Olympus TG-850 Digital Camera Review
Olympus brings a tough camera for those tough-to-get selfies.
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Olympus is our reigning champion for waterproof cameras and this year it has its eyes set on the prize once again. The new TG-850 (MSRP $249.99) is the successor to the TG-830 – because apparently TG-840 just didn't sound right. It brings a few new tricks and upgrades to what was a solid waterproof camera while lounging in the wake of the new flagship, the Olympus TG-3. The TG-850 may have fewer features than the TG-3, but it follows the same "tough" camera ethos: focus on being a good camera that happens to be able to survive the elements.
The TG-850 is not just a stripped down version of its big brother, the TG-3, it has a few tricks all of its own. Chief among them is an articulated 180-degree tilting LCD monitor, making it a rough, tough, selfie-taking machine. It really gives off the vibe of being the tough guy's version of the NX Mini, which isn't a bad thing—adventurers love selfies too.
We ran the TG-850 through our gauntlet of lab tests and put it to the test out in the field to see just how tough it really is. While it certainly stands up well to everyday abuse, it's only $100 cheaper than competing tough cameras. Is that discount enough to convince buyers to live with fewer features and questionable low light image quality?
By the Numbers
Despite enjoying our time with it out in the field, we weren't exactly floored by the TG-850's performance in our labs. It doesn't match up all that well with its refined and feature-filled (albeit more expensive) brother, the TG-3. It's cheaper, but the TG-3 offers a lot for only $100 more.
The TG-850 simply isn't the sharpest or the best in low light, nor does it offer high-end video or nice extras like GPS and WiFi. However, it does stack up pretty well to the underwater and "tough" camera competition, many of which are much more expensive and not all that great. Read below to see the results of us putting the TG-850 through the paces and see if it fits your needs.
Design & Handling
This tough camera is easy on the hands
The TG-850 is labeled as the “tough” camera that can go anywhere and do its job under (nearly) any conditions. The first word that came to mind when I took it out of the box was sturdy. It has a very compact and strong build to it, with absolutely no give or flex in the body. It's the first tough camera to feature a flip-up screen, and it's very securely built. A flip-out screen is always going to be a point of vulnerability, but when closed it should take as much abuse as the flagship Olympus TG-3. The back of the camera may be plastic, but it's not cheap “I might break at any moment” plastic, so that's nice.
Navigating the rear controls is simple and the camera only requires one hand to operate. All of the buttons have a rigidness to them, helping maintain grip on the controls even in wet conditions or even when entirely submerged. There is also a grip on the back for the thumb and on the front side for your right hand. A strong lanyard comes with it to round out the drop proofing of the TG-850. Olympus even offers a floating lanyard for purchase online; if you drop it with that attached, the TG-850 will float safely to the surface.
There's an obvious appeal to having a camera that can take a beating. I have a monstrous Otterbox Armor Series case on my iPhone 4s to get shallow underwater shots and it handles about as well as you'd expect—not well at all. The TG-850 feels much nicer, and despite being rated for greater depths, the TG-850 is actually almost two inches smaller than my iPhone when I have the case on it.
While shooting with the TG-850 I felt more like I was using a point and shoot camera that happens to be waterproof than a waterproof camera that can take a photo and or two. The tilt-screen really helped set it apart from all other underwater cameras I have shot with by allowing me to frame shots that normally take multiple images of hit-and-miss framing shots. Shooting underwater is hard enough as it is, the flip-out screen makes actually framing your shot much simpler.
The TG-850 comes with a 3.74-18.7mm zoom—the equivalent to 21mm-105mm on full frame—with an f/3.5-5.7 aperture range. It also has up from 5-10x digital zoom, though using this heavily degrades the image quality. We observed that at the widest (3.7mm) the image was fairly sharp in the center, but fell off dramatically on the edges. When we pushed it to 9.4mm, the image was less sharp in the center but more sharp all-around. Finally we tested the full optical zoom and saw the sharpness drop all around. 9.4mm is certainly the best for sharpness, but still mediocre at best.
The sharpness is in no way impressive for the TG-850. It falls victim to a bit of distortion at its widest, giving a bit of a spherical feel to the images. The camera tries to make up for the lack of sharpness with oversharpening software in-camera, and the chromatic aberration gives the image that haloing look as seen above. Ultimately there's the appearance of plenty of detail, but also significant artifacting to go along with it.
Noise & Noise Reduction
The Olympus TG-850 has an ISO range of 125-6400, but doesn't offer much to let you control how the camera operates as you move up that ISO scale. Like all cameras you can use higher ISO speeds to make the camera more sensitive to light, allowing for faster shutter speeds while resulting in noisier photos. The TG-850 compensates for this noise with noise reduction processing, but doesn't give you any control over how heavily this reduction is applied.
The result is that the camera controls noise well, but to do so it wipes away any remnant of fine detail at the top of the ISO scale. In our lab test we saw noise percentages start out at around 0.8% at base ISO. It moves up from there, hitting 1.2% at ISO 400, 1.43% at ISO 800, and 1.88% at ISO 1600. From there it tops 2%, which is usually the threshold where an image becomes noticeably noisy when printed to normal sizes.
Because the TG-850 has such aggressive noise reduction, however, that threshold is not at ISO 1600—which our lab results would lead you to believe—but rather at ISO 800 and below. As you can see in the 100% crops of our still life above, the camera's JPEG processing leads to a lot of artifacting as it fights to keep noise down. This isn't too bad up to ISO 400, but by ISO 800 you can see detail begin to fall off. ISO 1600 and above are usable only if you don't care about quality or just plan on putting the shot on Facebook or another site where it'll only be seen at a very small size.
It's "tough" getting past all that noise
We had high hopes for the TG-850 due to the success of Olympus with its flagship TG-2 and newer TG-3. However, it let us down on a few key areas that are some of the more important areas if you're using it in lowlight or underwater. It had solid noise performance until we hit ISO 800, after which it was hard to really pull any detail out of the images.
Since the TG-850 doesn't have any form of noise reduction control, you're left with post processing as the only way to do it. This is a bit of a disappointment if you're a diver looking to use it in deep or murky waters where there isn't as much light. It should do just fine if you're sticking to bright, shallow waters, but you'll still have the same cloudy, washed out color reproduction other waterproof cameras suffer from.
The TG-850 offers users three full resolution drive modes and two "burst" modes that shoot only 3-megapixel images. While shooting at full resolution, the TG-850 tops out at 6fps for six images. If you flip over to burst mode—again only 3MP—you can hit numbers as high as 60fps for 60 images. The burst modes, with shots being only 3MP, are rather useless for anything other than the web. We recommend sticking to the full resolution for burst and getting the best you can out of the TG-850. If you need to shoot 30 or 60fps, use the Full HD video to capture it or step up to the TG-3.
In our video tests the quality we got from the TG-850 wasn't exactly knocking our socks off. But not many point and shoots in this price range offer you the ability to get 1080/60p video, and the TG-850 can do that underwater. The video quality isn't the best, however, with mediocre sharpness and very poor low light performance. It shot mostly clean footage that had little artifacting or trailing in bright light, but like the TG-3, video just wasn't sharp enough.
Head over to the science page for more on the TG-850's performance.
Color Accuracy & White Balance
In our color test we judge cameras based on two characteristics: color accuracy and saturation percentage. Color accuracy is judged by looking at how the camera renders 18 known color values, while saturation looks at how vividly those colors are rendered. Ideally, cameras will render colors accurately at 100% saturation, though some modes go well above 100% to provide punchier photos.
With the TG-850, the most accurate mode is Muted, but it was badly undersaturated. Normally, we give cameras quite a bit of leeway on this, but in this case saturation was low enough to actually earn a slight scoring penalty. The Vivid mode was actually less accurate, but scored higher as it has saturation levels closer to the ideal. Of course, Vivid on most cameras is over-saturated—giving images a nice pop of color—but here it was only 94.8% saturation, which is hardly "Vivid" at all.
This is a consistent problem we're seeing with Olympus point-and-shoots, dating back to the TG-2 last year and including this year's TG-3. Every color mode that we looked at had mediocre color accuracy made worse by very low saturation ratings. It's very puzzling, because most people buy cameras like this to take photos underwater and in adventurous locations—exactly the kinds of places where you want punchy, over-saturated photos.
At least on the white balance front the TG-850 performed a little better, if still slightly below par with its auto white balance. It struggled to get fluorescent (over 800 kelvins off) and tungsten (over 1700 kelvins off) light, but handled daylight—which most people will likely use this camera in—perfectly (only 90 kelvins off). The custom white balances all performed well with errors all under 230 kelvin. Daylight again turned in the best score with fluorescent and tungsten behind in that order.
Let's see those angles
While the TG-850 is certainly not as feature-rich as the TG-3—which has WiFi with an excellent smartphone app, macro LED adaptor, and even GPS—it does have a few tricks that the TG-3 doesn’t have.
The big feature that is unique to the TG-850 in the toughcam world is the 180 degree flip-forward LCD. It can move away from the body, letting you frame while looking down at the camera, and even face toward your subject for easy group shots and selfies. It's a huge advantage: Whenever you are shooting at angles you wouldn’t be able to see the rear of the camera from, just pop the screen up a bit and you’re in business. This also opens up the options for mounting the camera in places where you normally wouldn't, making up somewhat for the lack of WiFi and remote viewfinder options.
The next big thing the TG-850 offers over its sibling rival is a wider zoom range, with 21-105mm as opposed to the 25-100mm of the TG-3. That is 4% wider and 5% longer, giving it a 9% total range increase when compared to the TG-3. In addition to shooting wider, you can also shoot panoramic shots up to 360 degrees. The main disadvantage is the lens doesn't open quite as wide—f/3.7 compared to the TG-3's f/2.0—which explains why its low light performance suffers so much.
In terms of toughness the 850 is waterproof up to 10 meters, which is less than half of the Canon D30’s 25 meters. However, unless you’re scuba diving down the full 18 meters certified divers are allowed, 10 meters is more than deep enough for snapping photos while swimming or snorkeling. The 2.1 meter shockproof is standard for the majority of tough cameras, but it obviously only covers 2.1 meters when the screen is closed.
Olympus is known for its Art modes and the TG-850 was not overlooked on this front. It has 11 such modes ranging from fish eye to pin hole modes. It also has 18 different scene modes that allow you to adjust your shot to the area with great range. Last but not least is the interval shooting, which allows up to 99 frames taken with a 0-60 minute start timer and intervals ranging from 10 seconds to one hour—exactly what you need for time lapses.
Great for getting selfies in the wild
Olympus has been a leading the pack in underwater cameras recently with the TG-2 and now the new TG-3. We were hoping that some of the great performance and features from the flagship series would trickle down to the TG-850. While that isn't the case with WiFi and GPS functionality, the TG-850 has a flip forward screen that no current toughcam offers.
The TG-850 is a solid waterproof camera that is made unique by the 180 degree tilt screen. It performs decently, but not better than or with as many features as the TG-3, which is just $100 more. If you're looking for a fun point and shoot that can get wet and keep going worry free—especially for a family with children—then give the TG-850 the nod. However, if you're looking for a camera to take on a diving adventure or in low light, we recommend spending a bit more and getting the TG-3.
We will be pitting the top waterproof cameras of 2014 against each other to see who comes out on top. As it stands now, the TG-850 is outperforming more expensive cameras like the Canon D30 on multiple fronts, but falls just short of the Nikon AW120 and the TG-3. Both of those cameras take better quality images than the TG-850 while also offering GPS, mapping, WiFi, and having better action shooting chips.
Bottom line: the TG-850 is a nice value choice for anyone who doesn't want all the bells and whistles of the TG-3 but can live with inferior low light performance. We'll have a complete breakdown of all the 2014 waterproof cameras soon. Can Olympus retain its place at the top of the heap, or will a late challenger knock it off? Check back soon to find out!
Video in the TG-850 is... OK. It offers 1080/60p video in a rugged frame that you can shoot anywhere, right? Not so much. Though the camera can certainly take video just about anywhere, the lowlight sensitivity is abysmal. This means that your underwater videos will rarely turn out great, as the camera simply isn't built to capture images when light isn't plentiful.
It's something we've seen consistently both in and out of the lab: this camera just does not perform well in low light conditions for video or stills. For our video test, in particular, we shoot a bright white patch and see how much light a camera needs to produce an image that hits 50 IRE on a waveform monitor. Most DSLRs can do this with less than 10 lux of light, most point-and-shoots less than 20. The TG-850 needed a whole 31 lux of light just to get a usable video, and the quality suffers for it.
The video also isn't very sharp in even the brightest conditions, rendering just 375-400 line pairs per picture height vertically and horizontally in bright light. When you drop into lowlight, the horizontal score dips to 350 due to the increased artifacting, as well. Just a poor collection of results all around.
The TG-850 offers users two continuous shooting modes in full resolution and two "burst" modes that shoot only 3-megapixel images. The first full resolution mode is "Sequential 1", and hits 2.5fps with a capacity of 25 full resolution images. While shooting in "sequential 2", the TG-850 tops out at 6fps, but has only a capacity of only 6 images. That isn't breaking any speed records, but they are certainly useful when shooting fast-paced subjects.
There is also the option to shoot lower resolutions at a much faster rate via the "high-speed" modes. "High-speed 1" offers 20fps and "High-speed 2" fires off at a staggering 60fps. Both of these modes are limited to 60 shots before stopping to process the images. The utility of these two drive modes are situational at best, however, given that they only produce 3MP images.
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