Field Test: Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS

[Rather than giving you a review packed full of benchmark numbers and charts, our Field Test series is all about taking technology out of the box and out of the lab. We use it in our everyday lives, and report what we find.]

Sometimes, don’t you just want a camera that’s as rugged as you are? Over the years I’ve spent too much energy trying to protect my gear instead of embracing the beauty of my surroundings.

So as I planned a recent trip to Maui, I decided that I was going to shoot differently that week. I settled upon a single camera—a 12MP Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS—to capture my memories as I hiked through the rainforest, snorkeled around coral reefs, and lounged poolside at my hotel. And as it turned out, choosing the TG-1 was a great choice. It’s immersible to 40 feet, can withstand a drop from more than six feet, and yet produces colorful JPEGs that delighted everyone I shared them with.

Tough but talented

Olympus Tough TG-1 lives up to its name.

Fast Lens I’ve tried rugged digital cameras before. And even though they survived the trip, the photos were mediocre at best. It doesn’t do any good to have a reliable camera if it can’t produce pretty pictures. It’s like sunscreen that lets you burn.

The engineers at Olympus changed all of that with the TG-1. Not only does it make beautiful images, there are a number of features that excite even a jaded photographer such as myself.

Let's start with the 4X optical zoom lens that has a maximum aperture of f/2.0 at the wide end. I loved having this light-gathering ability while snorkeling. As I scan the metadata on my favorite underwater shots, many of them were recorded at f/2.8, ISO 100, 1/200th to 1/500th of a second. I never had to turn on the flash while skin diving around the reefs, yet didn’t have any problems taming motion while in the water.

I rarely had to turn on the flash while skin diving, and had little problem taming motion in the water.

As you zoom in toward the telephoto end of the lens, the maximum aperture increases along the way, topping out at f/4.9. But most of my underwater work is at the wider end of the lens anyway. It’s hard enough to frame a good shot at 25mm focal length, let alone at 100mm.

Built-in GPS Geotagging is another one of those features that I desperately wanted to work correctly in the past, only to end up with a cumbersome workflow that produced inaccurate results. Once again, the TG-1 reversed my previous disappointments.

To begin, the Olympus camera locates satellites quickly thanks to its assisted system (A-GPS) that improves signal acquisition. The assisted part of A-GPS involves you. By using the Olympus A-GPS Utility (a free download), you can update the orbital data for the TG-1. In my testing, this made a world of (positive) difference in performance.

If you want to geek out on this feature, while the camera is on, hold down the Menu button for 2 seconds to activate the GPS screen on the beautiful 614,000-dot, 3-inch OLED screen. You can play with the electronic compass and read the current latitude, longitude, and even landmark information if you have that feature enabled. The TG-1 can serve as a tracking device too. But I was happy to let it simply geotag every photo I took. The geodata was embedded in the JPEGs and readable in iPhoto, Aperture, Lightroom, Flickr, and everywhere else I checked.

While you’re out hiking, you can check the time and GPS position even while the camera is off. Press the Info button on the back panel, and the LCD lights up with the data. Hold down the Info button for a few seconds, and the front LED light illuminates to serve as a flashlight. What great tools for the outdoor photographer.

High speed drive The TG-1 has a variety of drive options from single shot to 60 fps for action photography. Normal burst mode is 5 fps, which is fine for most situations. At this setting you get full 12MP resolution. If you need more speed however, you can switch to H1 for 15 fps, or H2 for 60 fps. The tradeoff at higher burst rates is that image resolution dips to 3MP per frame. These hyperdrive modes are helpful for analyzing technique, such as a golf swing, or for capturing a decisive moment such as a batter making contact with the baseball.

To add to the enjoyment of high-speed shooting, the TG-1 lets you play back a sequence on the LCD like a time lapse movie. So if you are analyzing a golf swing, no need to upload images to the computer for processing. Just watch the sequence on the back of the camera.

Full HD movies Many subjects shine when captured as movies. The TG-1 records in full HD (1920 x 1080) at 30 fps, as well as 720p and VGA. I was thankful for this feature when I encountered a sea turtle while snorkeling. At first I shot stills. But as soon as I had a sufficient amount of photographs, I pressed the red button on the back panel to record the turtle surfacing for a breath of air, then gracefully swimming away.

The TG-1 records in full HD (1920 x 1080) at 30 fps, as well as 720p and VGA.

Even though I truly like many of the still images I captured of the turtle, I love the video. And thanks to the TG-1, I can relive that moment as often as I want for years to come.

In terms of movie controls, there aren’t many. I can enable image stabilization, turn the sound off or on, enable wind noise reduction, and choose from two volume level options. The good news is, in most situations, all your really need to do is push the red button and record. The camera will take it from there.

Off camera flash Here’s one that surprised me. You can wirelessly control an off-camera flash with the TG-1. I set up a test using an Olympus FL-36R strobe, and the exposures were terrific.

To configure this, first go to Camera Menu 2 and select Accessory Settings. Chose "Remote Flash RC." Then, in the standard flash menu, switch to RC (remote control) mode. Now all you have to do is turn on your Olympus flash and set it to RC mode. When you take a picture, the TG-1 flash will fire and at the same time trigger the remote unit. Suddenly you have a whole new set of lighting options.

Handling

Even though it’s tough, the TG-1 is light and slides easily into your swimsuit pocket. It only weighs 8.1 ounces and is 4.4 inches long and 1.1 inch thick. Attached to one end of the body is a robust web strap that works great underwater and topside.

The battery and the port doors have double locks to prevent accidental opening, a real plus when in the water. Buttons and dials protrude nicely so you can operate the camera easily with reef gloves or in cold weather.

The menu system is the best I’ve seen from Olympus to date. Each screen is easy to read and understand, and submenus are kept to a minimum.

The battery is charged in camera with a supplied power brick that’s compact and easy to stash in a backpack. Battery life is good, even after a day of shooting I still had juice.

Olympus also offers a CLA-T01 adapter that enables you to attach a fisheye or teleconverter lens. What’s great about this expandability is that the accessories can be used underwater also, to the same 40-foot depth as the camera.

The Olympus Tough TG-1 takes beautiful pictures, but only shoots JPEGs.

Drawbacks

The TG-1 doesn’t offer a Raw mode. All still photos are in JPEG format. Raw would be helpful for color correction and tonal adjustment in extreme conditions, such as underwater photography.

The back LCD is bright, but it’s still difficult to compose the image underwater. This isn’t so much the fault of the camera, rather, the challenge that comes with this type of shooting. I was surprised, however, at how easily the LCD gets scratched. So it might be wise to put a screen protector on it.

Final word

The Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS is a fun camera that captures great images in just about any environment. The fast f/2.0 lens and built-in GPS headline a full list of features that should please travel photographers who aren’t afraid to get their toes wet.

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