Instead of Praising Nikon, We Should Be Asking Why the Industry Has Been So Slow To Replace GPS With GNSS

Instead of Praising Nikon, We Should Be Asking Why the Industry Has Been So Slow To Replace GPS With GNSS

The recent press about an upcoming Nikon camera — denoted the "N2014" — highlighted a government registration filing that suggests it will be "equipped with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS)." This has been a positive media development for Nikon as, if correct, it would make them the first camera manufacturer to integrate GNSS into one of their products. Is the camera industry being disingenuous by their slow adoption of existing technologies?

So, what is the fuss all about? The registration and future release of N2014 is potentially the first camera to integrate GNSS. While putting geographic coordinates into image metadata is useful, it has always been a somewhat niche activity. If your work depends upon coordinates being recorded, then having them automatically added is obviously critical and many working professionals —  for example, journalists — will have this as a requirement. Cameras have always been complex, high-precision engineering devices that were technical to operate. And as with any complex piece of equipment, there was always continued technical development and increasing integration. This has done nothing but accelerate as a result of in-camera electronics (specifically micro-electronics) and, in particular, the conversion from film to digital.

Integration and miniaturization have been key to the development of the camera, and this is as true for geolocation systems as for other technical improvements. Perhaps counterintuitively, geolocation tagging has been used from the days of film cameras and is still used similarly today. At its simplest, this requires you to manually record coordinates for the location where you shot an image and then, after scanning, add them to the EXIF metadata. Even today, you can still use a similar technique through a semi-automatic process where you record a track using a GNSS receiver and then sync the file (using timestamps of both the images and the track) to the images at which point the coordinates are inserted into the EXIF metadata (for example GPicSync).

This obviously requires the use of an external GPS receiver. Taking this a step further, you can get full automation in one of three ways. Firstly, you can plug a GNSS receiver directly into your camera (if there is external receiver support). For example, the Nikon D1H from 2001 supported a range of Garmin and Magellan GPS receivers via a serial cable. The reason that these weren't integrated was two-fold: they were relatively big and expensive (about $500 in today's money). As size and cost came down, hot shoe mountable versions became available such as the Nikon GP-1. Secondly, you can also use the GNSS receiver you always have in your hand: your phone! Nikon allows you to do this in real-time via its Bluetooth tethering SnapBridge technology. Finally, the manufacturer can build a GNSS receiver into their camera so that this all happens seamlessly and is obviously the ultimate location integration. Nikon finally brought this to its D6, having first introduced it to a DSLR in 2013 with the D5300.

Integrated GNSS

All of this brings us back to the notion of integration: integrating features into a camera is intended to improve its functionality and (often) ergonomics. You can integrate a feature that is not already available, for example, IBIS or Eye-AF, which are either present or they're not. These offer a technological and functional advantage to the manufacturer and should enable it to sell more cameras. Both of these features managed to set Sony apart from its competitors in the early years of its E-mount full frame development and encouraged photographers to jump ship. Then you get integration of features that are initially available via an add-on. Early light meters are often clipped on the hot shoe, showing you the measured aperture and shutter speed combination. GNSS receivers were another add-on that has remained pervasively an add-on, perhaps because manufacturers perceive the additional cost unwarranted for the number of users that actually use the feature. All of this makes the original inclusion on the Nikon D5300 interesting and the late addition to the D6 (and the N2014 which is possibly the Z9) surprising.

Will we see this change? It's difficult to know as cameras with integrated GNSS receivers are hardly widespread at the moment, although the pervasiveness of smartphones possibly means users are used to having their photos geotagged. Whether they knowingly or unknowingly make use of this feature remains to be seen. What is clear is the slow and disinterested development that camera manufacturers have had. While we might use GPS as a general stand-in for geolocation, this specifically refers to the US Global Positioning System. The broader term is GNSS and currently includes three other systems in the form of the Russian GLONASS (launched in 1982), the Chinese BeiDou (launched 2000), and the European Galileo (launched 2011). Receivers that can use signals from two or more of these systems have been around for decades, but it is only more recently that products utilizing all four systems have become available.

By way of comparison, the cycle computer market has — unsurprisingly given their heritage — been dominated by Garmin; however, relative newcomers Bryton have rapidly prototyped and brought to market a range of products. Their first four-network GNSS device was the Rider 410 in 2018, while Garmin currently has three-network devices available. Yet, here we are in 2021 with no integrated GNSS cameras available and only one mooted. Quite clearly, a cycle computer is not as complex as a modern camera. In fact, it really is only a GNSS chipset with Bluetooth transceiver and data logging firmware, sometimes incorporating real-time maps. The small size and low price tag suggest that GNSS has become entry-level, so the lack of add-on or integrated units is disappointing. Maybe it's the relatively long product life cycle of cameras compared to other electronic devices that means integrated circuits need to be sourced for longer periods of time and are much harder to swap out. Or that it is a low-demand feature. Or maybe camera manufacturers really don't care about functionality that is not central to image capture. That the slow take-up has garnered Nikon applause suggests that customers are used to this state of affairs. Nikon should be noted for developing this part of the market, but it is hardly being innovative. Camera manufacturers should beware as the smartphone onslaught has laid down a gauntlet and simply taking better pictures is not enough. More than ever, manufacturers need to differentiate their products, not lag behind. They need to step up to the plate.

Lead image used under Creative Commons courtesy of VirtuAlpReality and OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Would be so nice if you could once just praise Nikon.


That seems like a negative take on this post. Mike does credit Nikon. Maybe I missed something.

I don't find anything positive from Mike's articles when it comes to Nikon. He's been relishing on thought that Nikon will eventually exit the market.
His basically saying not to praise nikon and that they don't deserve it.
This is the same guy that thinks it's better for Nikon to exit the camera market. His articles are complete garbage. Not sure why they post this crap.
He never has anything good to say but instead constantly degrades nikon.
I dont know what his aganda is and why his on a constant crusade to ensure Nikon fails.

I've always understood that a major impediment to integrated GPS in years past was the reduction in battery life. That is certainly true when actively using GPS on a smartphone.

This is wrong. I have a Sony A77 and GPS is on all the time. One battery lasts all day and I am more concerned my phone battery will run out when using it to GPS tag photos on real time with my Sony RX100Vii. The latter method is also not as reliable as the camera/phone Bluetooth pairing sometimes fails and it's a pain to reset.

My guess would be that it probably has something to do with money.

All true, but my cameras do not have integrated GPS or GNSS. Normally I do not need coordinates in my images. I like to visit the great cities of Europe with their countless numbers of great places and sure it would be great to have the coordinates in my images. I solved this by installing PhoneTrack, a Nextcloud-App, and track my movements (after syncing the camera's time with the phone). All the data is kept within my own systems. The additional benefit is, that all my movements are recorded and not just those when images are taken.

That said, I also do not understand why GNSS (and please all available systems) has not been integrated a long time ago (just add a damn cheap mobile chip, they exist!). I wouldn't hassle with the above told.

Well I still have a Sony A77 with built in GPS. Battery drain is not an issue and a battery lasts a lot longer than a mere four hours.

I also carry spare batteries anyway and who doesn't?

You can also turn GPS off if you are worried about battery drain so I never understood the battery drain objection to built in GPS because in my experience it's myth and as I just said you can turn it off.

My Canon 7d2 had gps. It was fantastic and I didn’t find the battery drain to be an issue. My new R6 does not, and I wish it did. For the price of these near professional cameras, I think it’s ridiculous not to include it.

Fstoppers if you have editors tell them that they dropped the ball on this headline.

The GPicSync tip is the only good idea in the article. If worried about integrating new technologies, I am more concerned with having to use slow cards and not having built in SSD M.2 drives for fastest and largest storage in a flat finger sized device. May be not in camera, but what about in a grip, which are normally filled with air? " The standard uses PCIe 3.0 interface with 1 to 4 lanes where 1 GB/s data can be provided per lane." "Computer bus interfaces provided through the M.2 connector are PCI Express 4.0 (up to four lanes), Serial ATA 3.0, and USB 3.0 (a single logical port for each of the latter two). It is up to the manufacturer of the M.2 host or module to select which interfaces are to be supported"

It all is on the PCI-Bus. I'd prefer CFExpress over M.2 Sata or M.2 USB any time. Your wish is already fulfilled,

I still have a Sony GPS - software support stopped, when google changed the API for google maps! Bummer. (lucky me - i use Linux - and i have enough tools there to continue using it).
Don't be afraid - Nikon will survive this crisis - their market-share may become a bit smaller, but stay large enough to continue to be a driving force.
We see how Sony struggles to replace an old APS-C sensor into that line of camera's - that tell us a lot about the market at this moment. A shrinking market means lot of reusing - due to the fact it becomes too expensive otherwise. And that contributes to a more shrinking market... It's not a bad sensor - but it should be renewed!
And thank you for the GPicSync tip.
I don't praise company's for doing what they should do - no company is worth you trust it.
His lashing is appropriate - and you may change the Nikon brand thru all the other brands on the market, including what i use - Sony. When you look at the LA-EA5 adapter to use old glass - it can be used at full extend on the expensive body's - but not on the mid-range? Why on earth? It's just a software-part that needs to be ported into those camera's! Why no touch interface for the menu? Sony isn't any better than the other brands - it may not be that much worse than the other brands either...
There 's not much motivation towards me to buy such an expensive body when we look at the features. The current one is more than capable enough. Let 's first make use of all that's inside before investing tons of cash (i'm not a pro).

Check out Pentax's Astrotracer GPS for what you can really do with this...

Let's see….

The Pentax O-GPS1 supported SBAS (WAAS/EGNOS/MSAS). It has an electronic compass included. The O-GPS1 has an independent power supply.

All Pentax cameras with built-in GPS has similar or better specs.

Pentax PEF and DNG stores lat., long., alt., inc., yaw, speed, direction, and bearing.

The Pentax O-GPS2 is coming out 2022, with increased accuracy in both locations and compass.

How some people found this article negative towards Nikon, I do not know. It seemed to me to be negative towards all cameras, except Sony, and totally ignore the trendsetter, Pentax.

Even when they spoke about the big five, they dropped the traditional trendsetters, Olympus and Pentax, and replaced them with Fujifilm and Panasonic, (which really is not even in the still camera business).

Then again, everything Pentax does is useless hype which no one uses, and not as good as TechnologyX, until everyone else starts to use it, then it becomes a vital feature. (Case in point, IBIS).

C'est la vie.

The technology is small, low power and already available to OEMs. Many wristwatches by Casio, Citizen etc (not to mention phones) already have that capability. It's silly that a high end product where location data is important should be ignoring this.