If you're the type who likes to capture and record all of your outdoor escapades, a rugged camera is a good accessory. Not only are these cameras built to withstand shocks, drops and extreme temperatures, they don't have any trouble operating when it's wet out either.
After testing a number of models, our favorite waterproof camera is the Olympus TG-5 ($379), which is exceptionally versatile yet fairly easy to use and offers very good quality photos and beautiful video at 4K-resolution. Coming in at a close second-place behind the TG-5 is the Nikon Coolpix W300 ($385), which can go twice as far underwater at the TG-5 and can also capture very good quality photos and video in 4K-resolution.
The GoPro Hero7 Black ($499) is our favorite rugged action camera. Not only is it waterproof to 33 feet without needing any extra housing, but it has improved motion stabilization, which should help make your videos look smoother.
The TG-5 sports a 12-MP sensor, f/2.0 lens, Olympus' latest TruPic VIII image processor, and a 4X optical zoom. The TG-5 also includes what Olympus calls a Field Sensor System, which tracks your movement, temperature and location, so that you can see your stats later, or embed that info directly into your footage. And because this camera is part of Olympus' Tough line, you get some serious durability that includes water-resistance up to 50 feet, shock-resistance up to seven feet, and operating temperatures that extend down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
What Olympus Tough TG-5 Owners Are Saying
Likes: Amazon customers liked the microscope mode, which lets you focus very close to objects. They also liked the sturdy build of the TG-5, yet it's still smaller and lighter than expected. Others were happy with the 4K video and GPS and found it great to take snorkeling. It was also easy to change settings underwater. There were some owners that pointed out that it was better in low light than its predecessor
Dislikes: Like many point-and-shoots, you can hear the sound of the lens while zooming into or out from a subject. Other owner cons included having issues with connecting and disconnecting with computer via a USB cable, and being disappointed with the built-in Wi-Fi.
Our favorite deep-diving camera, Nikon's 16-MP Coolpix W300 has the same 100-foot water resistance as the previous model, the AW130, while increasing shock-resistance to withstand falls from heights of up to 7.9 feet. We liked that it includes a slightly more powerful 5x zoom lens (from 24mm-120mm) than the Olympus lens (24mm-100mm), which is helpful for capturing close photos and video footage without degrading image quality, which happens when you use digital zoom.
Like the TG-5, the W300 can capture video at up to 4K at 30 fps, and will even let you shoot and save stills in the middle of recording a video. We liked the variety of video settings, including time-lapse and superlapse movie mode. But we were disappointed that it lacks slow-motion features like the TG-5. The W300 sports built-in a GPS, altimeter, depth gauge and point-of-interest mapping. And like all of Nikon's recent cameras, the W300 features the company's Snapbridge tech so you can connect your phone to your camera using NFC, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for super simple photo sharing. The Coolpix W300 is available in yellow, black and orange.
What Nikon Coolpix W300 Owners Are Saying
Likes: Amazon customers were impressed with improvements to image and video stabilization as well as white balance and dynamic-range issues. Also, some noted the flash worked very well.
Dislikes: As with the Olympus Tough TG-5, some noted they were disappointed with the camera's built-in Wi-Fi. Complaints also include that the new Coolpix is a bit heavier and that Nikon eliminated the map feature.
If Olympus' and Nikon's cameras are too pricey for your budget, FujiFilm's FinePix XP120 may be more to your liking. It's waterproof to 65 feet, can withstand drops from about 6 feet, and can withstand temperature ranges from 14 degrees to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Its 16MP sensor and a 5X optical zoom lens that goes from 28 - 140mm (35mm equivalent). It can also shoot 1080p video, and a Cinemagraph Mode lets you take still images with moving elements.
A newer version of this camera, the XP130 ($129), is now available. It has similar capabilities as the XP120, but includes Bluetooth to make it easier to transfer photos from the camera to your smartphone or tablet.
What Fujifilm FinePix XP120 Owners Are Saying
Likes: The XP120 has a rating of four stars on Amazon. Several praised its images, with one writing "pictures are good quality, both underwater and above ground."
Dislikes: One owner said that the XP120's manual was tiny and not all that helpful, while others said the battery life was too short.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 has 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 submersed in 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 S8 Active's fast autofocus is a great fit for action shots, and its 8-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.
The GoPro Hero7 Black has all of the things we liked from the previous model: a 12-MP sensor for still shots and up to 4K video (at 60 fps), slo-mo video at 240 fps. But, a new image-stabilization feature means that your footage above the water will be just as smooth as that below. In addition, you can now live stream from the camera using the GoPro app, so people can watch your derrings-do in real time. As before, the camera has an impressive voice control system, which means you can control the camera by simply telling the camera to "start video recording" or "take a photo." It's also waterproof to 33 feet without needing an extra case.
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.
Tips for Improving Your Underwater Photos and Video
There are many scenarios in which a waterproof or rugged camera can help capture unique photos or video. Here are some tips to really make the most of those images.
Make sure the compartments are sealed. If you let water get into the camera, it will be damaged, and will most likely not work again. It’s important to read the instructions on waterproof-and-rugged models, if only to prevent such damage.
Use a harness to carry Your camera: Some camera manufacturers make chest straps so that you can shoot with your waterproof camera, hands free. It can make for some powerful point-of-view style photos and video.
Add a selfie stick: Although some have badmouthed these accessories, they can be useful by providing a new point of view. Just be careful not to bump into those around you. Also, be aware that some types of venues, like museums and stadiums, often ban selfie sticks.
Get a flash diffuser: Because some waterproof-and-rugged cameras have impressive macro, or close-up, features, you can use a circular flash diffuser, which fits around you camera lens, to provide much better illumination for your small-scale subjects.
Waterproof Cases and Housings
If you already own a (non) waterproof camera, and don't want to purchase a new camera to go scuba diving or snorkeling, there is a whole constellation of accessories to make them waterproof. But one thing you’ll want to take note of: Be sure to find out the depth the housing is rated for. For instance, you’ll want to be sure to see how far underwater you can take your camera or smartphone once it’s in the housing.
For stand-alone cameras, you’ll want to look at both accessories created by your camera’s brand and by third-party accessories, such as Ikelite or Aquatec. For point-and-shoots, you’ll be able to find cases that range between $200 to $500. But if you’re looking to put an advanced interchangeable-lens camera, like a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, into a waterproof housing, you’ll have to spend quite a bit of money: Prices can range between $750 - $1,500.
For smartphones, you generally don’t get anywhere near the waterproofing in a standard case that you get with stand-alone camera housing. Waterproof smartphone cases might provide you with the ability to dive down only 6 or 7 feet underwater, and often for only a small period of time, like an hour. You’ll pay anywhere between $15-80, but if you want to go scuba diving your phone in a case, the models generally cost more than $100.
Three Unique Types of Photos You Can Shoot with Rugged and Waterproof Cameras
Because these types of cameras resist water, you can explore new types of images that are very difficult if not impossible to capture with other types of cameras:
The Plunge into the Pool
Credit: Terry Sullivan
Rugged cameras aren’t just waterproof. They can also survive the impact of diving into the water. One photo that’s fun to shoot is to set the camera on burst mode, then fall backwards into the pool as the burst mode fires. (But be careful when jumping into a pool backwards.) You can usually catch the moment you hit the water. If you can point the camera at your face, you can usually get a funny expression.
Credit: Terry Sullivan
Because the camera bodies are sealed, rugged cameras let you experiment with how water can distort your images in interesting ways. For example, if you have a droplet of water on your lens, it will create some unusual lighting and distortion effects. Just be sure to clean the lens after you’re finished.
Half In and Half Out of the Water
Credit: Terry Sullivan
Place the lens of your waterproof camera so that the water line runs through the center of your image. You can then see both above the water and below it.
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