Olympus Tough TG-1 Review
The TG-1 can shoot where the sun don't shine.
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More than a dozen waterproof cameras have hit the market within the last year, and all of them are superior to the ones that came before. But even with all the improvements, these cameras are really only suitable for shooting outdoors, and that's very limiting.
That's why the Olympus Tough TG-1 arrives with some buzz behind it. It's just as durable as the hardiest adventure-ready cameras, but it's also armed with the brightest lens we've seen in the class. The hope is that it'll be the first tough-cam with serious photographic chops—outdoors or indoors. It isn't perfect, but it's versatile, so folks in the market for an adventure-ready shooter should take a look. The TG-1 is available now in gray/silver for an MSRP of $399.
Design & Usability
Solid handling and automatic control for when you're hiking, biking, or diving
The TG-1 is easier to handle than it looks. It's comfortable and well-balanced. Like most tough-cams, it's almost fully automatic—no manual focus, no priority or manual exposure modes. While you're busy snorkeling, hiking, climbing, and biking, this camera takes care of the technical stuff. The reliable iAuto mode controls just about every setting, though it allows a bit of control over less-important odds and ends.
The relatively abbreviated menu system is tabbed and prompt. With a little practice, the system is pretty easy to navigate. Our only complaint is that the quick menu is a bit tedious, with eight settings to sift through. The button layout is pretty typical of a tough-cam, though a bit cramped. We like the mode dial on the back, allowing easy shifts between common shooting modes. The TG-1 is a speedy shooter, with noticeably snappy autofocus and quick burst shooting—optimal handling perks for an adventure camera to be sure. We did experience a glitch though. Occasionally the TG-1 would crash at inconvenient times. Removing and replacing the battery seemed to fix the problem when this happened, but obviously if you're underwater that's just not an option. We hope this was just an isolated incident—be sure to comment if you've experienced similar problems.
The Olympus Tough TG-1 has a long list of features.
To begin with, the f/2.0 maximum aperture is why most people will buy the TG-1. This is the brightest lens we've seen on a tough-cam, and has the potential to improve indoor and low-light shooting. It's pretty wide too, starting at starting at 4.5mm (25mm equivalent) and topping out at 18mm (100mm equivalent). Then, there's the 3-inch, 610,000-pixel OLED display. It's brighter, crisper, and more energy-efficient than even the best tough-cam LCDs, making it easier to see in bright sunlight or underwater. Yes, underwater—it's waterproof to 40 feet (the deepest that any current model can dive), it's shockproof to 6.6 feet (the farthest that any camera can fall), it's freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (bunny slopes, anyone?), it's crushproof under 220 pounds of pressure (most rugged cameras don't even advertise crushproofing), and it's dustproof too.
Of course, there are caveats: Olympus warns that the TG-1 can stay submerged only for one hour. If used in saltwater, rinse in fresh water. The manual cautions, "the waterproof feature may be compromised if the camera is subject to substantial or excessive impact." Apparently, confidence in shockproofing only extends so far. Finally, Olympus suggests rubber seals be replaced once a year to maintain waterproofing.
The list of features is long. Video resolution reaches 1080/30p and, since Olympus happens to be a leading manufacturer of voice recorders, features very nice audio. Autofocus is quick and accurate in video mode too, which is unusual for compacts. There is little manual control on the TG-1 outside of exposure compensation (+/- 2 EV in steps of 1/3 EV), ISO sensitivity, and metering modes. Scene modes are typical but the set of 12 in-camera filters and effects, ranging from Reflection to Pop Art, is one of the highest-quality collections we've seen on a point-and-shoot. A panorama-stitching system allows you three shots to combine into a landscape composite, a burst mode allows up to 15 shots per second, and if you're into the whole 3D gimmick, there's a mode for that too. We just wish there were color options on this thing. Rounding out the offerings are an in-camera GPS with geo-tagging, a removable ring for add-on converter lenses (to be released later this year), a peak ISO of 6400, and a great tap-control capability. Fumbling with buttons can be difficult underwater, and this Olympus allows you to control the menus by tapping the top, bottom, and side of the camera. Pretty cool.
On a mountain, under the sea, or in your dining room
Thanks to a nice sensor and a bright lens, this Olympus delivers crisp, clean images in most shooting situations. Tough-cams have always been great for outdoor photography, but the TG-1 is the first one we've seen that can actually serve as an all-around snapshooter. The bright lens is definitely the linchpin, allowing for steady, clear shots in dimmer lighting. All in all, next to other tough cams, the Olympus TG-1 is a champion in low light. The f/2.0 maximum aperture allows for quick shutter speeds, so you get fewer blurry pictures. To be clear, don't expect studio-quality low-light results. Just know that by tough-cam standards, this TG-1 is top-notch in terms of light versatility.
Unfortunately, we occasionally ran into some frustrating focus-hunting problems in Macro and Super Macro modes, but nothing too far out of the ordinary. The biggest flaw is that color is flat by default, with very little user control to punch it up. That's problematic for underwater shooting in particular, where colors are already particularly dull. On the other hand, image sharpness is very strong—even at the wide-angle setting. As usual, there's some artificial edge enhancement at work too, which boosts the sharpness scores. It's most noticeable at the wide-angle, but in general it's applied judiciously. The 12-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor seems to produce clean images to start with, and the noise reduction algorithm is clever, smoothing out graininess without ripping away much detail. ISO 800 looks pretty clear even at full-size, and we'd be confident making relatively large prints with ISO 1600 shots. ISO 3200 is suitable for sharing shots online, though with an f/2 lens, you shouldn't have to crank the sensitivity up that high in the first place. ISO 6400 is too sloppy to use, and best ignored.
Right here, right now, the TG-1 leads the tough-cam pack.
Tough-cams have come a long way over the past few years, but they've been best used as specialty cameras for the outdoors. Days at the beach, adventures on a mountain, a weekend at the slopes—whatever, as long as it was outside, in bright light. The Olympus Tough TG-1 is a big deal because it's the first tough-cam that really tries to tackle low light situations with its fast f/2 maximum aperture. Image quality is great, with clean, crisp results through ISO 1600. The sensitivity can go as high as ISO 6400, but it probably won't need to, since the bright lens makes it easy to get stable indoor and low-light shots. The 3-inch OLED display is the best screen we've seen on a tough-cam, easier to see in difficult lighting than most, and energy efficient too.
The big flaw is color. Outdoor and underwater cameras should err on the side of oversaturation, but the TG-1 consistently undersaturates photos. Even well-lit outdoor shots look muted, and they'll be particularly flat underwater. Unfortunately, there's absolutely no user control over color—no additional color modes, no fine adjustments whatsoever, so there's no improving things manually either. Glitchy behavior posed a problem too. The TG-1 crashed on us pretty frequently one afternoon. It was easy to get the camera going again, and it may have been an isolated incident, but feel free to comment if you've run into similar issues.
All things considered, we think that the TG-1 is the best tough-cam for all-around usage right now. Anyone shopping for a rugged, waterproof, or otherwise durable camera should give it serious consideration. It isn't quite the ultimate rugged shooter—there are cheaper cameras that provide punchier outdoor photos, like the Canon D20 or Panasonic TS4. So if you want something exclusively for adventuring, those might be better options. But we can confidently recommend the TG-1 as an excellent all-purpose snapshooter.
Check out our 7-camera waterproof shootout to see how the year's best tough-cams compare to each other.
The TG-1 turned out to be an excellent all-purpose snapshooter. Where other tough-cams really struggle, this one came ready. It handled noise very well at most every ISO and sharpness was excellent overall too. The area where this camera struggled the most was color. Since much of this camera's job involves performing in varied settings, like underwater environments where color is already flat and dull, it should allow for certain color adjustments, but the TG-1 offers no such modifications. Worse, it tends to under-saturates images.
No manual options exist to allow for modifications to color, and the camera isn't doing a great job on its own.
The Olympus TG-1 reproduces fairly accurate colors. We measured a minimum color error of 3.14 (under 3.5 is good, under 3.0 is very good), with 93.78% saturation (anything between 90 and 110% is acceptable). Reds and blues are close to their ideal hues, but yellows and greens are noticeably flat.
So the scores are fine (if a bit below average), but the real-world implications are problematic. For a camera designed to survive in challenging outdoor conditions, it doesn't shoot them particularly well. Under-saturation is the main problem; outdoor scenes look better when colors are punchy. Colors naturally look flat underwater, so a good underwater camera should boost the saturation and compensate for the odd color temperatures.
The TG-1 comes up a bit short in all of those respects, and with almost no user control over the color profile (there's only the one default color mode, with no additional profiles or fine controls), it's stuck with slightly dull shades.
This Olympus can handle noise skillfully, even at higher ISOs.
The Olympus TG-1 handles noise very well. The 12-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor seems to produce clean images to start with, and the noise reduction algorithm is clever, smoothing out graininess without ripping away much detail. The noise-to-signal ratio stays under 1% through ISO 400, and stays at a reasonable 1.6% at ISO 1600.
In real-world terms, ISO 800 looks pretty clear even at full-size, and we'd be confident making relatively large prints with ISO 1600 shots. ISO 3200 is suitable for sharing shots online, though with an f/2 lens, you shouldn't have to crank the sensitivity up that high in the first place. ISO 6400 is too sloppy to use, and best ignored.
Sharpness & Low Light
The TG-1 is quick to focus and delivers sharp pictures.
Image sharpness is generally strong on the Olympus TG-1. The center of the frame is consistently the sharpest at all focal lengths, no surprise. We measured as many as 2400 LW/PH at MTF50 at the wide-angle setting. Edge sharpness is still respectable, averaging about 1500 LW/PH across the focal range. The softest areas are midway between the center and edge, dropping to about an average of 1050 LW/PH. That's still a pretty good result for a compact with an all-internal lens. As with any point-and-shoot, there's some artificial edge enhancement at work, but it seems to be used rather effectively here. In fact, the TG-1 is arguably the sharpest tough-cam right now. It beat all of its competitors in our lab tests aside from the Nikon AW100, but the Nikon has the most egregious artificial edge enhancement we've seen. The TG-1 preserves overall detail much more clearly than the AW100.
The Olympus TG-1 is a champion in low light, at least compared to other tough-cams. The f/2.0 maximum aperture is the linchpin, allowing for quicker shutter speeds than most tough-cams can muster, and in turn, fewer blurry pictures. Shots are clean enough for most sharing and printing through ISO 1600 and the autofocus system is usually quick and accurate, even in dimmer settings. To be clear, don't expect studio-quality low-light results, but it's quite good by point-and-shoot standards, it's better-equipped for the job than any other tough-cam.
Autofocus is quick and accurate. Olympus claims that they've incorporated the AF system from their PEN series of interchangeable-lens compacts; there's probably some truth to that, but whatever, it's a marketing tactic. In any case, it's right up there with the best point-and-shoots. We occasionally ran into some frustrating focus-hunting problems in Macro and Super Macro modes, but nothing too far out of the ordinary. What struck us the most was the impressive AF speed and accuracy in video mode—a challenge for just about every point-and-shoot we've ever seen.
Thanks to its backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, the TG-1 offers quick performance, especially in terms of burst shooting. Aside from single shot mode, there's one full-res drive mode and two reduced-res drive modes. The full-res setting is advertised for 5fps, while the reduced-res settings shoot dozens of frames per second. True to its word, we clocked the TG-1 a just a hair faster than 5 full-res frames per second. Some cameras hit 10fps or more for one second or less, but the TG-1 can shoot about 12-15 shots (with a class 10 card) before slowing down. The sustained shooting is impressive.
Chromatic aberration is typically a problem with tough-cams. We've seen a few models this year with chronic, obvious color fringing across the board. But the Olympus TG-1 handles chromatic aberration like a pro. In our lab tests, the TG-1 earned the highest chromatic aberration score of all tough-cams this year, beating most regular point-and-shoots, too. Color fringing only starts to appear at the edges of the frame at the wide-angle setting. Otherwise, it's all clear.
Distortion is not a problem on the TG-1. At the wide angle, we measured 0.45% pincushion distortion (which is odd—we expect to see barrel distortion at that end of the lens), but it's barely perceivable. At the middle and telephoto settings, it's even less noticeable. The TG-1 earned the highest score that we award for distortion performance, like about 75% of the cameras that we test these days.