I love tough cameras. So much high-tech finery is protected by a thin plastic case and when that casing breaks—and it will—the whole system risks collapse. “Tough" cameras fly in the face of this trend and have earned a category unto themselves with a simple and befitting name to match. These cameras share core features—underwater capability, shock and cold resistance, basic internal memory, but more important than a set of specs, they share 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?"
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 fit in your pocket and they can hang with you in more genteel settings, then 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 be real—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 handle our “tough” everyday life and to tell our stories when we do go skiing, snorkeling, or even spelunking.
Mirrorless Tough Cameras
What we call "tough" cameras belong to a sub-genre of point-and-shoot, fixed-lens cameras, but Nikon also offers a waterproof interchangeable-lens mirrorless camera. Available in black, white, or silver, and with two dedicated 1 NIKKOR AW waterproof lenses, the Nikon 1 AW1 features the 14.2MP CX-format CMOS sensor, EXPEED 3A image processor, 1080/60i video and 3.0" 921k-dot LCD monitor. However, it is also able to shoot underwater to a depth of 49.2' and in temperatures as low as 14°F. It can 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.
Point-and-Shoot Tough Cameras
The Olympus Stylus TOUGH TG-4 Digital Camera is available in black or red. The TG series continues to improve and the TG-4 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 7-foot 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 preclude accidental opening.
Furthermore, its shooting specifications are impressive in their own right. Its 16MP 1/2.3" BSI CMOS sensor and TruePic VII 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 and magnified close-ups or portraits when needed. An f/2.0 maximum aperture at the wide end means it can utilize fast shutter speeds in low light, and image stabilization further enables sharp imaging in low light and at 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-4 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. It provides built-in Wi-Fi, and a built-in GPS and e.Compass track your movements while 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 new Olympus Stylus Tough TG-870 Digital Camera is also capable of underwater image capture to a depth of 50' and its drop-proof/crush-proof specs equal those of the TG-4. Its photographic specs are similar to those of the TG-4; it houses a 16MP 1/2.3" BSI CMOS sensor that can record 7 fps in full resolution and up to 60 fps at lower resolutions. The lens on the TG-860 is a 5x optical zoom lens with a wider focal range than the TG-4. Its 35mm focal-length equivalence is 21-105mm; however, its maximum aperture at the wide end is f/3.5, which will not provide quite the same low-light capability as the TG-4. 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" tilting LCD screen features anti-glare technology and a water-repellent coating and monitor boost function to increase brightness when needed. Its 180° tilt helps with low-angle composition and when shooting selfies on the slopes. A handy feature for outdoor photography is Live Composite mode, which combines several exposures of the same shot for better balance between highlights and shadows. Like the TG-4, it provides numerous scene modes (including four underwater modes), GPS, and built-in Wi-Fi functions and houses the TruePic VII image processor. For a camera that is slightly more compact than the TG-4, it offers a similar feature set and is available in black, white, and a stylish green model.
The Olympus Stylus Tough TG-860 Digital Camera, which is the predecessor to the TG-870 and is still available. Olympus has noted the faster GPS capability of the new model but, in general, the specs are quite similar to that of the TG-870. Minor differences include a lower resolution on the tilt-screen LCD and fewer art filters.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX30 Digital Camera may not be quite as tough as the Olympus models, but it’s a Sony, and its imaging specs are top notch. It’s also a half an inch thick and has a magnifying 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 the new pink model.
The COOLPIX AW130 Waterproof Digital Camera is Nikon’s current flagship entrant into the tough-camera realm and it holds its own against the best, including built-in Wi-Fi connectivity with NFC, onboard GPS, an electronic compass, and mapping. Available in yellow, black, and blue, it houses a 16MP 1/2.3" CMOS sensor and ISO sensitivity up to 6400. A versatile 5x NIKKOR lens with 24-120mm equivalent focal-length range, maximum aperture of f/2.8 and built-in stabilization gets clear shots in dim light and when you’re moving. Shooting modes, including underwater, panorama, and snow make it easy to get the tricky shots. A 3.0" OLED monitor with anti-refection coating and full HD 1080p video are featured and its design and durability surpasses the others with a depth rating of 100', shockproof rating of 7' and a layout of buttons and dials that are operable with cold, wet, or even gloved hands.
On the lighter side and definitely a great camera for kids at the beach or pool is the Nikon COOLPIX S33 Digital Camera, available in blue and silver. Its rounded form factor looks cool and while it is not as “tough” as the AW130, it is still able to function to a depth of 33' and is shockproof from a drop of 5'. Like all of the cameras, it can simply be washed off with water if it gets dirty or sandy. The S33 features a 13.2MP 1/3.1" CMOS sensor, full HD 1080p video, ISO 1600, and 4.7 fps continuous shooting. Its 3x optical zoom lens provides a 30-90mm focal length equivalence and composition and playback is provided by a 2.7" rear LCD monitor. Its oversize buttons and simplified menu are a plus for little fingers and those working fast or covered with gloves.
Distinguished by its aquatic-themed, compact, and ergonomic form factor and bold buttons, the Canon PowerShot D30 Waterproof Digital Camera can descend to 82' underwater, be dropped from 6.5', 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 dedicated accessories to optimize and enhance its performance, including the Nimar Underwater Housing for Canon PowerShot D30, which provides access to all controls, including flash, and houses the camera safely to a depth of 262.5'.
Fujifilm adds the new Fujifilm FinePix XP90 Digital Camera to the mix. It provides a 16.4MP 1/2.3" CMOS sensor and de rigueur 5x zoom lens with a 28-140mm equivalent focal length and sensor-shift image stabilization. Processing performance is impressive with 10 fps burst shooting and 1080/60p HD video mode. A 3.0" LCD monitor, built-in flash, healthy grip, and twist-lock battery chamber are notable physical features, and built-in Wi-Fi connectivity enables you to transfer images wirelessly to your smart device and remote-control the camera’s shutter.
The “tough” specs of the XP90 are waterproof to 50', shockproof to 5.8' and freeze proof to 14°F. The camera is also dustproof to the IP68 standard. Tracking AF helps keep moving subjects in focus and Motion Panorama 360 allows you to record expansive views up to 360° wide in a seamless, sweeping manner. The camera is available in yellow, blue, lime, and orange.
As with Olympus, the predecessor the XP90 is still available, although the spec difference between it and the Fujifilm FinePix XP80 Digital Camera is minimal. The LCD on the XP80 is 2.7" and offers 460k-dot resolution, compared to the 920k-dot resolution on the XP90. The XP80 is also slightly smaller and lighter.
There’s no mistaking the Ricoh! The WG-5 GPS Digital Camera is available in orange or gunmetal silver, and it has a unique keyhole shape that's great for vertical shooting. It features a 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 1/2.3" 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 and Triple SR image stabilization, 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 camera features built-in GPS for geo-tagging and a digital compass and front-face clock. Having used this camera, a keen advantage it has is a very fast shutter lag and 14 fps burst shooting. Ricoh also offers the WG-30W Digital Camera in flame orange, providing a similar set of specs as the WG-5, however, including built-in Wi-Fi connectivity instead of the built-in GPS.
And then there is the Ricoh G800SE Digital Camera, which is a camera not marketed for the adventuresome types as much as for the practical set. It is designed with features to position it as the camera for those in the medical, surveying, and law enforcement fields due to its RSA encryption, bar-code reading, write-once memory card compatibility, password protection, and versatile battery support. It also provides durability—waterproof to 16', shockproof from a 6' drop, and cold proof to 14°F, but its 6.5GB of internal memory and compatibility with SD cards, Eye-Fi, SD WORM, and Toshiba Write Once cards is the difference-maker.
A 16MP1/2.3" CMOS sensor, 5x optical zoom lens with macro mode, 3.0" 920k-dot LCD, 1080 video, hot-shoe mount and built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth provide it with photo chops to match most of the above cameras, as well.
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS30 Digital Camera, available in blue, red, or black, is the more budget-friendly model with similar tough specs to the TS6. 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.
Throwing its Tirolerhut lid into the tough-camera ring, Leica is sure to raise some eyebrows with its lux Leica X-U (Typ 113) Digital Camera. Tough-wise, it is waterproof to 49', shockproof from a drop of 4', and dustproof. Its anti-slip rubber exterior improves your grip in wet conditions and an integrated underwater protective glass filter guards the front lens element. The lens makes it a standout from the other cameras, with a fixed focal length, built-in Summilux 23mm f/1.7 ASPH lens, equivalent to 35mm in the full-frame format. This sophisticated lens pairs with a large 16.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor, which affords a broad sensitivity range to ISO 12500, along with up to 5 fps continuous shooting, an 11-point autofocus system and Full HD 1080p video recording. A free download of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is made available after registering your camera purchase online.
At the other end of the price-point spectrum, Vivitar offers three point-and-shoot cameras with underwater capability. The ViviCam X026 Digital Camera is submersible to 10' and provides a 12MP CMOS sensor, a 4x optical zoom lens, VGA and QVGA video recording, and anti-shake image stabilization. The ViviCam T426 Digital Camera is also waterproof to 10' and has HD video capability and 8x optical zoom lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and a 12MP CMOS sensor. It runs on two AAA batteries. Finally, the AquaShot Underwater Digital Camera is listed as water resistant to 30' and provides 16MB built-in memory with a fixed f/2.8 lens with a focus range from 3.3' to infinity.
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 parts 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, because 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 six 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 Sea Dragon Digital Underwater Flash Head and the Sea Dragon 2000 Duo LED and Flash and the Sea Dragon Duo X2 Underwater Flash Set. 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.
The Sealife micro HD Underwater Digital Camera is available as a 16GB internal-memory model. It has a depth rating of 200' and image quality is superior, with its 14MP 1/2.3" CMOS sensor and equivalent 20mm f/2.8 fisheye lens. Full HD 1080p at 30 fps is supported. The camera is permanently sealed for deep-water use and has a rubber-armored, shock-resistant body and a 2.4" color LCD monitor. Time-lapse capability and built-in Wi-Fi connectivity are featured.
Also from SeaLife is the SeaLife Micro 2.0 Underwater Digital Camera in 32GB and 64GB models. Like the micro HD, they are permanently sealed and provide large internal memory capacities. These cameras are particularly suited for underwater photography with a depth rating to 200' as well as a rubber-armored, shock-resistant case.
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 smart accessories. Think of them as brightly colored insurance policies 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 at 45 MB/s and read at 90 MB/s, while the 32GB to 128GB SDXC Hoodman cards with chip-onboard technology read at 90 MB/s and write at 45 MB/s, with solid performance and the durability to keep your images safe.