Field Test: GPS Units from Canon & Nikon

By Lloyd Chambers Back to

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Canon and Nikon both offer GPS units for both stills and videos. What are the practical aspects of using these units during shooting and what uses and considerations are there for GPS data?

Introduction
Both Canon and Nikon offer GPS units that can be connected to their respective brand DSLR cameras, with recent-models having built-in menu support with recording options.

With both brands, the GPS units are add-on devices that are designed to mount in the hot-shoe of the camera, though both can be mounted to a belt or otherwise with a cable. With the Nikon GP-1 a cable is required both to power the unit and to record data; the unit is a “dumb” unit with no electrical connection to the hot shoe; both the Canon 5D Mark III and Canon 1D X (and perhaps other models) can use the GP-E2 cable-free with connection pins in the hot shoe taking care of connectivity. Not only is the Canon solution far more elegant, the Canon unit is much more capable in general. Curiously, this important ease-of-use fact is not mentioned in the 5D Mark III user manual or the GP-E2 manual! In fact, I initially used the cable with the Canon 5D Mark III, only to discover that it was completely unnecessary.

When Apple can build GPS into an iPhone of far smaller volume, one has to wonder why GPS is not built into at least the higher-end Canon and Nikon DSLR cameras. The add-on solution adds extra cost and bulk; neither camera fits well into my camera hip-pack with the GPS unit in the hot shoe.

The use of GPS will arguably be one of professional requirements: a botanist or researcher documenting the location of a plant or animal, mapping for technical articles, law-enforcement work, etc. In this regard, both brands offer good solutions. However, there is a certain coolness factor in seeing one’s photos pop up on a Google map in Adobe Lightroom (more on that later), so GPS might have broader appeal in general.

The Canon and Nikon GPS units both have the usual generic GPS limitations: in narrow canyons, heavy tree cover, etc, the GPS signal can be impaired or completely unavailable. Since I regularly hike in such locations this was a concern, but in my local testing, the concern proved unwarranted in “reasonable” locations.

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Nikon GPS Receiver GP-1 mounted on the Nikon D800E with Really Right Stuff L-bracket and Zeiss 50/1.4 Planar lens.

Nikon GPS Receiver GP-1
The Nikon GP-1 requires a cable to the camera both for its power and for data transfer to the camera. By drawing its power from the camera, the unit is smaller and there is no extra battery to carry for GPS, but it also means that in order to function, the GP-1 must be connected by its cable to the camera at all times. It’s an awkward arrangement, and brings other complications (with a remote release).

Nikon supplies a camera strap widget that allows mounting the GP-1 on the strap, but advises that this might degrade signal quality due to the orientation of the unit. This seems inappropriate; if one needs GPS, then surely signal quality is of paramount importance. If for casual use, then it’s presumably OK, but why then bother? However, I did not explicitly test the signal quality in the field. But I would expect that it could be important under conditions that already impair GPS signal quality such as heavy foliage, or in a canyon.

Late-model Nikon DSLR cameras will show the GPS information from the GP-1 on the camera LCD via the setup menu GPS => Position menu. This might be useful if one is navigating with a topographical map. Curiously, I could find no way to make the Nikon a D800E show GPS information for an image already shot, even after enabling all information display parameters.

The Nikon GP-1 connects to the remote port (the same port used for a Nikon’s MC-30 or MC-36 remote shutter release). Since connecting the GP-1 occupies the port, Nikon supplies a second port on the GPS unit itself, but this port requires a MC-DC2 remote release; the port is incompatible with the MC-30 and MC-36, which means the user needs to carry both the usual remote and the MC-DC2 depending on whether the GP-1 is in use or not. This is a confounding complication that discourages me from using the Nikon GP-1 in the field, since I often carry two camera bodies (D800 and D800E); carrying two incompatible releases is one more detail I don’t want to have to plan for.

The supplied cable for connecting the GP-1 to the camera, though not long, is still long enough to make a nuisance of itself; tape or some other means is necessary to restrain the cable from snagging on things; this is no small matter since a good “catch” with this fairly robust cable could damage the unit or the port on the camera. See the picture of the D800E with the GP-1 cabled to the camera. I regularly stow/unstow my cameras when hiking in the mountains, so the cable loop is a constant annoyance and risk to the camera.

The GPS => Auto Meter setting should be set to Enable in order to prevent power drain, but this causes a delay in waiting for the GPS unit to re-acquire the GPS signal (10-15 seconds in my field testing). Failure to wait might cause inaccurate GPS location to be recorded, so for serious use, carry extra batteries and use GPS => Auto Meter = Disable, which will drain more power, but will also ensure that GPS is available at all times (assuming a GPS signal is available and the camera is not turned off).

The Nikon GP-1 offers no logging or orientation feature (digital compass) as does the Canon GP-E2. All in all, I did not care for the Nikon’s ergonomics hassles, as well as the minimal feature set and remote release headache. Because of these factors, anyone who has more demanding professional GPS requirements should go (logging, tracking, orientation) might consider the Canon platform.

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Canon GPS Receiver GP-E2 mounted on the Canon 5D Mark III with the short- est supplied cable, Really Right Stuff L-bracket and Zeiss 35/1.4 Distagon lens. Cable is needed only for older models, not for the 5D Mark III.

Canon’s GPS Receiver GP-E2
The GP-E2 is slightly larger than the Nikon GP-1 be- cause it requires one AA battery. But this proves to be immaterial; the cable-free mounting on current Canon DSLR cameras is a far more elegant solution. The GP-E2 also has a three-way On/Off/Log switch, offering direct control over its mode of operation and allowing easy power saving (just switch it to Off).

Of particular note with the GP-E2 is its digital compass option, which allows an orientation in degrees (magnetic) to be associated with the image, not just coordinates and altitude (e.g. northeast). This can be quite useful information for landscape type images. Nikon’s GP-1 has no such option.

The Canon GP-E2 also has a logging feature to create a route map, at 1/5/10/ etc. second intervals (configurable). The log data can be used to tag images with GPS data after the fact, so in theory one could mount the GP-E2 on a wrist or armband if desired, instead of on the camera hot-shoe. Worth noting is that no camera is needed at all; the recorded route is not only plain text, but it can be displayed on a Google map by the supplied Canon software.

What Canon does not make clear in the Canon 5D Mark III or 1D X manual or in the GP-E2 manual is that no connecting cable is needed on the 5DM3! The hot shoe (4 contact pins) takes care of it; this makes it eminently practical to leave the unit on the camera; it’s just there and just works— no cable.

Perhaps Nikon will develop future cameras and a future GP-2, but as far as I can determine, the Nikon D800/D800E have no apparent electrical contacts to support the Canon direct-connect functionality—and the Nikon GP-1 is just a plastic-bottomed mount.

gps units for nikon canon, lloyd chambers
Canon Map Utility displays the route map sampled at a configurable interval of 1/5/10/etc. seconds.

On older Canon DSLR bodies, the Canon cabling arrangement has a problematic downside for the way I shoot: when cabled, my Really Right Stuff L-bracket cannot be used in the vertical position because the cable protrudes too far, preventing the camera from mounting in a vertical (portrait) orientation—see the picture. Worse, even without the L-bracket, the Canon cabling interferes with the left hand grip of the camera— not so great. Unlike the Nikon GP-1, the GP-E2 does not interfere with the use of a remote release, because the GP-E2 uses the camera’s USB port even for older camera models, not the remote release port. Small details can matter for specific uses, for better or for worse.

The Canon GPS Receiver GP-E2 is best mounted via the hot shoe where it locks into place, or it can be attached elsewhere (such as one’s belt) via a longer cable to the same port, but this could impair signal quality, and one would then lose the orientation (directional recording) capability of the GP-E2, as well as the elegant and simple hot-shoe mount.

lloyd chambers, gps units for canon nikon
EXIF data contains the GPS coordinates, altitude and direction.

Canon’s included software allows the GP-E2 data via the Log mode to be reconciled to images later via software (supplied for Mac and Windows); this is done by matching date and time to that of the recorded image(s). While this is definitely an option, modifying my original RAW files is unappealing; the fewer post- shoot steps needed, the better. A better practice when feasible is to have the GPS data embedded in the first place; keep the unit on the camera.

Note that the Canon installer for Mac OS X also installs various software that I do not want, such as the irritating Memory Card Utility that pops up every time I insert a storage card. I had to hunt down the offending application and trash it (Applications/ Canon Utilities/ImageBrowser EX/, since there is no preference to disable its behavior.

The included Canon Map Utility for Mac OS X software is a confusing affair, with instructions that are textual but with graphical icons and error messages indicating failure. The software does not allow saving the log file, instead it is dropped into a mysterious sub- sub-folder, which I had to search for. This could be done better, but of course Nikon has no log file at all.

In the Field
With both the Canon and Nikon GPS units, tree cover in a moderate canyon did not seem to have negative effects on the functionality of either brand. Deeper canyons and/or heavy tree cover and/or a non-ideal GPS constellation might alter that behavior (the available GPS constellation can be good or not so good, depending on location and time of day).

With the Nikon D800E + GP-1 stowed in my hip- pack, the GP-1 would take 10-15 seconds to reacquire the GPS signal after pulling it out of the pack. I also noted that if I took a picture right away, that the reading would be off just a little; it is best to wait that 10-15 seconds for the current reading to stabilize if the camera has just been pulled out of a pack. In short, this means that for consistent readings, one should not carry the camera in a pack, and that the camera should be set for continuous operation (GPS => Auto Meter = Disable), so that the unit always has a “fresh” GPS reading, or some patience is required before each image. Ditto for turning the camera off between shots.

With the Canon GP-E2, the simple cable-free mounting and self-power operation meant that I could turn the unit on and forget about it, then turn it off when done. All with a simple switch on the unit. This is so preferable to Nikon’s settings in the camera that left me scratching my head as to how best to operate the GP-1 (save power or leave on?).

Geotagging
Consider whether the software involved in your work- flow can make good use of GPS. In the most basic case, the GPS data can be seen in the EXIF info; this is of some documentary value, but it provides no real benefit other than “this particular picture was taken here.”

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Optional reverse geocoding in Adobe Lightroom 4.

The real power comes from a GPS-enabled workflow, such as with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4, which includes a geotagging feature integrated with Google mapping. Lightroom 4 can show the map with images tagged on the map, a very powerful tool for seeing where a group of images were taken, a route traversed, etc. For scientific or documentary uses this could be quite valuable to detect clustering patterns by a quick visual scan. And I have to admit, it does feel pretty cool to see this stuff pop up on the screen.

GPS Risks and Benefits
When saving images for transmission or web use, carefully consider whether the GPS data is a desirable thing to include given the particular image location and subject matter.

Exact location is just that. Documenting the location of rare plants or animals, or other similar professional uses is a powerful scientific tool. As is photography from water or a snowy or other featureless location where there might be no other way to self-orient for future exploration.

GPS tied to the wrong photograph (and camera serial number) is a good way to be jailed in oppressive countries, some of which might make it illegal to use GPS at all, or in some areas! One might even wonder whether the Canon or Nikon units self-disable in certain restricted areas as is rumored. GPS location is also a good way to document illegal behavior or trespassing by location for oneself or others.

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Adobe Lightroom 4 displays images using live Google maps.

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In jurisdictions otherwise free of restrictions, consider that a precise location is a way to see a favorite view replicated, or a historical artifact or special feature damaged (it takes only one malicious or careless person). It is for this reason that location of trees like the ancient bristlecone pine ‘Methuselah’ are not documented by the USDA Forest Service! A little thought goes a long way here to protect special artifacts.

There are other reasons not to document location, such as keeping the spirit of discovery alive— the idea of slogging to a precise location that someone else has documented pretty much kills my interest in the place especially knowing that 10 or 50 other people might do the same.

My personal views on GPS locations with photographs are strict: passing along GPS coordinates without a compelling reason has potential negative side effects and it is why by default I never share GPS coordinates in my blog or publications. I hope that photographers will carefully consider all ramifications of GPS in their own work, in a world increasingly bereft of remote untrammeled jewels.

Conclusions
The Canon and Nikon GPS units get the job done, but unless the photographer has a compelling interest in GPS data, the cabling mess of the Nikon GP-1 is unappealing for my own uses. The Canon GP-E2 solution is elegantly simply by comparison, and with a superior feature set, so leaving the Canon GP-E2 mounted on a current Canon DSLR has no downside except a slightly bulkier camera.


About the Author

Lloyd Chambers
LChambers
Lloyd L. Chambers enjoys all-digital photography after shooting film for years in 35mm, 4 X5, 6 X7 and 617 formats. His web site diglloyd.com offers a wealth of material on advanced photographic techniques, and his Making Sharp Images is a reference work on sharpness and blur of all kinds.