Digital cameras: Buying the best waterproof camera Choosing the best waterproof camera

Why do I need a waterproof camera?

If you want to take pictures anywhere wet, whether at the beach, by a waterfall, quarrying or just out in the British countryside on a rainy day, a compact waterproof camera is worth considering.

Compact - As well as waterproof, they’re also much less bulky than buying a waterproof case for your current camera – if a case is even available. Most compact waterproof cameras cost between £180 and £300, although there are cheaper models available for less than £150, such as the Fujifilm Finepix XP50.

Underwater stills and video - They can be used underwater, usually down to depths of around 10 metres or more - that’s twice the depth of an Olympic diving pool, or more than two Routemaster double decker buses – if you put one on top of the other and submerged them.

We fully test waterproof cameras in our test lab to see how they measure up for image quality, speed and ease of use - you can find out more about the lengths we go to when testing cameras in our how we test digital cameras page. 

However, to test the waterproofing of underwater cameras and to see how well they capture action stills and video on the water, we pitted four models against each other in our waterproof camera test video.

 

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Video transcript

With the recent launch of the Olympus TG-1 tough camera, we've brought it here to Nene Whitewater Centre to pit it against its rivals, the Nikon AW 100, the Pentax WG-2 GPS, and the Canon Power Shot D20. The Nikon Cool Pix AW 100 has a 15.9 megapixel sensor. It's got a 5 times optical zoom, a 10 meter waterproof depth, and it's also shockproof from 1.5 meters.

So, that's it. I'm in my wet suit, my safety's on, so I guess it's time to get started in my tube. And first up, it's the Nikon. The Nikon AW100 is really quite comfortable to hold especially given that the lens is in that top left hand corner so you can really get your hand around the camera and the rocker switch is really easy to use for the zoom so when you're zooming in and out it makes it quite simple.

You don't have to move your finger. It's also really handy that the shutter release button is quite round and prominent so you can easily can press it without having to look. The focus also seems to lock onto things quite quickly, which is really handy when you're on the move. Didn't get too many blurred shots this one, but we'll have to see how it does overall at the end.

This Nikon takes quite bright looking pictures. It's a sunny day but you can see the blue is really nice in the sky. The tree is also quite sharp in the background, which wasn't the case on all of the cameras we look at. The Canon PowerShot D20 has a 12.1 mega pixel resolution. It's got a 5 times optical zoom and it's waterproof up to a depth of 10 meters.

It's also shockproof from a height of 1.5 meters. Again, like the Nikon, you've got the lens in the top left hand corner so you can use most of the body of the camera to really get a good grip. Strange thing with this one, if you're sitting around between times, I noticed it was turning itself off, and you're going to have to press the power button a couple of times to bring it back to life, which means you can miss that critical moment if you're kind of leaving it sitting there, pointing at something, waiting for the action to happen.

Overall the pictures look quite bright. Again, like the Nikon, it's creating a nice look in the colors and also in the background and the textures in the trees are looking quite good, even though you're focused on things that are quite close to you in the spray and my feet. The Pentax Optio WG2GPS has a 15.9 megapixel sensor.

It's got a 5 times optical zoom, it's waterproof down to a depth of 12 meters and shock proof from a height of 1.5 meters. Pentax has a really different feel to it when you're holding it. It's much longer and wider, so it feels a bit stranger in the hand. But it's actually still quite easy to hold and you can push against the lens with your finger so it doesn't overlap when you're trying to take a picture.

One of the more noticeable things about this is the screen was a little bit more difficult to see than the previous two that we looked at. So it was a bit harder to find out the shots also got a few more blurry shots from this one so it didn't seem to lock on to that quite as quickly but that might have just depended on what I was pointing it at the time.

Looking at the pictures, they're ever so slightly darker than the Nikon and the Canon. The blue sky just isn't quite as bright and the contrast in the trees is lacking. The Olympus Tough TG-1 has a 12 mega pixel sensor. It's got a 4 times optical zoom the least of the models here. It's also waterproof to a depth of 12 meters.

And shockproof from a height of 2 meters. The Olympus is the only one with a program dial and that's really great when you're just trying to flick between scenes. You don't have to dig around through menus too much. Although, the lens was in the center, you have that nice grip at the front to hold onto, so it was really easy to use, and the screen was much brighter, noticeably, after using the Pentax making it much easier to see and to line up the shots.

It seem to react quite quickly, take some pretty decent shots, but it wasn't quite as bright looking when you're kinda looking at the sky and the trees as Canon and the Nikon but I preferred the picture quality to the Pentax. All the models here are freeze proof down to a temperature of -10 degrees, see.

They all have built-in GPS and can shoot video at 1080P. Now any fool can float downstream in a tire but to help me with the video capabilities of these cameras, I've enlisted to the help of Chris Chapman, the kayak instructor here at Nene just to show how good the video is. As you can see from the video, they all capture it quite well considering they're compact cameras.

And the image stabilization working pretty well too. They're not too juddery, even though they're really getting chucked around. So they came out pretty well. And you can see there's a few minor differences maybe in color and things, but generally pretty good video. So having taken these four cameras for a fairly extreme doughnut ride, There's certainly things that I've noticed that are better for this kind of setting.

First up, if we look at this Canon, I really like the whole having the lens in this top corner because it meant I've had a lot of space to hold on to the camera. One thing I did notice though was with these buttons here, the zoom, because they are separate buttons they're not quite as easy to use as this kind of rocker switch when you're just trying to do things really quickly.

And also the on-off button and the shutter release button are very, very similar so when under water it's a little bit hard to tell which one i am pressing. That said, the screen is really good on this Canon, and it seems to take really quick shots, which is quite impressive. Moving onto the Nikon, again, it's got the same arrangement with the lens on the top corner plenty of room to hold.

Although I was a bit wary of the fact that I had this kind of video button very close to my fingers when using the rocker switch here. It was also quite easy to see the screen, so that's suited quite well, and it's fairly easy to hold. Having this neck strap really helped. Onto the Pentax, OK, so the lens is in the middle with this one, but you can at least feel this ring here.

Now it's quite comfy to hold but I had really trouble seeing the screen. It's a very bright day today and I did have to tilt it quite a bit. It's also a little bit fiddly on some of the buttons, trying to get through the mode settings. They're more in depth; if you want to just be able to take quick video it's much easier it's good when you've got a dedicated video button like on this Canon.

Now onto the Olympus. It's the one I tried straight after the Pentax, and the difference in the screen was really noticeable. It's colorful much easier to see in this light. Obviously with any camera when you're relying on the monitor it's much easier if you've got a view finder. But I got away with this camera.

And actually although the lens is in the center, this grip here became very useful to push against. And the buttons here are quite flat. This dial here, you can get quite a bit of pressure against it. Obviously it's not gonna press anything. It's not going to activate anything. That said, I did manage knock the info button a couple of times and bring things up.

But, I mean, the shots seem fairly quick and I think you're gonna be better off in this kind of situation if you're working in a continuous shooting mode. So this new Olypmus Tough definitely held its own amongst the others. If I had to pick a favorite I'd pick one of two. Personally I'd say either the Olympus Tough or the Nikon.

Easier to see the screens, just generally the buttons are so much more obvious. There was no mistaking this round button here for the on-off button there and the rocker dial here for the zoom is just so much easier to use. So they would be my choices if you're going to be going on a rough water adventure.

If you'd like to see a gallery of pictures taken on these cameras today, you can click on the link below. Now, we've already tested the Nikon and the Pentax in our lab, so we already know how fast their continuous shooting speed is, and how quick their shutters are, but if you want to find out the results to those cameras and to these cameras once they have been through our lab tests, go to which.co.uk.

To see a gallery of images shot during our waterproof camera group test, visit our waterproof camera photo gallery page. This is just a small sample of the waterproof cameras we've tested our lab. For full test results for all of the waterproof cameras we've tested visit our waterproof camera reviews

Waterproof cameras are useful out of water too

Compact waterproof cameras may also be referred to as ‘rugged’ cameras, because most are designed to withstand drops, knocks, freezing conditions and to keep out dust.

If dust gets onto the sensor of a camera or into the lens, it can be difficult to remove and will affect picture quality. A waterproof camera is sealed, so dust isn’t a problem.

  • Shockproof – most rugged cameras claim to withstand drops from a height of around 1.5m – good for active kids.
  • Freeze proof – most also claim to withstand temperatures as low as -10°C – good for skiers.
  • Crushproof – a few models, such as the Olympus TG-1, also claim to withstand forces of 100kg – around the force of an average man if he were standing on the camera – although we don’t recommend you try it.  
  • Travel camera – Some people have reported problems with their regular compact cameras when travelling somewhere humid like the tropics. A waterproof camera is sealed, so it should be able to withstand humid conditions.

A number of rugged cameras also feaure GPS (Global Positioning System), which, when switched on, records the location the photo was taken, so you won’t have to remember when you get home. Some, like the Fujifilm Finepix XP150, also have an electronic compass so you can get your bearings.

Waterproof camera limitations

Limited zoom – because the camera lens is behind a sealed casing, it can’t extend very far when zooming, so these cameras are not best suited to trying to capture close-up shots of subjects in the distance. Expect no more than 5x optical zoom from a compact waterproof camera.

No viewfinder – Viewfinders are rare on compact cameras and waterproof cameras. None of the waterproof cameras we’ve tested have viewfinders, so you’re reliant on the screen. Some screens can be hard to view in bright light – something we test in our lab tests.

Hitting the water – if you’re holding the camera when you dive in, the force on the camera will be increased at the moment it hits the water. Manufacturers make no claims on the rapid change in pressure a rugged camera can withstand, although the cameras we tested in our video had no problems withstanding the force of the rapids.

At the swimming pool – use of a camera may not be permitted in your local pool, so if you’re hoping to take photos in a swimming pool – such as in a parent and baby swimming class – contact the pool first to check whether photography is allowed.

What should I look for in a waterproof camera?

Think about why you’re buying the camera. If you’re buying it for family trips to the beach, you may want different features to someone travelling the globe or going on wet and wild action adventures.

Family trips

Look for a model with well-labelled, simple-to-use controls, and an auto mode that’s easy to access – as on the Canon PowerShot D20 - if you need a simple camera that the whole family can use.

Travelling

You may want to consider a model with GPS for recording photo locations, and a neck strap rather than a wrist strap, so the camera won’t be bouncing around by your hand the whole time – as found on the Nikon Coolpix AW100.

Action and extreme sports

If you plan to take photos when you’re part of the action, you need a camera that’s easy to grip and use with one hand. A wrist strap – like that on the Olympus Tough TG-1 – is likely to be safer than wearing the camera round your neck. 

Look for a camera with a quick shutter that's able to take photos in quick succession in 'burst' or 'continuous shooting' modes, to ensure you don't miss a moment of the action.

At Which? we time how fast each camera's shutter is and how quickly it can capture shots in single and continuous shooting modes. See our how we test digital cameras page for more information on our tests. 

Cheap waterproof cameras

If you think £250 is a little steep for a compact waterproof camera, it’s worth looking out for deals on older models, or cheaper models that don’t have built-in GPS.

New models tend to come on the market between February and July. When new models launch, older ones may come down in price.

Newer models may only offer minor benefits compared with their predecessors. For example, 2012's Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT4 offers the same 12Mp resolution and 4.6x optical zoom as the earlier Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT3, but it’s slightly quicker at taking shots. Buying an older model could save you around £50.

Waterproof camera tips

Select the right shooting mode - waterproof cameras have an auto shooting mode, but if you're taking photos underwater it may be better to switch to the dedicated underwater mode that's optimised to take the best underwater photos or movies. 

Keep a lens cloth handy – most cameras don’t come with a cloth, but if you’re using the camera outside where it’s constantly going from wet to dry – on the beach or in changeable weather, for example – water drying on the glass can leave deposits which may show up on subsequent shots if you don’t wipe them away.

If you’re subjecting your waterproof camera to extreme conditions, it may require a little aftercare to keep it in tip-top condition. Care instructions may be included in the camera’s manual, but one general tip is to rinse the camera with clean water after use if you’ve been using it in salty sea water or outside.

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