Buying Guide: Tough Cameras

If you follow camera development you're likely to be aware of the growing number of 'tough' or 'adventure' cameras available with a myriad of new features, some of which are really useful. If you’re thinking of buying a tough camera but you're not sure what to look for to suit your needs, then this guide is here to help you through the maze.

So let's start with what a tough camera actually is! There is a tough camera range from Olympus called 'Tough' (including the Olympus Tough TG-2 for example), but don’t let that confuse you as there are plenty of rugged and robust cameras on the market ranging in price from around £150 to £350 from most of the major compact camera manufacturers. A tough camera is principally a compact camera that has some resistance to water and being dropped and it usually doesn't have a fragile, pokey-outey zoom...I think the word is telescopic. Then it may also have a host of extra features that are designed to be used alongside outdoor activities, from kayaking to hiking, surfing to climbing or simply a casual beach holiday with the kids.

When you come to choose your camera you need to think about what you want to use it for and what you want to get out of it. Starting at the basic end of the spectrum, you may decide that you simply want a compact camera to take on a beach or pool holiday with the kids. If you’re not overly concerned with image quality and would simply like a compact that might survive your 4 year old using it as a pool toy, then you could go for something at the cheaper end with basic functionality and without more advanced features such as GPS that, frankly, may amuse you for ten minutes on the airplane but you know you will never really use.

However, if you are a keen cyclist like me, a GPS is a jolly handy way of tracing your tracks and placing your pictures on a map. Slow motion footage could be a lot of fun to tinker around with in such a fast moving sport as well and a great way to capture the detail in video. Hikers will like the compass, rock climbers will need something they can drop, kayakers will like something that is water sealed and skiers will appreciate  tap controls and operation at freezing temperatures.

Below is a list of the features and functionality that you may want to consider when investing in a tough camera. Have a read through and decide what is important to you and your lifestyle. Armed with this checklist in mind you can head over to the online shop with a full understanding of what you really need, what you would like, and frankly what you would probably prefer not to have in a camera.

Features & function to consider

A Compass

Converging a camera with a compass is not an immediately obvious sort of thing to do but it may just prove to be one of the simple functions that is really useful to hikers and people who are orienteering in the wild or to real estate agents who can take a snap to remember the condition of a property but also understand where the sun will hit the garden. A compass is a great tool and can provide hours of fun and amusement but you probably would not need one to find the all-inclusive buffet on your family holiday.

GPS

The GPS facility can usually do lots of unusual and interesting things such as record the location of a shot to be later uploaded to a mapping service such as those provided by Google. It can also be used to record your tracks or a special landmark, again you can later upload this to an online mapping service and share it with other hikers, cyclists or simply to show off to friends. But beware, the GPS service is battery hungry; it will wear your battery down quicker than normal usage and also beware that in some cameras if you leave the GPS setting on it will stay on even when the camera is switched off. This is designed to help record a route taken or stay locked on to a satellite for immediate use as soon as you quickly turn on and take a picture – but it will hog your battery life and this is what makes the GPS setting a little bit tricky to pragmatically use in reality.

Digital Level

Some cameras show you when a camera is level. This is very helpful in pretty much any situation, particularly if you’re predisposed to taking photos with wonky horizons. But even if you are trying to size up the gradient of a climb this could be useful for taking a picture of a landscape while clinging on to a rock-face.

Macro Mode

The macro modes on some of the tough cameras available are truly inspiring! If you're a hiker that often thinks you would like to take the memory of some of your smaller nature finds home then check for a macro function with a wide aperture setting – f/2 is good – the general rule is the smaller the number the better. Check out what the closest focusing distance is too, some cameras can focus on subject as close as only 1cm away from the lens.

Video Recording & Slow Motion Footage

A great new feature in the video mode of these and other compact cameras is an extremely high frame rate of up to 120 frames per second. This means you can slow the action down around 5 times without any loss of quality and get really smooth, high definition footage. Perfect for fast moving sports and adventures from cycling to white water rafting.

Most tough cameras feature HD movie recording as standard these days, so even if you can't take advantage of a high frame rate function, you should be able to ignite your passion for adventure film making.

Tap Controls

I haven’t quite gotten the knack of using tap controls myself but I can see that if your adventure requires you to wear gloves, particularly thick ones, you'll appreciate being able to operate your cameras menus buy simply holding it in one hand and tapping it with the other. Tap the left, right or top of it to change camera settings - usually a single tap will help you move through the menus while a double tap will let you pick menu items. Drop it down a gorge and you might need to restore manufacturer settings!

USB Charging

This will seem obvious now you've read it here, but its amazing how few cameras there are that can be charged via a 12 volt USB charger such as the one in your car. If you're camping or in any situation where you are away from home for days or weeks at a time you will know how much of a pain it is to lose the use of your cameras because of a dead battery. Wouldn't it be good if you could charge it off your car in the same way you do your Tom Tom or mobile phone? Only a few cameras I've tested actually allow you to do this and I think it is a feature that is obviously very useful.

Waterproof

This is a fundamental element to any adventure camera. Even if you're not snorkelling or kayaking, you may still want to use your camera whatever the weather throws at you.  Most cameras go to a depth of at least 6 meters, which is ample for a pool or beach holiday but a keen diver might like something that goes a little deeper - some tough cameras will operate at depths up to 15m!

WiFi

Great for connectivity to your phone or internet applications for uploading and sharing with friends on-the-go.

Shockproof

Most adventures require a bit of knocking about and if you have young children, you will know how clumsy they can be (or downright destructive in my case!). Obviously, the higher the drop and crush rating the better but also consider what the outer frame is made out of. The stylish looks of an anodised aluminium case will scratch and scuff more easily than some of the harder more resilient plastics – but watch out for chrome effect plastic, this is the easiest to scratch of all. Whilst all this scratching might not affect the actual operation of the camera it will make it look a little worse for wear – or maybe it’s just the sort battle-scarring that would give you the 'tough adventure' credibility you're looking for.

Operation in a broad range of temperatures

Some of these cameras boast the ability to operate smoothly in double digit negative temperatures – amazing! It's an especially handy feature if you're off on a skiing trip or even an arctic adventure to photograph the northern lights. If you're more of a beach bunny then this may be a function you're happy to overlook.

The list above specifically concentrates on the 'tough' or 'adventure' elements of these types of camera. They all offer a host of functionality that you'd find in a non-tough compact camera in addition to this, so you need to take these into consideration as well...

Other factors to consider

Image quality

Megapixels, lens quality and focal range, ISO range, sensor quality and size are the most important factors in contributing to a great image. As well as just the number of megapixels, look at the maximum aperture throughout the lens focal range - cameras like the Olympus TG-2 and Pentax WG-3  will perform better in lower light as they both boast an aperture of f/2.0 at the widest focal length.

Ease of use

You really might need to read the instructions to operate some of the features on these cameras so if you are not inclined, then look for simple operating menus and fewer buttons. If you have used a Canon before, you may find it easy to get to grips with a Canon adventure camera because there is often a lot of parity – it's likely that a camera from a brand that you are used to using will seem intuitive. If you're particularly worried, have a play with them or read our tough camera comparison review to see what we found to have the best handling.

Price

There is a fair range of cameras available on the market from the trendy looking Fuji XP60 at £144* to the Olympus TG-2 at just over £300* and more.  However, compare the specifications and you will see that they are not all created equally. It is important to get the right functions and specification for you. Shopping on price alone might mean you don’t get the feature that could transform the way you think about photography!

Now you have your checklist of tough camera must-haves, might-haves or shouldn't-haves, head over to our online shop and start browsing specific cameras, use the comparison tool to pitch your favourite 3 or 4 against each other on specification. If you’re like me you will also factor in how cool they look. I think this is perfectly natural, you might like the bright colours of a Fuji, the rugged styling of a Pentax or the camouflage of the Nikon - but remember if it doesn't do what you want it to do, you probably won't use it no matter how cool it looks!

Let us know in the comments below if you have any tough camera questions and we'll do our best to get them answered for you.

 *Prices correct as at 24 May 2013, subject to change.