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The Pentax WG-1 GPS is a crushproof, freezeproof, waterproof, shockproof ruggedized point and shoot camera designed for adventurous types or those prone to breaking their cameras. Available in a number of colors, the camera also touts a GPS receiver which is capable of tagging pictures as they are taken with longitude and latitude. I took the WG-1 GPS on a six week trip to Nepal, Bhutan and India to give it a test on the road and in the wilds.
NOTE: All photos in this post, except those of the camera itself, are straight from the camera with no contrast, saturation or anything added in in post. The camera has many ‘picture modes’ but I chose the basic output to show what can be expected. Click on any image for a larger size.
Let’s get the basic stats out of the way for the tech savvy out there. The camera sports a 14 megapixel sensor, uses SDHC cards, is waterproof down to 10m for 2 hours, can handle freezing temperatures, uses a 5x zoom (28-140mm equivalent), has a 2.7” LCD screen, AV\USB\HMDI outputs and the battery is slated to last approximately 350 images (while not using the GPS feature). ISO sensitivity can be moved up to 6400 in certain modes, there is digital shake reduction available and the GPS tracks are ready to view in Google Earth if you like. More information can be found on Pentax’s website. It also comes in a variety of colors and with a handy carabiner.
The camera is packed with features I will not be touching on in this review lest it become a copy of the instruction manual. Many of those features deal with post processing inside the camera (creative widgets many of us accomplish to a better degree inside a computer). They are fun if you don’t use a computer often, but are more of an after thought. They include adding sepia tones, making people’s heads smaller and turning photos into pencil sketches.
The layout of the camera controls is fairly average and easy to use. I liked the lack of too many buttons with just the most important controls available (zoom, play, menu, a multi-controller, face detection and a delete button, plus shutter release and on/off). There is a tripod mount spot on the bottom and battery/card door. One last door on the left side contains HDMI and PC/AV connections (cables are supplied).
One of the most interesting features is the addition of five macro lights around the lens opening. These work well to couple with the camera’s 1cm minimum focus distance in macro mode (there are two macro focus modes with different ranges). Pentax then uses these lights and matches them with the camera’s face-detection software to assist those “hold my arm out for a self portrait” shots, to let the photographer know if they are centered or just about to disappear out of the frame. This becomes even more handy when taking pictures with friends as it can signal where both faces (up to five can be tracked) are in relation to the frame. No more self portraits where half a face is removed!
The lens is housed behind a piece of coated glass and is limited to 5x zoom. This is to be expected in an underwater camera. It also has the benefit of making sure the lens doesn’t get damaged if the camera is accidentally turned on while in a pocket. There is a rubberized coating to the top and sides of the camera which help if when dropped (the ‘Shockproof’ rating is good to 5 feet).
Like most kids in a candy store, I was excited to take this camera traveling with me. I was in Asia for six weeks leading photo tours to Bhutan and Nepal and then an inspection tour in India. I was going to cover a lot of ground and was interested in how well the GPS would work to track my location and help me geotag photos taken with my DSLR. I typically carry a point and shoot camera on trips like this to help document locations (via pictures of signs), information, record thoughts and use the video feature to record video messages to my daughter back home. For the trip I also purchased a Wasabi travel charger with two additional batteries, knowing that the GPS function will drain the battery in a day.
While getting acquainted with the camera I noticed the first con on my list; the camera takes a while to start up. I have used a number of point and shoots and after some timing, I found the camera screen would turn on, but it would not become responsive to input (shutter release, menu selection, etc…) for four seconds. This may seem like an eternity to some or nothing at all to most. For me, four seconds for a quick snap shot seems a bit long.
With the camera on, the zoom toggle is easy to reach and is responsive enough for my liking. It zooms as fast as most point and shoot cameras and doubles as a zoom when reviewing images. The multi-controller provides quick access to the most used features of; flash control (Auto, off, on, auto red-eye and red-eye), drive mode (standard, self timer, continuous, high speed, remote control, interval shooting and auto bracket) and focus modes (auto, macro, 1cm macro, pan focus, infinity and manual focus). Lastly, the Face Detection button cycles through a number of modes, such as on, smile detection (the camera will automatically take a photo any time it notices someone smiling in the frame) and self-portrait assist mode. While a bit gimmicky, I enjoyed using the smile detection setting while taking photos at my daughter’s birthday part as she unwrapped presents because it only shot a photo when she ripped through the paper and was excited about the present. This could also be handy to use at any party by leaving the camera in a corner for a while to automatically take photos of guests having a good time.
Toggling through the shooting modes, the Pentax WG-1 GPS has options for night shooting, underwater, beach, children, and about 15 other modes to lend to creative choices. The night shooting mode was handy as shown in the pictures below. The first image below is taken in normal Program mode (the camera also has an automatic mode which tries to select the best shooting mode for the scene and it works passably well, but not fast enough for my liking) and the second is in Night mode. The main difference is found in the shutter speed. In Night mode, as expected, the shutter remains open for a full stop longer and brightens the scene (and caused a bit of blur as I handheld the shot for .8 seconds). The photos are of the main temple inside the Thimphu Dzong in Bhutan.
Interval shooting is another very useful feature on this camera. The camera will not only take a photo at a given interval (chosen by the photographer), but it will also create an AVI file from the resulting images when in Video mode (otherwise the camera will simply write each image as its own file to be assembled by the photographer at another time). I was very happy with the results of this feature, especially the ability to delay the beginning of the shoot. The timer, along with having a weatherproof camera, allowed me to leave the camera out overnight to capture the hopeful sunrise the next morning. Because I live near Seattle, Washington, not all mornings are gorgeous, but I was able to capture a summer sunrise in September and not have to roust myself out of bed at 5am to do so. NOTE: I was not able to open the AVI file using Quicktime on a Mac (the default application) while Windows Media Player had no problem. This only occurred with time-lapse and not normal video.
I am a bit disappointed with overall image quality. I have been mostly habituated to Canon point and shoots in the Digital Elph line and maybe that has set my standard too high. While the camera can capture in a variety of sizes, from 14 megapixel(MP) full size to 10MP wide to 5MP and smaller, at 14MP I found the sharpness lacking. Overall images were ok, but when zoomed in, there was a lot of ‘fuzz’ to the images. Take a look at the below examples, cropped to 100% (when clicked upon).
The camera has the ability to work with Eye-Fi wireless SD cards and I tested two brand new cards directly from Eye-Fi. I was disappointed to wake up one morning to find my time lapse programmed from the night before had not finshed and instead, stopped after only 10 photos. I was confounded until later that day I received the first of many “Memory Card Error” notices. These pop up on the back screen and nothing short of removing the battery will reset the camera. I had error with both cards and they seemed to crop up more when using video, however, they were experienced in any of the modes I used. As it happened with both cards and I was not able to deduce the reasoning, I am not sure if it is the camera or the card (I had the Eye-Fi feature turned off for most of my trip). It was frustrating to never know if the camera would work properly or freeze up at vital times.
I was not happy with the ISO performance, especially in video mode. Below is a link to a video I shot for my daughter (the camera was handy to keep a ‘video diary’ for her as I traveled) that shows some of the problems with noise, even in bright light situations. Another thing it shows is how well the camera adjusts to light while shooting video, so it’s a bit of a mixed bag.
In conclusion, I am sorry to say this camera did not live up to my expectations. While it performed perfectly for underwater shots and the GPS was welcome on my trip, the ‘Memory Card Errors’ and image quality were the biggest disappointments for me.
On the plus side, the camera would be a perfect first camera for many children or those into active sports. I pounded on the camera and was generally far more abusive than I would be (without actually testing the crushproof claim by running over the camera) with another camera. I will be taking this camera when I rock climb or in other situations where abuse is imminent. It just won’t be my first choice when quality of images is important.
Get a price on the Pentax Optio WG-1 14 MP Waterproof Digital Camera with GPS at Amazon.
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