BLE, Smartphones and Geotagging Photos

Every smartphone is a GPS device. Every smartphone is a camera. So the images we save are all geotagged; the location is saved as metadata as part of the image file.

You might think that for competitive reasons, camera manufacturers would put one of those cheap little GPS chips in their cameras to enable that $3000 full frame camera to geotag like a smartphone. You might think so, but you’d be wrong. Most of the high end, full frame cameras from Nikon, Sony, Canon and Leica depend on a smartphone connection to geotag images. Mostly you’ll find GPS chips in lower end compact cameras. Leica had GPS in their SL full frame mirrorless, but removed it in the just released SL2.

Why? As far as I can tell, GPS chips are just too power hungry to run continuously in cameras. Smartphones get GPS fixes at intervals plus can use cell tower info to figure out where they are. So it makes sense for camera manufacturers to rely on a smartphone app to pass a GPS location for geotagging. Plus geotagging has never been a feature of these cameras, so unless you look for it, it’s not missed. Probably wouldn’t be used by most users in fact.

Since my casual iPhone images are all geotagged, I’ve looked at a few approaches for geotagging images from my current group of cameras from Leica and Nikon. For now I’m making do with inconsistent apps and manual input. But it’s clear that Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) connections between camera and phone has become the favored solution.

GPS over BLE. All of my cycling devices talk to each other over BLE now. It’s not all seamless, but once the system gets worked out, it works very well. Both Leica and Nikon have implemented BLE communication with camera supplemented by a faster local WiFi connection where the camera sets up a hotspot that the phone connects to for downloading images and remote control of the camera. In the case of Nikon, the persistent BLE connection passes GPS info to the camera. Leica is working on implementing this approach I think, but their BLE can wake the camera, get the WiFi connection started but GPS information is only passed over the WiFi connection, so the camera has to be shooting in a remote mode for the images to be geotagged. The Nikon Z7 shows the Bluetooth connection status. If the app isn’t actively communicating, the camera shows this and starting up the app again on the phone generally activates the connection.

For now, if I want accurate geotagging, say on a hike or city walk it will have to be this Nikon and BLE iPhone connection. I expect to see this from Leica soon as well. Both systems have some external GPS connections that will also substitute, but these seem to be more battery hungry previous generation approaches compared to an app and GPS from the phone over BLE.

Adding Location in Photos. For most photos I have to admit I don’t really care about the precise location. For those, I’m geotagging in Photos for now. On the Mac, its a simple matter of entering a location (like a park name, zip code or town) and you have it close enough. In fact there are those who prefer this kind of vague geotagging to preserve privacy and hide the location of special spots where images are captured. The Photos app is smart enough to know that non-geotagged images were taken on a trip if they are scattered among geotagged iPhone images by date. Having some establishing shots on the iPhone makes it easier to find those images that need a geotag away from home base.

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