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I’ve discovered a flexible companion for all weather action, adventure, and family fun.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 5-way control pad’s center button gives instant access many common shooting options:
Other creative features accessible in the camera menus include:
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.