Pocket digital cameras are in an existential crisis these days. Their main selling point — taking up little space so that you have something you can take pictures with at all times — is being completely dominated by camera phones. No matter how small or light a camera gets, it can never add less heft than something you were carrying around anyway. And as camera phones get better and better, the advantages in visual quality become fewer. Most standout pocket cameras these days are aiming for better quality than you get with most camera phones, either by adding larger sensors like the Sony RX100, or super fast lenses like the f/1.4 aperture in the Panasonic LX7.
But there are a few other things you shouldn’t do with a camera phone — drop it on the ground, drop it underwater, freeze it, step on it, and many other things that I have actually done to destroy various iPhones. The Olympus Tough TG-1 is built to handle all of these things, so while the quality of its sensor may not be significantly better than that of the best camera phones, you can worry about it less or get photos that are actually impossible with them. The TG-1′s ruggedness is no joke — it’s rated to be waterproof to 40 feet, shockproof to 6.6 feet, freezeproof to 14°F and crushproof to a weight of 220 pounds. Adorama told me that I was free to hit it with a baseball bat to test this, but I think they might have been joking. I weigh under 220, though, so I did stand on it with my full weight, and all that managed to do was turn it on without a scratch. I also put it though some other paces, as you will see below. Olympus has paired this ruggedness with a number of new improvements, such as a 25-100mm equivalent lens that is a fast f/2 on the wide end. Although it’s a slow f/4.9 at the long end, that gives you more options in the dark, or particularly underwater, where this camera really shines. Every port on the camera is double-sealed against the elements, and the lens is covered with a strong, easy-to-clean coating. Because the lens doesn’t protrude at all, the camera is quite pocketable, but it’s also surprisingly easy to have your thumb sneak in the corner of pictures if you have big hands.
I don’t use point-and-shoots other than my iPhone very much, so I’m a bit nitpicky. Most shots out-of-camera have a real digital look to them, with some smeared detail even at base ISO, and lots more as you go through the range. At ISO 800 or above the smearing can seriously affect your images, but the digital look happens in uncertain ways — I have ISO 200 images that are smeared and ISO 1600 images that look pretty good:
The above image is ISO 1600 in Super Macro mode, which you can see works really well. The subject matter may be forgiving, but the image shows a surprising amount of texture in any case. The TG-1 also has an LED light which can help with some macro images (though it will give an on-camera-flash look to the photo, which is rarely the best option).
In good light, the photos look nice and snappy, even of a poor subject like me:
Fill flash works decently well — it won’t overpower full sun, but here you can see even coverage of the leaves about eight feet away in the foreground:
But things fall apart a bit in mixed light, as this ISO 800 image shows:
This is what keeps the TG-1 from being any kind of true pro camera. I bet you could fix a lot of the digital look at lower ISOs in a good RAW converting program — but we’ll never know, since the TG-1 doesn’t shoot RAW. It also doesn’t have any way to let you directly control the shutter or aperture. Even though the exposure compensation is fairly easy to ride, this is a huge blow for a control freak like me, particularly since otherwise this could be a decent professional option as an underwater camera.
It DOES have a lot of “art” effects, which are generally pretty silly, and even sometimes downright frightening, such as the mirror effect:
The controls feature set definitely seems aimed at the amateur market. But where this camera really shines is…
Underwater housing for professional DSLRs is extremely expensive, and it becomes cumbersome enough that you need to learn to shoot all over again. Being waterproof to 40′, and with all sorts of underwater options such as Underwater Macro mode and underwater-specific white balance settings, this camera is great for swimming, snorkeling, and shallow-water scuba enthusiasts, as well as people who want to dip their toe in underwater portraiture. I did just that in a recent trip to Boise with the fantastic model Kelsie, and I liked the photo quality underwater even better than on dry land! (It probably doesn’t hurt that clear water is constantly cleaning and functioning like a lens itself). All controls were easy to use underwater and easily visible — dealing with the camera was by far the easiest part of a difficult shoot.
I started with photos from very close to water level while wading in the Boise River. You could use an unprotected DSLR for this — and I did for some — but you’re really pressing your luck when you want to dip down to get a reflection. The best photos from this session had implied nudity, so I will pixelate for those of you at work, and you can click to see the actual photo:
Then we shot in a pool, with sunlight trickling in for a great effect. For the first half of the shoot I tried the TG-1′s high-speed shooting so the ripples of light would hit Kelsie just right, which is a crazy-fast 60 frames per second at three megapixels. I’m glad I switched to full res, which still is a very speedy 10fps but with a smaller buffer, because the high-speed photos do not look very good. Clearly these are just frame-grabs from video, and they look like it, with a bit of poor-video CCTV quality to them. 3MP should be more than enough for the Web, but even here, with the very best of them, you can see the difference between the high speed photo (left) and the normal res photo (right):
I do not recommend the high-speed mode for still photography unless you really need 60fps, and don’t care about quality.
But the color, the steadiness of exposure, the handling and speed were all excellent. If I spent more time around water, I’d keep this camera in my bag. No matter how convenient your cellphone is, you probably don’t want to do this with it: