Garmin Instinct Solar Photography Review

All photos of this review were captured by Christophe Anagnostopoulos.
January 27, 2022 -> Review was published.

Intro

I find very interesting how some products that are not directly photographic, can be great tools out in the field for a photographer, and I don’t necessarily speak just for landscape photography.

A couple of months ago, I’ve shared my review of the hiking backpack Lafuma Access 40, which I have been using for the last one year as my go-to landscape/astrophotography camera bag.
In case you missed this review, you can read it here.

In this post I will share my thoughts on the Garmin Instinct Solar, a rugged smartwatch that I find exceptional for landscape photography.

Let’s find out why.

*Disclaimer*

This is NOT a paid post. 

I haven’t been in touch with anyone from Garmin company or possible affiliates.
I bought the watch myself because I wanted to, so this post simply contains my 100% sincere personal thoughts and nothing else.

Build Quality & Design

The Garmin Instinct Solar is a durable, rugged ABC-fitness solar watch with some basic “smart” functions, but you will discover very quickly that it cannot relate to an Apple Watch, or a Samsung Watch or any other popular brands in terms of smart capabilities.
It is mainly designed for outdoor activities and personally, one of the main reasons that made me decide to buy it was that it doesn’t have a touch screen! Yeah!

So basically, in terms of design what you get is an 80’s/90’s “Casio-button-style” watch which you either going to love it or hate it.
People that are interested in outdoor activities or are doing some hard work out in the field, will definitely love it.

I personally love this style, as I’m a big fan of Casio G-Shock watches (I have 4 of them), but as I said if you are not a fan of this style, then this watch might not be for you.

 

 

Size

The watch has a size of 45 x 45 x 15mm and it fits wrists with a circumference from 132 to 224 mm.
The elastic silicone watch strap feels very soft, while it is also very durable.
It has a lot of holes so no matter what size is your arm, it will fit just fine.

The 45mm bezel of the watch is made from high quality plastics and although it is big in terms of size, the watch itself weighs only 53gr, so there are no issues for wearing it all day in the mountains or in an urban exploration.
It actually feels way more comfortable than my G-Shock GW-M5610, although its bigger.

 

Screen

The Always-On 2.51-inch black and white OLED screen is very clear and easy to read even under harsh sunlight.
The screen is relatively small compared to the watch size, but that is totally understandable as the solar panels had to fit there.
Speaking of the solar panels, these can be seen around the screen and there is another one that is not visible, directly under the screen panel.
Basically, the visible panels gather around 85-90% sunlight where the not visible panel gets around 10-15% of sunlight.

The watch face can be adjusted in some ways, showing the info you desire and having the style you want.
There are six (6) pre-defined styles in black and the same six in white/clear, and you can further set it to match your needs.
Still, I find them restraining in many ways and I definitely would love to have the ability to either customize them further, or to have the ability to import some new/custom ones via the Garmin App.

Personally I love the fact that the watch screen is not Touch and has five (5) dedicated buttons for the functions, as it is difficult to use a touch screen when in example is raining or you wear gloves when its cold out in the field.
As mentioned before, the watch is rugged and can easily withstand all weather conditions and some light hits out in the field, while providing some excellent information (more on that later).

 

Battery Life – Solar

The biggest asset of this watch is that is solar powered, which practically mean that it can (re)charge itself directly from the sun while out on the field, avoiding the use of electric charging.

I guess I’m lucky to live in a country that has clear skies with direct sunlight almost for 2/3 of the year so it is easy to say that the watch can recharge itself nearly every day just by walking to go to my studio, or even to go shopping. Heck, even while driving during daylight, it can still gather some power!

Garmin states that the battery of the watch in certain conditions can reach 54 days (!) if it is under sunlight for 2-3 hours per day, but this can be achieved only by using the basic functions.
You can find detailed information on the topic on Garmin’s website, but I can assure you that after six (6) months of everyday use, including daily activities (1 hour of running every morning, daily walking, 1 hour of strength/cardio activities day by day) but with no constant smartphone connection*, I have only charged the watch six times using its included cable.  The watch replenished its battery by sunlight.
This translates to around 30-35 days of usage with a single charge. That’s great!

*I cannot see any use to the constant smartphone connection as the watch cannot reply to messages, and in terms of calls, it just shows the caller number and gives the ability to answer or reject the call. Anyways, I’m not interested in these functions, but maybe some of you might, just keep in mind that it will definitely drain more battery.

I’m not an expert on smart watches, but after the first week in which I was searching for the capabilities of the watch, I found out that if the Pulse Ox function is left “always-on” (auto) is a huge battery drainer.

After turning Pulse Ox off, the watch simply increases its remaining life by doubling the remaining days left!
Please note that Pulse Ox**, which is a very handy feature, can still work but you just have to take a manual reading instead of being automatic. No big deal to be honest.

**Pulse Ox (Pulse Oximetry) is a tool that measures your oxygen saturation level, or the oxygen levels in your blood, and it can detect even small changes in how efficiently oxygen is being carried to the extremities furthest from the heart, including the legs and the arms.

General Technical Specifications

  1. Lens Material: Power Glass
  2. Bezel Material: Fiber-Reinforced Polymer
  3. Case Material: Fiber-Reinforced Polymer
  4. Strap Material: Silicone
  5. Physical Size: 45x45x15.3mm (fits wrists with 132-224mm circ.)
  6. Display Size: Custom, 2-Window Design (23x23mm)
  7. Display Resolution: 128×128 pixels
  8. Display Type: Monochrome MIP (memory-in-pixel)
  9. Weight: 53gr
  10. Battery Life: Up to 24 days/54 days with solar*
  11. Memory Size: 16MB
  12. USB/Charging Cable: Included

For detailed information about the watch specs and functions, please visit this link.

The online manual of the watch, can be found here.

The Photography Side

But let’s move on the main advantages of the watch, that can make it a great tool in the hand of a photographer.

Personally when I’m out on the field, I always put Safety first. Period.
There is no benefit to put yourself in danger just for a photo or for anything else.

From this aspect the watch has one of the easiest to read and use GPS functions among other smartwatches on the market.
Yes, it misses the beautiful colored and very detailed map of the more pricey (2 times the price of Instinct Solar) Garmin Fenix 6, but personally what I need out in the mountains is to be assured that I will find my way back, no matter what.

The watch uses GPS+Glonass or GPS+Galileo systems for global positioning, and Garmin is probably one of the best companies in the world for accuracy even on difficult locations.
So far, in the mountains of Greece, as also in the Aegean sea (in a boat) I didn’t encounter any issues in terms of accuracy.
The watch managed to get a GPS signal even on remote locations in about 10-20 seconds.

GPS

The GPS functions that are super useful to a photographer are first the ability to “Back-track” your route/path.
Let’s say in example that you are visiting a new location, or a location that you are not so familiar with or maybe the light faded out in the meantime, or just the weather elements (rain, fog, etc) make the route not so recognizable.
The watch tracks your previous movement and in case you get lost, you just enable the Trackback function to return back to your starting location.

GPX Files

The second GPS related function is the ability to upload custom gpx files to your watch directly from your smartphone or your computer (via Garmin Express app), so to find your way into an unknown path, visiting a new location for the 1st time.
You can create a gpx file by yourself in the Garmin app, or download gpx files from the web, from websites like in example alltrails.com and many others.

I always mention that preparation is the number one factor to get the maximum out in the field.
No matter if the location is familiar or an uncharted territory for you, if you are prepared as best as possible, then you can avoid any issues as also create some magnificent photos.

Sunrise/Sunset Alarms

Moving on to non-GPS helpful functions, we have the ability of the watch to inform you via an alarm, when the Sunrise or the Sunset is.
The user can set the time before this alarm starts, in example half an hour before sunrise and sunset, and the watch simply notifies you with a sound alarm and a vibration.
Great tool to not miss these beautiful Golden Hour shots!

Sun and Moon

At the same time, it has widgets that shows detailed information about the sun and the moon (twilight hours, sunrise, sunset, phase of moon), a widget that can be set in the watch face as well!

As an astrophotographer and a landscape photographer I honestly couldn’t ask for more!
Maybe (Garmin can you hear me?), maybe if possible, Garmin could add another widget that shows the phase and location of Milky Way Galaxy Core, or even add a custom Milky Way rise Alarm. I suppose it would not be too difficult, as using the GPS function, the watch could detect the user location and inform about the position and the rising time, but maybe I’m asking a lot here!

ABC

Of course, as an ABC (Altimeter-Barometer-Compass) watch, the user can use these super helpful functions out in the field.

The compass is very accurate, compared to my trusty Silva compass, as also the altimeter and the barometer.
Speaking of barometer, the watch has another useful alarm, that of an incoming storm (Storm Warning Alert).
The user can set the amount of pressure that changes in the last hours, and the if the watch detects an atmospheric pressure drop, it sounds/vibrates an alarm.
Let’s say that you are hiking your favorite mountain to get some shots.
You have checked the weather report and seems to be ok, but as we know, mountains have their own climate and the weather conditions can change drastically in literally no time.
The alarm of the watch can help you get in a safe location in time.
Super handy feature!

Fitness

Lastly, the fitness side of the watch is also helpful, as it tracks your heartbeat, your steps, your energy (body battery), again sounding/buzzing alarms if your heartbeat is too high or low.
Your path (hiking, running, etc) can be recorded via GPS and all your statistics can be downloaded and further analyzed back home either on your computer or your smartphone.

So now you know if you can improve your climbing time towards that difficult peak while at the same time you will monitor your heart in case you feel tired..

Personal Thoughts

I always wear a watch since I was a kid. It’s a great tool that can be of excellent help in some cases.
So far, I always used many Casio G-Shock watches, and particularly Solar Powered models.
And although their functions were good (Alti-Baro-Temp), I felt that something was missing.
I needed more functions and of course I loved the idea of a GPS function on my hand.

There are a lot of GPS smartwatches in the market these days, and some of them are honestly very good options (and a lot cheaper as well).

I needed a Casio style (not touch), rugged ABC watch with GPS functions, that will have good to excellent battery life.
When Garmin released the solar version of the already popular Instinct, I was fascinated because it had exactly what I needed.

And honestly, after some months of everyday usage in difficult conditions and locations while shooting for my upcoming project “Into The Mountains”, I believe that is a great companion out in the field.
I really like this watch!

Conclusion

“A great rugged ABC watch, with excellent GPS functions  that can be very helpful out in the field.
It also has some very handy widgets and customization options, as also some rather basic smart capabilities, and I definitely recommend it to people spending much time outdoors.”

Ratings

Build Quality:9.1 out of 10 stars (9.1 / 10)
Comfort:8.7 out of 10 stars (8.7 / 10)
Ruggedness:9 out of 10 stars (9.0 / 10)
Size and Weight:8.6 out of 10 stars (8.6 / 10)
GPS Performance:9.1 out of 10 stars (9.1 / 10)
Widgets:8 out of 10 stars (8.0 / 10)
Features:8 out of 10 stars (8.0 / 10)
Customization:6.7 out of 10 stars (6.7 / 10)
Battery Life:9.2 out of 10 stars (9.2 / 10)
Price:7.7 out of 10 stars (7.7 / 10)
Average:8.4 out of 10 stars (8.4 / 10)

Highly Recommended (especially for outdoor activities!)

Garmin Instinct Solar

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