-of-the line offering
from the Nikon series of CoolPix point-and-shoot cameras is an
incredible photo mapping value. It takes 13-megapixel photos and boasts
built-in GPS chips for automatic geotagging of each photo. While its
optics don't match those of the more pricey DSLRs, this Nikon GPS
solution has some zoom and pan capabilities, and it literally fits in
Samsung CL65 (ST1000) - Just released in August, 2009, the newest
Samsung has a built-in GPS and boasts Bluetooth and Wi-Fi
connectivity. It includes a 3.5-inch touch screen, 12.2 megapixels, and
5x optical zoom. This Samsung GPS camera is expected to cost around
Any Camera/Any GPS - It's easy to forget that before cameras had
integrated GPS, the only option was to rely on commercial photo mapping
software to merge digital photos and coordinates for you. Given the
fact that $100 digital cameras and similarly priced handheld GPS
receivers are plentiful, this is still an inexpensive option for
someone who doesn't mind carrying two pieces of equipment. All that's
required is for the user to snap a digital photo of the GPS screen to
synchronize the two devices. With the GPS set to collect continuous
points, any robust photo mapping software will correlate the images and
coordinates after the fact so the photos can be placed on a map. Many
of our long-time GPS-Photo Link customers rely on this configuration
because it's so simple and inexpensive. For an investment of $200, this
GPS photography solution is hard to beat.
Camera Phones - Several cell phones now have built-in cameras and GPS
chips that automatically geotag the photos. Some of these include the
iPhone, Blackberry, Samsung Memoir and many new Nokia models. These
devices are strictly for use in applications that don't require
high-quality photographic images, but they are sufficient if no other
camera is available. Buyers should keep in mind that photo quality in a
cell phone camera is difficult to judge by any specifications listed on
the box. With this in mind, buyers should view sample photos before
investing in a cell phone as a photo mapping device. They should also
realize the device does not necessarily geotag photos just because it
has a camera and GPS. Look for 'geotagging' among its listed
capabilities before buying.
Garmin Oregon 550t - In Summer 2009, Garmin released the Oregon 550t, a
high-end recreational GPS receiver with built-in digital camera and
geotagging capability. The new model is based on the ruggedized Garmin
Oregon 400 series, which comes loaded with maps in an iPhone-like body
complete with touch screen functionality. Priced at $540, the
integrated 3.2-megapixel camera with 4x digital zoom, may soon find
itself used by both business and recreational users.
Ricoh 500SE - Mentioned as a top selection for the GIS professionals,
the Ricoh GPS camera is a superior option for business users as well.
Even though these users may not display their photos in a GIS, the
Ricoh data attribute collection capability and compass option are
equally beneficial in non-GIS applications. The camera direction and
attributes can be listed in reports and noted in Google Earth displays.
For most recreational photographers, the primary goal of photomapping
is to post vacation pictures on Google Earth or some other Web-based
map to remember where they were taken and share them with friends.
These users typically select their hardware based on budget, desired
photo quality= and existing camera equipment.
Serious weekend photographers who already own Nikon or Canon SLRs
should probably consider buying one of the GPS attachments or
GPS-enabling devices described earlier.
People looking to buy a new camera with geotagging functionality should look at the Nikon P6000.
For the rest of us who like to snap photos of our vacations and family
events but have to live on a budget, there are several options.
Consider buying a camera phone with geotagging capability the next time
you upgrade your mobile phone if photo quality doesn't matter that much
to you. Otherwise, don't forget the Any Camera/Any GPS option that
simply requires a digital camera and a handheld GPS receiver. You'll
need software to merge the photos and location points with this
configuration, but there are options for that too.
If you simply want to post your photos on a basic digital map and
location accuracy is not a major concern for you, free Web-based
services such as EveryTrail, Mountain Bike Guru
and others will merge the images and coordinates from your Any
Camera/Any GPS equipment. And if you have an integrated system that
automatically geotags your photos, consider posting them to an online
map using Flickr or Picasa. Note that the CoolPix P6000 comes with its own recreation-grade mapping software.
At about $10 a set, GPS chips are inexpensive so we expect to see more
GPS cameras like the Nikon CoolPix entering the market with integrated
geotagging. More products may push prices lower on those units. For
higher-end DSLR cameras, we expect more integrated products like the
Ricoh 500SE and add-on GPS receivers like Nikon GP-1. We hope that more
manufacturers will understand the value that a compass brings to
business-grade photo mapping and introduce more options there. In the
meantime, third-party developers are introducing add-on products for
various camera models. We've read mixed reviews on them, so do your
research before buying.