Eight... Rugged Cameras
Great outdoors photography
Product Round-up Has anybody not trashed a digital camera at some point while out and about? Dust or sand, water or ice-cream, the great outdoors ruthlessly claims its tech victims on a daily basis. While manufacturers have busily carved out a niche of rugged ‘adventure-proof’ cameras, the truth is that most people, whether on the slopes, at the beach, or down the park, will find the extra hardiness of these cameras nigh on indispensable.
So here are eight tough cameras taken through their paces. Chucked in rock-pools, frozen in ice and buried in sand – amazingly, they all stood up to their recommended stress levels – just about – at least on this round of abuse. None of the products claim to be child-proof, but having let a gang of kids let rip with the cameras on a playing field, it’s a given that they should stand up to such knocks and scrapes.
The Fujifilm XP150, Panasonic Lumix FT4 and Nikon Coolpix AW100 all include GPS functions and the Pentax WG-2 is also available with this feature. There are two notable absenses here as models are being replaced, so look out for new rugged offerings from Sony (the TX20) and Canon (the D20) when they appear in the next month or so.
Casio Exilim EX-G1
This model’s been knocking around for over 18 months, yet the futuristic body design – and slightly fiddly controls – still look fresh. The 12Mp sensor takes reasonably decent shots, though macro focusing is limited and colours aren’t especially vibrant.
What really worries me about this snapper – and the reason to be ultra-cautious when immersing the Casio in water – is the door that hides the USB 2.0 port and SD slot. Or to be more specific, the dial that opens it. One small slip of the finger and it would open, with catastrophic results I’m sure. Not one for the aqua-inclined then. Casio needs to upgrade this model soon or drop it down into a lower price bracket.
Thanks to Conrad UK  for supplying the Casio Exilim EX-G1.
Reg Rating 55%
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FujiFilm FinePix XP150
The XP150 also likes displaying its GPS function, again with slightly over-zealous scrolling of locations. It tries to pinpoint businesses and tourist destinations which, in fact, leads to some inaccuracies. For instance, the camera proclaims you’re at a castle, which is actually a mile down the road. The XP150 will also track your route, along with compass bearings and altimeter readings, so its geo-location abilities are actually very impressive.
A sturdy double-clip mechanism keeps the ports safe and sound, and the extra reminder on startup seems sensible considering this camera can be dipped down to 10 metres. The display is a bit of a let-down, and doesn’t do any justice to the fairly detailed, well-balanced shots that the 14.4Mp sensor can produce.
Reg Rating 70%
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Nikon Coolpix AW100
Interestingly, the GPS functionality of the AW100 lets it plot journeys while you’re not taking pictures – compass directions can also be attached giving an exact record of each geo-tagged shot – handy for nerdy skiers, climbers and travel bloggers. Another neat feature called action control lets you change settings with wrist flicks – not button presses – a bonus for underwater or glove-wearing sports.
With a minimum focus distance of 1cm, the AW100 is capable of some decent macro shots, yet chromatic aberration was evident on some landscape pics, but nothing too unusual for a compact. An anti-shake mode successfully reduces blur in fast-moving scenarios. The camera’s controls nod towards Nikon’s more expensive offerings, and the clear, large 3in display is an additional bonus to this very capable package.
Reg Rating 75%
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The bottom-of-the-range Olympus model feels somewhat cheap with a moulded plastic overlay shielding the necessary, yet too small, controls. Add in some annoying beeps and it’s not the most pleasant camera to operate. Moreover, this was the only camera that made me doubt it’s tough credentials: a small crack in the plastic (tut!) appeared next to the flash after only a small bag journey.
Dutifully, I therefore gave it some special sea-dip and beach beatings – surprisingly, it survived without any further issue. While the screen is lousy, and it’s a bit slow between shots, the actual images have surprisingly clear detail and colour reproduction, with a macro mode that will focus at 2cm – not bad for the price.
Reg Rating 65%
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The TG-820 has an extremely sharp 3in screen that performs well even quite clear in bright light. Control buttons are kept to a minimum, with detailed changes made through an easy-to-navigate on-screen menu system, though the zoom rocker-switch on top could be a bit more pronounced, especially for glove wearing sports. Having said that, Tap Control is a novel system that allows you to tap away at the unit’s sides and top plate to navigate through menus.
The 12Mp CMOS sensor delivers crisp, vibrant shots and along with its very responsive auto-focusing Olympus’ most expensive tough camera stands out as a quality beast. It's also the only camera here to boast a steel lens shield to that slides across to protect the optics when not in use; bolstering its rugged credentials.
Reg Rating 85%
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Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4
The Lumix likes to show off its GPS abilities – accurate locations scroll enthusiastically across the screen. Chucked in water it coped admirably and will drop down to 12 metres – which would be great for experienced snorkeling and small-depth scuba. However, Panasonic state that after a significant drop, the unit should have its waterproofing ability checked, as it cannot be guaranteed. Not quite as adventure-proof after all then?
The lens is recessed with an extra chunk of housing for added protection, yet underwater this seemed to retain air bubbles intermittently. The four-way control dial and other buttons are fine, though separated buttons make zooming rather difficult. With some nasty JPEG compression degradation, the FT-4 doesn’t bring enough improvements over its predecessor to justify the price tag.
Reg Rating 65%
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Pentax Optio WG-2
With a grippy, tyre-like, moulded rubbery design, the Pentax looks like a new cross-training shoe ready for a muddy day. Whether strapped to a climber’s belt or diver’s jacket, or simply attached inside a back-pack for easy access, the carabiner attachment is very handy and, to be honest, it’s surprising other manufacturers haven’t pinched the idea.
The 16Mp CCD sensor shows significant clarity with bright, mostly well-balanced colours, though frame edges can be blurry in poor lighting and the default JPEG quality setting is worth tweaking too. The smile detector is a neat feature, making that hanging off a cliff-face, or free-falling skydive shot that bit easier to achieve. With 6 LEDs around the lens for macro lighting, this camera is capable of some respectable close-ups, and the claimed 1cm subject focus was pretty much there.
Reg Rating 80%
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I’m a fan of the minimal, easy to pick-up-and-shoot design of this Ricoh. It takes seconds to work out how to operate, which is definitely advantageous when hanging off a cliff or snorkeling around rocks. Not the fastest camera at startup, or between shots, and it may be worth increasing the in-camera sharpness slightly as the default images settings are a tad soft.
On inspection, shots do suffer from a fair amount of noise, which only increases with the higher ISO settings. With no freeze-proof setting or GPS, this isn’t the most robust or feature-rich snapper, but as an all-round family camera – at the more affordable end of the price bracket – the Ricoh does the job. ®
Reg Rating 65%
More info Ricoh