Around last Christmas DigitalReviews flagged an upcoming product to simplify geotagging photos using GPS technology. ATP has kindly provided a unit of their Photo Finder for review. We put the ATP Photo Finder through some gruelling paces, so how does it rate?
What is Geotagging?
As quoted from Wikipedia, "Geotagging, sometimes referred to as Geocoding, is the process of adding geographical identification metadata to various media such as websites, RSS feeds, or images and is a form of geospatial metadata. This data usually consists of latitude and longitude coordinates, though it can also include altitude, bearing, and place names."
The Photo Finder Approach
The ATP Photo Finder uses a twostep process to perform the task of adding geographical identification metadata to images. Firstly it samples GPS data at 5 second intervals and records the data onto its internal memory. Secondly it adds the latitudinal and longitudinal data into the EXIF or header of your photos directly on the supported media cards and file formats.
The ATP Photo Finder is a small box with a clean design. There are three buttons to control its operation and a small monochrome LCD to display basic information about the unit or the current coordinates. Three colour LEDs serves to indicate power, GPS and memory status. The unit runs on two AAA batteries (not included) and the manual indicates 7.5 to 8 hours of operation based on 1,000 mAh batteries.
A large plastic carabiner with some definitely very flimsy components allows easy attachment to backpack or belts.
The back of the packaging provides quick instructions on the operation of the unit. The reality is that it is a matter of turning the unit on and wait for it to pick up a GPS signal. There was no configuration to be done on the unit as all the information is received from the GPS data and time is recorded in UTC.
Into the Wild
I was quite looking forward to taking the Photo Finder out for a spin. There was a particular spot I had in mind that I have been meaning to visit for a while to practice some landscape photography. So with two fresh AAA batteries in place, unit turned on and locked in with a GPS signal, I set off on a 30 minute walk through a bush track down to a beach on the Victorian (Australia) coastline. The carabiner clipped easily onto my belt which also ensures the GPS receiver is always pointing in the right direction - up.
As I expected, along the track there was a fair cover of tree canopies during which the unit lost GPS signal. The Photo Finder I noticed turned itself off during this period. No sense wasting battery I guess.
On the final approach to the beach it was open skies, I turned the Photo Finder back on and waited until it registered my location. Under some fairly bright sunlight I find it almost impossible to read the screen on the unit as the backlit is fairly weak. In combination with a tiny display I found that I had to shade the screen, take off my sunnies and squint to read the screen and make sure that the unit is alive. The occasional flicker of the status LEDs fared better in the visibility stakes.
I wander around the beach and out onto the rocks taking photos, occasionally checking that the Photo Finder was still working. For the hour that I spent on the beach, I found that the unit turned itself off at least twice for no reason that I could discern. I was out on the beach with clear lines of sight all around, there was no reason to lose GPS signal for an extended period of time, if even at all.
For the sake of the exercise, I left the Photo Finder turned on and sitting on my dashboard for the drive home.
Tagging the Photos
For this testing I carried two cameras. The first was the compact point-and-shoot Canon Ixus 960Ti and the second was a Nikon D80. Both cameras uses SDHC cards, with the Canon capturing in JPEG and the Nikon in JPEG+RAW formats.
Ever cautious, I waited until I got home and made backup copies of my photos before putting the memory cards into an unproven gadget. According to the instructions, it was a simple matter of inserting the media into the card reader and follow the prompts.
The Photo Finder detected the SDHC card from my Canon in the card reader and prompt me to tag them. I followed the bouncing ball, setting the time offset to UTC+10 for Melbourne Australia. The Photo Finder indicated the number of files it detected on my card and I waited. A short wait afterwards the screen returned "80 files failed". Awesome. It prompted if I want to export KML files so I said yes. When the export was completed it informed me that I need to remove my card from the slot.
Since the first try did not work, I push the same memory card into the slot again and the Photo Finder did not do anything. I had to turn the unit off and on before it will recognise a card in the slot again. I followed the same process and again it failed to tag any photos at all. I checked the time settings in my camera, the timestamps on the actual files themselves and even Googled the UTC offset for Melbourne in case I somehow lost track of my own timezone.
This was not looking good. I pop in the card from the Nikon, which incidentally was set to Adelaide timezone (UTC+9.5). The Photo Finder only supports offsets to full hours so Adelaide timezone was out of the question. However I figure I should have enough data to tag my photos with, albeit being 30 minutes out of position. Again the unit came back failing to tag even a single file.
By now I was starting to get seriously frustrated with this piece of technology. It was supposed to make it easy to geotag photos without the need for a computer. So far I have been unsuccessful in all my attempts.
Tracking My Movements
With the exported KML files I could load them in Google Earth to trace my path. It worried me to see that first three KML files in my export directory to be of either 0 or 1 kb in size. My fears were confirmed when I tried to load these into Google Earth only to be told that there was no data in these files. The next two files however had data of my journey home, curiously broken into two parts although the unit to the best of my knowledge never powered off during that entire 90 minutes drive.
So in effect, the entire time I spent on the beach where the Photo Finder screen was indicating my GPS position was unavailable to me. Annoying, but not the end of the world since I am only testing it, and at worse I could drive the 90 minutes if I am desperate to retrace my steps. Not very environmentally friendly or efficient, but not impossible.
As they say, when you first do not succeed, try again. In my case, I did it smarter by sticking a little closer to home. This time I only took the Nikon out to play as I had a specific scene in mind I want to capture. Again I encountered the random power off of the unit. This time when I insert the memory card into the Photo Finder, the unit decides to switch itself off. This happened repeatedly the few times I tried.
Plans C, D, G, Z?
I feel that by this time I should give up on this gadget. However given that I have the privilege of testing gadgets I owe it to our readers to see what I can salvage from it. The ATP website was sadly lacking in detailed technical information, but there is a link to a Windows application for "If your photos cannot be directly geotagged by ATP Photo Finder (on the go), please use the ATP PhotoFinder application for Windows."
Is salvation at hand? I downloaded the file (less than 2 Mb in size) and installed it. The interface looked a bit clunky and there was no help file. I plugged the Photo Finder into my PC via the mini-USB port and the internal memory shows up as another disk drive. I thought I was in business and proceed to copy the log files off the unit, only to encounter the following errors on two files.
* Cannot read from source file or disk
* The file or directory is corrupted and unreadable.
It couldn't get any worse. Incidentally these two files are around the time that I was actually on the beach.
Photo Finder Windows
I salvaged what files I could from the unit and out of curiosity I ran a scandisk across it which finished in a heartbeat with no reported errors. After a bit of playing around I figured out how to load the photos and the log files together and start the tagging process.
Unfortunately the application kept crashing without any messages either as a popup or in the event logs. By taking a very small set of photos which I know were taken within the timeframe of the available logs, the application indicated that they were tagged. A quick check in another program shows that at least these files were actually tagged. The program keeps crashing on a directory with only 30 images so I did not persist with it.
Where do I start? There are a number of flaws with the ATP Photo Finder most of which are show stoppers. The random power offs concerns me. For what the unit is designed for, I should be able to run about taking photos and not having to check that the unit is turned on and recording every few minutes.
The loss of data and memory corruption even when the unit indicated that it was recording completely defeats the purpose of even carrying it in the first place.
The LCD screen is extremely difficult to read in bright sunlight conditions, combined with the very short time out period is a killer.
I was unable to tag any photos successfully using just the ATP Photo Finder unit on its own.
There is no support for RAW format which eliminates the enthusiast and professional photographer market. Any photographers worth their salt would understand the advantages of taking photos in RAW format over JPEG.
The carabiner is made from thin plastic with some very weak components in the chain. Further the quick release clip is round, which means you have to pay attention when you are trying to clip it back on otherwise it will not lock in properly.
Inserting a media card into the card reader caused the unit to shut down.
One of the batteries does not sit properly in the slot. Whilst we are talking about batteries, at the price point the unit is being sold for it is just wrong to exclude an initial set of AAAs.
The Windows application is flakey and unreliable. However it was the only way I could tag some of my photos. A pitiful number compared to the total number of shots I took.
And lastly, the Photo Finder is not waterproof nor water-resistant.
- Display: 128 x 32 Dot Matrix FSTN with backlight
- Connectivity card: Compact Flash Specification Revision 4.0, SD 2.0 SHDC, MMC 4.2, Memory Stick PRO/Duo. Other formats possible via card reader connected to the built-in mini USB port.
- Card format: FAT / FAT32
- File format: JPEG only
- Battery: AAA x 2
- USB cable: Mini USB to Type A female connector cable
- Up to 550 hours of GPS data at 5 second intervals
I applaud the concept that ATP tried to execute with the Photo Finder. Based on my experience I cannot recommend the product as it failed to work as designed. The JPEG only limitation and the sheer number of faults I encountered is enough to put me off. I hope future revisions improve on the build and functionality of a promising idea.
If you are still inclined to try your luck then ATP lists their stockists here for a fairly hefty tag of around USD$130.