If you’re an avid geotagger and own a Nikon GP-1 (or compatible) on-camera GPS receiver, you may have found yourself in a situation where you had to take a photo even though your GPS unit wasn’t ready, thus leading to inaccurate or even missing latitude/longitude coordinates in your photo. A GPS receiver usually needs at least 30 to 40 seconds to acquire an accurate position fix in the open once you turn the camera on. Depending on your subject, that can be quite some time. An on-camera GPS unit like the Nikon GP-1 also puts quite a strain on your camera’s battery life.
On the other hand, if you’re using an off-camera geotagger like the Holux M-241 there’s always some sort of more or less complex post-processing workflow involved to store the GPS readings in your photo’s metadata header. I sometimes forget to switch my Holux M-241 on when I’m outside with the camera or even worse: I usually forget to take it with me at all. Doh!
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a GPS unit that sits on the camera (so I don’t forget it at home), runs on its own power but still is able to immediately store GPS readings in your photos whenever you take them? Running on it’s own power has the advantage that when you’re outside with your camera, you can simply forget about hot/warm/cold startup times or draining your camera’s battery and just concentrate on the non-GPS-side of photography.
This is where the Easytag GPS module (a.k.a. Easytagger) comes into play. The Easytagger is a hybrid between an off-camera and an on-camera GPS logger. Judging from the product description, this thing seems to be the jack of all trades:
- Stores GPS info directly to a photo’s metadata header (no matter if NEF or JPEG)
- Data logger mode: Ability to log a trail (a series of GPS readings) to a microSD card using the popular NMEA format
- 2-axis magnetic sensor to record heading
- Barometric altimeter
- Built-in rechargeable 500mAh Li-Ion battery, and in case it’s emtpy, draws power from the camera
- Unique design to allow mounting on flash accessory shoe and the built-in flash to be used at the same time
- Multi-model compatibility: simply use the appropriate data cable. 10-pin: Nikon D200, D300, D300s, D700, D3/D3s/D3x, D2/D2x/D2xs/D2Hs. 8-pin: Nikon D90, D5000
- No setup required, just plug and play!
But does the Easytagger really live up to its expectations? I’m going to have a close look at the Easytag GPS module from a Nikon D700 and a Mac user’s perspective.
What’s in the box (I ordered the whole shebang):
- Easytag GPS module
- 2 GB SanDisk microSD card
- Shutter remote switch
- USB cable
- Camera connection cable
- USB microSD card reader
- Mini-CD with manual and some GPS-related software (Windows only)
Prices start at US$ 139 for the Easytag GPS module (not including shipping). The Easytagger is available with different options that can be added up according to your needs and there’s also a less expensive shipping option now. It comes in a nice box which is something you don’t get to see a lot when purchasing electronic gadgets directly from China.
The mini-USB connector and the microSD slot openings are covered with soft plastic latches. The Nikon 10-pin plug sports an alignment mark so plugging it in is a quick and easy job.
If the Easytagger is switched to the ‘on’ position, the current GPS readings are stored directly into the photos you take. If the unit is switched to the ‘all’ position, all GPS readings are additionally recorded to the inserted microSD card. Every time the switch is moved to the ‘all’ positon, a new track log file is being generated. The GPS readings are logged in the popular NMEA format.
On the Mac, the track log can be processed into a Google Earth or Google Maps compatible format using my favorite free GPS data logger software BT747. If you’re an Apple Aperture 3 user, you can import the track log directly from the microSD card into an Aperture project. To be able to import it into Aperture, the log file extension has to be renamed from .txt to .log.
Apple Aperture 3 is unable to display the heading, neither in the metadata viewer nor in the map itself. But the heading information is in the photo and waits for Apple to make use of it. If you’d like to see this feature in Aperture 3, why don’t you leave a note here?
The next screenshot shows the mother of all geotagging applications: GeoSetter. Unfortunately, GeoSetter is Windows-only. Displaying heading information from an Easytagged .NEF photo is a piece of cake for GeoSetter:
The GPS module needs to be level to the ground in order to determine the correct heading. Just like the compass the iPhone 3GS.
According to Photoshop’s photo metadata viewer, this is the GPS information that’s stored in the photo:
<exif:GPSVersionID>184.108.40.206</exif:GPSVersionID> <exif:GPSLatitude>47,8.278N</exif:GPSLatitude> <exif:GPSLongitude>8,25.6392E</exif:GPSLongitude> <exif:GPSAltitudeRef>0</exif:GPSAltitudeRef> <exif:GPSAltitude>335/1</exif:GPSAltitude> <exif:GPSTimeStamp>2010-03-13T12:35:55Z</exif:GPSTimeStamp> <exif:GPSSatellites>07</exif:GPSSatellites> <exif:GPSImgDirectionRef>M</exif:GPSImgDirectionRef> <exif:GPSImgDirection>10600/100</exif:GPSImgDirection>
Performance and accuracy
After a cold-start the Easytagger usually picks up a satellite fix within a minute in the open with unobstructed view. To get an idea about its accuracy I took both, my Easytagger and my Holux M-241 for a walk in the neighborhood. My intention was to compare both track logs visually on a map but on several occasions, the Easytagger just created an empty track log file with no data in it even though I put the switch in the ‘all’ position. So, in the end I had to give up comparing accuracy as the data logging functionality in the Easytagger didn’t seem to work reliably. I was able to retrieve some track logs from the microSD card though but usually not when I really needed them.
To get an idea about battery life I switched the fully charged Easytagger in the ‘all’ position and put it in a place with good GPS reception. Once it ran out of batteries I just had to analyze the track log and calculate the elapsed time between the first and the last log record. Battery life is around 10,5 hours before the Easytagger has to be recharged. But even if you accidentally run out of power, the unit is able to suck the life out of the camera’s battery! Be prepared that this will drain your camera’s battery rather quickly.
As there is no data logged to the microSD card in the ‘on’ position, I assume the battery lasts slightly longer.
The thing with the flash
The main idea behind the “unique” design of the Easytagger is to “allow mounting on flash accessory shoe and the built-in flash to be used at the same time”. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with a Nikon D700. When the Easytagger is mounted, the built-in flash only extracts about half way. There needs to be some form of clarification in the product description as for what camera models this statement is valid.
Room for improvement
While using the Easytag GPS unit I also found some annoyances and I’m sure at least some of them could easily be fixed by the manufacturer. The numbers don’t necessarily reflect the importance. I just added them in case somebody wants to address them in the comments.
- Once the unit has a satellite fix, the green status LED is continuosly turned on. To me, this seems like a waste of precious battery power. I’d rather have two different flashing intervals to save as much power for geotagging as possible.
- The constantly lit status LED (once the unit has a fix) isn’t bright enough for outdoor use. Looks like a tiny SMD LED with a too large light diffusor on top that eats a lot of light. Basically, the green LED is useless this way.
- The inclusion of a barometric altimeter sounds pretty cool. The problem is that – at least in my case – the readings are not consistent. I’ve had some situations where it was pretty close but usually it’s way off (around 100m). Barometric altimeters usually are very precise in a relative way but they have to be calibrated regularly to be accurate on the absolute scale.
- I’m desperately missing a camera strap adapter to mount the Easytagger to the strap in situations where the hot shoe is needed for something else. Or, at least on the D700, I want to use the pop-up flash.
- It would be very useful if the NMEA track logs would show the date when the track log was created or when the last track record was written instead of the fixed 8-8-2008 date. Once there are a couple of different track logs, the only way to separate them now is by the index number in the filename. This kinda offsets the ability to store 2-3 years of GPS readings on a 2 GB microSD card if you have no idea at what time a particular file was recorded.
- Once the Easytagger is mounted on the hot shoe it won’t accidentally slide off too easily but it would be nice if there was a way of locking/tightening it to the hot shoe.
- Once the unit is recharged the red LED is not turned off completely, it’s just less bright.
- Occasionally, log lines in the txt file don’t have a CR/LF at the end which is in violation of the NMEA standard and the affected sentences most likely won’t be considered by any log processing software.
- I’ve had one situation where the Easytagger just wouldn’t get a satellite fix. I was in the open field with no buildings within 200 yards in any direction – perfect conditions for a GPS receiver. At the same time, my Holux M-241 was picking up the signal with no problems. After doing a compass recalibration the Easytagger started working again but I’m not sure if that really was the reason it came back from the undead.
- The manual could be improved. For instance, at times the Easytagger quickly flashes the red LED between the solid green LED. What does that mean? What’s the GPSSETUP.ini on the microSD card for? Can the Easytagger be flashed with newer firmware revisions and if yes, how? How is the barometric altimeter being calibrated? Is it possible to change the 10-second log-interval to a different value?
From a photographers view, the Easytagger brings geotagging to a whole new level. Lots of interesting features crammed into a small box for a moderate price. Fast e-mail support! The unit caught a lot of attention when I took it with me for an outdoor photography session with my photo club. Automatically geotagging a photo works like a charm and is as easy as it can get.
The data logging function didn’t work reliably in my case. I may have gotten a faulty device though and if I get a replacement unit, I’ll certainly have a look at it again. At least on a Nikon D700, the “unique” design isn’t very helpful. I can’t fully extract the flash and the Easytagger even touches my forehead when looking through the viewfinder which at times feels annoying.
The Easytagger certainly has a lot of potential but some details and inconsistencies need to be addressed before I’d consider it my #1 geotagging device for photography.
I ordered the Easytagger directly from the Chinese manufacturer but there’s also a new distributor in Canada in case you live in North America. If you want to see the Easytagger in action have a look at these training video clips.