Review of the Olympus TG-850 ‘Tough’ Waterproof Camera

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I’ve discovered a flexible companion for all weather action, adventure, and family fun.

JillSnorkeling-TG-850-HD-video-frame

I’d been researching the ideal pocket-sized, waterproof, and shock-resistant camera to take to Hawaii for one of my Land and Sea Photography workshops. I’d compared every “tough” camera available online, but not one jumped out and said “Buy Me!”

Besides the full DSLR kit that I’d haul to the islands, I wanted to test and demonstrate a well-featured compact for capturing outdoor sports and vacation adventures. Almost every small durable camera available had been on the market for at least a year. Surely something ideal had been unveiled at the recent 2014 CES show in Vegas, but nothing was to be released in time for my imminent sailing.

My wish list of desirable features was brief:

  • Pocket-sized
  • Light weight, solid build
  • Comfortable, intuitive controls
  • Button-triggered Movie mode
  • Real wide-angle zoom below 28mm
  • Articulating LCD screen
  • Good LCD visibility in bright daylight and underwater
  • Fast power-up to shoot time
  • Fast to focus
  • Intelligent Auto ISO and low minimum ISO
  • One-button navigation to common shooting options
  • Exposure compensation
  • Underwater shooting modes
  • LED illumination for extra lighting
  • HD 1080p video
  • Hi-Speed 60fps or faster video for Slow-Motion fun
  • Sequential timer for action capture effects
  • Fast frame rate for recording bursts of action
  • Eye-Fi SD card compatible to shoot and upload images and video
  • Under $300 USD
  • Oh, and it must be crushproof, droppable and waterproof to at least 25 feet depth

I held out patiently, but my departure date was nearing and I was reluctant to purchase last year’s technology. Then I learned of the new Olympus ‘Tough’ TG-850, loved what I read on the Olympus Website. I made contact and a pre-release sample was sent overnight to my hotel just in time.

Olympus TG 850 camera 4VIEWS sm

I charged it up with the supplied direct-connect USB–>MiniUSB cable and secured a fast SD card into the waterproof double-locking connection, memory and battery compartment. My test camera had arrived in a generic box without instructions, yet I was delighted to find that the camera’s menus are the most intuitive I’ve seen, and feature a brief description for each selected menu option.

Once I’d configured some favorite user options, I tethered the camera’s supplied strap to my wristband for some body surfing to see how the TG-850 handled pounding surf breaks. The TG responds well to capturing spontaneous action and the lens clears of water drops easily. Power-on to shoot time feels very responsive at about 1.3 seconds. Weighing under 8oz (226g), it’s easy to use for hours without fatigue.

Features and User Experience

LCD screen

The TG-850’s hinged 3″ diagonal 460k-dot LCD screen is a unique feature in today’s compact waterproof camera market. The sturdy LCD screen can be flipped upwards to 180 degrees, and is also one of my favorite features. It allows the convenience of shooting at low and high angles, or when snorkelling along at the surface or wanting an ant’s eye view of nature. Flip the LCD all the way facing forward and it’s great for solo selfies and group portraits.

Wide lens

The very wide 21mm lens is my favorite feature of this camera. At review time, it’s the only waterproof pocket compact lens that is that wide without needing any extra attachments. Such a wide view allows more dramatic landscape compositions, in-the-action sports captures and easier group portraits. A digital zoom feature add extra reach, but as can be expected, there is some loss of quality. The on-off, zoom, Shutter, Movie, Mode and Playback controls are placed well for my single-handed operation. The TG-850 contains Olympus’s latest 16mp back-side illuminated CMOS 1/2.3 sensor coupled the powerful TruePic VII processor, for faster frame rates, video processing and other options.

DJulian Palm Trees 21mm

DJulian Kona kids boogieboards

Exposure settings

The sensor’s light sensitivity (ISO) can be set from 125 to 6400, HIGH or AUTO. My test of ISO settings revealed better quality than expected at settings from 200-1600, and after that it’s noisy as expected under magnification. With shutter speeds from 4 seconds to 1/2000th, there is plenty of room for creativity under many conditions. Set to Sports mode, my photos revealed very crisp water droplets shaken from a wet pooch. The onboard flash helps fill in harsh shadows or in backlit portraits. Metering can be switched from ESP Auto to Spot Center for more accuracy when needed. High contrast backlit scenes are easily balanced using the Exposure Compensation.

DJulian Backlit surfers Kona

File format and image quality

This camera does not shoot RAW format. No waterproof compacts do at this time, and I’m not expecting RAW anytime soon. Apparently the manufacturers uniformly conclude that this market segment isn’t after RAW processing. The good news is that the full-resolution 16mp JPGs I shot under varying conditions appear quite sharp when viewed in Lightroom at 1:3 magnification. At full-screen and 1:1 viewing, one can see the typical effects of compact sensor JPG processing that results in a rather painterly appearance. Photos shot at ISO 125-200 revealed the best shots of the trip.

DJulian Pink Hibiscus

DJulian Molokai Leaf Detail

Video

The TG-850 can shoot video at 1080 60p, 1080p, 720, VGA, high-speed 120fps at 640×480 and even 240fps at 432×324 video captures. Dual-mode lens-shift stabilization reduces normal handheld camera shake, and Hybrid mode reduces rhythmic shake during video shooting. I was ready to take the camera snorkelling off Lanai. Truly crisp contrasty underwater photography is a challenge for compact cameras, but the TG-850 produced very acceptable video for my online posts. Water depth plays a big part in color temperature and contrast, and three Underwater scene options help warm up the underwater blues.

I am impressed with the sharp stills I clipped right from the 1080p video using a menu option. My use of the 120fps High Speed video produced fairly smooth slow-motion playback, though not quite as smooth as a Hero3 camera. The TG-850 videos are not distorted at the corners and edges as those I made with the Hero3. I found auto-exposure struggling when panning in uneven light conditions, but worked well enough for pleasing videos.

DJulian-Hawaii-Red-Urchin.jpg

DJulian Moorish Idol HD still

DJulian Sea Turtle Makena Maui Video Still

Here is a couple samples video done with the TG-850, the second one is done using 120fps high speed shooting mode.

Another feature that’s a lot of fun is the sequential shooting modes that allow fast frame bursts. Options include four different sequence settings including the ability to record a 60-frame burst in one second, a 60-frame burst at 20 fps for 3 seconds, or a 200-frame burst at 2.5fps for 80 seconds. A built in interval timer is also completely configurable for start delay time, interval time and sequences up to 99 frames. To replay the shot sequence you select the image ‘stack’ and the images show automatically in sequential order. Smart, easy and intuitive. For those who want to upload their images to a smartphone for social media, the TG-850 even has a menu setting to enable Eye-Fi SD card wireless transfers. I look forward to testing this soon.

DJulian Kona pool 21mm PANO TG 850 iso125

DJulian Kona pool TG850 ZOOM illo 3

DJulian Jill pool twirling frame sequence TG850

The 5-way control pad’s center button gives instant access many common shooting options:

  • 18 Picture styles including: Natural, Interval, Night Scene, Miniature, Backlight HDR, three underwater modes and some artsy effects you will at least try once
  • Flash control and LED assist lamp on/off – helps add light for closeups, macro and even video in low light
  • Exposure Compensation, +/- up to 2 stops helps compensate for difficult lighting
  • White Balance, including two custom WB settings
  • ISO including a very smart AUTO ISO mode
  • Timer and Multi-Frame speed modes
  • Image Size settings from 16mp to 3mp and VGA, which is great for emailing and social media
  • Aspect Ratios of 4:3, 16:9, 3:2, and 1:1 (square)

Other creative features accessible in the camera menus include:

  • AF Face/ESP detection – locks focus onto faces for quick grabs at gatherings
  • AF Spot – tracks the center of the frame. Works well when the subject is in a busy environment
  • AF Tracking – when a subject is moving across the frame or towards you
  • Spot or ESP pattern metering
  • Four sequential frame modes
  • The eighteen scene modes include the common standards as well as three underwater modes
  • Custom self-timing mode
  • Regular and Hybrid Stabilization for smoother video
  • Super Macro mode

Conclusions

The TG-850 is an excellent value for the features provided. It’s ease of use will appeal to families, and creative features will win over active enthusiasts. I cannot wait to take it back out into the wilds and have more fun.

Pros:

  • Well designed, fully-featured and very durable compact camera for outdoor and family adventures
  • Sturdy tilting LCD encourages experimentation
  • 16mp images and HD video quality are just right for most web and print publishing needs
  • 400-1600 ISO photos are better than other cameras we tested
  • Solid build and double-locked battery/card/cable door has a strong yet easily replaceable gasket
  • Little motor noise recorded when zooming video
  • Excellent creative options for shooting action
  • Face-detection ESP AF is rapid and helpful
  • Fast power-up to shoot time
  • Intuitive menu navigation and quick-button access to shooting options
  • Eye-Fi card ready for WiFi transfers
  • Recessed lens is well protected and clears easily when wet

Cons:

  • No RAW format
  • High quality JPGs seem overly processed when viewed full screen
  • The TG-850 has forgone the 720p high-speed video of its predecessor, the TG-830. Even my iPhone 5s can shoot 120fps High-speed in HD
  • Ridged plastic grip could be a durable rubber for wet hands
  • Slight jumpiness and motor noise at times when zooming during video
  • HD Video crops slightly into wide angle, appearing more like 24mm
  • Zoom switch could be sturdier, with smoother video zoom

Advice

  • Buy a floaty strap if you plan to use the camera around deep water. At the time of this review, Olympus is offering a free one with each camera purchase.
  • Try attaching a mini tripod or telescoping monopod such as the ones from iStabilizer for even more active shooting fun.
  • You will want at least one spare battery. I found a set of two Halcyon 1500 mAh batteries and a matching AC+Auto charger from Amazon for under $20. The Halcyon batteries are higher capacity than the originals, though I have not compared their actual hard-use longevity. (Note from the Editor: please note that using off market batteries can cause a void in your warrantee if anything should go wrong – be cautious and proceed at your own risk)
  • Check the battery/card door gasket for tiny particles of sand before every use in water. Any residual particles can admit water if under pressure.
Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Review of the Olympus TG-850 'Tough' Waterproof Camera
Author Rating
4

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David Julian has led over 60 workshops at top destinations across the US, Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica. He has several national awards for his photography, photo-illustration and design. His images are published in books, blogs and magazines including Nikon World, Islands, Conde Nast Traveller, Audubon, Outdoor Photographer, After Capture, Digital Photo Pro, Rangefinder and seven national newspapers. This year Dave is teaching in Washington, Maine, Alaska and Cuba to share his knowledge with enthusiastic photographers. Learn with Dave’s Workshops.

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  • Ar

    Make sure to send to olympus for service before your one year warranty ends. Mine broke down after 12 months and the underwater seal spoiled

  • Thanks for the heads up, but underwater seals don’t just “spoil”. They can be distorted or torn by being closed on grains of sand, exposure to chemical outgassing of other materials (like in a drawer of other items). You must have owned a different model, as this camera was just released March 2014.
    I’ve subjected mine to high drops, dozens of battery door opens/closes, 30′ scuba dives, and it works perfectly. Keeping the gasket clean is a must. The gaskets are replaceable, BTW.

  • lou

    Thanks for the great review! I’m very interested in buying a rugged camera such as this. Could you please comment on the sound quallity of the Tg-850? I’ll be using it for vlogging and such 🙂

  • Louise,

    I’m emailing you a sample of the TG850’s audio.
    Unless in wind or near reflective surfaces, the sound is stereo and very clear in my opinion, though I am not a sound expert.
    120 and 240fps videos are mute.

    DJ

  • lou

    Dave,

    Thank you for the sample and your opinion!! It was more than helpful. I’ve just ordered my own TG850 and cant wait to test it out. Thank you again!

    Lou

  • gems

    Is there a shutter lag?

  • Every PAS camera has some degree of shutter lag, and this greatly depends on camera settings and the speed of the camera’s computer chip. This camera has a very fast chip which allows fast responses in most cases. If you prime the shutter release (holding it half way down) so the camera has had time to calculate the scene, the speed of response when the shutter release is fully-pressed is quite fast for a rugged automatic. If you are tracking a subject that moves into different lighting, and autofocus has to continually hunt, it may be slower under some conditions.

  • Joanne

    Hey Dave:
    Thank you for the article. Great help. Can you manually change the shutter speed?

  • Nik

    Now with the new TG-3 being out, would you recommend that one over the TG-850? I.e. apart from the ovious differences (faster lens and attachable lenses vs. flip monitor and wide angle), is the image quality noticably better and does it justify the higher price of the TG-3?

  • sam

    Does anyone know how to change from movie mode to picture mode with this camera? I am able to record video but can’t take pictures.

  • Louis Leung

    Hi Dave.

    I buy this TQ850 today, but I found that there are some bad news from Amazon user review. Some of them just use this cam the first time in snorkling then the cam non-function. Some of them claimed that the gasket was clean and the door locked closed but water got in and destroyed the camera. Please read here:

    http://www.amazon.com/Olympus-Stylus-TG-850-Digital-Camera/product-reviews/B00HPQ0DDQ/ref=sr_1_sc_1_cm_cr_acr_img?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=1

    But I read your review, and noted that you have this cam for 30 dives, so I want you to teach me, how to clean up the GASKET to prevent leak. I will goto Okinawa to snorkling and diving in August.

    Thank you very much!

    Regards,

    Louis from Hong Kong.

  • Louis,

    I know that several people have had bad experiences with this camera. I may have been lucky.
    I don’t work for Olympus, but I’d say that they need to address these issues with a replacement. I cannot really ‘teach’ anyone to operate or clean a camera, but I’ll try below:

    Be sure to follow camera manual instructions. Avoid handling with soiled, soapy or sandy hands.
    After opening battery/card gasket door, inspect and wipe ALL gasket edges with finger or moistened camera lens cloth. Avoid gasket coatings that might attract dirt.

    TEST the camera underwater before your trip, even in a hotel pool or bathtub (no soap!)
    Return camera if it fails your test.
    One sway i test cameras for pressure leakage is to put it in a Gallon ZipLock bag or dry bag filled with cool water. Remove all excess air. Apply GENTLE pressure to bag to simulate water pressure.

    I have never taken this camera below 20-feet of depth.

    Enjoy your trip!

  • Louis Leung

    Thank you very much!!!!!!

  • poiua

    Well, this fit my gripped Canon 70D plus attached Canon 17-55 2.8 in the main compartment and the 70-200 2.8L or flash and remotes plus 50mm 1.4 on the side compartment. Highly recommended.
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  • JN

    How is the quality regarding low light shots?

  • CanAmQueen666 .

    Hi there,

    I just bought this camera and I can’t get it to charge! Has anyone else had this problem?? Does anyone know how I can fix this?
    Any help is much appreciated!!
    I really want to start using it!!
    Thank you!

  • tam

    Dave,
    I will be going to St Croix and I would like one good camera for all activities, water, outside, nighttime. Between the TG 3 and TG 850 what would you recommend? I really like the flip screen, built in wide angle, and the longer zoom on the TG 850 but the biggest thing is the aperture is better on the TG 3. Thanks

  • Guest

    Sorry for late response, I’ve been traveling. I have not compared the two cameras, but the add-on lenses for the TG-3 make for a very flexible system. It would be worthwhile to check specs side-by-side to see which camera’s features will best fit your intended needs. handle them both at a local store as well.

  • Tam,

    Good question, and I’d be asking the same thing! Sorry for late response, I’ve been traveling. I have not compared the two cameras, but the add-on lenses for the TG-3 make for a very flexible system. The super wide angle lens and flip screen, Wifi and Slow Motion makes the 850 a great compact package.
    It would be worthwhile to check specs side-by-side at Dpreview.com to see which camera’s features will best fit your intended needs. handle them both at a local store as well.

  • Ally

    I’d like to know that as well

  • To enter movie mode, you push the RED button. (preset movie characteristics in menu). To get back to photo mode, simply touch the shutter button just enough to switch camera back to making stills. Touching the shutter release from any other mode or menu always readies the camera for making photos.

  • Josh

    Is the underwater movie you recorded shot at 60 fps or 30?

  • I have this camera & love it! This photo was taken in panorama mode in Philipsburg, St. Maarten in the Caribbean, as well as all other photos in this Flickr album of mine… https://flic.kr/s/aHsk8w7kb8

  • angie

    Hi Dave..
    i’ve been looking for a rugged camera with a wide lens and tilt screen..and i think this one suite me..just wondering, does this camera have self timer (for the selfie using monopod stick sake) and does this camera can captured an image from the video recorded?
    thanks 🙂

  • Chee Choon Tat

    Hi all,

    Check out the Olympus tg860 review and samples…
    http://www.ido-filming.com/tg860.html

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