Olympus has recently released the latest in their Tough line of waterproof cameras. These are compact, pocketable cameras that you can taking underwater, to the beach, or on a boat. But aside from the waterproof aspect, you can also use them as an everyday family or travel camera, just as you would any other compact camera.
So rather than treating them as dedicated underwater dive cameras, I prefer to treat them as amphibious. My thinking is that if you’re going to take a camera like this with you, chances are that you want it to perform as well out of the water as in the water. If GoPro are action cams, cameras like the Olympus TG-5 and Ricoh WG-50 might be considered adventure cams–the type of camera you might want to take traveling or on vacation. And that’s how I shoot with them, and it’s with that approach that I’m reviewing the TG-5 here.
I’ve used several models in the Tough series starting with the TG-2. The latest model is the Olympus TG-5. I’ve been shooting with it since it was released, partly as an everyday travel camera, but I also took it on a kayaking trip to the Arctic, which was a very good test of its ruggedized performance in less-than-friendly conditions. I’ve previously posted some sample photos I’ve taken with the TG-5. Here’s my more detailed hands-on review.
Using the TG-5 in the Water
The defining feature of this camera is that it’s ruggedized. Or, in other words, it’s waterproof, dust proof, and, to some extent, resilient against the cold–all things that can cause problems for most cameras. So I’ll lead off with that aspect.
The TG-5 is rated to be waterproof down to 50 feet (15 meters), which is deep enough to cover things like swimming, snorkeling, and even a lot of recreational SCUBA diving. So in terms of its weatherproofness, it’s good for most recreational uses. It’s also somewhat resistant to cold and has good protection against dust.
Seals. The waterproofness is only as good as the seals. On this camera there are two trapdoors that open, one for the battery/memory card compartment and another for the HDMI and USB ports. Each door has a double latch system to open and close, and it’s easy to tell when the door is properly closed and locked and very unlikely that you’ll knock it open accidentally. The doors do have rubber seals around them, and it’s definitely worth inspecting those frequently to make sure there’s no damage to them or grit caught in them that would prevent a seal. It wasn’t this model—it was an older TG-2—but I’ve seen a case where a bit go sand prevented a proper seal and leaked very slightly, leading to corrosion of the HDMI port. There’s only so much that any manufacturer can do to protect against that; the rest comes down to users making sure that the seal is in fact sealing.
The camera’s controls work underwater, and so long as you’re wearing goggles or a mask, I found it easy to use them underwater. You can, of course, just hold it underwater and shoot blind—that works too.
The camera doesn’t float. It’ll sink like a stone if you drop it in the water. So you’ll want to use some kind of float like a floaty hand strap. Olympus makes their own, which is pretty bulky but does the job. There are also other options you can use.
The TG-5 has a 12MP sensor and a 4x zoom that is the equivalent focal lengths to a 25-100mm lens on a full-frame camera.
Sharpness. If you’re shooting JPG, you’ll notice that the photos are crisp and sharp. But a big part of that is that the camera applies quite aggressive sharpening to the images in-camera. That becomes apparent when you shoot RAW–the same aggressive sharpening is applied to the embedded JPG preview that’s generated. To be clear, that’s not unusual–in fact, most cameras do that.
But when you dig down to the original RAW file, the images are actually surprisingly soft. It’s not all the lens–it’s also a function of the sensor–but I found the images to be softer than I expected.
As you’d also expect, and is quite normal, especially with a small lens like this, it’s much sharper in the middle than at the edges of the frame.
Low Light Performance. At high ISO’s, its performance is, frankly, poor. It’s pretty good up to ISO 800, but once you start pushing much beyond that things start going downhill quickly. The noise gets intrusive, the colors start shifting badly, and the detail just disappears. Here are a couple of examples. The first is at ISO 800. The second is basically the same scene and lighting conditions but at ISO 6400. Click on the images to open full-size versions.
Here’s another example taken at 6400:
One of the things I particularly like about the Olympus TG-5 is that it has RAW mode. It creates RAW files in Olympus’s own ORF format.
One of the things I like least about that, though, is that they’re a proprietary RAW format. When I first got the camera, major photo processing apps like Lightroom and PhotoMechanic couldn’t work with this iteration of the ORF files. That’s since been fixed as compatibility has been rolled out to those apps, but it’s yet another reminder of precisely the kind of problem the folks behind the OpenRAW push predicted over a decade ago.
Olympus does make its own RAW processing app available for free but then makes it infuriatingly hard to find (to save you the trouble, here’s the direct link. You’ll need a camera serial number to download it). There are versions for Windows and Mac. Make sure to run the in-app updater after installing it, because the version from the Olympus website isn’t necessarily the latest version.
Olympus Viewer 3, as it’s called, is fine, but it’s pretty basic, quite klunky to use, and doesn’t export to DNG. In short, there’s no way I’d be using it in place of something like Lightroom or PhotoMechanic if I didn’t have to. I shoot with multiple cameras, and having to use a specific app to process RAW files from a single camera is a very poor user experience. Having evidently made the decision to go with a proprietary RAW format rather than something that’s at least widely compatible like DNG, I can understand why Olympus wanted to provide an app that can work with the files. But there are much better apps available, including Lightroom and some of the Lightroom alternatives, and in my opinion they would have just been better off working with providing the format’s specs to those developers ahead of time so that they could make their apps compatible in time for the camera’s release. In fairness, I should point out, though, that not everyone finds working with Olympus Viewer 3 a chore. Here’s a good point making the case for using it instead of something like Lightroom.
The shooting modes are controlled by the small dial on the back. There are options for Aperture priority (A), general auto-mode (P), video (video camera icon), underwater (fish icon), macro (microscope icon), scene presets (SCN), and just point and shoot auto everything (auto). There are also two slots for custom settings (C1, and C2) where you can define your own preferred settings and save them as shooting presets.
When you rotate the shooting mode dial to the scene mode (SCN), you’ll get a series of options with presets with optimal settings for particular types of shooting: people, nightscapes, motion, scenery, and indoors.
There are four options when you turn the shooting mode dial to the macro mode–it’s the small microscope icon.
The first is a standard macro mode.
The next is focus stacking. It takes several photos and combines them in such a way that it increases the depth of field. This is especially useful for macro photos because the depth of field at very close range is especially narrow. Because this relies on aligning each photo, using a tripod is recommended so as to avoid movement between the frames.
The focus stacking is one of the features I’ve been most intrigued by, and I’ve found it to work well. I have a more detailed review of the TG-5’s focus stacking feature here.
The next is focus bracketing. Like the focus stacking, this takes several photos with slightly different focus. But in this case, it keeps all of the individual photos rather than combining them and stacking them into a single shot. So it’s safety net mode like exposure bracketing.
Finally, there’s a macro zoom option to magnify very small subjects appear larger in the frame. Not that this is a digital zoom rather than a true optical zoom, so it’s basically cropping.
There are four options with the underwater shooting modes. You access them by turning the shooting mode dial to the small fish icon.
The first is a general snapshot mode. It uses natural light and has a very light touch when it comes to compensating for the reduced red band light, so it’s best for shots taken very near the surface, such as with snorkeling or swimming.
The underwater wide mode uses settings that work well for general underwater shots that are a little deeper where there’s less red light making it’s way through the water.
If you’re shooting very close macros, there’s an underwater macro mode that uses the onboard flash.
And the last underwater shooting mode is an HDR mode that takes a couple of exposures and blends them to take the best detail from highlights and shadows from each shot and combine them to create a single, better image. This is especially useful if you’re shooting upwards, where the surface of the water is bright while the things you actually want to take a photo of us in shadow.
Because it’s taking several shots and blending them, this doesn’t work well with fast-moving subjects because of problems with aligning the images.
When you turn the dial to the the video mode (video camera icon), there are three options for the video mode. The first is a standard video mode. The resolution and framerate are adjusted separately.
The next is a high-resolution 4K shooting mode.
And, finally, there’s a high-framerate mode for shooting slow motion video. This mode doesn’t record audio–it’s video only.
I found that the autofocus tends to search quite a bit when recording video. It doesn’t matter much for subjects far away, but if your subject is closer and moving, you can get quite a lot of fuzzy footage while it’s searching for focus.
The camera’s controls are pretty much as you’d expect on modern cameras. There’s a mix of buttons and a back screen that not only gives a live view through the lens but is also used for the menus and settings. I didn’t find there to been too many buttons that just get unnecessarily confusing, and the menus are logically and clearly laid out.
The back screen is large and clear. It’s crisp and bright enough to be usable even in sunny conditions. It’s not a touch screen–all the controls are handled through buttons and dials.
Compass and status. With the camera powered off (but with battery in), press the INFO button and you’ll get a special display on the back screen with a digital compass, clock, battery status, and, if you have the GPS on, the GPS coordinates.
What’s in the Box?
It comes with:
- Olympus TG-5 camera
- Olympus LI-92B Li-ion rechargeable battery
- wrist strap
- AC USB adapter for charging
- micro-USB cable
In the standard packaging, the camera comes with basic essentials, except for a memory card, which you’ll have to pick up separately.
Some retailers bundle it with some accessories, like this.
There are also some accessories that you can get as optional extras that are worthy of note. Here are a few I found useful.
Olympus makes a screw-on wide-angle lens for this camera that you can pick up as an optional extra. The lens is also waterproof, so you can keep it on even in the water–and, actually, that’s really the best use for it, because the extra wide-angle view works well underwater.
It’s a little cumbersome–at least relative to such a small camera–but I’ve found it to work quite well.
I’ve posted a separate, detailed review of the wide-angle lens here. It includes a number of photos to show the effect of the wide-angle.
Olympus also makes a dedicated silicone skin that slips on. It doesn’t add any extra waterproofness, but it does add better grip, which I found comes in very useful in cold, wet conditions. It also adds a little extra protection against bumps and scratches to at least some of the camera’s body.
I’ve posted a detailed review of the silicone skin for the TG-5 here.
The camera sinks but itself, so I’d recommend picking up a float strap as well. Olympus makes its own, but there are also a number of other third-party options that work equally as well.
Lens Cover. There’s no lens cover, it’s worth investing in some kind of case or wrap. Again, there are Olympus options, but there are also many other third-party options that might work better for you.
Dive Housing. If you’re taking it deep underwater, you might be interested in Ikelite’s underwater housing for the TG-5. In addition to giving a depth rating of up to 200 feet, it also includes strobe connectors, which would come in very handy for adding some more useful underwater lighting.
GPS Off. Unless you’re actively using it, it’s a good idea to leave the GPS logging off because it sucks up a lot of battery power.
You can find a digital version of the instruction manual here [PDF].
I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to try out several different waterproof cameras in real-world shooting. There are cameras that might excel at particular aspects but fall short in other areas. The Leica X-U has excellent image quality but is functionality basic and exorbitantly expensive. The Ricoh WG-50 has some interesting, unique features like a macro ring flash, but it can’t compete with the Olympus on image quality or general handling.
If you want to have a camera that can shoot good photos in almost any weather conditions or vacation environment, the TG-5 a great bet. It competently covers more bases than other compact cameras. Of all the amphibious waterproof cameras I’ve tried–and it’s been quite a few over the years–I’ve been happiest with the Olympus TG-5 as a go-anywhere, shoot-anything option.
That said, it’s not perfect. I’ve been disappointed with its low-light performance. And it’s not what I’d choose if there’s no water involved and no chance of water being involved—there are better non-waterproof options. And if I know I’m going specifically on a diving or snorkeling shoot I’ll take a higher-end, larger camera in a housing that has better low-light performance and can work with external strobes.
But for sheer versatility, and when there’s a risk of water becoming an issue, such as when swimming or kayaking or snorkeling, the TG-5 is a very good option and is, as far as I’m concerned, currently the best all-round waterproof camera available. For that reason, it has become my personal go-to for a pocketable camera for any casual shooting where water is involved (the Ricoh GRII is my personal favorite alternative when water isn’t involved).
I bought mine at B&H Photo.
It’s available in black or red, and you can also find bundles with various accessories.