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CAMERA-MOUNTED GPS RECEIVERS

This review actually has more detail about alternatives available than the unit I purchased and reviewed from PC-Mobile Electronics.  Before I discuss the unit, some background may be useful.

I would not consider one of these units a necessary accessory (like tripods, cable releases and polarizing filters).  It is a nice addition which you may or may not find useful.  What these units do is capture, and embed in the EXIF file information, Latitude, Longitude and altitude coordinates for each shot.  This will have varying utility, depending on the type of photography you do. Photo storage sites, like Google’s Picassa, now have the ability to tag or pin locations to a map.  In the future, websites like Google Earth, may give viewers realtime opportunities to view where photographs have been taken.  In my view, this is interesting, but not necessary information.  But I am the ultimate “gadget guy,” and I will be using my new unit to capture and preserve this information when I am in the field in the future.

Cabling Solutions for Existing Handheld Receivers

When Nikon introduced the next generation “prosumer” progeny of its D100, one of the “selling” points was the ability of the new D200 to accept an external GPS receiver, connected to the camera body, capturing GPS coordinate data and embedding it in the image EXIF data.  At the same time, Nikon advertised its new MC-35 cable adaptor that would connect to popular handheld GPS receivers like Garmin and Magellan.  As an owner of a Garmin GPS receiver which frankly hadn’t seen much use in the field, I was intrigued.  I had already made up my mind that I would buy the D200 (for numerous other reasons).  Those who remember the intrigue with which Nikon’s first years of new DSLR introductions were made, recall that there were limited numbers of the D200 body available and those of us who pre-ordered it, watched the internet with a certain amount of anxiousness.  I was one of those fortunate to receive one of the only two bodies my local shop was originally allotted (and fortunate not to have the banding problems some of the early adopters experienced with this model).  These days, Nikon does a better job of introducing new models and meeting demand, but the D200 hit the airways with a fair amount of turbulence.

In any event, I also tried to order the MC-35.  It was listed on Nikon’s official site, but they did not ever appear to have a true commitment to manufacturing this advertised item.  I tried for months to order it.  I contacted Nikon and talked to a U.S. Nikon marketing representative (who, by the way, could not have been more courteous and helpful).  It eventually became obvious to me that it was not going to happen.

A number of third-party alternatives showed up, including the “Red Hen,” which was a complete unit including a neat, compact receiver, and a couple of DIY setups on the internet (which I was not at all confident I could do).  While it appears well designed and built, the Red Hen GPS unit was in the $300 range, while the MC-35 was supposed to retail between $100 and $150 (and I already had a GPS Receiver).  Eventually, I stumbled on a website in China called PC-mobile. They manufacture cable solutions for GPS, handheld PDAs, phones, and cameras.  I was able to order their cable solution to cable my Garmin GPS receiver for about $100.  I ordered it with some trepidation (an unknown website in China).  Their on-site pages assured me that the item was shipped and “accepted” by U.S. customs.  In about 10 days, sure enough, I received it.  The cable is not fancy.  It plugs (doesn’t screw) into the multi-pin socket which is normally used for the electronic cable release for the camera.  Not to worry, though.  For about $10, they manufacture a cable release that plugs into the GPS cable.  Smaller, lighter and clearly more cheaply made than the Nikon release, it works just fine, with the AF function working as well.

I plugged the cable into the camera and into my Garmin GPS and fired everything up.  As advertised, the D200 immediately recognized the unit (a “GPS” icon in the LCD panel on top of the body appears).  One of the menu items that can be activated on the LCD camera back gives the LCD result.  When I took a shot, the Latitude, Longitude and Altitude information immediately appeared on the menu.  I confirmed that it was also embedded in the EXIF information when I uploaded my files to my laptop computer.  Pretty neat!

However (don’t you just love that word?),

the system is ungainly!

I could never find a way to secure the separate, handheld receiver, and always had it hanging or dangling from straps or tripod.  I have seen a hot shoe adaptor glued or otherwise fastened to the unit so that it could be horizontally fixed to the top of the camera body, but that seemed like a lot of leverage on that small connection to me.  I attempted several rigs (to the tripod legs, and to the camera strap), but never found one to my liking.  It was always bulky, always in the way, and frequently would unplug itself.  At the same time, I struggled with the concept of spending $300 on a standalone setup, considering that the GPS information is more of an interesting “gadget” than a “need.”


Compact Camera-Specific Receivers

About the time Nikon brought out the “next-generation” (the D300) they also announced the GP-1, a small, GPS receiver which attaches to the camera hot shoe.  It looks like a really neat unit, certainly competitive with the Red Hen receivers in terms of utility.  The GP-1 has a separate connection for an electronic cable release.  But, inexplicably, it does not fit the cable release that we have been using for our F100/D100/D200/D300 bodies  Come on Nikon!  You have to buy a separate, new cable release which, as far as I can see, will not work by itself with the D200/300 series.  And the suggested retail price, again, approached $300 (I found it advertised on the internet for $219 plus whatever the site charged for shipping–and who knows whether they had the units in stock?).

The advent of the GP-1 stimulated me to renew my internet search for on-camera GPS units.  I was glad to learn that a number of after-market solutions have now surfaced, including a new Red Hen (still approaching $300), the Promote ($149), Geomt’r ($149), Dawn Technology’s di-GPS (ranging from $180 – $300 and Nikon model-specific). They all appear to use the same SiRF star III solid state chipset, so functionality should be about the same for each.  The differences appear to be the quality of build.  For example, some of them have a screw-in fitting.  All cable into the multi-pin connection on the camera body.  Thus, if you use a cable release (I always shoot from a tripod with a cable release if possible), the ability to connect a cable release to the camera while using the GPS receiver is critical.

Eventually, I wandered back to the PC-mobile network and to my delight, I found that they now manufacture a small, GPS receiver which attaches to the camera’s hot-shoe

(though it does not electronically connect to it).  The unit, with the cable release mentioned above included, and built with the SiRF Star III chipset, cost $100, shipping included.  Again, I ordered from China and again, it came within about 10 days without a hitch.


If you are interested in GPS data capture added to your EXIF information, but are budget conscious, I recommend you try this unit.  It is not “pretty” like the GP-1 or the other after-market units.  But it is small, light, and very functional.  The unit comes with a semi-hard case.  These small receivers are powered from the camera and thus are an added draw on the battery.  Unlike some of the other units, the PC-Mobile unit has a separate switch and can be turned off when not in use, without disconnecting.

I connected the unit to the camera and powered both the camera and the unit on.  It took several minutes for the receiver to acquire satellites.  During this period, the GPS icon blinked continuously on the LCD on the top of the camera body.  Once it acquired satellites, the icon went solid.  I took several test shots and the GPS data immediately appeared in the menu information, and transferred to the computer.  I powered the unit down, and powered it up again.  This time satellite acquisition was almost instant.  Like most handheld receivers, I would expect the satellite acquisition to be quick, except when you move the unit a long distance.

I had set my budget limit at $100 total, and the PC-Mobile unit gave me the receiver, and a cable release solution, shipped, on budget.  It is small, slick and works as advertised.
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4 Responses

  1. Andy, like you, I’m a “gadget guy”. I have a handheld GPS that I use on my bicycle and I’ve been reading about camera GPS systems but your article really gave me some useful information. While having GPS coordinates in the metadata is pretty cool, to me, it seems to have very little practical value. It might be neat to be able to return to the exact same place to take the same photo in different seasons but that’s a tough justification for even a $100 investment.That said, I’ll probably get one because new gadgets have an incredible magnetic draw because, well, they’re gadgets. Al

  2. I agree Al, that unless one has a specific need for the GPS coordinates, this is a “toy.” OTOH, sooooo many of my other gadgets are just that — toys.I can think of one instance when it might have been useful. A couple years back, a church group from MA contacted me about an annual trip they take to Vermont. The leader sent me a Google Earth view of Peacham, trying to find the field from which my photo was taken. He was obviously familiar with GPS coordinates. It would have been fun to have just given him the exact coordinates for my tripod holes.

  3. I read on a forum this morning a comment from another recent purchaser of the PC-Mobile GPS unit. I had not noticed this, but the altitude is given in meters rather than in feet. Personally, I was more interested in the Lat/Lon coordinates. But FWIW ……

  4. After more extensive use, I have to change my recommendation to try this unit. I have found two significant problems with it. While the unit works as advertised as far as collecting and saving the GPS coordinate date in the EXIF info, it appears to interfer with the review function on the LCD. Intermittently, after a shot, it will not let the camera return to the review on the LCD (I have mine set to instant review following the shot). It will also not let you manually review by pushing the button. This makes it impossible to check the histogram.I also notice a significant battery drain while using it. While I would like to have the GPS function, it is not critical and these factors override its use. I am afraid it will become one of those "gadgets" that finds its way to the dusty bottom of the camera bag.

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