Olympus TG-4 Field Test Part II

Rugged TG-4 makes few compromises, delivers good image quality

by Jeremy Gray | Posted 02/19/16

50mm equivalent (9mm), f/4.5, 1/100s, ISO 100
Click for full-size image.

Introduction

For more information on the Olympus TG-4's performance in the field, see Arthur Etchells' Field Test.

The Olympus TG-4 was named our "Best Rugged Camera" in our 2015 Camera of the Year Awards for good reason. It is not just incredibly rugged and solidly-built, but it is capable of capturing impressive images. The TG-4 also includes a wide array of features that make it an excellent value, too.

Key Features

  • Built-in 25-100mm equivalent f/2.0-4.9 lens
  • Waterproof to 50 feet (15 meters)
  • Shockproof to 7 feet (2.1 meters)
  • Crushproof to 220 pounds of force (100 kilograms)
  • 16-megapixel BSI CMOS sensor
  • RAW image capture
  • ISO range of 100-6400
  • 1080/30p video recording and slow-motion modes

A rugged camera with a good user experience

I found the TG-4 to handle quite well out in the field. Being a tough camera, it needs to be well-sealed and rugged. This could have led to aspects of the camera body that might make it feel uncomfortable or awkward to operate, but this is not the case with the TG-4. Many of the controls are easily-accessible and feel good to use, although the directional pad does feel a bit cramped. The 3" 460,800-dot rear display is behind thick plastic, but it is nonetheless easy to read, has good viewing angles, and works well even in bright lighting conditions (which, considering the TG-4's lack of a viewfinder, is of utmost importance).

You aren't going to find a large array of controls, but the TG-4 provides a decent amount of quick access to important functions and settings. One aspect of the user experience that is unfortunate is the omission of a shutter speed priority and a full manual mode. I don't think that this will be a big issue for many uses, but it is still a disappointment.

A tough camera with RAW image capture

Packing a 1/2.3-inch 16-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, the TG-4 is the industry's first tough, waterproof camera capable of RAW file recording. For adventurous photographers who don't want to sacrifice image quality for toughness, the TG-4 is a great option.

As the first rugged camera capable of shooting RAW files, I thought that its performance was pretty good overall. The sensor isn't large, so RAW files don't provide a lot of latitude for making exposure adjustments, but they do allow you to adjust shadows, highlights, and overall exposure to a moderate degree. An additional advantage of shooting RAW files with the TG-4 is that you can fine-tune the final image appearance to a much larger extent, especially with regards to sharpness, noise reduction, and white balance, compared to the JPEG files. I found that JPEG files have quite excessive noise reduction applied to them (more on that later), so being able to have access to a RAW file is excellent when shooting at higher ISOs.

18.5mm equivalent (3.3mm), used FCON fisheye conversion lens, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 100
This image has been modified slightly. Click for original image.

Fast built-in lens offers decent performance & cool macro shots

The Olympus TG-4 has a versatile 4x optical zoom (25-100mm equivalent) that has an impressive f/2.0 aperture at the wide end. However, the maximum aperture is only f/4.9 at the tele end of the lens, which can be a bit difficult to use in lower light. The TG-4 provides an aperture priority mode, but it does not offer full control over the aperture. Instead, you can choose from three different apertures at each focal length. At the wide end, you can select from f/2.0, f/2.8, or f/8. At the telephoto end, the options are f/4.9, f/6.3, and f/18.

I observed a fair amount of purple fringing around high-contrast details across the entire frame and focal length range. Edges are soft at 25mm at all three apertures, but they are very soft at f/2.0. Center sharpness is pretty good at 25mm, however. There is a fair amount of light falloff in the corners at 25mm f/2.0, but this is mostly resolved at f/2.8. At 100mm, the entire image is a bit softer and stopping down to f/6.3 doesn't help much. Stopping down to f/18 causes additional softness, so I would hesitate to use that aperture.

Overall, the lens itself is pretty good considering the camera's class and price point. Its fast f/2.0 aperture at the wide end of the lens and very good close-focusing capabilities make the TG-4's lens an decent performer. The lens is able to close-focus all the way down to 0.4 inches (1 cm), which lets it capture decent macro images considering it isn't a dedicated macro lens.

31mm equivalent (5.5mm), f/3.2, 1/160s, ISO 100, Microscope mode
This image has been modified. Click for original image.

In addition to its normal close-focusing capabilities, the TG-4 also includes a handful of macro shooting modes. These "microscope" modes are a lot of fun, and while they don't necessarily produce super high-quality images like you might get from a dedicated macro set-up, it's still a cool feature. With a razor-thin depth of field when shooting macro images, the TG-4 includes an automatic focus-stacking mode as well, which works quite nicely as long as your subject is stationary and you're using a tripod.

Olympus TG-4 Microscope Mode Focus Stacking
Stacked image, full
Focus Stacked
Not Focus Stacked

Conversion lenses add versatility to the TG-4

In addition to the decent performance of the built-in lens, the TG-4 can also use optional conversion lenses, which you can learn more about by reading Dave Pardue's Caffeine Priority post on the TG-4 and conversion lenses. As he mentions, you only need to attach an adapter ring to the TG-4, attach the conversion lens, tell the camera which conversion lens is attached via the in-camera menu, and then you're good to go. It's a simple process that adds extra versatility to the TG-4.

The fisheye lens (FCON-T01) is very cool. I also had the chance to use the telephoto conversion lens (TCON-T01) which turns the built-in lens' 100mm equivalent reach into 170mm without a dramatic decrease in imaging performance. Both conversion lenses make the already fun-to-use TG-4 even more versatile and enjoyable out in the field, so they're excellent additions to any TG-4 user's camera bag.

18.5mm equivalent (3.3mm), used FCON fisheye conversion lens, f/2.0, 1/100s, ISO 100
Click for full-size image.

Reliable autofocus, although a bit slow at times

When it comes to autofocus, the TG-4 utilizes contrast detect autofocus and is quite capable. The TG-4 is snappy, especially in good light, and its small sensor provides some level of forgiveness in instances when the autofocus doesn't quite hit its mark thanks to the deeper depth of field. Fortunately, in most cases, the TG-4 nails focus.

25mm equivalent (4.5mm), f/2.8, 1/500s, ISO 100
This image has been modified. Click for original image.

In addition to standard full automatic focus, there are face detect, spot, area, and AF tracking autofocus modes. While using the area AF mode, you can quickly easily move the autofocus area by holding the 'OK' button and then using the directional pad. Continuous autofocus was somewhat inconsistent and slow during my time with the camera, but the AF tracking autofocus mode worked pretty well at keeping focus on a moving subject, provided that you're able to keep the subject in the frame. Overall, the TG-4's autofocus performance was dependable and consistent.

Aggressive in-camera noise reduction hurts JPEG files at high ISOs

Low light performance is an area of weakness for the TG-4. Considering its relatively small sensor, it does perform okay, but it is nonetheless quite noisy at higher ISOs. It isn't so much the noise that proves to be problematic, however, it is the very aggressive noise reduction applied in-camera to JPEG files. If you're going to be shooting at higher ISOs and don't need to be shooting continuously (see the next section), then I highly recommend utilizing the TG-4's RAW file recording capabilities and processing high ISO image files yourself.

The TG-4 is very aggressive with its noise reduction, which cannot be adjusted, and this negatively impacts JPEG files at higher ISO settings. Even as low as ISO 400, fine details start to be lost in JPEG images when viewing them at 100% magnification. At ISO 800, fine detail is essentially gone altogether. By the time you're at ISO 1600, not only has noise reduction reduced a lot of detail, but quite a bit of noise has also been introduced into the image. ISO 3200 has a lot of noise as well, and I don't consider JPEG files at this ISO setting to be usable except for perhaps very small image sizes. ISO 6400 simply looks bad, as the image is very soft; files look like they have been run through some sort of watercolor filter effect.

Olympus TG-4 JPEG Comparison: 100% crops from JPEG files (click for full images)
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200

Shooting RAW images allows you to use your own sharpening and noise reduction processing techniques on images, which made higher ISOs much more usable than they are in JPEG form in my experience. While RAW images are naturally much noisier at first than the JPEG files from the camera, they also retain much more detail than their JPEG counterparts at all ISO settings. With noise reduction applied to ISO 1600 images during post-processing, I was able to get pretty good results. ISO 3200 and 6400 proved difficult to work with as there is just so much noise. The bottom line is that if you want to get more out of your images at ISO 400 and above, you'll be better off shooting RAW files unless you intend to use only small image sizes.

Olympus TG-4 Noise Comparison 100% Center Crops from RAW images
(Click images for full-size files).
RAW files resized in Photoshop with default sharpening and noise reduction turned off.
ISO 100 Full Scene
ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

Utilizing a fairly small built-in flash, the TG-4 flash has a surprising amount of power. The fast f/2.0 equivalent aperture at the wide ends of the lens certainly helps. The flash range at ISO 1600 is0.2m - 7.9m at the wide end of the lens and 0.1m - 3.1m at the telephoto end, and there are a handful of flash options available, such as auto, red eye reduction, fill in, as well as an "LED On" option for constant illumination while half-pressing the shutter release (which is useful for macro photography).

75mm equivalent (13.5mm), f/4.2, 1/80s, ISO 250, Flash Fired. Even in bright daylight, the TG-4's built-in flash was able to add fill to this scene.
Click for full-size image.

Acceptable JPEG performance, but no continuous RAW capture

Capable of shooting full-resolution JPEG files at around 5 fps, the TG-4's continuous shooting performance is fair, although certainly not fast. The catch here is that you cannot shoot RAW files continuously (or RAW+JPEG). This is unfortunate and really puts a damper on the TG-4's continuous shooting performance. With that said, the buffer depth for full-res JPEG files is impressive at over 100 frames.

In addition to shooting full-resolution JPEGs at 5fps, the TG-4 can also shoot lower-resolution 3-megapixel JPEG images at nearly 61fps for 100 frames! While a 3-megapixel image file is very small, it could be useful for users that want to create animations or capture images of a very fast subject.

Overall, the camera performs well. While the omission of continuous RAW shooting is unfortunate, the camera is otherwise quick enough in both shooting and processing capabilities.

Good, but not great, video performance

With full HD (1080p) video at up to 30 frames-per-second, the TG-4 offers decent specifications. While there is no 1080p video at 60 fps or 4K video recording, there is slow motion video recording available. The TG-4 can record 120fps video at 640 x 480 resolution and 240fps video at 320 x 240 resolution. The quality is obviously not great considering the resolution, but it's a nice feature to have available.

Olympus TG-4 Slow-Motion Video Sample, 320 x 240, 240fps
Download Original (4.2MB .AVI File)

Video quality at 1080/30p is decent, proving to be fairly detailed and well-exposed, but autofocus can be slow at times. There isn't much exposure control available when shooting video, either; it is essentially fully automatic.

Olympus TG-4 Video Sample, 1920 x 1080, 30fps
Download Original (65.3MB .MOV File)

On the back of the TG-4 is a dedicated movie record button, which is well-placed and easy to press. The zooming mechanism, which is fine when shooting stills, is problematic when recording video. Not only is the zooming quite rough, as you can see in the video samples I recorded, but it affects the camera's audio recording as well. Part of the issue with shakiness is that the camera only uses electronic image stabilization when recording video, which simply doesn't work well.

Olympus TG-4 Video Sample Zooming (optical + digital zoom), 1920 x 1080, 30fps
Download Original (60.3MB .MOV File)

Since it's winter here in Maine, I wasn't able to test the camera underwater very much, however I did have the chance to submerge it in a nearby stream a few times just to get a feel for its capabilities. While its autofocus performance is okay overall, I was impressed by how well the TG-4 was able to focus underwater. Not only that, its audio quality was quite good too. I was expecting it to sound muddled, but it was able to record quite clear audio. The camera handled the icy waters well too, much better than my hands did.

Olympus TG-4 Video Sample Underwater, 1920 x 1080, 30fps
Download Original (36MB .MOV File)

Impressive wireless features

Using the Olympus Image Share app (which is free; iOS/Android only), you have access to a large amount of remote control over the TG-4. The set-up process for iOS relies on a QR scan on the camera's display and going through a small number of menus and settings on the iOS device. It was a simple process.

Olympus Image Share application screenshots

Once connected, you can change the shooting mode without losing connection, you can set focus, focal length, drive mode, and more. It worked quite well, although changing the focal length was a bit sluggish. The real-time view on my mobile device was plenty sharp and fairly close to real-time. The only negative I found with the wireless performance was that the range was surprisingly limited. At roughly 20 feet, I lost connection. Reconnecting was simple, but I expected more range.

In addition to built-in Wi-Fi, the TG-4 also has GPS functionality. You can also use the OI.Track app to transfer GPS logs and data to your smartphone from the TG-4. The GPS functionality works well, as it was quick to acquire accurate GPS information.

Olympus TG-4 Field Test Summary

With RAW images & great rugged body, the TG-4 is an excellent tough camera

What I like:

  • Rugged camera body with good controls
  • RAW image capture
  • Fast f/2.0 lens at 25mm-eq.
  • Conversion lenses add versatility and fun
  • Great value for the price

What I dislike:

  • No manual or shutter speed priority exposure modes
  • Continuous autofocus performance is sub-par
  • Aggressive in-camera processing of JPEG images
  • Zooming mechanism is shaky; not ideal when recording video
25mm equivalent (4.5mm), f/8.0, 0.6s, ISO 100
Click for full-size image.

The Olympus Tough TG-4 proved to be an enjoyable camera to use. It is very rugged and capable of capturing nice images. While not without a few shortcomings, it still brings a lot to the table and should be very high on the list for people looking for a compact, rugged camera. With the optional conversion lenses, the TG-4 also proves to be versatile. All in all, you get a lot of performance and features for the money.

 



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