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Waterproof Shootout 2012: Intro, Features and Operation

Six waterproof digital cameras compared

by Daniel Grotta with Shawn Barnett
Photos by Daniel Grotta and Shawn Barnett
Posted: October 12, 2012

One of my all-time favorite film cameras was the Nikonos V. Originally designed for underwater photography, the Nikonos also doubled as my go-to rugged, shockproof, waterproof camera for photography in extreme environments. Until I recently sold it on ebay for a pittance, the Nikonos V was my trusty, never-fail camera that always got the shot, in snow showers, dust storms and even monsoons. No matter how muddy or wet or dusty the Nikonos became, all I had to do was dunk it into a bucket of water and wipe it down with a towel to clean it up. And despite its accumulated assortment of dents, scratches and dings, it took a lickin' and kept on tickin'.

There might not be any modern digital equivalent to my beloved Nikonos, but camera manufacturers today still recognize the demand for all-weather cameras for active enthusiasts who love to shoot and play hard. For Imaging Resource’s Waterproof Shootout, we tested and reviewed a half-dozen of the most popular waterproof compact digital cameras on the market -- models you can take anywhere without worrying if they get wet or banged around. Our contenders (in alphabetical order) are the Canon PowerShot D20, Nikon Coolpix AW100, Olympus Tough TG-1, Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4, Pentax WG2 and Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX20.

Just how rugged and element-defying are these cameras? All but one can be submerged down to at least 33 feet (the Sony's maximum depth is 15 feet), and they all are rated for drops from at least five feet without incurring damage. They're also dustproof and freezeproof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit. The cameras we chose also share a lot of the same features and photographic limitations, such as zoom lenses that are recessed inside the body and protected by waterproof optical glass plates, but only have a 4X or 5X maximum zoom range. They are all capable of capturing Full HD video, but shoot stills in strictly JPEG format (no RAW files here).

As they say, the devil is in the details, and we found that each of our six waterproof cameras we tested side-by-side has its strong suits, weaknesses and quirks. Which ones performed the best? Read on to find out which models held fast, and which ones sunk:

Waterproof Contenders

Canon D20

  12.1 megapixels
  5x zoom, 28-140mm
  3-inch, 460K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 100-3200
  Full HD video (1080p @24fps)
  Intelligent IS Image Stabilizer
  Built-in GPS
  Waterproof to 33 feet
  Shockproof up to 5 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$290 ($350 MSRP)

See our Canon D20 review for details and more sample photos.

Nikon AW100

  16.1 megapixels
  5x zoom, 28-140mm
  3-inch, 460K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 125-3200
  Full HD video (1080p @30fps)
  VR Image Stabilization
  Built-in GPS
  Waterproof to 33 feet
  Shockproof up to 5 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$280 ($350 MSRP)

See our Nikon AW100 review for details and more sample photos.

Olympus TG-1

  12.0 megapixels
  4x zoom 25-100mm
  3-inch, 610K-dot OLED
  ISO Auto, 100-6400
  Full HD video (1080p @30fps)
  iHS Dual Image Stabilization
  Built-in GPS
  Waterproof to 40 feet
  Shockproof up to 6.6 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof to 220 LBF
  Price: ~$370 ($400 MSRP)

See our Olympus TG-1 review for details and more sample photos.

Panasonic TS4

  12.1 megapixels
  4.6x zoom 28-128mm
  2.7-inch, 230K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 100-1600
  Full HD video (1080i @60fps)
  Power O.I.S. Image Stabilization
  Built-in GPS
  Waterproof to 40 feet
  Shockproof up to 6.6 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$300 ($400 MSRP)

See our Panasonic TS4 review for details and more sample photos.

Pentax WG2

  16.0 megapixels
  5x zoom 28-140mm
  3-inch, 460K-dot LCD
  ISO Auto, 125-6400
  Full HD video (1080p @30fps)
  Pixel Track Shake Reduction
  GPS-equipped version at extra cost
  Waterproof to 40 feet
  Shockproof up to 5 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof to 220 LBF
  Price: ~$240 ($350 MSRP)

See our Pentax WG2 review for details and more sample photos.

Sony TX20

  16.2 megapixels
  4x zoom 25-100mm
  3-inch, 921K-dot touch panel LCD
  ISO Auto, 125-3200
  Full HD video (1080i @60fps)
  Optical SteadyShot Image Stabilizer
  No GPS
  Waterproof to 16 feet
  Shockproof up to 5 feet
  Freezeproof to 14F
  Crushproof N/A
  Price: ~$290 ($330 MSRP)

See our Sony TX20 review for details and more sample photos.


Design

Each manufacturer has put more into the appearance of its waterproof camera, with a clear aim to make each stand out from ordinary non-waterproof cameras. Whether distinguished by bold colors, polished metal, aggressive contours, or jagged edges, each design looks the part: a superhero designed to weather the elements. They each take a different approach to that end, but even the most refined model, the Sony TX20, fits that James Bond mystique with its sliding cover and tough, handsome anodized aluminum exterior. As a result, people who handled each enjoyed the experience, and felt special.

Canon D20

Canon's PowerShot D20 is neat-looking, curvy, rounded and asymmetrical. Because of its control arrangement, especially the sloping telephoto and zoom buttons, we found the Canon D20 a comfortable camera to hold and shoot two-handed, but a bit more difficult one-handed. Oddly, the Playback button is on top, next to the shutter button, which makes it hard to find. The other buttons on the back are large, nicely placed and labeled, and because they're made of no-slip material, easy to press underwater. Of course, the Canon D20's battery/memory card and port doors are waterproof, but there's no safety lock to keep you from accidently opening them underwater. A bayonet mount on the right side of the camera mounts a unique hand-strap; this, unfortunately, prevents the Canon D20 from standing upright on a flat surface.

Nikon AW100

Except for the large circular lock securing the flap on the right of the camera, there's nothing about the conventional-looking Nikon Coolpix AW100's design or build that reveals its underwater capabilities. Like the other cameras in our roundup, the Nikon AW100's lens lies roughly flat against the body, and the zoom is internal, not external, so it doesn't expand outward in telephoto mode. The Nikon AW100's large, round no-slip shutter button is perfect for underwater shooting. There's no ridge or grip on the front, but the square thumb rest on the back assists in holding the camera while navigating about the controls. Besides the usual complement of buttons on the back, Nikon placed a large oval button on the left side that can be set up to either display the GPS map or trigger a selected command simply by shaking the camera.

Olympus TG1

The Olympus Tough TG-1 is a solidly built camera that screams quality and substance. We especially liked its camera-hugging vertical no-slip grip on the front, as well as its large metal post for attaching a wide hand strap. There's a bayonet mount around the lens, for attaching filters or auxiliary lenses, but the Olympus TG1 looks naked unless you slip on the provided decorative lens bezel. The controls are clustered closely together, and easy to access. It's the only camera we tested that comes with a mode dial, though you'll have to dip into the menus to set most modes. The waterproof flaps on the side and bottom feature fail-safe locks, to prevent accidental opening. Alas, there's no separate battery charger included, so you must plug the Olympus TG1 into an AC adapter to juice up the battery unless you buy the optional UC-90 charger (US$60).

Panasonic TS4

Except for its curved handgrip and a few other minor cosmetic differences, Panasonic's all-metal Lumix DMC-TS4 bears an uncanny resemblance to the metal-and-plastic AW100. Despite its handgrip, we found the Panasonic TS4 harder to hold and handle one-handed. Its control buttons are round metal buttons, not plastic like the Nikon, and they're spaced farther apart. That configuration provides better tactility, but because they're shiny, you can't easily see the engraved identifying abbreviations or icons on the buttons in bright sunlight, nor easily in darkness. For safety's sake, the single waterproof flap on the side of the Panasonic TS4 is protected by a double lock.

Pentax WG2

Pentax threw away the traditional point-and-shoot look with the Pentax WG2 and created a striking-looking, from-the-ground-up camera that screams adventure. It's longer and bristles with odd indents and overlapping plastic ridges, and its centered zoom lens is surrounded by six white LEDs (for even illumination for macro shots and videos). On one side of the Pentax WG2 is an oversized nickel post, allowing the provided carabiner strap to hang sideways from a belt. The side and bottom doors on the Pentax WG2 both have double safety locks.

Sony TX20

Sony's metal and plastic Cyber-shot DSC-TX20's body is way cool, with the look and feel of a fine precision instrument. Except for a handful of buttons — shutter, power, movie, and playback, as well as the tiny zoom lens lever on the camera's edge — everything else is controlled via a high-res touchscreen. We found that a mixed blessing, because, although the function, modes and control icons are highly visible and easy to understand on the Sony TX20, they're also very small and can be hard to zero in on with your finger. Worse yet, in bright light, we could barely see the subject on the screen, much less the controls. The sliding metal door on the Sony TX20's front is a neat design that turns the power on while exposing the lens, flash, illumination lamp and stereo microphones. The side and bottom flaps open with the flick of a fingernail — sorry, no locks provided. Like the Olympus, you must plug the Sony TX20 into the provided AC adapter to charge the battery, though there is an optional dedicated battery charger available for around US$50.


Features, Functions and Modes

Comparing what a camera has to offer users involves more than simply adding up a manufacturer's laundry list of features and deciding, by the numbers, which device provides the most bang for your buck. We dove into each camera's capabilities, looking for especially noteworthy ones, as well as those not up to snuff.

Canon D20

Among the Canon D20's traditional array of features and functions, we liked the way Fisheye warps the image, and how soft focus changed boring shots into ethereal portraits. Other notable effects include a smart self-timer mode that automatically snaps when you smile or wink, plus the ability to tweak colors (vivid, neutral, sepia, black & white, positive film, lighter skin tone, darker skin tone) or even substitute one color (vivid blue, vivid green, vivid red) for another. The Canon D20 is the only device in our roundup without an in-camera panorama mode. Instead, it has what is called Stitch Assist, which requires using Canon's software and external editing on a PC or laptop to create a panorama. Another function that isn't quite up to speed with the other cameras is video. It can record Full HD 1080p video, but only at 24fps.

Nikon AW100

Nikon offers an attractive, consumer-appealing mix of functions and modes in the Nikon AW100. This easy-to-use camera generally requires only pushing a couple of buttons to change modes or settings. The Scene button displays a few of the modes on the left of the camera (including Easy, Auto, Smart Portrait and Soft focus), as well as 19 other scene modes. The Nikon AW100's Menu button lets you select the options available for that particular mode. Depending upon how you configure it in Setup, pressing the Action button on the camera's left side either activates Action Control or displays a GPS map. Shaking the camera in Action Mode automatically boosts the ISO and increases shutter speed. Besides geotagging and a route log, the Nikon AW100's GPS can display real-time maps on its LCD viewfinder, as well as popular locations, landmarks and tourist sites.

Olympus TG1

What impressed us most about the Olympus TG1 is its f/2.0 lens, fastest of any camera in this shootout. This enabled us to shoot sharper, better exposed available light candids, and gave us the ability to limit depth of field, for more natural-looking portraits. Olympus bundles a wide array of features, modes, and special effects into the Olympus TG1. It comes with a manometer (pressure gauge for depth/altitude) and warns when you're diving towards its maximum-rated depth of 40 feet. It also has a built-in GPS and an electronic compass. From the get go, the Olympus TG1 was designed to be a system and not just a stand-alone camera. Once you remove the external bezel from around the lens, you can attach an adapter to mount Olympus' teleconvertor or fisheye lens in front of the Olympus TG1's main lens. And if you are a serious scuba diver, you can enclose the camera in an Olympus PT-053 underwater housing (US$310). While it costs almost as much as the Olympus TG1 itself, this combination allows you to dive as deep as 45m (147 feet).

Panasonic TS4

Besides an array of standard functions and modes, the Panasonic TS4 offers time-lapse photography and a Handheld Night Shot mode that combines multiple shots to help create sharp, well-exposed low light images. It also can capture Full HD video at 60i, for smoother, better-looking motion than some of its competitors. The Panasonic TS4 also records stereo using Dolby Digital Creator, for crisper, more realistic audio. In addition to its GPS, the camera comes equipped with an Altimeter, Barometer and Compass. The Lumix TS4 is also the only camera in this group to offer a Manual exposure mode, though only two aperture settings are available at a given focal length. While Panasonic's color modes are somewhat limited (Standard, Black & White, and Sepia), compared to others, its Vivid and Happy palates boost image saturation, for eye-popping color intensity and contrast. Like the Olympus, Panasonic sells a waterproof housing that works down to 4 atmospheres (135 feet), although (again) it costs almost as much as the Panasonic TS4 itself.

Pentax WG2

The Pentax WG2 is a mixed bag. It offers a good array of well-implemented standard features and modes, as well as a few neat tricks, such as bracketing, time lapse photography, and Extended (High) Dynamic Range. A version that adds built-in GPS is also available for about $50 more. But Pentax's killer app mode is Digital Microscope, which employs 6 built-in LEDs surrounding the lens to evenly illuminate and capture extreme close ups of small flat items, such as leaves, stamps, shell surfaces, etc. On the other hand, there are a couple silly modes on the Pentax WG2, such as Frame Composite, a library of frames to decorate the borders of your pictures. It's also the only camera in our lineup without optical or sensor-shift image stabilization meaning you might have trouble getting sharp, steady shots at telephoto and in low light. The Pentax WG2's controls aren't as well-thought-out as the rest of the camera. The Menu button is positioned too closely above the Discard button, and its identifying label in between the two caused us often to press the wrong button.

Sony TX20

Sony has long been a master of miniaturization (think Walkman), and the Sony TX20 fittingly packs much technology into a very slim and trim camera. We found it remarkable to go from zero to 100, so to speak, by simply flipping open the cover, flicking the zoom lever in the upper right corner, and pressing the shutter button. While it lacks GPS capability, the Sony TX20 has most of the modes offered by its waterproof competitors, and includes some neat settings, such as High Sensitivity, Anti-Motion blur, Handheld Twilight, Backlight Correction HDR, Intelligent Sweep Panorama and Hi-speed Shutter. It also captures Full HD video at 60i. Unfortunately, the Sony TX20 does not feature a histogram display.

 

Display and Menus

Just as important as a camera's features is how quickly and easily they may be accessed and activated. What we look for includes: How conveniently and logically placed are the controls and menus? Can you learn to operate them without cracking the user's manual? Are the screens and icons legible and comprehensible? How well can you see the LCD (or OLED) viewfinder? If it's a touchscreen, how sensitive and responsive is it?

One across-the-board finding we made during our reviews: None of the displays is very visible underwater. We'd much prefer these cameras came equipped with some sort of eye-level or frame finder rather than merely the screen alone.

Canon D20

The Canon D20's 460K viewfinder is quick and responsive, exhibiting minimal motion blur. It's also bright and contrasty. Colors are good, though slightly saturated, and although lacking an anti-reflective surface, the LCD is viewable in bright sunlight. Of the two competing cameras with manual focus (the other being the Pentax WG2), the Canon D20's is more precise and easier to use. Menus and settings are legible, navigation simple and intuitive. As you scroll to choose a particular function or setting, a brief description of what it does is displayed on the bottom of the Canon D20's screen.

Nikon AW100

The Nikon AW100's 460K viewfinder is quite viewable and legible, even in bright sunlight. It displays a decent dynamic range, with slight blowout in the highlights, and colors are noticeably saturated, with flesh tones showing a slight red bias. We also experienced some blur while quickly panning the Nikon AW100. The menus are limited but legible, with each function or mode nicely identified (but not explained). The side button either displays a GPS map, or activates a preselected function (boosting ISO, increasing shutter speed, etc.) when you shake the camera. This shake-it command is probably more fun than useful. The Nikon AW100 was only one of two cameras we tested that did not have a histogram function.

Olympus TG1

At 610K, with a glare-resistant coating, and boasting a state-of-the-art OLED, the Olympus TG1's viewfinder is bright and detailed. Displayed text is sharp, well formed and highly legible. In some ways, it was overly bright, slightly clipping the highlights and washing out midtones when viewing photos. What's more, the Olympus TG1's colors are unrealistic and oversaturated. Navigating through settings and modes, the sub-menus automatically roll out for easy selection. Good tactile feedback leaves no doubt what's selected. And like pro cameras, you can even program and save two sets of configurations with the Olympus TG1.

Panasonic TS4

The Panasonic TS4's smallish (2.7-inch), low res (230K) viewfinder allows users to automatically adjust brightness to surrounding ambient lighting, or boost brightness for indoor shooting. Both display settings produce somewhat washed-out colors and blown highlights, though shadow detail is acceptable. The viewfinder's refresh rate is slow and prone to minor blurring. The Panasonic TS4's screen is barely usable in bright sunlight. As if to offset its size, this viewfinder can display more on-screen data than any of the other waterproof cameras we tested. You can choose among six different settings, from a clear screen to detailed GPS, altimeter info to a grid with real-time histogram. The Panasonic TS4's menus are simple, if somewhat limited, but easy to navigate.

Pentax WG2

The Pentax WG2's stretch 460K LCD viewfinder nicely displays accurate, realistic colors, with good highlights and shadows -- even in bright sunlight. Screen refresh isn't particularly fast, however. We had some trouble framing images underwater, particularly videos. Menus are clear, logically organized, easy to read and navigate, plus icons are very colorful and fun to look at. And for those of us with older eyes, we can opt for large type on the Pentax WG2's displays. Instead of a dedicated video button, there's a programmable button that can be used for that purpose or other functions. It's inconveniently positioned just below the Pentax WG2's Menu button, and because of confusing labeling, we often pressed the wrong button.

Sony TX20

Sporting 921K dots, the Sony TX20's 3-inch screen displays far greater resolution than any of the other cameras in our lineup. It's very sharp and bright, and able to display great detail. However, colors are inaccurate, oversaturated and contrasty, with loss of detail throughout the dynamic range. Alas, the Sony TX20's screen is virtually unviewable in bright sunlight. Except for the zoom lever, power, playback and dedicated movie buttons, all other commands are touchscreen-controlled. While text and icons are legible, they're quite small by default (however, Easy Mode enlarges them), so it can be difficult zeroing in on a specific icon. And it's impossible to read in bright sunlight. However, we particularly liked the Sony TX20's In-Camera Guide, a series of abbreviated how-tos and helpful explanations.

 


Handling and Operation

We wanted to emulate how most point-and-shoot users take photographs, so for the most part we set each camera to Auto at default settings, and let the camera's smarts set exposure, ISO, flash and color balance.

Canon D20

Although it can be shot one-handed, the Canon D20 feels and works better when your left thumb is nestled along the camera's strange-looking left side, with the right thumb sliding between the sloping wide angle and telephoto buttons. Among the six contenders, the Canon D20 is big; and bigger than most PowerShots on the market. According to our lab tests, the Canon D20's power-up, shutter lag, and recycle times are average or slower, but we found them fast enough that we didn't miss a shot. However, the burst mode is somewhat disappointing — only 1.9fps, but at least there doesn't seem to be a buffer limit. Meanwhile, Mode selection is somewhat deceptive. After pressing the Mode button, only a half-dozen modes (Auto, Program, Underwater, etc.) are displayed. You have to scroll down five positions before activating the foldout menu with 16 additional modes. On the other hand, pressing the Canon D20's Func/Set button brings up the easy-to-set, context-sensitive Function menu.

Nikon AW100

Shooting the Nikon AW100 bounces from a satisfyingly simple experience to tedious frustration. It handles nicely, with a quick bootup and minimal shutter lag. However, we had only two options about what info would be displayed on the screen. There's no Program mode per se, but Auto allowed us to set ISO, focus mode, white balance, etc. We also could select Easy Auto, Smart Portrait, a few special effects (soft, sepia, monochrome, high contrast) and 19 scene modes. Because Nikon placed its GPS/programmable button quite out of the way, on the left side of the Nikon AW100, we virtually forgot it was there, and therefore tended not to use it. We especially liked the Nikon AW100's burst mode of better than 7fps (though the buffer is only 3 frames), the ease of making panoramas, and how crisp and contrasty its Black & White function captures documents.

Olympus TG-1

Despite being stiff and requiring a little thumb power to turn, the Olympus TG-1's Mode dial simplifies the task of easy access to a wide array of options and settings. Each Mode automatically displays both sub-menus and a concise, helpful explanation of what that mode is and does. Program Mode allowed us to customize some settings, such as ISO and white balance, but we didn't have any control over f-stops or shutter speeds. The screen has a fast refresh rate and no discernible ghosting. Most of the Olympus TG1's buttons are conveniently placed and give good tactile feedback, though shooting one-handed is possible only if you don't need to access the 4-way or Menu buttons. It also permitted us to program and save two customized settings. The Olympus TG1 boots up rapidly, has quick and accurate focus, as well as a decent recycle time. Its burst mode of 5fps isn't shoddy either. We also liked that its zoom speed is slower and more precise than the other waterproof cameras. Our only real quibble: the metal shutter button should be covered with no-slip plastic.

Panasonic TS4

With buttons spread far apart, and an all-metal body that can be slippery, we had to do most of our shooting with the Panasonic TS4 two-handed. And with two round buttons instead of a rocker switch, zooming back and forth required lifting the thumb each time. We liked the zoom scale, which displayed both distance and zoom level, clearly marking optical from digital zoom. However, the Panasonic TS4's LCD viewfinder has a slow refresh rate and some blurring, and while it can display more information than most compacts we've ever tested, it's difficult to see your photo subject when so much stuff is superimposed onscreen. That's why we toggled the Display button to display a clear, unencumbered screen. You access Scenes either by pressing the Menu or Mode button, and as you roll over each Scene option, information about what it is and does scrolls below. Only, the background is white, so it's difficult to see in bright light. Although the Panasonic TS4's bootup time and AF speed is slightly sub-par, pre-focused shutter lag is minimal and recycle time relatively fast. However, burst mode is somewhat limited, at 3.7 full resolution frames per second in burst mode.

Pentax WG2

Because of (or despite) its unique design, shooting the Pentax WG2 was a pleasure. It felt light and well-balanced, and its extensive no-slip surfaces made it sure and comfortable to hold, especially one-handed. The screen is bright and text easy to read (especially when enlarged), with good colors, contrast and negligible blur. In fact, white text is superimposed over the subject, so you won't miss a shot while navigating through Menu options. But because of the Menu label, we often mistakenly pressed the nearby programmable Green button. The Pentax WG2's Mode icons are colorful and well organized, but we had to wade through 28 of them to select the one we wanted. We sorely missed having a dedicated video button. While the Pentax WG2 is no speed demon, its bootup and recycle times, as well as shutter delay, didn't seem excessive. What did cramp our shooting style was its lack of a full resolution burst mode — it fires at the rate of one shot per second, though it can capture 5-megapixel images at up to 10fps.

Sony TX20

The Sony TX20 is a very agile camera, easy to handle and fast to shoot. It was also instantly popular with everyone who handled it. We could even simultaneously press the shutter button and move the zoom lever with the same index finger. Controlling the zoom is another matter, since its short throw means you can't get it to stop precisely where you want. Bootup and shutter delay are fast, though recycling times, especially with flash enabled, are disappointingly slow. But the Sony TX20 offers an excellent burst mode of 10fps, fastest in our underwater camera roundup. Under ideal conditions, and despite the diminutive character and text size, the Sony TX20's touchscreen is quite readable and responsive. But we found it all but impossible to see and use in bright light and underwater.

 


 

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