2013 Waterproof Camera Showdown
Seven of the year's best rugged, waterproof cameras face off, and we declare a decisive winner.
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It's been said that the best camera is the one that you have, and it's true. But if your camera breaks, what then? When you're playing in the surf, spending a weekend on the slopes, or climbing a sheer rock face, you're definitely going to need a camera that can survive the elements.
There are dozens of rugged, waterproof compact cameras that fit the bill. And with so many to choose from, finding the right one can seem daunting. Lucky for you, we're here to help.
This spring, we took a close look at the top-billed tough cams of 2013, measuring how they perform outdoors, indoors, and underwater. We put them through the wringer to see how they stand up to drops, dunks, and dust. And we paid close attention to how easy they are to use once they actually get into your hands. Read on for our in-depth look at the best tough cams money can buy.
Next: The Contenders
Your iPhone might take great snapshots, but it'll drown if it gets wet and shatter if you drop it. Until that changes, there will still be a place in the world for ruggedized compact cameras. Even as camera makers abandon their cheap point-and-shoot lines, they keep cranking out the accident-proof, adventure-ready models.
Most of the major manufacturers even produce more than one tough cam per year. Olympus introduced three new models this year: the TG-2, TG-830, and TG-630. Panasonic has the Panasonic TS5 and the TS25. Pentax offers both the WG-3 and WG-10. Nikon pairs its AW110 with the budget S31. And Fujifilm goes a similar route with its XP200 and XP60 models.
In this roundup, every major camera company that makes a tough-cam is represented. When we had a choice, we chose to test the most expensive current model in each manufacturer's lineup. Here are the contenders:
Canon PowerShot D20 (MSRP $349.99)
Canon's challenger is the only holdover from our 2012 roundup. This bulbous body is home to a 12.1-megapixel CMOS sensor, 5x zoom lens, and 3-inch screen. This year, it's one of the least-tough cameras in our comparison group.
Fujifilm FinePix XP200 (MSRP $299.95)
Practice makes perfect, so Fujifilm is once again trying to make a decent tough cam. Last year's XP150 was an insultingly bad product, but this new model at least looks like a more serious attempt at greatness. Vital specs include a 16-megapixel CMOS sensor, 5x zoom, and a 3-inch LCD. Its chassis has also become one of the sturdiest on the market.
Nikon Coolpix AW110 (MSRP $349.95)
Nikon's first new tough cam since 2011 looks pretty similar to its predecessor. The lens and sensor in particular appear to be unchanged—a disappointment, since we didn't love the old model's overall image quality, despite strong scores in our lab tests. But this newest tough Coolpix can dive deeper underwater than any other camera in this roundup.
Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS (MSRP $379.95)
This is the follow-up to our favorite waterproof camera of 2012, and Olympus is largely sticking to its winning formula. The brilliant f/2-4.9 lens is back, as is the solid 12-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor, and swappable lens-converter system. The new model is a little tougher, too, with increased waterproof and shockproof ratings.
Panasonic Lumix TS5 (MSRP $399.99)
At last, a CMOS sensor comes to the Panasonic TS series, towing class-leading 1080/60p video and incredibly fast burst shooting in its wake. The TS5's predecessor was last year's second-best rugged camera, though widespread user complaints about leaky construction hurt its reputation. Can this year's model climb to the top of the heap?
Pentax Optio WG-3 (MSRP $299.95)
Pentax makes the meanest-looking tough-cams in the world. The WG-3 certainly looks like it's built to be hauled up the side of a cliff—it even comes with a carabiner. But more importantly, this iteration has a new f/2-4.9 lens—the fast aperture paid off for Olympus last year, so it could help Pentax vault upward in this year's contest.
Sony Cyber-shot TX30 (MSRP $349.99)
Sony continues to build the most stylish waterproof cameras out there. This year's version has beefed-up toughness ratings, a flashy 3.3-inch OLED touchscreen, and an unnecessarily high megapixel count (18.2). It's also the only one of the new tough-cams that seems to have been designed to fit into a pants pocket.
How We Tested the Contenders
Just like every other camera we review at Reviewed.com, we ran all of these waterproof models through our usual in-depth lab tests, and scored them like we score any other fixed-lens camera. (Read more about how we test.) Full-length reviews for all of these cameras have already been posted.
But because we're looking at these seven cameras specifically as ruggedized models, our overall score doesn't necessarily tell us everything we need to know. Some of these so-called adventure cameras might thrive in our labs and in casual shooting situations, but struggle out in the elements. Likewise, some might struggle to achieve clinical perfection but shine in dirtier hands.
With this in mind, we've reinterpreted some of the scores from our standard lab tests—oversaturated colors are not penalized here, for instance—and added a handful of additional mini-tests, like an underwater still life scene. We think this altered rubric more accurately portrays how these cameras will perform in the strenuous environments they've been advertised to work in.
Our Toughness Picks: Olympus TG-2, Nikon AW110
Waterproofing and durable build quality are the obvious selling points for tough cams. Without bodies that can take a beating, these cameras are just regular point-and-shoots with short zooms and bloated price tags.
Manufacturers provide official toughness ratings in a few different categories, and since we can't afford to really stress-test all of these cameras, we have to take them at their word.
There's no clear-cut "toughest" camera right now. If waterproofing matters most to you, the Nikon AW110 can allegedly dive deeper than any other model on the market—59 feet, according to the official rating. But even the Sony TX30 and Canon D20, which are the weakest in this category on the spec sheet, can still survive at an impressive 33 feet below the surface.
Any one of these cameras will survive in the surf or at the pool. Divers might glean some peace of mind from Nikon's top rating, but if you're down near Davy Jones' Locker, a waterproof housing would be a wise investment, no matter what kind of camera you decide to use.
When we look at the terrestrial toughness ratings, the Olympus TG-2 emerges as the most durable of the bunch. Like most of the other contenders, it's crushproof, freezeproof, dustproof, and has a double-locking door to prevent accidental catastrophes. But it is built to withstand drops from 7 feet, while the rest of the competition tops out at 6.6 feet, or even 5 feet.
Unless you're Shaq, the few extra inches of shockproofing won't matter very often, but the stat does suggest Olympus's contender has super-sturdy build quality.
Both the Olympus TG-2 and Nikon AW110 earn a spot in the top tier of durability ratings. Very honorable mentions go to the Pentax WG-3, Panasonic TS5, and Fujifilm XP200—they're certainly rugged enough to survive what most photographers could conceivably throw at them.
The Canon D20 and Sony TX30 belong firmly in the bottom tier. On paper, they're the least tough, which is reason alone to rank them at the bottom. But we also ran into actual trouble with them out in the field, at the beach. On Sony's side, the TX30 got a few grains of sand lodged behind the lens cover, so it was jammed semi-shut for a few hours until the debris worked itself loose.
The D20 really blew it. After we dipped it in two feet of water to take still-life shots, the nav and menu buttons stopped responding, and the lens fogged up horribly. Later, sand got stuck in the shutter, which forced the D20 to constantly autofocus and only erratically take photos. When we tested the D20 last year (a different review unit, as far as we know), we noted that a little bit of water got past the rubber seal and into the battery compartment whenever we submerged it. But it didn't affect the camera's functionality or performance at all.
We don't know why this particular unit fizzled and flopped so hard—maybe it had been sitting around at the Canon warehouse since last summer (the product box was pretty beat up), and the seals got brittle over time, making it easier for water to get in. You probably don't have anything to worry about if you get a brand-new copy of the camera, but if ruggedness and waterproofing are your chief concerns, the D20 shouldn't be your top pick anyway.
Outdoor & Underwater Image Quality
Outdoor & Underwater Picks: Olympus TG-2, Canon D20, Panasonic TS5
Tough cameras are almost exclusively outdoor cameras. Just take a look the way they're marketed and advertised—companies sell the idea of adventure as much as they sell an actual product. Windsurfing, rock climbing, fresh-powder snowboarding—anything extreme and exciting. But even if your expeditions only take you as far as the local beach or your backyard pool, it's still crucial that your tough-cam take clear and vibrant outdoor photos.
Accurate, vibrant color is the difference between a snapshot and a photo—especially outdoors, and even more specifically underwater.
This chart tallies each camera's color score, pulled from our in-depth reviews—but with a minor tweak. When we score color, the acceptable saturation range is 90-110%, and anything outside of that range is penalized. But most outdoor and underwater photos arguably look better when they're a bit oversaturated, so we eliminated the penalty for overshooting the ideal (undershooting was not an issue with these cameras). As a result, a couple cameras got a few extra tenths of a point.
In our testing, the Canon D20 and Sony TX30 were tied for the best overall color profile (incorporating both color accuracy and saturation). The TX30 was the most color-accurate of the bunch, with a minimum uncorrected color error of 2.4 (anything under 2.5 is excellent in a point-and-shoot). But the D20 has a punchy, vibrant profile that'll be immediately pleasing to many photographers.
The Olympus TG-2 is quite good as well, earning an honorable mention in this metric. Thankfully, Olympus fixed the lifeless, undersaturated color profile that dogged its predecessor.
(Those keeping track will notice that the Canon D20's color score is different than it was in last year's waterproof roundup. That's because we recently changed the way we rate color at Reviewed.com: the maximum score is now out of 10. Read more about it here.)
Great resolution separates crisp, striking pictures from cheap-looking, blasé shots. The chart below shows our scores for each camera in three major resolution categories—distortion, sharpness, and chromatic aberration.
Chromatic aberration is the green and purple color fringing that sometimes occurs in high-contrast scenes; you're most likely to see it in foliage and other elements of wide-angle landscape shots, which are the bread and butter of tough cams. So for the sake of this roundup, we doubled the weighting for this score compared to our usual review.
Our sharpness score measures edge clarity. This can be tricky to accurately measure, since virtually all cameras mess around with artificial edge enhancement to make their shots appear sharper. Essentially, it's software trickery designed to make up for poor lens design and underpowered sensors.
Distortion refers to curvature at the edges and corners of a photo; software correction has basically solved the problem, but a few cameras still have problems that even software can't completely cure, so we're counting it here.
This chart can be viewed as a useful reference, but it doesn't tell the whole story on how well each tough-cam resolves detail. The Olympus TG-2 absolutely deserves the top slot, even if its score isn't quite the highest. The quality of its lens puts it in a tier of its own—details are visibly sharper and look more natural than they do in shots from any other camera here.
The Nikon AW110, Panasonic TS5, and arguably the Sony TX30 occupy the middle tier. Their test scores are great, but their inferior lenses don't naturally capture much detail. Their superior performance is down to in-camera edge enhancement, which tries to act as a counterbalance. The resulting images look good from a distance, but as you get closer, the flaws start to pop out—usually in the form of muddled details and a garish halo effect along high-contrast edges.
The Pentax WG-3 should take better-looking shots than it actually does. It has a bright f/2 lens like the Olympus TG-2, after all. But the photos we captured with it looked slightly soft and murky, virtually across the board.
Underwater Image Quality
You'd think that any waterproof camera could take a decent underwater photo, right?
Underwater photography does pose several notable challenges. Red tones get filtered out of water at relatively shallow depths, so white balance settings can be thrown all out of whack. Metering systems don't always know what to do with the otherworldly lighting, either.
But we don't even need to dive into the physics to figure out why most tough-cams can't take a decent underwater photo. The fact is, most of them are mediocre at best on dry land, and the added difficulty of underwater photography pushes them beyond their already wimpy limits.
The Olympus TG-2 is one of the few cameras in this group that can actually take a good-looking underwater photo, and it really excelled when we set it to one of its underwater scene modes. The photos are clear and vibrant, with punchy contrast. The fast f/2 lens certainly has a big role in that success, but something tells us Olympus put a lot of effort into tuning the TG-2 specifically for underwater shots. The Panasonic TS5 deserves an honorable mention here, as well.
We hoped that the Pentax WG-3 would excel beneath the waves, thanks to its bright lens. But the shots turned out a lot like they did from the cameras with slow lenses: murkier, flatter, and generally just a bit worse than the dry-land photos.
Macro capabilities deserve a short, special note here, since a few models put considerable emphasis on super-macro modes. The Olympus TG-2, Nikon AW110, and Pentax WG-3 are all capable of taking shots from as close as 1 cm, which produces some strikingly cool photos. You can basically press whatever you want to shoot right up against the glass and get it in sharp focus.
The WG-3 goes a step further and includes a ring of LED lights around the lens. This lets you place the camera face-down and get high-res shots of high-detail flat surfaces. We can see plenty of people getting useful results, from texture artists to coin collectors and so on.
Indoor & Low-Light Image Quality
Indoor & Low-Light Pick: Olympus TG-2
Tough cams have always struggled to take good pictures indoors or in low light. The root of the problem is the lens and sensor combination.
Most tough cam lenses start at a piddling f/3.9, and slow down even further throughout their short zoom range. As a result, the cameras have to crank up their sensitivity in dimmer lighting, and grainy image noise becomes a serious problem. Worse still, it's hard to get a fast-enough shutter speed to take photos without heaps of blur. Pair these lens-related problems with a tiny, cheap point-and-shoot sensor that doesn't resolve much detail to begin with, and you have a recipe for abominable low-light images.
But if a tough cam can do even a passable job indoors, it instantly becomes a very valuable all-around camera.
Image noise is the easiest flaw to spot in a photo. First you'll notice the grainy, off-color speckles that crop up in dark areas of the image, then you'll pick up on the sloppily smoothed-over details destroyed by the camera's noise reduction algorithm. This unfortunate phenomenon occurs primarily when using the camera's higher ISO settings.
This chart displays the noise percentage the average image produced by each camera. To get this figure, we shot each camera at each full ISO stop from base sensitivity up through ISO 1600 and averaged the results. (Some of these cameras go up to ISO 3200 or even 6400, but those settings are useless on just about every point-and-shoot, so we took them out of the average—trust us, you'll never want to use those settings if you can avoid it.)
The Olympus TG-2 takes the cleanest, clearest photos on the whole. Details are visible through most of the ISO range, and look as natural as they're going to from a tough cam. The shots will look great on a computer screen or in small prints all the way up through ISO 1600. If you're ambitious, you could even make some medium-sized prints with these shots.
The Nikon AW110 and Panasonic TS5 both produce consistently low noise levels, but that's in large part due to heavy-handed noise reduction. Details look soft—almost like a watercolor painting when you look closely. That's fine when you're viewing small, web-sized images, but the lack of detail quickly becomes apparent as the display size increases.
Stabilization & Shutter Speed
Grainy, sloppy-looking photos are problematic, but you can generally get a noisy shot to look alright with a little Photoshop magic. On the other hand, a shot plagued with motion blur is pretty much unrecoverable.
When a camera's aperture is too narrow, the shutter needs to stay open longer to let in enough light for a decent exposure. And when the shutter is open for too long, your hand shakes or your subject moves. The end result? A streaky, blurry mess.
So we wanted to see how each camera metered a typically dim indoor setting. We lit a scene to 100 lux—the average light level in a living room at night—and noted each camera's shutter speed at the wide-angle setting, both in auto mode and program mode at ISO 1600.
When shooting these cameras at full wide angle, the shutter speed you need to get consistently crisp results is around 1/30s (or faster).
A handful of the contenders passed our indoor no-blur test this year—at least based on their shutter speeds. The TG-2, WG-3, TS5, and TX30 all metered our dim scene at relatively quick shutter speeds. In conjunction with image stabilization systems, they should be able to get relatively blur-free photos in a typical living room.
User Experience & Features
Interface & Features Picks: Panasonic TS5, Olympus TG-2
A camera's handling characteristics and interface can make or break your user experience, and no point-and-shoot would be complete these days without a slew of extra features.
Handling & Interface
This chart rounds up the scores that we gave each camera in its full-length, in-depth review (each is out of a possible 10).
The entire DCI staff handles each camera we review to gather handling and user interface impressions. In this roundup, our unanimous choice for the best-handling camera was the Panasonic TS5, which received the best scores in menus and controls, and came a close second in handling. We also agreed that the Sony TX30 absolutely belongs in last place. The predominantly touch-based interface was a huge pain to work with, and the wacky sliding lens cover caused more issues than it solved—particularly once we took it out into the elements.
While we're confident that we've identified the best and worst models in this regard, the most important thing to keep in mind is that handling is a deeply personal experience. Each user has different pet peeves and preferences, and what works for one person might be incredibly awkward for another. We strongly encourage anyone looking to buy a camera to go into a local camera shop and try it out (preferably alongside its direct competitors) before purchasing.
Features like screen size and type, burst shooting capacity, and video resolution are all useful in a practical context. And they're virtually guaranteed to keep on improving, since they provide eye-catching specifications that manufacturers can use to out-market their rivals. The Panasonic TS5 stands out from the competition this year, with class-leading video, burst shooting, and battery life.
The TS5 is the only camera in its class that shoots 1080/60p video, rendering super-crisp detail and smooth motion. A GoPro Hero model (with a waterproof case) is still probably a better option for underwater video, but the TS5 was surprisingly strong in this regard.
Burst shooting is super speedy, nearly hitting 10 frames per second in our tests—much faster than any other model in this showdown. And Panasonic's tough cam has the longest battery life, too. You can't change a battery underwater, so a bit of extra capacity can make a real difference.
The only spec where the TS5 doesn't quite keep up with the flashiest models is its display—a regular LCD instead of the sexy OLEDs used by the Olympus TG-2, Sony TX30, and Nikon AW110. We think OLED screens are generally a good thing, with buttery-smooth motion and rich color. But they do wash out very easily in direct sunlight. By the numbers, the TX30 has the biggest, most high-tech display among its peers, but in practice, it doesn't amount to much.
Most of these waterproof models come with a built-in GPS unit, or WiFi connectivity, or both. We don't think that they have a significant impact on the overall user experience.
But for the right kind of adventure-prone user, we can see well-implemented geo-tagging making all the difference in the world. If you really care about these things, the Nikon AW110 has by far the best GPS system, including built-in, street-level mapping. The in-camera WiFi system works well, too. The Panasonic TS5 is a close second for connectivity. Its GPS functionality includes an altimeter and barometer, and its in-camera WiFi is also solid.
We weren't able to test it, but the Pentax WG-3 GPS—a variant of the model we ran through our labs—includes a secondary front LCD that displays altitude, depth, and barometric pressure. It also capable of displaying a digital compass on the rear LCD, but doesn't offer in-camera maps.
Next: The Winner
Without a doubt, the best waterproof camera of 2013 is the Olympus Tough TG-2. It’s a great all-around camera that happens to be rugged and waterproof, and almost anybody shopping for an adventure-ready, life-proof camera should start here.
Olympus’s tough cam pumps out images that easily beat every other camera in this showdown—indoor, outdoor, and underwater photos pop with clarity and depth. The secret sauce is the high-quality f/2 lens.
The TG-2 is one of the best-designed tough cams, too, with sturdy construction and impressive durability ratings in just about every category. The 3-inch OLED display is also one of the smoothest and punchiest you’ll find on any camera.Handling is comfy, the interface is friendly, and there are plenty of controls and tweaks available for those who want them. Autofocus and general operation are blindingly fast. And a handful of cool, helpful extra features like Microscopic Macro mode, GPS functionality, fast burst shooting, and some excellent digital filters make it a lot of fun to use. It’s also the only waterproof camera with a system of lens converters—it isn’t really an interchangeable-lens camera, but it’s as close as you can get in a waterproof body for under $500.
If the TG-2 has a weakness, it’s video. While the camera’s 1080/30p clips look pretty good, whenever the lens focuses or zooms, the audio track picks up noise from the motors and gears as they shift around. It can be pretty distracting, and if you shoot a lot of video, it could be a deal-breaker.
Forgive us if this all sounds familiar—the TG-2 is every bit the worthy successor to last year’s TG-1, which won our 2012 waterproof showdown. Olympus made the TG-2 a little more durable, fixed the bugs that caused the camera to crash, and… well, those are the only significant changes.
But it’s such a solid camera, and Olympus really didn’t need to change much. If you own the TG-1, there’s no need to upgrade. But we wholeheartedly recommend it to most other potential buyers, and award it our editor’s choice badge.
That said, the TG-2 didn’t run away with this year’s contest like its predecessor did last year. The Panasonic TS5 earned some very high scores on its way to a strong second-place finish. It has an excellent feature set, takes solid outdoor and underwater image shots, and is built like a tank. It’s also the best waterproof camera for shooting video, so if that’s one of your top priorities, put it on your shortlist.
Beyond the TG-2 and TS5, the rest of the pack blends together. None of them are particularly terrible, and they all have at least one redeeming quality. If we had to single out the cameras least-worthy of your money, they'd be the Sony TX30 and Fuji XP200. The TX30 has a particularly atrocious interface and some notable design flaws, but it's stylish, fits easily in a pants pocket, and takes pretty good photos. The XP200 takes some shoddy shots, but the handling and design are cool, and, uh… it comes in yellow?
Like we said last year, we’d really love to see a waterproof camera with a full set of manual exposure controls, RAW support, and maybe even a larger sensor—something that enthusiasts could get really excited about. Of course, waterproof housings are available for just about any compact camera—like the excellent Sony RX100, for instance—so that’s probably where more serious photographers will find the most satisfaction. But we’d still love to see some kind of advanced tough cam come along.