If you (or your kids) are prone to dropping things or if you like to venture out in extreme temperatures or dusty trails or sandy beaches, one of these rugged cameras might be for you. Rugged models are shockproof if you drop them, can operate in extreme temperatures and are sealed against dust, dirt and water.
But it's the waterproof capabilities that may be most helpful when you head out to the ocean, lake, or riverside to capture the exotic flora and fauna.
While underwater housings are available for many cameras, there are a number of models that provide protection against the elements all on their own. These self-contained, amphibious cameras are easy to carry and take great photos in gentle environments, as well. But we've also included a small housed camera, with various mounting accessories for shooting POV (point of view) photo and video.
Our favorite underwater camera is the Olympus Tough TG-4. Although it's more expensive and can go down to water depths of only 50 feet— shallower than the other cameras we tested — it provided the best overall photos and features. Our next favorite is the Nikon Coolpix AW130. Although its photos aren't as good, it can go down to 100 feet and is $50 cheaper than the Olympus.
How We Tested
Underwater cameras may spend their lives outdoors documenting your adventures, but they still deserve the same rigorous testing that we apply to more expensive shooters.
In addition to doing side-by-side comparison testing in the field, we took sample photos in a controlled indoor environment of a photographic test pattern at various ISO levels, apertures and settings, so we could analyze photo-quality elements such as sharpness, detail, color saturation and image noise.
For underwater photo testing, we set the cameras to their respective underwater modes and mounted them on a tripod submerged in an indoor pool. We then took photos of a test scene, which included fake coral. This allowed us to evaluate underwater photo quality as we did with aboveground testing, so that we could get a true apples-to-apples comparison for submerged shooting.
Lastly, we made sure that the cameras still worked after taking them for a dunk; after all, they claim to be waterproof.
The Olympus Tough TG-4 is the fourth generation of the company's shockproof, waterproof compact camera. Although it can't go as deep as the Nikon Coolpix AW130 (100 feet) or the Canon PowerShot D30 (150 feet), the TG-4's 50-foot rating should suffice for snorklers and everyone but deep-diving Scuba expeditions. The TG-4 is also made to survive any kind of abuse on land — it's dustproof, crushproof to withstand up to 220 pounds of pressure, shockproof from a 7-foot drop and freezeproof down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
The TG-4's fast, bright aperture of f/2.0 helps capture light from darker underwater scenes. It features several special underwater modes, including wide-angle and macro (extreme close-up) options. It has a 16-megapixel backside-illuminated CMOS sensor, and can shoot in RAW format.
Although the camera doesn't offer full manual exposure controls, it has a number of useful modes, including Intelligent Auto, Program Auto and Aperture Priority. Along with the typical scene modes you'll find on most compact cameras, the TG-4 has macro and microscope modes that let you get extreme close-ups of tiny subjects above or below water with up to 44.5x magnification.
In addition to Wi-Fi and GPS, the TG-4 includes an electronic compass that provides latitude and longitude, barometric pressure, altitude and water depth.
Optional accessory lenses include a $140 fish-eye converter lens pack to get an even broader view of the underwater landscape, a $130 teleconverter lens for a 7x zoom, and a $41 circular LED light guide (LG-1) that fits around the lens for great macro illumination.
What Olympus TG-4 Owners Are Saying
Likes: Amazon customers who purchased the TG-4 praised the camera’s microscope mode, which let them take macro photos. They also liked the fact that the TG-4 shoots in RAW format, a feature rarely found on point-and-shoot cameras.
Dislikes: Camera settings, such as that for RAW shooting, are buried deep in menus. It doesn’t help that the TG-4 doesn’t come with a printed manual. Other owner cons include poor shots in dim lighting and short battery life.
Although it doesn't go as deep as the Canon PowerShot D30's 150 feet, the Nikon Coolpix AW130 is waterproof to 100 feet, and takes far better photos. Even at ISO 1600, images were crisp and showed great color saturation. It also has dedicated GPS and Wi-Fi buttons, which make it extremely simple to embed metadata into your photos. The AW130 has a 5x optical zoom, easy-to-use controls, and a nice grip on the right side, to make sure that the camera always stays in your hand. Best of all, it has some very secure latches, so you never have to worry if water is seeping in. The AW130 comes in black, blue, or yellow.
What Nikon Coolpix AW130 Owners Are Saying
Likes: Amazon customers like that the AW130 has built-in GPS and GLONASS for geotagging photos, and takes great pictures in low-light conditions. "The camera automatically senses when it's in water and it changes to underwater mode," wrote one owner. "When I popped out of the water, the camera changed back to land use.Got to love technology!"
Dislikes: To recharge the AW130, you must open the battery compartment to plug in a USB cable; this potentially exposes the camera to water and dust. "I ultimately ordered a separate battery charger," said one owner.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 introduced one of the best phone cameras on the market, and its Active counterpart lets you use it on your next hike or swimming trip with confidence. The Active is MIL-810-STD tested and packs a shatterproof display, meaning you can drop it face-first onto just about any surface without a problem. It can also survive being under up to five feet of water for up to 30 minutes, complete with a dedicated shutter button for snapping a few underwater shots.
This rugged phone's 12-MP dual-pixel shooter captures rich and vibrant daytime photos, and its f/1.7 lens excels under low light. The S7 Active's fast autofocus is a great fit for action shots, and its 5-MP front camera packs its own flash for epic nighttime selfies. Complementing the phone's camera is Samsung's Activity Zone app, which includes a compass, barometer and flashlight button to make exploring easier.
Action sports and underwater photography haven't been the same since GoPro first introduced its tiny cameras in 2004. While a number of models are available, our favorite is the Hero4 Silver Edition, with a 12-megapixel sensor for still shots and up to 4K video (albeit at just 15fps) for motion capture.
GoPro's underwater housing, which is bundled with the camera, turns this Lilliputian-size camera into an almost equally tiny fully waterproof kit that operates as deep as 131 feet.
GoPro and third-party vendors offer a huge number of accessories, including touch-screen backs, external monitors, filters and multiple options for mounting the camera on just about anything you can imagine. Clamps and suction cup mounts are available for surfboards, cars, bicycles and more for recording POV videos, time-lapse videos and still images. It's easy to share images, thanks to the camera's built-in Wi-Fi and free app for Android, iOS and Windows Phone mobile devices.
What GoPro Owners Are Saying
Likes: Amazon owners of the GoPro Hero4 Silver loved the camera’s high-quality video, and as one user noted, “even their snap shots can be quite amazing too.” The GoPro also earned praise for the wide variety of accessories, which let them “mount the thing pretty much anywhere.”
Dislikes: GoPro users noted that battery life was poor, and on some units, a popping sound was heard if Wi-Fi was on while recording video.
If you want an easy-to-use but rugged camera that'll let you spend less time fiddling with settings and more time enjoying the great outdoors, Nikon's 12.3-MP KeyMission 80 might be exactly what you need. This tiny 2.7-ounce camera is smaller than a smartphone, but can withstand submersions up to 3.3 feet, drops up to 5 feet and temperatures down to 14 degrees F. With its oversized shutter button and portrait-orientated design, it’s built for easy one-handed operation. It even comes with a holder that attaches to your shirt or backpack and which will automatically turn the camera on every time you unclip it. And unlike almost every other camera this size, it features an second 4.9-MP selfie cam and a full HD screen.
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