Olympus TG-4 Field Test

Whistler wind and rain prove no match for TG-4

By Arthur Etchells | Posted: 6/22/2015

I recently traveled to Whistler, British Columbia to test Olympus's newest entry in their Tough series of waterproof and rugged cameras, the TG-4. The Olympus TG Tough series of cameras has a long history (Olympus TG-1, TG-2, TG-3) in the waterproof market and this newest camera is an appealing choice, for a number of reasons.

In the market for a waterproof and tough camera? Dive in!

Adventure ready. The optional Sport Holder case proved surprisingly well-thought-out, making it easy to retrieve the TG-4, even with gloved hands.

Shooting with the TG-4

In the midst of a flurry of activities and competition for our time from the new Olympus 8mm fisheye and 7-14mm zoom lens, I got some solid shooting in with the TG-4. I generally had a good time with the TG-4 and was able to pry my hands from the E-M5 Mark II long enough to put the TG-4 through its paces.

Responsiveness met expectations for a waterproof/tough camera

Shooting with the TG-4 was generally an enjoyable experience. Responsiveness was on-par with my expectations for cameras in the space and shooting performance was good. The autofocus worked well, generally acquiring focus on the first try and rarely having to 'hunt' to focus on the subject (save for quite dark scenes; read on for more).

Exposure handling was good

I particularly enjoyed the TG-4's exposure metering. As you can see in the scene below, the foreground highlights are balanced well with the darker background. A rugged point-and-shoot should be expected to get the exposure right on the first try without a lot of fiddling with exposure compensation, and the TG-4 did a good job of that.

TG-4 did a good job choosing the right exposure.

The wide maximum aperture provides creative flexibility

One of the headline features of the TG-4 is its maximum aperture of f/2.0 at wide angle. Most waterproof and tough cameras have maximum apertures that are much smaller (confusingly, the bigger the f-number, the smaller the aperture). This generally allows the TG-4 to outperform other cameras in so-called 'low-light' shooting -- that's everything from photos taken inside, to outright night shots, to trying to capture fast action in the dusk hours.

The other advantage of cameras with a wide maximum aperture lens is they allow you to better isolate the subject of a photo in the foreground by throwing the background out of focus. You can see this striking effect in the photo of the icicle above and the rock cairn below (and the wide angle shot of the dog farther down).

TG-4 Strong Like Rock. Unlike some competitors (like Nikon's AW130 and Canon's D30), the TG-4 features a 'crushproof' rating of 220 pounds (100kgf). Also, check out the pleasingly blurred background.

Slow-mo video options are better than the competition's

High-speed video is one area where the TG-4 provides more options than most competitors. Slow motion at 120 fps and 240fps is offered at a maximum resolution of 640x480 and 320x240, respectively. If the feature is supported at all on other rugged cameras, it's only down to 120fps (as on the Nikon AW130 and the Ricoh WG-5; TG-4 vs AW130, TG-4 vs WG-5).

In our last waterproof roundup, the earlier Olympus TG-2 (TG-2 vs. TG-4) came in third-place. But in the words of our reviewer, Dave Pardue, this was only due to its shortcomings in the video department. We'll update this report with more information on video quality along with sample videos.

Panorama mode

Coming from Olympus's interchangeable lens cameras, the presence of a built-in panorama mode in the TG-4 was a welcome surprise (inexplicably, the feature is missing from all the otherwise excellent Olympus OM-D cameras). Indeed, all competitors in the waterproof and tough camera space now offer panorama modes. When compared to my iPhone 5, the panorama mode on the TG-4 wasn't as fast or as easy to use, which meant that it took longer to get a shot without stitch errors. But it was a welcome feature to be sure.

The panorama mode was a great addition, but it did struggle at times.

Tons of unique features

Perhaps recognizing the competition from camera phones (not to mention other models of waterproof and tough cameras or action cams) Olympus included a ton of features unique to the TG-4 compared to competing tough cameras.

Live Composite: Probably the funnest shooting mode ever

The first (and perhaps the most fun) is the Live Composite mode. In a nutshell, this feature makes it dead simple to create stunning images of star trails, lightning strikes, fireworks and car headlights zooming past on a freeway.

The process looks like this: Select the Live Composite scene mode. Set the camera up on a tripod or brace against something. Press the shutter button. Watch the composited image update on the TG-4's screen. When you're happy with the results, press the shutter button again to complete the exposure.

Seeing each lightning strike, firework explosion or blurred headlight emerge in near real time is surprisingly addictive. And there's really no option like it available on other tough cameras (or cameras of any type from manufacturers besides Olympus). And that's to say nothing of the fact that most waterproof/tough cameras' maximum exposures top out at 4 seconds, so even traditional long exposure photography isn't really an option in the space.

Unfortunately, all is not perfect with the Live Composite feature on the TG-4. Since (like all cameras in the space) the TG-4's small sensor isn't terribly sensitive, it's pretty difficult to nail the focus on these composites.

Foiled by focus.

Fortunately, Olympus provided a solution to exactly this problem, though it's poorly exposed in the interface (thanks to reader Juhamatti Rissa for the pointer!). To enable manual focus, you first half-press the shutter to focus; once the camera acquires focus, it displays a green square. If you then press the 'OK' button with the green square displayed, the function of the up and down arrows changes to allow focus adjustment. It would be a big help for the camera to display this information on screen when it's struggling to acquire focus, but once you know the trick, the Live Composite mode becomes a perfect tool. And whereas most (if not all) competing cameras lack manual focus support of any kind, the TG-4 actually allows the same process to adjust focus in all modes.

Olympus TG-4 Live Composite: I set the TG-4 up on a tripod and took advantage of a headlamp and the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport flight path to get this night shot of a local suspension footbridge.

Underwater HDR mode: The jury is still out

While other waterproof compacts have special modes that adjust color and contrast for underwater shooting, Olympus is first out the gate with an underwater HDR mode. While I've yet to see how well this feature will perform in practice (no real swimming in Whistler and I've not made my way to a scuba dive), I do have my doubts.

In theory, the feature could be quite useful. Imagine you're scuba diving and want to take a photo of another diver above you: Normally, the camera will expose for the water's surface, lit by the sun above, leaving the other diver completely dark. Underwater HDR would enable the camera to expose both the diver and the sun-lit surface above.

The problem I see is that underwater photography involves constant motion. Since the TG-4 HDR mode combines multiple photos, the resulting shot may end up blurry. We'll have to wait and see.

Microscope mode: Unexpectedly compelling

Have you ever wanted to take a zoomed-in photo of your dog's nose? Capture the veins of a flower's petal close-up? The Olympus TG-4 (and TG-2 and TG-3 before it) lets you do just that with its included 'microscope' mode.

Invaluable tool for dog nose photography. If stellar dog nose photos are high on your photographic bucket list, the TG-4 is an easy favorite. (When focusing this close, the in-focus area -- the depth of field -- is very narrow, so three-dimensional subjects like my dog's nose will necessarily have out-of-focus areas in a single shot... unless you use the TG-4's focus stacking mode.)

All cameras and lenses have a minimum focusing distance, this means that when objects are closer than this distance, you won't be able to focus on them. The TG-4 can focus on objects only 1 centimeter away from its lens, but what makes it unique (along with its predecessor) is that the camera has a focus stacking option to increase depth of field, as well as focus bracketing in microsope mode. Meanwhile, an optional 'light guide' directs auxiliary LED light around the camera's lens to provide proper illumination of the scene, even when the lens is blocking most of the ambient light or flash.

While it's by no means a must-have feature, the microscope feature is unique to the TG-4 among its competitors and provides some interesting shooting options.

Close focus distance. Even if you don't intend to capture your dog's nose in microscopic detail, the TG-4's close minimum focus distance gives you fun creative options like this one.

The best rugged compact camera for the enthusiast photographer

Tough cameras are typically designed to appeal to novice photographers, so they lack features enthusiast photographers demand. Some examples include: A total lack of RAW capability (which feature gives you more flexibility to develop your photos later), absence of wide maximum aperture lenses (discussed above) and a general lack of traditional shooting modes like Program and Aperture priority (these give you greater control over shooting parameters like the lens aperture and shutter speed).

Worthy adversary. If you're an enthusiast photographer looking for a bear-resistant camera, the TG-4 is probably the best option on the market.

In contrast, the Olympus TG line bucks the trend in the category by offering Program and Aperture priority modes, which are welcome features that allow greater control of shooting parameters. And for the first time in the category, the TG-4 offers RAW file capability. All this means that the TG-4 holds unique appeal for enthusiast photographers looking for a tough camera. However, there are some notable limitations of cameras in the category that dampen the appeal of these manual features.

Some caveats relevant to the enthusiast photographer

As we mentioned, there are some caveats to keep in mind if you're planning to use the camera in Program or Aperture mode. The TG-4's lens has but 3 aperture settings at a given focal length: f/2.0, f/2.8, and f/8.0 at wide angle; f/4.9, f/6.3 and f/18 at telephoto. This means you won't be dialing the perfect aperture, but rather jumping between a couple f-stops (I stayed at f/2.0 most of the time).

The other disappointment for enthusiast photographers is the lack of control over shutter speed. If you want to dictate a slower shutter speed to pleasantly blur the water in a stream on a bright day, you're not going to be doing it with traditional settings. In fact, the so-called Program mode, which you would normally expect to allow some control over shutter speed and aperture via 'program shift,' provides no such control. Instead the mode just allows control of white balance, ISO and a couple other ancillary settings. If you want long exposures with the TG-4, your best bet is to use the Live Composite mode.

Truth be told, though, these issues are really only relevant to enthusiast photographers; the vast majority of people using this camera will be taking snapshots on rafting trips or neat composites of kids playing tag with headlamps. And the TG-4 offers more for the enthusiast photographer than other waterproof compact cameras, so if you're an enthusiast photographer looking for a waterproof compact camera for snapshots, this is probably the one to get.

Wrap-up

As we noted, the TG-4 really does offer features not found in other waterproof and tough cameras. Based on previous shootouts and my experience with the TG-4, this camera should be at the top of your list if you're looking for a waterproof and tough compact camera. The TG-4 gave me good photos for a waterproof camera, was generally easy to use and offered up enough unique features that genuinely held my interest.

While a detailed comparison to alternate models isn't in the scope of this report, you can use the links below to compare the TG-4's features to other waterproof and rugged cameras.

Nikon AW130 vs Olympus TG-4

Ricoh WG-5 GPS vs Olympus TG-4

Canon Powershot D30 vs Olympus TG-4

Panasonic TS6 vs Olympus TG-4

Sony TX30 vs Olympus TG-4

Olympus TG-4: A great choice for photos of cephalopods and photos of cephalopod graffiti.

Up Next

These days, lots of people consider a GoPro -- or even a cameraphone and waterproof case combination. And there are lots of non-tough compact cameras out there. When should you buy the TG-4 instead of these other options? We'll cover that in a forthcoming article!

Also up is a report on the TG-4's video performance... stay tuned!

In the interest of disclosure, Olympus sponsored the trip to Whistler for Imaging Resource and a few other publications. These words are my own, but it is our policy to disclose when a trip is sponsored by a manufacturer.



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