Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire for Hiking and Photography – Watch Review

Garmin Fenix 3 Introduction

The Garmin Fenix 3 was introduced in early 2015 but it remains to have some of the latest and greatest technology. It’s primarily targeted towards people interested in sports and fitness. As the name suggests, it is a third generation watch but within this generation exists many other watches:

  • Garmin Fenix 3 ~ Introduced in early 2015, this is the most basic Garmin Fenix 3, it doesn’t include a stainless steel strap and the screen is not made out of sapphhire
  • Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire ~ This is a Garmin Fenix 3 with a Sapphire screen and it also includes a stainless steel strap
  • Garmin Fenix 3 Titanium ~ This is a Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire with a titanium bezel and strap
  • Garmin Tactix Bravo ~ This is essentially a Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire with a slightly different, more rugged, body
  • Garmin Fenix 3 HRM ~ Introduced in 2016, this is a Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire with a built in heart rate monitor
  • Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire Run HRM ~ This is a Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire with an included, separate, heart rate monitor strap

They all have the same software, with some the Garmin Tactix Bravo being the exception; by default it includes extra software but this is downloadable for the other models.

Price: $349.99
Was: $449.99

The Garmin Fenix 3 is an exceptional watch for photographers and I’m highly pleased with it. At the time clicking the order button, I had my doubts but the 28 day return window sealed the deal for me. Prior to buying it, the Garmin Epix gained my curiosity, especially because of its extra storage. Unfortunately it lost my interest after I read numerous reviews slating its buggy nature. The Garmin Epix doesn’t gain much support from Garmin either; whereas the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire has received numerous software updates.

My main priority was to buy a lightweight, wearable item that can create GPS files. I’m hoping to geotag photographs when I hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year and my main camera–the Sony a7rII–doesn’t have a GPS chip. Having spent a while researching, I soon realised this is a blessing in disguise; in camera GPS chips are rarely accurate, they consume a lot of power and they take a while to locate a signal–GPS is far more complicated than you might think.

There’s an alarming amount of GPS units available: dedicated handheld devices are undoubtedly better than the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire for general navigation and hiking but they’re heavier, they require larger batteries and they’re made somewhat redundant by a smartphone you’ll likely already be carrying. Anything that can create a GPX file or create a file that can later be exported as a GPX file will be suitable for geotagging photographs. Technological items do make each other redundant in some regards but as paradoxical as it sounds, my smartphone doesn’t make the Garmin Fenix 3 redundant and vice versa. There’s many reasons why the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire compliments your phone as opposed to simply replacing some its features:

  • It can be worn while your smartphone remains switched off in your backpack; thereby saving battery life–this isn’t possible with the Apple iWatch as it doesn’t contain a GPS chip (it borrows from the iPhone)
  • It only has a 300 mAh battery, and if you don’t have a large access to electricity, it’s extremely energy efficient in comparison to a phone
  • It doesn’t display the same level of information that a smart will for route navigation; therefore, the GPS chip in a phone is still useful
  • You don’t have to fumble around in your backpack to quickly check the time, temperature, barometer, compass, etc.
  • You can receive vibration alerts which you will always notice; sometimes I don’t notice my phone vibrating or ringing in windy/noisy environments

 

Geotagging a photograph is made extremely easy with Adobe Lightroom; the coordinates are merged with the time the photograph was taken–the time data is obtained from the camera. To geotag a photograph with Adobe Lightroom, you need a GPX file. The Garmin Fenix 3 creates a “FIT” file that contains the GPS data but don’t be put off by this. You can use various websites to export these into GPX files (Garmin’s own “Garmin Connect” website lets you do this), and many wearables have their own file format system. The video above demonstrates the simplicity of geotagging a Sony a7rII RAW file with Adobe Lightroom using the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire and the Garmin Connect website. The video is slow for demonstration purposes–normally it’ll take about 30 seconds to tag a bunch of photographs.

For long hikes spanned across several days, the watch might eventually run out of storage before you get to an internet connection. To get around this problem, you can mount the device to a phone as external storage and copy the “FIT” files from one location to another. You need to have a phone that supports USB-OTG and a file browser (most current generation Android, Windows and Apple phones do). The fit files are found in the “GARMIN\ACTIVITY” folder.

I’ve taken the Garmin Fenix 3 Sapphire on a hiking holiday and it was exceptionally useful. The average photographer will appreciate the ability to geotag photographs without draining your phone’s battery in a few hours. The battery life lasts approximately 12 hours (I’m guestimating slightly) when recording a “1 second” GPS file i.e. it updates the location every second. You can increase the battery life by making the watch update your location less frequently — “settings” –> “system” –> “data recording” –> “every 1 second”. I also freed a bit or storage by deleting the additional language files. The apps use the same storage space as your “activities” but they’re extremely small (some are only 20KB for example). For photography, you do not necessarily have to have the watch update your location as frequently as 1 second, and “data recording” –> “smart” should be adequate. The “every 1 second” option makes your location a bit more accurate. The Garmin Epix has enough storage that you’ll likely never need to copy the files to a phone but as I said, it’s buggy–it’s a good idea to back up the files created too.

As a side note, try make sure the dates are the same between the GPS unit and the camera, that way the GPS location is going to be more accurate when imported into Lightroom.

The point of using a Garmin Fenix 3 for GPS logging is not that it necessarily offers anything that a phone cannot do (specifically regarding GPS logging; I am not talking about its other features), but that it does it efficiently. It has a 300 mAh battery that lasts hours. A phone can record a GPX log but it might have a 3500 mAh battery that gets depleted within a five hour time frame. Garmin watches (suunto make some too) are extremely battery efficient, and this is important if you’re off the grid and need to charge your unit. If you’re near a power outlet, then a phone might be all you need.

 

 

When you’ve logged into your garmin account, you can view a list of previous “activities” and as you can see in the screenshot above, exporting the GPX file is extremely easy. Once you’ve done that, you can open up lightroom, click the “map” button and load the GPX file–it’s that simple. You can also select a group of photographs and have it auto tag each photograph, rather than having to go through them one by one–good job Adobe. Again, I suggest watching the video–there’s no audio with it but it’s fairly self explanatory.

There are other reviews that go into greater detail about the watch’s extensive features; this review is aimed more towards helping photographers than the average review. For photography, I believe this is the ideal companion right now. You’ll find the barometer useful as it’ll alert you when a storm is coming (an internet connection is not required). Sunset and sunrise times are obtained from the GPS signal and again, an internet connection is not required. The stop-watch isn’t a revolutionary feature but it is useful for timed exposures. A lot of these features are available with multiple devices or with a smartphone, but it’s extremely useful to have them available in a device readily accessible. Worrying about packing your phone and fiddling around with its features might seem minuscule but when you have something this feature packed and quick to use, you’ll soon realise why it’s superior for a lot of asks.

Minor complaints:

  • The rubber strap isn’t that comfortable in my opinion (if you like rubber straps, you won’t have a problem with it).
  • You cannot back up .FIT files to the phone without an internet connection unless you physically connect the watch via USB-OTG. USB-OTG is extremely easy to use, especially as the files are only two folders deep into the directory, but it would be nice if the app would let you do an “offline backup” and not have to physically connect the watch to the phone.

I bought a strap from natostrapco.com and I’m extremely pleased with it. Any 26mm NATO strap should fit fine.

You can set the buttons to custom hotkeys. I’ve set mine so the top right button displays GPS location when it is held down.

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