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24 Jul 2020

Should a waterproof compact camera be in your beach bag this summer?

We delve into what makes a camera that can take on sand, water and the worst of the British weather while still turning out decent shots
Nikon Coolpix W300 underwater

Waterproof cameras come in an armoured chassis that protects them from damage and can make them waterproof, dustproof, freezeproof, and shockproof. But does this come at the expense of performance, features and ease of use?

Unfortunately, the short answer is, typically, yes. In our tests, waterproof cameras score less (on average) than normal compact cameras. But there are still good reasons to invest in one, depending on how and where you plan to use your camera.

Waterproof - or rugged - cameras are great for adventures and harsh conditions and, as their name suggests, can be used underwater (though not all are suitable for taking very deep).

They give you peace of mind that you won't damage your fragile (and potentially expensive) tech, and they can help you to get rare shots in environments where you wouldn't want to risk a standard, unprotected, compact camera.

Waterproof cameras on test

Our rigorous lab tests have shown that waterproof cameras can struggle to to deliver the same quality as standard compact camera models.

We put every camera through the same scientific test to guarantee comparability between models, and on average, waterproof cameras lose out by a fair margin.

Compact cameras vs waterproof cameras

The average score for compact cameras is 60% but t

However, our tests have also revealed some big differences between the best and the worst waterproof cameras.

We've taken a look at some of the reasons waterproof cameras struggle, and also rounded up the qualities that make one a good investment.

What waterproof cameras can I buy?

Waterproof cameras have an obvious appeal to accident-prone or adventurous photographers, and most major brands have at least one rugged camera in their range.

We've tested waterproof cameras from leading brands including Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, Fujifilm, Ricoh, Canon, and Praktica.

To see our latest recommendations, check out our top five waterproof cameras for 2020.

Quality vs toughness: what's the trade off?

Ultimately, the primary purpose of waterproof cameras is to protect their internal parts, and they do this well. But in order to be so resilient, they inevitably have to make sacrifices.

While digital camera manufacturers try to cram bigger sensors into small frames and add cutting-edge autofocus and face detection technology to their compact cameras, waterproof models lag behind with small sensors and hardware that's comparatively dated.

There are decent ones that tread the line between performance and toughness more effectively, though you may need to pay more for them; those that impress most in our tests typically cost £300 or more.

You'll need to accept that even the best waterproof cameras won't be as easy to use as their standard counterparts, though.

How do I find a good waterproof camera?

Check our reviews. Some cameras can take crisp, balanced, detailed photos despite their armour casing. You'll never get DSLR-like stills with a small sensor, but you can still get snaps that are better than the ones your average compact camera can produce if you buy one of our top-scoring waterproof cameras.

Opt for a bright, non-reflective monitor that works quickly to display images. You should also look at the panel of buttons and consider what's comfortable and logical to use because these cameras lack touchscreen functionality.

Check the maximum water depth of your camera, especially if you want to take it snorkelling or scuba diving. Check the drop resistance too if there's a risk it may be dropped from a height.

Don't be swayed by novelty or the way it looks. We've put some unusual cameras through our lab testing and have been less than impressed. Be wary of style over substance when choosing your next camera.

Consider whether you want to take video. One of our top three waterproof cameras scored highly in our photography tests, but its video performance was underwhelming. On the other hand, the Olympus TG-6 boasts 4K UHD video, which is unusually high-spec for a waterproof camera.

We break down how well every camera delivers still photos and video to help guide you to the mix of qualities you want the most in your device - find out which cameras, waterproof or not, do this well in our full compact camera reviews.