Saturday, January 14, 2012

A sense of where you were

The device on top of the camera is a GPS receiver.

One of the tasks of a travel  author is to take decent photographs of the locales he is writing about, both as aides-memoires for the text and icing on the book's cake in the form of a photo section. Come March, the Lady Friend and I will be taking a ten-day-long trip to San Francisco Bay aboard Amtrak's California Zephyr primarily to gather new photos for the upcoming e-edition of my 1994 book Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America.

As a photographer I tend to be an indiscriminate shooter, pointing the camera at anything and everything that appears in front of me, hoping to remember later what the subjects were all about and especially where they were shot. Is that a photo of the Colorado River at Dotsero or was it Orestod? Does this abandoned rail yard lie at Soldier Summit or somewhere else?

Some years ago I took a shot of a beautiful rock formation from the open vestibule window of a private car behind an eastbound Zephyr, but never used it anywhere because I couldn't identify the locale. Only after seeing someone else's similar picture of the same place a few weeks ago did I realize that I'd captured the western approach to Castle Gate, Utah, one of the lordliest sights possible from American rails. It's going to go right into the e-book of Zephyr.

Of course I should have taken notes on the individual frames, as a good photojournalist should, but "should" and "did" have different meanings. As a writer I am careful to do due diligence, but as a photographer I just have been too undisciplined.

But now there is a brand new gadget in my photo bag that I hope will make life much easier for me.

It is a Pentax O-GPS1, an inexpensive ($200)  little GPS receiver that attaches to the hot shoes of the current crop of Pentax digital single-lens-reflex cameras.

The receiver records not only the precise latitude and longitude of the spot where the photographer was standing when he snapped the shutter, but also its altitude above sea level and the compass direction in which the camera was pointing.

The camera embeds in the digital file of the photo all this information, along with the customary "metadata" about the f-stop, shutter speed, sensor sensitivity (or ISO), lens focal length, camera make and model, etc.

When I upload the photo files into my computer, I can use special geotagging software to find their precise locations on Google Earth or a similar mapping site. Being able to locate on a map the exact spots where I took my shots is going to be an enormous help.

That is, if the device works as I hope it will. I don't yet know if it will lock on to at least four satellites from the windows of a train speeding at 79 miles an hour, or if it can lock on from deep in a canyon.  We'll find out in February, when the Lady Friend and I will take Amtrak's Capitol Limited to Washington, D.C.


  1. Henry, you love electronic toys, don't you?

  2. Hmph. I think of them as TOOLS to get a job done.

  3. Henry, I think you use Macs. What software do you use to locate your photos on maps?

  4. I haven't had the unit long enough to try it out with much software, but I've gotten good results with Lightroom 4 Beta and GPSPhotoLinker. Right now I think I'll be using Lightroom 4 when it is finally released.

  5. To my surprise the files also work with Lightroom 3. Not as elegantly as with the Lightroom 4 beta, but quite usably.

  6. February 15: The GPS does work from a speeding train. Getting a satellite fix can be a little chancy if high buildings or a screen of trees obscures the device's view of the sky. But once a wide enough vista presents itself, the GPS locks on quickly.