You can drop it, freeze it, submerge it… You can even take pictures with it. We round up four of the best waterproof compact cameras currently available.
If you think your smartphone is good enough to capture the best bits of your summer holiday, think again. Not all of them feature a tough, rugged or waterproof design, and dropping them in the sand – or worse, the pool – could leave you with a costly repair or replacement bill when you get home.
So what’s the answer? Ruggedised compact cameras. Their robust designs and weather seals allow you to take them into a pool without giving it a second thought, and better still, they’re made to be virtually indestructible so you can hand them over to kids without worrying about damage.
In this round-up, we’ve pulled together four of the toughest compacts you can buy right now, from Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm and Olympus.
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Waterproof compact camera jargon explained
Sensor: Compared with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that feature large sensors, the tough compacts in this round up feature much smaller 1/2.3-inch sensors. This is the smallest sensor that’s commonly used in cameras today. For snapshots in good lighting conditions the results are perfectly acceptable, but they can start to show their weakness in low light and don’t offer much in the way of highlight/shadow recovery.
Wi-Fi: You’ll find Wi-Fi connectivity features on most but not all tough compacts. If you’d like to transfer images wirelessy to a mobile device before sharing them via social media or email look for one that’s Wi-Fi equipped. The manufacturers apps vary in their levels of sophistication. Some will allow you to take remote control of the camera and fire the shutter directly from the app.
Variable aperture: All the compacts in this round up have what are known as “variable aperture lenses” and you’ll often find this printed on the body or close to the lens. For example f/2.0-f/4.9 will be noted on the lens barrel as 1:2.0-4.9. In this instance the 2.0 and 4.9 figures refer to the maximum and minimum aperture the lens can achieve at either end of the zoom range.
Raw: You won’t find many tough compacts on the market that allow you to shoot in the raw format.The benefit of having raw format recording available is that it gives you greater leverage when it comes to returning detail, controlling noise and editing images on the computer. The only camera to offer raw format recording in this round up is the Olympus Tough TG-5.
USB Charging: These days we see more and more cameras support USB charging and it’s an excellent feature to have. The batteries tough compacts use can be quite small and thus the battery life can be rather short. To ensure you don’t run out of power, most manufacturers equip their models with USB charging so you can top up as you go using a power bank or car charger.
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FPS: This refers to the number of frames per second the camera can record in a continuous burst. Having a tough compact that shoots at a fast frame rate is important, particularly if you’d like to increase your chances of capturing a spur of the moment shot at the optimum time. A camera that shoots at 10fps or faster will give you the option to cherry pick your favourite images from a selection of shots taken over a short period of time.
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How we test waterproof compact cameras
Each of the tough compacts in this round-up were subjected to the same stringent tests. First, each camera was run through the lab. This reveals the level of detail the sensor resolves and offers a clear indication of its noise response at high sensitivity settings. We then carried out real-world testing, where the cameras were used outdoors as well as indoors to get a better idea of how reliable their exposure systems are. After this we conducted a series of tough tests. This involved testing each camera underwater in a swimming pool, dropping them from arm’s length onto a solid concrete floor and freezing them overnight in a block of ice.
Olympus Tough TG-5
1 of 4
- 12MP sensor
- 4x optical zoom (25-100mm equivalent), f/2-4.9
- ISO 100-12,800
- Waterproof to 15m
- RAW format recording
The Tough TG-5 is one of the newest releases in the tough compact market and picks up where the popular TG-4 left off. Its key selling point is that, unlike others in this round-up, it can shoot in the versatile RAW format.
Interestingly, the resolution has been reduced from 16MP to 12MP to accommodate larger photosites that should see it perform better at higher ISO settings. The 12-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor teams up with a TruePic VIII processor to provide a wide sensitivity range (ISO 100-12,800), while the 4x optical zoom is equivalent to 25-100mm and boasts a variable f/2-4.9 aperture. The lens employs anti-fog dual-pane glass to prevent the lens misting up and by positioning it centrally it can accommodate an extensive range of converters and accessories, including tele and fisheye conversion lenses, an LED macro light and a flash diffuser.
It’s built to survive a drop from 2.1m, is crushproof to a weight of 100kg, freezeproof down to -10°C and waterproof to a depth of 15m. To take it deeper (up to 45m), users will want to look at the PT-058 underwater housing (£279). To help capture fleeting moments as they happen, the TG-5 inherits the Pro Capture feature from Olympus’s OM-D series. It also provides the option of shooting a burst of up to 20fps. As well as offering Wi-Fi and GPS, it’s fitted out with a compass, manometer and temperature sensor for those who want more information than just the EXIF data. In addition to 4K-movie recording at 30p, there’s Full HD high-speed recording at up to 120fps.
The body is built around the same shell as the TG-4, but the grip protrudes a little further to improve the handling. You get a zoom lever that encircles the shutter button and a scroll wheel on the corner to take control of exposure compensation. Having a dedicated mode dial at the rear that can be controlled by your thumb is a good idea in principle, but be warned that it can get stiff if sand gets trapped behind it. Button placement is excellent and the central OK button loads a quick menu so you can adjust settings easily on the fly. The 3-inch, 460k-dot screen doesn’t trump the one you get on the Nikon AW120, but it clearly displays shooting settings around its perimeter. Elsewhere, you get a double lock on its battery door, it supports USB charging and is also available in a striking red colour, which would be our first choice.
It captured sharp and vibrant images, with 24 lines per picture height recorded by the TG-5’s sensor at ISO 100. The exposure system delivers good exposures in high-contrast scenes and detail is well preserved up to ISO 1600, but this is the limit to which we’d be willing to push the camera on a regular basis as fine detail gets heavily suppressed by noise beyond this point.
A real boon of the TG-5 is its fast autofocus response. It’s noticeably faster than its competition and makes it a breeze to get sharp underwater shots when you’d like to work quickly. The results it produces straight out of the camera are excellent, and the auto white balance does a commendable job of ensuring colour is vibrant when shooting underwater scenes. It burst into life one minute 55 seconds after being broken out of ice, and I was able to pre-focus and take an image 15 seconds later. Olympus claims the TG-5 can sustain a drop from 2.1m. I dropped it from this height and it switched on and worked perfectly afterwards, with no sign of damage.
The Olympus TG tough compacts have only got better with age. The TG-5 is a great all-round model and has put in a stellar image-quality and usability performance. There are areas for improvement – the resolution of its screen and operability of its mode dial being two examples – but these points aside, it delivers an outstanding spec and will happily continue shooting in the most inhospitable conditions. It’s the real standout model in this test.
At time of review the Olympus Tough TG-5 was available for £399.
Nikon Coolpix AW130
2 of 4
- 16MP sensor
- 5x optical zoom (24-120mm equivalent), f/2.8-4.9
- ISO 125-6400
- Waterproof to 30m
- Altimeter and depth gauge for diving
The Nikon AW130 is now a couple of years old, and although it has been recently superseded by the Nikon Coolpix W300, we’re no closer to seeing one of these in the flesh.
Available in black, red, yellow and blue, as well as a more unusual camouflage finish, the Nikon AW130 features a 16MP CMOS sensor and 5x optical zoom covering a 24-120mm equivalent range. Its f/2.8-4.9 variable aperture is faster than its Canon and Fujifilm rivals, and it is equipped with three buttons at the side to initiate a Wi-Fi connection, GPS signal or the camera’s tilt-to-change setting mode – which can be quite handy underwater or when you’re working with gloves in cold conditions.
Cold-resistant to -10°C, shockproof from 2m and usable at depths down to 30m underwater, it boasts an altimeter and depth gauge, and can shoot high-resolution images continuously at up to 7fps. The 3-inch, 921k-dot screen has the highest resolution of the four and displays a very crisp image. Lens shift VR and Electronic VR team up together to effectively compensate for camera shake, and when in auto mode, the sensitivity can be manually set between ISO 125-6400. The battery/SD card door at the side locks securely like the Fujifilm XP120’s and behind it you’ll find a USB port that facilitates charging on the go to ensure you’re never short of power.
The positioning of the lens off centre means your fingers are never in danger of encroaching on it too closely, and it has a pleasing feel in the hand, with a slightly raised and textured grip. There’s no shortage of buttons at the rear and the zoom is operated by your thumb as opposed to your index finger. The only issue is that the buttons are on the small side, so those with larger fingers will find it fiddly to use. The overall build and finish is of the high standard we’d expect from Nikon.
Detail resolved from the 1/2.3-inch sensor is good, with 24 lines per picture height being resolved at its base ISO 125 setting. Detail drops off slightly at ISO 400 and ISO 800 is the upper limit of the range we’d be prepared to push to before noise takes its toll on detail and sharpness.
Testing the camera below the surface of the water revealed it’s a little sluggish when acquiring focus and its auto white balance in underwater mode isn’t as impressive as the D30 or TG-5. There’s no quick menu to access commonly used settings either, so you’re reliant on using the main menu, which does slow you down. The camera fired into life out of the ice within 15 seconds, but we did need to wait almost four minutes for the shutter button and zoom lever to defrost fully. A heavy drop on to a concrete floor left the camera undamaged and it powered up instantly afterwards.
The AW130 does come equipped with some tempting features and delivers a high level of detail in its images at low ISO and boasts an excellent screen. It’s hamstrung, however, by its lack of manual aperture control, slow focusing and the option to shoot continuously at 7fps in its underwater mode. The fact it’s getting quite old now means you may also experience some difficultly sourcing one from new. When Nikon’s new W300 finally goes on sale it’s expected to hit online stores and shops for £389. It’ll be available in four colours – black, orange, camo and yellow.
At time of review the Nikon AW130 was available for £279.99.
Canon PowerShot D30
3 of 4
- 12.1MP sensor
- 5x optical zoom (28-140mm equivalent), f/3.9-4.8
- ISO 100-3200
- Waterproof to 25m
The Canon D30 is now three years old and is starting to show its age. It lets you shoot below the water to a depth of 25m, can withstand a drop from a height of 2m and is freezeproof to -10°C. Regrettably, though, it doesn’t let you shoot in RAW format like the Olympus Tough TG-5 does.
Behind the 5x optical zoom (28-140mm), with its variable aperture of f/3.9-4.8, lies a 12.1MP CMOS sensor that pairs up with a DIGIC 4 processor to deliver an ISO range of 100-3200. Its 1.9fps continuous burst is extremely slow by today’s standards and makes it more challenging to get that perfect shot underwater at the right time. It is equipped with GPS and an IS system to prevent blur caused by camera shake, but it lacks Wi-Fi and USB charging, and is susceptible to light scratching on the screen.
The D30 doesn’t offer a great deal in the form of a handgrip, either. You do get rubber grip at the front and rear to prevent it sliding out of your hands when they’re wet, but there are other tough cameras in this round-up that are more comfortable to hold over prolonged spells. The concise menu is quick to navigate and the centre Func Set button can be used to access frequently used settings in all of the shooting modes.
Unlike its rivals that come in a variety of colours and finishes, it’s only available in metallic blue.
At ISO 100, the D30 resolves 24 lines per picture height (l/ph), with fine detail being affected by noise beyond ISO 800. Users should avoid using ISO 1600 and 3200 for the best results. The evaluative metering mode delivers consistently good exposures and images are pleasingly rich in colour and contrast without being too saturated.
To keep our underwater tests fair and consistent, we set each camera to its underwater mode with the flash turned off. The camera exposed well underwater and the auto white balance produced the most neutral colour of the four cameras in this test. After freezing it overnight and breaking it out of a block of ice, it took 40 seconds before it powered up. Precisely a minute later, the shutter button had defrosted fully to allow shots to be taken. Our final test involved dropping it from arm’s length onto a solid concrete floor. The plastic surround around the lens took the brunt of the fall and did crack slightly, although this didn’t upset operation.
While there are things to like about the D30 – its large buttons, intuitive menu, active display and close focusing being a few examples – it lags behind the competition in the key areas where you would want a tough compact to excel, and I was surprised that it didn’t fare as well as others in our drop test. In short, it’s not terrible, but can’t compete with the Olympus TG-5.
At time of review the Canon PowerShot D30 was available for £229.
4 of 4
- 16.4MP sensor
- 5x optical zoom (28-140mm equivalent), f/3.9-4.9
- ISO 100-6400
- Waterproof to 20m
At the beginning of the year, Fujifilm updated its long-running XP line of tough compacts with the XP120, which succeeds the older XP90 model. Despite feeling a rather more plasticky than the other three cameras reviewed here, it’s waterproof to a depth of 20m, can withstand a drop from 1.75m and will continue to operate in temperatures as low as -10°C.
Behind its 5x optical zoom, which covers a range that’s equivalent to 28-140mm in 35mm terms, lies a 16.4-million-pixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor. This permits shooting across an ISO 100-6400 range. However, its ISO 6400 setting reduces the pixel count to 3264 x 2448 pixels. Like all of its rivals it provides +/-2EV exposure compensation and there’s a Wi-Fi button to link it to any mobile devices running Fujifilm’s Camera Remote app.
In addition to its rugged credentials, it has optical image stabilisation, can shoot continuously at 10fps for a maximum of 10 frames at full resolution, and supports face detection as well as Full HD (1920 x 1080) video. At the rear, you get a 3-inch, 920k-dot display that automatically adjusts to lighting conditions to maintain optimal visibility while preventing unnecessary battery drain, but annoyingly it doesn’t automatically rotate images in playback mode when the camera is tilted, in the way that the D30 and TG-5 do. The double-lock mechanism at the side prevents the battery compartment from being accidentally opened and below the SD card slot you’ll find there’s an interface that supports USB charging.
The camera offers little in terms of rubberised grip, meaning it does get rather slippery to hold when your hands get wet. The zoom buttons protrude, making them easy to operate with your thumb and the camera can be operated singlehandedly without too much difficulty. The menu looks somewhat dated compared to Fujifilm’s mirrorless cameras, but thankfully it’s painless to navigate, which is important, as there’s no quick menu. If yellow isn’t for you, there are three other colour options.
The sensor doesn’t resolve the same level of detail as its rivals and at its base ISO setting we recorded 20 lines per picture height on our resolution chart. Detail gets quickly lost to noise and you’ll want to use it under ISO 400 whenever possible. Our real-world outdoor testing also revealed that it has a tendency to underexpose when shooting in high-contrast conditions.
Although its 10fps burst-shooting capability is handy for rattling out a series of shots in quick succession underwater, its auto white balance isn’t the most neutral. Images taken in its underwater mode have a cool feel and its autofocus didn’t lock on to our colour chart as instantaneously as the TG-5. After being smashed out of the ice, it powered up after 2 minutes 40 seconds. The shutter button was frozen solid but after three minutes 11 seconds it became fully operational again. The drop test left a mark on the corner of the body where it took the brunt of the impact. However, it continued to work without any issues afterwards.
The XP20 is the cheapest model in this round-up, but also the worst performer. While it’s a quite pleasing camera to use and looks the part, with its appealing design and intuitive button layout, it’s fundamentally let down by its image quality and underwater performance. Don’t go expecting the same impressive results or the level of build quality you’ll get from spending more on the alternatives.
At time of review the Fujifilm XP120 was available for £199.