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I love tough cameras. Nowadays so much sophisticated, high-tech finery is protected by a thin plastic casing and when that casing breaks—and it will—the whole system risks collapse. “Tough" cameras fly in the face of adversity and have earned a category unto themselves with a simple and befitting name to match. Sure, these cameras share core features—underwater capability, shock and cold resistance, basic internal memory—and similar advanced compact-camera functions, but more important than a set of specs, they signify an attitude toward gear and dare I say it, toward life. That attitude is: I lead the way and my camera has to keep up.
I mean, what’s the point of having a camera if it can’t stick with you when you hit the water or the mountains or the streets? That’s where the best shots are taken. These cameras allow you that; they are not pro cameras, but they get you close to having those features and they still fit in your pocket. They can also hang with you in more genteel settings and turn right around, without expensive housings or adapters, and shoot in conditions into which most cameras (or people) won’t go.
Sounds great, but let’s face it—most of us are not going spelunking, but we do want a camera that can survive a dip in the pool, a fall from the counter, or just being thrown into your softball bag week after week. I think all cameras should be tough cameras. Unfortunately, they’re not, so it’s good to know that a group of sturdy cameras exists to survive our “tough” everyday use and to tell our stories whether we're skiing, snorkeling, or even spelunking.
What we call "tough" cameras belong to a sub-genre of point-and-shoot, fixed-lens cameras, but this year Nikon introduced the first waterproof interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera. Available in black, white, or silver, and with two dedicated 1 NIKKOR AW waterproof lenses, the Nikon 1 AW1 is an impressive camera on its own, basically the same as the Nikon 1 J3 on the inside, including the 14.2MP CX-format CMOS sensor, EXPEED 3A image processor, 1080/60i video and 3.0” 921k-dot LCD monitor. However, it is able to shoot underwater to a depth of 49.2’ and in temperatures as low as 14°F. It can also withstand drops from up to 6.6’, is sealed to protect from dust and other elements, and provides larger buttons and grips.
A pair of 1 series NIKKOR AW lenses, which maintain the shock- and waterproof design of the bodies, have been created for the camera. The 1 NIKKOR AW 10mm f/2.8 lens provides a 35mm equivalent 27mm focal length, making it a suitably fast wide-angle prime lens. The 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 picks up where the 10mm leaves off, and provides a 30-74mm equivalent focal length. All other 1-series NIKKOR lenses can also be used on this body, albeit without the tough standards. While the rugged benefits are the obvious highlight, its imaging performance is on par with the best of the 1 series cameras, and its combination of a high-resolution sensor, fast hybrid autofocus, shutter speeds up to 1/16000-second and 60 fps full-resolution burst shooting only add to its ability to serve you in extreme moments.
The Olympus TG-2 iHS Digital Camera is available in black or red. To me, it is the archetype of a tough camera. It can shoot underwater to a depth of 50’, operate in temperatures as low as 14°F, and with dual protective frames, it’s shockproof from a 6.9’ fall and crushproof to 220 lbf. In addition, its lens and 3.0” OLED monitor are coated to prevent scratching and to keep rain and condensation from obscuring your view. It’s also sealed to prevent dirt, sand, and dust from getting inside and its battery door is double-locked to prevent accidental opening.
Furthermore, its shooting specifications are impressive in their own right. Its 12MP 1/2.3” BSI CMOS sensor and TruePic VI image processor enable sharp, color-accurate images, low-light sensitivity with minimal noise, and fast performance speeds including full-resolution burst shooting of 5 fps. A 4x optical zoom lens has the 35mm equivalency of 25-100mm for inclusive wide-angle shots of open landscapes or large groups of friends. Its telephoto reach will magnify distant subjects and provide close-ups when needed. An f/2.0 maximum aperture at the wide end means it can utilize fast shutter speeds in low light, and dual image stabilization further enables sharp imaging in low light and full zoom. A microscopic macro mode allows close focusing to an incredible 0.4” and a built-in flash is included. Also supported is panorama mode, aperture priority mode, and auto and scene modes, including four distinct underwater modes.
The TG-2 supports full 1080p video recording with Multi-Motion Movie Image Stabilization for shake-free movies even when shot on the move. Slow-motion capture is available at 720p, there's a large dedicated video button, simultaneous photo/video recording is supported, and an HDMI output enables direct viewing on HDTVs. A built-in GPS and e-compass track your movements and a manometer measures altitude and depth—including a warning if you approach a depth of 50’ underwater. And despite this impressive feature set, it is only 4.4” wide, small enough to fit into a pocket without interfering with your movement.
The Olympus TG-830 iHS Digital Camera is capable of underwater image capture to a depth of 33’ and its drop-proof/crush-proof specs equal those of the TG-2. Its photographic specs are a step up from the TG-2; it houses a 16MB 1/2.3” BSI CMOS sensor that can record 11.5 fps in full resolution for up to 17 shots. The lens on the TG-830 is a 5x optical zoom lens with a wider focal range than the TG-2. Its 35mm focal length equivalence is 28-140mm; however, its maximum aperture starts at f/3.9, which will not provide quite the same low-light capability as the TG-2. It does have in-camera image stabilization and Multi-Motion Movie Image Stabilization when shooting full 1080p video, but it lacks an Aperture Priority mode, which is effective for more selective control over your exposures. A 3.0” HyperCrystal III LCD screen features anti-glare technology and a water-repellent coating. Like the TG-2, it provides numerous scene modes (including four underwater modes), GPS, and e.compass functions, but it does not offer a manometer. For a camera that is even more pocketable than the TG-2, it still offers a similar feature set and is available in blue, black, silver, or red.
At 5.9 oz and less than 1” thick, the TG-630 iHS Digital Camera is the lightest and most compact of the Olympus tough point-and-shoots. Its photographic chops are impressive, on par with the TG-830, but its exterior standards are slightly lower than its stablemates. It is able to function in temperatures as low as 14°F, but can only shoot to a depth of 16’ underwater and is shockproof rated from a 5’ drop. It is still dustproof and sand proof, and its 3.0” HyperCrystal III LCD screen and lens are water repellent. With a 12MP 1/2.3” BSI CMOS sensor and the TruePic VI image processor, it enables sharp, richly colored images, low-light sensitivity to ISO 6400, and solid performance speeds. A 5x optical zoom lens provides a 28-140mm focal length equivalency and a 10x Super Resolution Zoom and 4x Digital Zoom can magnify your image substantially. Dual Image Stabilization compensates for camera shake for clearer images in low light and longer focal lengths. A built-in flash is incorporated and full-resolution burst shooting at 5 fps, AF tracking, and numerous intelligent and assistive features allow you to catch the shot you want. The TG-630 is available in black, red, or white.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 Digital Camera may not be quite as tough as the flagship tough Olympus, but it’s a Sony, and its imaging specs are top notch. It’s also a half an inch thick and has a macro-lens function with its own LED light. Tough-wise, it’s waterproof to a depth of 33’, shockproof to 5’, freeze proof to 14°F, and airtight to prevent dust from entering. It houses the 18.2MP 1/2.3" Exmor R CMOS sensor and a BIONZ image processor to provide extended ISO to 12800, 10 fps continuous shooting speed and 1080i video capture. The lens provides 5x optical magnification for a 35mm equivalence of 26-130mm, and Optical SteadyShot image stabilization compensates for camera shake. The TX30 has a unique slide-up façade that protects the camera and serves as a lens cover and the rear 3.3” OLED monitor is bright, with fast display times. Touchscreen control is very helpful when shooting quickly and in fast-paced situations. The camera is available in orange, black, or pink.
Trading the slide-down front cover for a more conventional form factor with a curved grip, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TF1 Digital Camera is available in black, blue, or red. It provides equally durable construction and the same waterproof, shockproof, freeze-proof and dustproof specs as the TX-30. The sensor, however, is a 16.1MP Super HAD CCD sensor for high-resolution stills and HD 720p video capture. Its lens offers 4x optical zoom for a 35mm equivalent focal length of 25-100mm. Its maximum aperture runs from f/3.6-4.7 and Optical SteadyShot image stabilization compensates for camera shake to improve your low-light and telephoto images by reducing blur. A range of digital zooms increases the camera’s reach and a 2.7” 460k-dot Clear Photo LCD offers crisp playback and image composition viewing. Simplified rear controls and larger-than-normal buttons make it easy to adjust camera settings in active situations and a range of auto and assistive features help you to nail the tricky shots. Like the TX30, 360° Sweep Panorama mode enables one-touch panoramic shooting when you’re in those beautiful spots that deserve to be shown in their wide-ranging glory.
The COOLPIX AW110 Digital Camera is Nikon’s current point-and-shoot entrant into the tough-camera realm and it holds its own against the best, raising the bar with built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, onboard GPS, an electronic compass, and mapping. Available in orange, black, blue, or camouflage, it houses a 16MP 1/2.3” BSI CMOS sensor and the EXPEED C2 image processing engine with sensitivity up to ISO 3200. A versatile 5x NIKKOR 28-140mm equivalent lens and built-in stabilization get clear shots when you’re moving, and plenty of shooting modes, including underwater, help with exposure, white balance, and optimal settings. A 3.0” OLED monitor and full HD 1080p video are featured and its design and durability is on par with the others, even providing the best-yet depth rating of 59’ and offering a layout of buttons and dials that are operable with cold, wet, or gloved hands.
Distinguished by its aquatic-themed, ergonomic form factor and bold buttons, the Canon PowerShot D20 Waterproof Digital Camera can descend to 33’ underwater, be dropped from 5’, and will operate at 14°F without worry. Canon's HS SYSTEM, with a 12.1MP High-Sensitivity CMOS sensor and DIGIC 4 Image Processor, provides notable low-light performance with a 28-140mm equivalent zoom lens and impressive 1080p video—impressive thanks to the Apple iFrame format mode; multiple resolutions; frame rates including slo-mo; a big dedicated one-touch button; built-in wind filter; and optical zoom that works while shooting. Lens-shift image stabilization with Intelligent IS keeps low-light and telephoto shots blur free and built-in GPS marks your shooting location in the file.
Canon’s tough camera has several dedicated accessories to optimize and enhance its performance, including the polycarbonate WP-DC645 Waterproof Case for PowerShot D20 Digital Camera, which provides control access and houses the camera safely to a depth of 131.2’. The AKT-DC2 Accessory Kit combines a float, a silicone jacket, soft case, a carabiner, and two straps.
Fujifilm adds two cameras to the category, both with similar specs, one basically being the little sibling to the other. The Fujifilm FinePix XP200 Digital Camera has a 16.4MP 1/2.3” CMOS sensor and de rigueur 5x zoom lens with a 28-140mm equivalent focal length, and so does the Fujifilm FinePix XP60 Digital Camera. They both share image stabilization, 10 fps burst shooting, and 1080/60i HD video mode. Where they differ is that the slightly larger XP200 has built-in Wi-Fi, a 3.0” LCD—compared to 2.7”—and tougher tough features that include a depth rating of 49.2’—compared to 19.7’. The XP60 is available in yellow, red, blue, or green, and the XP200 in yellow, black, red, or blue.
There’s no mistaking the Pentax WG-3 Digital Camera. Available in orange, black, green, or purple, it has a unique keyhole shape that's great for vertical shooting, rubber-coated exterior, lines, curves, and 6 LED lights surrounding the lens for video or macro photography. It is waterproof for two continuous hours down to 45.9’, drop proof to 6.5’, crush proof to 220 lbf, dust resistant, and able to operate in temperatures as low as 14°F. With a 16MP backlit CMOS sensor, a 3.0” LCD with AR Coating, image stabilization, and full HD 1080p video, its specs echo the other cameras, but its 25-100mm equivalent lens has a maximum aperture of f/2 at the wide end, which offers increased low-light capability. Also, 70MB of internal memory storage, notably more than other cameras in this roundup, is something that can come in handy if you fill your SD cards or if extreme conditions hamper recording. Additionally, the green and purple cameras feature built-in GPS for geo-tagging purposes.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS5 Digital Camera is similar in size and form to the Nikon AW110 and is in line with the other cameras in terms of general shooting capabilities. It has a 16.1MP High Sensitivity MOS sensor and a 4.6x Leica DC zoom lens with 28-128mm focal length equivalence. Full 1080p video, POWER O.I.S. image stabilization, a 3.0” LCD, and 10 fps burst rate round out its feature set. What separates the TS5 from the pack is built-in Wi-Fi with NFC for easy sharing, storage, and remote shooting, and what makes it a standout in the class is full manual exposure control. It is available in orange, blue, black, or silver. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS25 Digital Camera, available in blue, red, black, or white, is the more budget-friendly model with similar tough specs to the TS5. It houses a 16.1MP CCD sensor, a 4x zoom 25-100mm equivalent lens, MEGA O.I.S., 720p video capture, and a 2.7” LCD monitor. Shooting time-lapse videos is supported, as are Intelligent Auto and numerous Scene Modes.
With a form factor resembling an early digital camera or even a contemporary instant camera, the SeaLife DC1400 Underwater Digital Camera looks like none of the other cameras mentioned. It’s really two pieces that are dedicated to each other and while it is shock resistant, it excels as an underwater camera. As one would imagine, the two pieces are the camera and its waterproof shell. The shell is a rubber over-molded polycarbonate housing unit with marine-grade, stainless-steel hardware, an optical glass port, and a depth rating of 200’. It is the ideal camera for those who take their diving seriously and still want a camera for land use, as the camera can be completely removed from the housing and used as you would any point-and-shoot. However, the housing is integrated into the function of the camera in a more fundamental manner than just a simple case. Camera adjustments can be made via large “piano-key” buttons on the housing and a 3.0” LCD offers composition and playback viewing. Shutter, video, and zoom controls are built to be functional with gloves; it is buoyancy positive, and with 6 distinct underwater modes and integrated filters, it can be optimized to shoot in various depths and with underwater lighting.
As a camera, it holds its own with the compacts on this list, featuring a 14MP CCD sensor, image stabilization, 5x optical zoom with 26-130mm equivalency, and a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Manual exposure control is an important addition, and while it has a built-in flash, it is compatible with the SeaLife SL961 Underwater Digital Pro Strobe and SL980 Underwater Photo/Video Light. While first and foremost a still-photo camera geared for the challenges of underwater shooting, it does provide the niceties of 27 “on-land” shooting modes and 720/30p video capture.
By today’s standards, the SeaLife Mini II Digital Underwater Camera has to be considered a pretty basic point-and-shoot, but on the other hand, it is a “rubber-armored” ball of durability, shockproof to 6’ and waterproof to 130’. It’s the ideal camera if you want to have something handy and tough enough for all comers. Thumb-sized control buttons, a 45mm equivalent fixed-focal-length lens with f/3 maximum aperture, and a 2.4” LCD are part of its minimalist charm. It has VGA video, is powered by AAA batteries, and features “SPY" mode.
To truly enjoy your waterproof camera around the pool, or to save it from sinking one day, the Ruggard Floating Wrist Straps in orange, yellow, or pink/magenta are a smart accessory. Think of it as a brightly colored insurance policy with a quick-release lanyard that will stick with you as you jump with a waterfall or chase your grandkids to the other end of the pool.
A bit more essential perhaps, especially since most of the above cameras utilize SDHC cards, are the waterproof and steel-plated Hoodman SDHC and SDXC memory cards. A camera is one thing, but the photos are the real thing, so if your standard memory card gets wet, you’re outta' luck. The RAW STEEL 8GB through 32GB SDHC cards and 64GB SDXC card write and read at 45 MB/s, while the 8GB to 64GB SDXC Hoodman cards with chip-onboard technology read at 60 MB/s and write at 30 MB/s, with solid performance and the durability to keep your images safe.