Olympus TG-2 Digital Camera Review
Last year's best adventure cam gets even better.
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Readers may remember the Olympus TG-1 as the winner of our definitive 2012 Waterproof Camera Showdown, we found it was not only a great toughcam, but an excellent camera, period. For this year's TG-2 (MSRP $379.99), Olympus seems to be sticking with its proven formula, and that's a good move.
While the TG-1 was already the most resilient camera of last year's group, Olympus has extended the TG-2's waterproofing down to 50 feet, catching up with 2013 competition. The company has also added something called Microscopic Macro, which we'll detail later, as well as a hot new color scheme for the body and removable lens ring. It's the winner of our 2013 Waterproof Showdown. Read on to find out why.
Design & Handling
An eye-catching exterior can't hide serious design flaws.
The Holy Grail of toughcam design is to make your camera look armored, without looking like some sort of Fisher-Price toy. Pentax achieved this with its WG-2 (affectionately known as the "Batman camera" in our office), then refined the design for the WG-3. Olympus seems to have taken a page out of their rival's book.
Our evaluation model is the sexier of the two color schemes: all black with a red ring around the lens. This ring can be removed and replaced with Olympus' CLA-T01 screw adapter, which can then attach to an Olympus telephoto or fisheye converter.
The rear panel is dominated by a three-inch OLED monitor. While "OLED" looks great on a spec sheet, in reality this screen just isn't very good. The panel isn't bright enough for use in broad daylight, and if you're viewing it from any angle other than head-on, the color balance will be thrown off. Despite the "Tough" branding, the monitor is not protected by scratch-resistant plastic, and will be badly dinged up after just one day of mountain hiking.
Handling the TG-2 is awkward because all shooting controls—even the mode dial—are relegated to the rear panel. In order to adjust... really any control at all, you'll need to support the camera with a second hand and use your thumb. If you instead attempt to finagle the camera with only one hand, your finger-gymnastics are likely to smudge the recessed lens area and ruin a few shots. The vertical mode dial is also way too slippery to use while the camera is wet. A zoom lever or horizontal mode dial on the top of the body would've been nice.
Aperture priority is supported, but not full-featured. For example, at the widest focal length, you may choose between f/2, f/2.8, and f/8. That's it. We speculate aperture changes are the result of a neutral density filter, not a narrowing iris, since depth of field is unaffected. There is no shutter priority, which would've been a better choice for the mode dial than useless Magic Effect modes, but you can always trick the camera by using fast or slow aperture and ISO values.
Certain shooting situations can be taxing, since the TG-2's shutter release is both too shallow and too stiff. The TG-2 is excellent for macro photography, but those shots require a steady hand, and we struggled to capture a shot without moving the camera around, introducing motion blur and imperfect focus. Perhaps we need to use those grip-strengthener things more often.
"Hey everyone! Come look at this!"
That's how news of the TG-2's incredible autofocus speed moved through the office. After unboxing our review unit, the very first order of business was to alert the entire DigitalCameraInfo corner to this spectacle, and have them try out the focus system for themselves. We're talking fractions of a second before the TG-2 snaps to focus. You can literally focus and shoot in half the time most compacts take just to focus. Thank Olympus' TruePic VI processor for this ability, the same chip used for the OM-D series, which is also known for fast autofocus.
With that said, if you're locking in on different distances in quick succession, the TG-2 will—in its haste—sometimes miss focus entirely. What's worse, the autofocus indicator will turn green, as if the focus locked properly. Failure to focus is one thing, but false locks are cardinal sins to us. The problem isn't frequent, maybe once every 50 shots, but it does happen.
In other news, Olympus made subtle improvements to the TG-2's image quality. We detected improvements to color accuracy, though flesh tones are still a tad too saturated, so human subjects may not be rendered perfectly. The noise reduction algorithm is also a little more potent this year, but you should stick to ISO 400 or less when possible, since this camera's noise levels tend to spike at ISO 800. Automatic white balance, thankfully, is also far more accurate under artificial light. The camera will, on occasion, make a guess that's far too cool, but such mistakes are rare.
Sharpness scores jumped up this year too, but closer examination reveals this is the result of software enhancement, not improvements to the lens or sensor, and shouldn't be considered a serious reason to upgrade.
Microscopic Macro brings you closer to nature... a lot closer.
What set the TG-1 apart, and does the same for the TG-2, is its f/2 lens. Rarely do we see any cameras south of $500 feature any special optics, but this series puts the "cam" back in "toughcam," and the effort goes a long way. Such shallow depth of field is possible with the TG-2 that some of our samples scarcely seemed like they were coming out of a point-and-shoot, much less a ruggedized one. Given the camera's unusually wide maximum aperture and excellent Super Macro mode, the TG-2 enters into direct competition with Pentax's macro-oriented WG series, and matches the WG-3's maximum aperture at wide and telephoto focal lengths.
We have a lot of confidence in the waterproof compartments on the bottom and left panels of the TG-2. Each gasketed door has two separate locks, and the seals are so tight that it actually requires some elbow grease to close them. This camera is rated waterproof to a depth of 50 feet, shockproof from a 7 foot drop, freezeproof to 14°F, and crushproof to 220 lbf.; making it one of the most resilient toughcams on the market.
To keep track of all the adventuring you'll be doing with your new adventure-cam, the TG-2 also comes with a built-in GPS. We tend not to get as excited about features like this, since it has nothing explicitly to do with photography, but the system does work and it works quickly. If you're outside or at least near a window, expect the TG-2 to pick up your exact location within seconds. The GPS software features internal Point of Interest data, but will always record the closest point to your EXIF data, even if you're only relatively close by. For example, if you live in the same town as a tourist hotspot, all your photos will be tagged accordingly, even if you're a mile away shooting cat pictures around the house.
You can't argue with the image quality.
The Olympus TG-2 comes with its fair share of quirks and problems. Yet it's very hard to ignore the impressive image quality that this compact, affordable, durable camera is capable of.
Indeed, the great indoor, outdoor, and underwater image quality is what led it to win our 2013 Waterproof Showdown. Just like its predecessor, the TG-2 is certainly the best tough-cam out there this year, and the only one of the bunch to win our Editor's Choice award. It's more than great pictures, though—the build quality is excellent, the feature set is fun and useful, and it's pretty easy to use.
When we first reviewed the camera, we found the controls and interface to be lacking. But compared to its peers in the waterproof genre, the user experience isn't so bad. Olympus's menu system could certainly use an update. Videos look fine, though the sound of the lens focusing and zooming always bleeds into the audio track. But on the whole, this is easily the best choice in the genre this year. Read our in-depth comparisons in the 2013 Waterproof Showdown.
By the Numbers
Despite some oversharpening, the TG-2 tested quite well. Although it's too early to know if this camera—like its predecessor—will go on to become the best tough camera of the year, we can say that Olympus has gone and improved just about every performance metric for which we have a test.
Specifically, the TG-2 addresses problems we identified with the TG-1's white balance algorithm, and also steps up video performance in both bright and dim lighting. Smaller improvements have been made to color accuracy and noise reduction.
Technically, the TG-2 achieved some remarkable sharpness scores, yet this isn't a terribly sharp camera. How can that be? Olympus is taking full advantage of a technique called "oversharpening," which enhances the edges of high contrast areas to give the illusion of sharpness. In some of the crops below, note the darker bands and bright halos that occur against edges. That's oversharpening, and it's ugly.
In some zones, our test recorded detail levels in excess of 2400 lw/ph at MTF50, though of course these are the results of software cheating. In zones where sharpness enhancement was unable to compensate, detail levels ranged from 1500 lw/ph down to as little as 800 lw/ph as sharpness fell off at the edges of the frame.
The TG-2 has only one color mode, so if you don't like the default rendition style, that's too bad. Fortunately, that single color mode is more accurate than the average point-and-shoot, coming in at a ∆C corrected color average of only 2.82. Any color error average below 3.00 is considered "good," though a high-quality SLR might achieve an error average of 2.2 or lower. The TG-2's saturation is just under perfect, at 97.0%.
Tragically, flesh tones are partially responsible for what inaccuracies do occur. In the chart above, note how far off patch 16 has been rendered. This may result in less-than-perfect representation of human subjects, so the TG-2 probably isn't the best camera for portraits (but you already knew that). Greens and blues also share some of the blame, though this is sometimes a deliberate result of consumer demand for more vibrant trees and skies, especially from an adventure cam.
Automatic white balance has been improved since the TG-1. While both cameras can manage an accurate color temperature under daylight (where you'll be using your toughcam the most), the TG-1's automatic white balance was off by 450 K under fluorescent light and 1650 K under incandescents. The TG-2 cuts these figures down to 250 K and 1200 K respectively.
Custom white balance, which was useless in the TG-1, has been fixed for the TG-2. For example, under incandescent light and using a custom white balance, the TG-1 was still off by 500 K, which is totally unacceptable for a manual reading. The TG-2 reduces this error down to 170 K.
One final curiosity: if you're shooting in daylight the TG-2's automatic white balance is actually more accurate than custom white balance. The same was true for the TG-1, and we're not sure why this keeps happening. So if you're shooting outside on a clear day, don't bother with custom white balance, automatic is the more accurate choice.
Olympus has also improved the TG-2's video performance over the TG-1 in a couple of ways. To begin with, video content is certainly sharper this time around. Under full studio illumination, the sensor is capable of resolving 650 lp/ph horizontally and 625 vertically. Barely any performance is lost by stepping down to only 60 lux of illumination, in which case the sensor still picks up 600 lp/ph both horizontally and vertically.
One of the reasons for this camera's similar video performance under bright and dim light is certainly its vastly improved sensitivity. The TG-2's sensor and f/2 lens require only 6 lux of ambient illumination to produce a 50 IRE signal. The TG-1 required 30 lux to do the same thing.
While the TG-2's noise reduction algorithm makes teeny-tiny improvements over the TG-1 (we're talking a difference of under 0.1% noise at low ISOs), the real reason we're calling this out is because of the unusual behavior of the noise reduction algorithm.
The TG-2 essentially produces three distinct levels of noise: around 0.8% from ISO 100-400, about 1.3% from ISO 800-1600, and finally approximately 1.9% from ISO 3200-6400. In practice, this means you can expect photos shot at ISO 200 to look the same as those captured at ISO 400, but prepare for a relatively severe drop in quality when you jump up to ISO 800.