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Cameras and water, by tradition, don't go together. Sure, there are apocryphal tales about 'Nam photo-journalists dropping their Nikon Fs into the Mekong's muddy waters only to have them transferred to a bucket of clean water until such time as they could be dried, cleaned, re-greased and made working again, but they were all mechanical. Add in electronics and you've got a dead camera on your hands.
In the past, if you wanted to even venture into the shallow end of a paddling pool and carrying on snapping, you needed a waterproof housing to protect your precious kit from water, and even worse, sea water.
However, for the past few years, several of the famous camera makers have been making more rugged pocket cameras with some pretty impressive 'all-weather' credentials.
After my wife mentioning that her Panasonic Lumix job had started to freeze up* whilst taking pictures at Auschwitz/Birkenau in the snow recently, I started to give some thought to 'tough' pocket cameras, and a quick perusal of airport duty-free shops at Vienna and Krakow revealed that Olympus were prominent in the game.
*The lens cover began to be less than eager to get out of the way, resulting in a few shots being partly obscured.
Being already a trifle 'over-equipped' in the camera department, I decided not to part with the cash for a new one. After all, without research it's a very unsafe conclusion to assume that airport shops are cheaper any more and Amazon were knocking them out for £185. Once installed in my hotel room in Krakow, I was able to access the UK e-bay site and found an Olympus Tough TG-610 that had only been used twice and that had picked up a slight scuff mark to its casing for about half the retail price, although who pays those any more? Thus by parting with a somewhat more palatable £110, I took delivery of it upon my return top the UK.
.....a camera that can be charged without removing the battery via a mini-USB lead. Why makers haven't taken the hint from mobile phone firms before beats me. Yes, you can still remove the battery, say for instance if you want to use a spare held in reserve, but no, to charge it you don't have to take it out of the camera. It'll even charge when connected to a PC for the transfer of pictures.
Under the same water-tight 'man-hole cover' as the USB port, there's an SD card slot (full size, not the 'micro' type used in phones), the battery and an micro-HDMI output for connection of an HD-ready TV when watching its movies and '3D' stills - yes it shoots those too.
JUST HOW TOUGH?
I'm reminded of an old Tommy Cooper joke here.
Customer: You remember that dust-proof, shock-proof, water-proof watch you sold me last week?
Jeweller: Yes, what of it?
Customer: It caught fire yesterday!
OK, no-one's even claiming that you can take this camera anywhere near flames but it does have some pretty reassuring properties when it comes to run-of-the-mill misfortune or "being outdoors in Britain" as it's sometimes known.
For one thing, it's supposedly shock-proof to 1.5 metres. That doesn't mean that you can stand five feet away and shout abuse at it or expose yourself. It means that it can be dropped onto a hard-ish surface like plywood from 1.5 metres and be expected to work afterwards. Of course, if you try this onto concrete, or give it a 'Mulholland Fall' down stone stairs don't expect it not to be scratched or dented, but hopefully your picture-taking days may not be over.
It's cold-proof down to minus 10ºC, although, keeping it in a warm pocket till wanted, it could probably stand being used at the South Pole. Keeping it warm also benefits the battery, especially if it was already nearly flat.
As for water-proofing, it's rated to be leak-proof down to a depth of 5 metres or about 16 feet, which should be fine for swimming pools and snorkelling, but sub-aqua fans had better look elsewhere or buy it a further housing.
Like watches, with similar water-proofing, it can be regarded as weather-proof at least with perhaps just a quick dip in the pool thrown in. It doesn't float, so you may want to think about that before emulating Jacques Cousteau at the deep end. It's not too heavy though, so it wouldn't take much of a float attached to its lanyard to keeps it bobbing on the surface.
If used in salt-water, you need to wash it in plain water before letting it dry off. Allowing salt water to dry on it is asking to have the gaskets swell later to leak as salt crystals start to hold the seals open. Olympus do actually advise the changing of the seals once a year, but if it never gets used underwater per se, then I regard this as somewhat alarmist. A perusal of e-bay and a quick 'google' failed to find any new ones though....worrying.
You'd also be well advised to keep sand and grit away from the hatch-cover before opening it too. Sensibly, they've fitted a double locking mechanism to prevent easy opening of this hatch whilst its edges are still wet or grit-strewn
Partly to keep costs down and partly because it makes the production of a watertight case easier, the main shell is a single plastic moulding with only a satin aluminium plate on the front as a sop to old-fashioned values. Previous versions of the 'Tough' range were much more 'butch' with engineering screws all on display at the front. This one looks much more like a typical pocket camera.
One exception is that nothing pops out when you switch it on and nothing extends when you zoom. I assume that the optical zoom lens which still maintains a 5x range, equivalent to 28-140mm in 35mm format, is vertical inside the confines of the camera with some kind of periscope arrangement to give it the forward looking aspect behind the flat piece of glass that keeps water away from the innards. When I first put the camera through its paces, I was a very disappointed with 'soft-ish' results especially what seemed to be a permanent and flattering glow to skin tones. Then I discovered a bloody-great thumbprint on the lens cover! Fortunately, being flat it's easy to clean with a wet-wipe or some such.
Still who needs special portrait filters when a fingerprint will do?
Thinks: Must remember to check for drying marks after use underwater or in heavy rain!
Clean lens or not, I'm not wowed by the quality. Photos are just about printable up to A4 size. Mercifully, I don't have a printer that will go any larger. Despite this, I've standardised on the 16:9 format with black bars top and bottom of the screen at its highest definition setting as I find this leaves less cropping of the pictures for A4 printing purposes, and I've set the compression to 'Fine' also. The first allows for more pictures to be taken since 16:9 uses less pixels than 4:3, and the latter redresses the balance by ensuring that what picture you do have is as unfettered by the limitations of jpeg files as possible.
Something that other reviewers have remarked upon is its tendency to overexpose bright areas like beaches, and I wouldn't disagree with this. To compensate, I've set it permanently to underexpose by 0.7 light-values which seems to do the trick, although I shouldn't really be having to do this, in this day and age.
There's no 'RAW' uncompressed format using all 14.0 megapixels.
I don't care what anyone says though; my old Nikon D70's 6.0 megapixels could knock spots of this one in a close scrutiny of picture quality. Sometimes, it's not just the amount of megapixels but how big they are, and a pocket camera just doesn't have the physical space to house a CCD any larger than your little finger nail, whereas some DSLRs and 'bridge cameras' boast CCDs the size of a 35 mm negative, or at least that of an APS camera (remember them?)
To be honest, I find some of these a bit spongy and indistinct. It's particularly fiddly to use the 'joystick' four-way control for navigation of menus and I'm still having trouble with it scrolling sideways when I want to move up or down. I put this down to the need for a neoprene membrane under the real 'tactile' controls to keep water out. However, help is at hand and thank goodness since like most pocket cameras it's almost entirely menu-driven with hardly any buttons except the obvious like on/off, zoom, shutter etc. This camera can be set to 'tapping' i.e. using the finger tips at strategic point on its body to navigate the likes of menus. Thus, you won't need to take gloves off in bad weather to alter many of its settings.
MORE FEATURES THAN ARE GOOD FOR IT!
This particular aspect is the one I find most frustrating about many cameras, especially pocket cameras. Why do they insist on adding loads of arty-farty features like being able to convert a photo into a pencil sketch, or colouring everything pink? Don't they realise that you'll never be able to recapture the original in full colour if you shoot your photos pre-set like this - there's no way back once you've done it. My own personal advice would be to leave well alone, and use Photoshop once you've got the photos safely backed-up to a computer. That way, you've got both; the original and your new piece of art-work!
Making this decision leaves the menus looking a lot less daunting and fiddly.
Some features are a necessary evil though - for instance when taking shots underwater, you need to tell the camera that's what you want as focus and light values change completely, and even then there are two variants; one for taking pictures of a specific subject and the other, a kind of landscape (seascape?) .
For the most part, the only alteration that I make frequently is to decide what kind of flash do I need, or indeed do I want it on at all? I might also change the 'white balance' from 'auto' to 'incandescent' if shooting without flash indoors. Then sometimes I leave well alone and just check the results. Some people actually find the extra 'sun-tanned' look of shooting by candle light quite flattering!
DETAILS AND CONCLUSION
I won't bore you with a load of statistics beyond the fact that it has a 5x zoom and 14.0 megapixels maximum definition.
It can be set to shoot single shots or allowed a free rein as long as you hold down the shutter button.
You can specify its 'ASA number' - its light-sensitivity or let it decide for itself.
It makes 'OK' movies, but not up to camcorder standards. Nevertheless, the results look good on an HD Ready TV, but you will need to buy the special HDMI lead.
It can do panoramas by leaving you with the ghost of the first shot, to help you line up the next, and the next.
I can't really comment on its 3D capability as I don't have a 3D television, and am not likely to have one this side of Hell freezing over. It seems to work by allowing the first shot to be taken, and then, as with the panorama, giving you a ghost of the first picture, so as to create the re-alignment needed to provide two viewpoints, the distance apart of the human eyes. If it's anything like the 3D movie demos I've seen, it's not so much 3D, but a load of 2D subjects all at different distances from each other, rather like one of those miniature theatres, with cardboard cut-outs of scenery to give a kind of depth.
I'm still luke-warm about the results. This camera does nothing to push forward any boundaries. If feels like a 4-year-old specification dressed up in a new guise to give it an extra lease of life. I feel the results are compromised in some way by the 'armour'. Maybe it's that extra sheet of glass needed to keep the water out, maybe it's the 'periscope' set up required to enable optical zooming within the fixed dimensions of the shell.
I wasn't overly happy with the battery life, it being somewhat akin to that of a typical smart phone, i.e. in need of a daily recharge
One to leave in the glove box for a 'rainy day' - no, seriously. At least I've got a USB charger in there already!
Whether you are an adrenalin junkie taking part in extreme sports, going on holiday where you and your technology will need to endure all types of terrain or you are all thumbs and have broken your last couple of cameras by dropping them into the toilet. The Olympus TG-610 is a fantastic all rounder. But it is not just this small minority that may find it useful. It is the perfect camera for the everyday Joe as well. It has all of the functions that you might find on standard compact camera such as macro lens and multiple shooting modes. But the one of many things I find impressive, not just with the camera but the Olympus corporation ability to think outside frame, if you will, is some new controls that I have never heard of before. There is the Automatic Pet Detection function that takes a snap as soon as it detects your pet is in the picture, I know mad isn't it? I nether though I would see anyone make use of such a function but, what do you know, there is a lot of animal lovers out there and the pictures were pretty good considering there was no one pressing the button. There is the underwater macro lens which is brill for taking detailed shots underwater. But the best utility has to be the Easy Tap Control where if you are not able to press the buttons to navigate through the menu system because you are wearing gloves or you digits have frozen stiff you can simply tap the side of the of the cam to select the on screen options you want.
So, yes its nice to have a have a device that is water proof up to 5 meters and shock/drop proof to up to 1.5 meters (which I have seen the predecessor survive a 10 meter fall with no noticeable damage) , as well as freeze proof if that is what you need. But for me it was the innovation and the fun I had with all to on screen edit functions that won my vote.