Landscape photography is all about getting out into interesting locations. That means unfamiliar territory, where GPS data is extremely helpful. While I love apps like Google Maps and Waze for driving, they aren’t optimized for the needs of photographers. That’s why I love the “GPS Tracks” iPhone app .
GPS Tracks features:
- A recording of where you’ve been, which makes it incredibly easy to navigate back to your car
- Detailed maps of terrain and hiking trails to help find your way
- Offline access (which can cover a much larger area than Google maps in a single download)
- Measurement tools to estimate the length of a hike or distance to your subject to help choose lenses
- Battery-saving GPS options
- Extra data, such as elevation gain or barometric pressure
- Export GPX files to add GPS coordinates to your DSLR photos
- Waypoints and planning tools to help navigate to locations that don’t appear on a map, or easily mark important locations along your journey.
- Also available for Apple Watch
- Excellent support from the developer, with frequent updates
- And much more
GPS Tracks is designed to support many advanced navigation needs, including flying, boating, driving off-road, and others. As a result, the app is pretty complex and may appear intimidating. But there are only a few things photographers need to know in order to use it. This makes the app quite easy to use once you know what you need. Specifically, I’d like to point out the following in the app:
As photographers, we’re likely going to travel to amazing locations that may not have reliable cellular data. And, downloading maps on the go may consume precious or expensive mobile data (especially when traveling internationally). GPS Tracks offers an excellent offline download option. In order to use it, you need to sign up for a $20 annual subscription, but it is well worth the price (you’d typically pay more to buy just two paper maps).
Go to the list of maps (found under the icon that looks like layers of paper in the bottom right of the maps module) and click the “download” option to the right of any available maps (a few maps are not available for download due to license restrictions). Next, zoom the map to put the orange rectangle over the area you wish to download, change the map “zoom” level at bottom right as needed to manage detail and the size of the download, and then click the orange “download” button. If the download button is greyed out, you need to select a smaller area and/or a lower zoom level (currently, the maximum download is 25,000 tiles). You can always make multiple downloads to select a larger area in great detail. I like to download a low zoom map of a large area, and then a few detailed maps of specific smaller areas I plan to visit. Once you’ve downloaded a map, you will see a blue square over the downloaded area.
I use the Mapbox Satellite and Mapbox Outdoors maps. Both are available for downloading offline. To select which map you wish to see, click the icon in the bottom right of the maps module that looks like layers of paper.
The Outdoors map is my go-to map. It shows contour lines to assess elevation and vantage point. It shows hiking trails to help find your way and estimate how long a hike will be. And it includes traditional map features such as road and lake names, as well as other important landmarks.
The Satellite map is perfect for scouting. I’ve used it to confirm whether I may be able to physically access a location, whether a lake is clear for reflections, whether trees might block my view, and many other scenarios where a photographic look at the terrain is helpful. It’s also great for getting your bearings or locating a destination, as many natural landmarks don’t appear on traditional maps.
Click on the ruler icon in the bottom right of the maps view to access the measurement tools. The “distance” tool lets you quickly draw lines or curves on the map, and then tells you how long a particular route or distance is. This is great for understanding how early you might leave to arrive before sunset, determine if a location is too far to walk, or determine which lens might be optimal to shoot a distant subject.
The measurement tools also include a “route” tool. This allows you to click a few points along a road or hiking trail on the map, and the app will automatically trace the route perfectly. This allows you to get more precise hiking distance calculations easily. However, note that you must have internet access to use this feature, and that while the route tool is very good, it doesn’t always determine the route you want to take. But it’s a great tool, and I recommend trying it out. If you don’t like it, try using the distance tool in “draw” mode to trace the route with your finger.
While I don’t cover waypoints in much detail in the video, these can be handy. I like to drop a pin when I reach interesting viewpoints I might wish to revisit. I also create waypoints in advance when navigating to specific locations that don’t appear on the map, or to plot out a route if I’m not following a marked trail. I recommend getting comfortable with the other parts of the app before exploring waypoints, as they can be a little more complex to use effectively.
There are numerous options, but only a couple that are probably important for most photographers – everything else can be left at the default settings. The most important is the option to determine the tradeoff between battery life and accuracy of the GPS. Set “GPS Navigation Precision” to medium or low I typically use medium, unless I really need to conserve power. Medium updates your position every 20 seconds, and low updates ever 60 seconds. Either are perfectly good for most photography use.
The other setting I like to change is “keep waypoints on map after save”. This is a convenient way to be able to see your last route after you save it (without having to dive into the tracks module and load it back onto the map).
No one likes reading manuals, but I recommend you check it out if you want to explore the app further (especially waypoints). The manual can be found in a button at the top of the Settings.