The Best Tough Cameras for 2019
the five toughest of the tough
We’ve scoured the wilds to find the best tough cameras for your back country (and front country) adventures. Cameras that function no matter what the extremes of weather and environment are. Cameras that can suffer any abuse your heart desires and still bring home the pictures. We paired our own decades of professional outdoor photography experience with an analysis of almost a dozen comparative camera reviews to find the best rugged camera for you.
So what exactly are Tough Cameras?
Let’s start with what Tough Cameras are not. Your cellphone is not a Tough Camera. As cell phones have evolved so too has the quality of images produced with them. Many new cell phones like the Google Pixel 3, Samsung Galaxy S9 or iPhone XR are weather and waterproof—to a point. If you shoot in the rain, drop your phone into a creek or take a dunking while rafting, you’re covered. But I wouldn’t test a cell phone’s durability much further than that. Don’t bounce your phone off a boulder, take it into a sandstorm, let it freeze or overheat or shoot with it at any depth underwater. Even in a protective case, a cell phone is still a cell phone with shortcomings in the camera department: a fixed focal length lens with limited telephoto capability (most will do a digital zoom which produces lower quality images) and limited exposure control (see our Guide to Best iPhones for Outdoor Adventures to learn more about what phone cameras can and can’t do these days).
Tough Cameras are not “action” cameras like the GoPro Hero 7. While action cameras are fully water and weatherproof, they only have one wide angle focal length and a point of view that usually comes from being mounted on a helmet or other object. There is no exposure control. GoPros can take stills from the video but these kind of cameras are primarily dedicated to video.
Tough Cameras are sophisticated auto focus, auto exposure, point and shoot cameras with video capability. Although Tough Cameras are video capable, and can shoot high quality video, they are not primarily video cameras.
Tough Cameras are tough! Weatherproof, waterproof and crushproof, they can survive being dropped onto rocks, buried in mud, tossed at grizzly bears and stomped on by moose. Tough Cameras can function in rain, snow and sandstorms and withstand extremes of hot and cold temperatures.
Tough Cameras have quality optics. Good lenses that are sharp edge to edge with accurate color reproduction are the cornerstone of good photography. Unlike many phone cameras, Tough Cameras have optical telephoto lenses not digital zooms. The digital zoom found in most phones is merely a low quality crop of the image in your viewfinder. An optical zoom found on Tough Cameras actually pulls the subject closer in the viewfinder. The cameras reviewed here will zoom (optically) from about 24mm to 100mm. Most Tough Cameras have macro and even micro lens settings for extreme close-ups.
Tough Cameras can handle a wide latitude of varying exposure situations with automatic (and semi auto) settings. For instance, under the “Scene” mode the Olympus TG-5 has 5 basic semi-automatic exposure settings: People, Nightscapes, Motion, Scenery and Indoors and over 20 different adjustments under those sub categories to further fine tune exposure. Exposure, back in the long ago days of film meant the amount of light that touched the film inside the camera and produced the image. These days the camera’s sensor does the same thing.
Tough Cameras can shoot single still images or bursts with zero or miniscule shutter lag. Most have autofocus adjustments that can hone in on a single object or keep a moving subject in focus.
In contrast to phones or full size DSLR cameras or other non-tough point-and-shoots, tough Cameras don’t need protective cases and are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket or backpack pouch. They are ergonomically designed for ease of use and large enough for their controls, buttons and settings to be used even with glove liners on. A tough camera’s weight is measured in ounces. The weight of a typical DSLR camera, the kind with interchangeable lenses that you wear around your neck and hold in two hands is measured in pounds.
Best Tough camera
I used the Olympus TG-4 on my Colorado Trail thru-hike in 2015 and became a huge fan. The stills I took documenting The Colorado Trail that appeared in the award winning Long Haul video were all taken with the Olympus.
As soon as the TG-5 was available, I bought one to use on my Continental Divide Trail journeys as well as everyday outdoor adventures. I can’t say enough good about this camera. Small and light with great optics, lightening quick auto focus and easy to master controls, the TG-5 has ridden in my shirt and shell pockets from sub-zero snowstorms to blazing hot deserts and never let me down.
But I’m not alone in my praise for the TG-5. The camera was the number 1 top rated Tough Camera in every review. “…the TG-5 is built to survive pretty much anything you could throw at it, literally,” said Techradar. “A chunky, ergonomic design and well-designed controls make the TG-5 a pleasure to use in any weather.”
The TG-5 also has a GPS sensor for tracking your journeys, a thermometer, barometer and compass. Gathered data can be displayed by using the Olympus Image Track app.
With only 12 megapixels, the TG-5 falls short in the megapixel department compared to other Tough Cameras reviewed. “What's interesting about the Olympus' Tough TG-5 in terms of its sensor is that its 12-MP sensor has a lower megapixel count than its predecessor, (TG-4 had 16MP) yet still provides very good quality,” said Tom’s Guide.
In my professional experience however, megapixels alone don’t determine image quality-a camera’s optics and the size of its processing sensor does that. The TG-5 uses the same full size sensor and TruePic VIII processor found in the Olympus E-M1 Mark II--a camera that is almost three times the TG-5’s price and weight and sports the same quality optics Olympus uses in their professional line, a bright f/2.0 25mm lens at wide angle and an equally bright f/4.9 fully extended to 100mm.
“The TOUGH TG-5’s maximum aperture at the wide angle setting is f/2.0 which is unusually bright for a waterproof compact,” said Cameralabs. “This gives it a big advantage when shooting underwater and in other low-light environments because it means the you can shoot with a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO sensitivity than other less well endowed cameras.”
The TG-5 shoots 4K video at 30p or high-speed footage at 120p in Full HD. “It shoots video at the highest available resolution (4K) and image quality is best on test both for stills and moving pictures,” said The Independent IndyBest.
With the TG-5’s wifi capability and the Olympus Image Share app on your smartphone you can swiftly transfer images from the camera to your smartphone. You can also use Image Share to shoot your camera remotely (for group shots that you want to be in).
Independent IndyBest says, “The design lets enthusiasts attach converters and accessories to the lens for greater versatility. There are plenty of features for extra control, such as macro settings that let you get as close as 1 cm in Microscope mode, and a Pro capture setting, which starts shooting before you press the shutter so you don’t miss that dolphin diving.” With the Olympus TG-5 you can also buy a 2x teleconverter to double the camera’s focal length. There’s also an ultra wide fisheye lens attachment that screws onto the front element giving the TG-5 increased versatility. Last year I bought the 2x teleconverter that screws onto the front of the TG-5 making the 100mm lens a 200mm and found myself using that more than I thought I would.
As with other reviewers, we had a tough time parsing out the pro’s and con’s of the Olympus vs. the Nikon. But in our book, the Olympus comes out ahead.
The TG-5 has more menu settings and options.
The battery life is longer, 340 shots vs. 280 shots on the Nikon.
The minimum focus distance on the Olympus is 3.9 inches vs. the Nikon’s 19.3 inches. This is despite the Nikon having a slightly higher (5x vs. 4x) digital zoom than the Olympus. What this means is you can focus more easily on close up details with the Olympus.
The Olympus has a continuous shooting speed of 20 frames per second vs. the Nikon’s 7, making it easier to shoot multiple frames to capture peak action or a fast action sequence.
The Olympus has more flexibility in file extensions you can save photos and video. Olympus can save photos in raw and jpeg and movies in three file extensions not available in the Nikon: mov and mjpeg, avi.
In addition to letting you choose exposure based on Auto Mode or Program Mode, the Olympus has an Aperture-Priority mode. This works as a hybrid between Manual and Program. The camera chooses shutter speed, you choose the aperture (f-value).
The Olympus has up to a 30-second self timer delay. The Coolpix only has 10 seconds. It can be done with remote control and via remote live view, which allows more time to fiddle when setting up a shot.
The Olympus has a built-in speaker, which the Coolpix does not have. This is beneficial if you’re trying to record and listen to video’s audio on the go, although you can also get audio by pairing a camera to a phone.
We know that photographers are loyal to their camera manufacturers and we think that either camera is an excellent choice for a tough camera. You can’t go wrong with either choice. But if you haven’t yet developed a loyalty to a specific camera-maker, we think the Olympus may serve you better over the long haul.
After 3 seasons of use, I still haven’t fully explored the TG-5’s capability or maxed out its toughness. I love the Olympus TG-5 for it’s bright f/2 wide angle 25mm lens. I tend to see the world in wide angle. This is my go everywhere everyday carrying around camera. It’s my go-to backpacking, skiing and running camera. I find the controls easy to use and in most of the camera’s automatic settings, the exposure is dead on. It’s small and unobtrusive and carries lightly and easily in a pocket within easy reach. Best of all, the TG-5 has proven Dean proof.
Runner-Up Best Tough Camera
The Nikon Coolpix W300 is an all around performer in the Tough Camera category. The W300 comes with Nikon’s usual high standards of quality build, superb optics and solid reputation. And, if your adventures take you to the watery depths the W300 is waterproof to 100 feet-twice the depth of our top pick, the Olympus TG-5. Only the Panasonic Lumix TS7 (called the FT7 outside of the U.S.) goes deeper and that by just a few feet. The W300 also has a longer telephoto reach-120mm-then the Olympus. But despite stellar performance, the reason why it didn’t get our #1 spot is that it doesn’t have quite as many menu settings and features as the Olympus. But if you already know and love Nikons, we find little to quibble about on what Digital Camera World sums as, “a superb all-rounder for fearless underwater adventures.”
While the CoolPix doesn’t have the wide range of menu/settings options found on some of the other Tough Cameras in this review, notably the Olympus, its strength is, “that it’s a good all-round performer with a great balance of features,” according to Cameralabs. “It’s got an excellent 5x zoom, a great quality 17 Megapixel sensor, GPS, barometer and electronic compass. . .”
The CoolPix uses Nikon’s sophisticated new SnapBridge technology with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capability to provide wireless links between the camera and your smartphone. SnapBridge allows you to transmit photos to your phone as you shoot. And, as with the Olympus, you can use this Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to control the camera remotely.
The W300 shoots 4K UHD video and “and will even let you shoot and save stills in the middle of recording a video,” said Tom’s Guide. “I like the variety of video settings, including fun features, like time-lapse or superlapse movie mode. But we were disappointed at it not having useful slow-motion features. . .”
The “buttons aren’t much bigger than on regular cameras but are still functional and feel good to use,” said the Independent IndyBest. “Battery life is claimed at 280 shots, less than some here, but still a decent stretch, towards a full day of average use.” Indeed, compared to the 340 shots on the Olympus, we found battery life to be among the few drawbacks of the Coolpix.
the best camera with electronic viewfinder
The Panasonic Lumix TS7 (called the FT7 outside of the U.S.) is the first compact Tough Camera to have an electronic viewfinder, meaning you don’t have to struggle with looking at a glaring LED screen in bright or dim light. The camera also has an LED screen that you can compose on as well as use to review photos you’ve taken; the LED has an automatic brightness adjustment that makes taking photos easier in changing light conditions. “Obviously, you won't be able to use the EVF if you have a scuba mask on,” said DPReview,” but for shooting in bright light on land it could come in handy.”
But reviewers write that the wide-angle zoom was less of a wide angle than many outdoor photographers want. “The TS7's lens is only 28mm at the wide-angle end of the zoom (as opposed to 24mm or 25mm). As a result, my landscapes of underwater seascapes weren't quite as expansive, and I wasn't able to include as many people in a group portrait (unless I stepped back a little),” said Tom’s Guide.
Tom’s Guide was also critical of the Panasonic’s low light image quality or lack of: “Image quality in bright light is good, although in my test shot, I found details at the edges to be a tad soft. Overall, it has very good dynamic range — the darkest tones could have been even darker — but by and large, the tonal range was solid in bright light. But in low light, the TS7 struggles with sharpness.”
“We’re a little stumped as to why Panasonic felt it was necessary to use a densely populated 20.4MP resolution on a small 1/2.3-inch sensor,” said Techradar. “Detail is a little disappointing when you zoom in on images (if you're expecting images to massively surpass a good quality smartphone, they won't), with the JPEG files appearing to sacrifice detail at the expense of noise reduction. This isn't too bad at low ISOs, but very noticeable as you increase the sensitivity, with high ISO images disappointing.”
In addition the Panasonic’s auto focus can track a moving subject at 5 frames per second. The Panasonic Lumix TS7 is the most waterproof camera we reviewed and can go deeper by a few feet than the other tough cameras.
The Panasonic is the heaviest Tough Camera we reviewed, coming in at a hefty 11 ounces. The battery life is relatively short among tough cameras--250 shots per battery isn’t outstanding, but it’s probably enough for a day’s outing.
If magazine-quality images and weight are not as important to you as ease of use and extreme durability and waterproofness, the TS7 is an excellent choice.
the best budget tough camera
“A cheap and cheerful waterproof compact,” said Techradar. “Compared to its ultra-rugged competition, the FinePix XP130 doesn't have quite the same credentials. That means that it might not be quite up to some of the more active users, but still more than up to the job of a family beach or skiing holiday. Simple to use, this is a great option if you're after a durable point-and-shoot compact camera for family use, though don't expect too much from it.”
Waterproof down to 65 feet, the FinePix can be dropped from 6 feet and function in temperatures from 14 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The FinePix has 16 megapixels and a zoom lens that goes from 28-140mm. The camera can also shoot 1080p video, and has a Cinemagraph Mode that lets you take still images as you video. “Video recording is at Full HD, at up to 60fps, which is faster than many, but lacks the 4K-resolution video of some cameras here,” said the Independent IndyBest.
Like the other tough cameras we considered, the FinePix has Bluetooth capability, allowing you to transfer your photos to a smartphone or tablet. The FinePix also has an electronic level so you can get the horizon level in your photographs.
“One of the best things about the Fujifilm FinePix XP130 is that it’s small and light, making it easy to slip in a pocket or bag ready for your travels,” said Photographyblog. “Although the buttons are a little on the small side, they are all well pronounced from the body of the XP130, making them easy to find and push when using the camera in difficult conditions, such as when wearing gloves or underwater. Furthermore, all of the buttons are grouped on the right hand side of the camera, so you’ll be able to make any settings changes when shooting one handed.”
Battery life at 240 shots isn’t as much as some of the other cameras reviewed here but when a camera does just about everything else a Tough Camera is supposed to do at half the cost of other models, what’s to quibble about?
best grippy camera
My first tough camera was a Ricoh. Having destroyed some larger, more expensive cameras during my backpacking trips I found the Ricoh a welcome, weatherproof, relief, tough, inexpensive and easy to keep a grip on in dicey situations.
One of the best things about the Ricoh is its grippy shape. ePHOTOzine agreed with that assessment: “The Ricoh WG-50 has a chunky style with a number of different textures, shapes, and ridges making is easy to get a grip of the camera, even if it's wet. The grip is particularly effective on the front of the camera. On the back are a number of raised dots to give better grip for your thumb, and a large metal strap loop makes it easy to attach the wrist strap. .”
But, I found the small screen on the Ricoh hard to see and the controls awkward to use.
More importantly, control over image exposure and image quality was lacking. “Image quality is a little disappointing, with images appearing soft, particularly at the longer end of the zoom lens,” writes ePHOTOzine. “The lack of image stabilisation and a fairly slow lens limits the camera's low light performance.”
That said, if you intend for your images to be posted on social media or websites, and not reproduced in magazines or hung on gallery walls, the Ricoh’s image quality should be fine.
The Ricoh’s strength (aside from being virtually indestructible) is the 6 LEDs that surround the lens. The LEDs can be used to light up macro images or for more flattering portrait light then a direct flash. The lights also come in handy for shooting underwater.
“The WG-50 from Ricoh is one of the toughest available, with nifty extra features and a price to match,” said TechRadar. “The slightly garish styling may turn off some, but the WG-50 is a well-specced camera that’s definitely worth consideration.”
How we Researched
Being adventurers ourselves we researched reviews on Tough Cameras in TechRadar, B&H Photo, Tom’s Guide, CameraLabs, Independent IndyBest Reviews, Digital Camera World, DPReview, and ePHOTOzine, then aggregated and analyzed them for criteria important to outdoors people--features like waterproofness, battery life, ruggedness in a range of scenarios and the quality of images produced.
I’ve spent four decades working as a photographer, photojournalist and photo editor in the Rocky Mountain West with work appearing in various publications including National Geographic, Outside, Life and Rolling Stone magazines. I know what savage conditions a camera has to go through sometimes for the sake of a few pictures. I know what makes a camera tough.
An avid hiker, skier, trail runner, rafter, mountain biker and kayaker based in Crested Butte, Colorado I am notoriously hard on camera gear. Fellow staff members at the Rocky Mountain News once presented me with an award consisting of a rusty camera sealed inside a water jug.
Assignments and photo adventures have taken me to nearly every hardscrabble place in the West and beyond. I’ve caught Dengue fever in the headwaters of the Amazon and suffered a touch of cerebral edema on Kilimanjaro, looked for lost tribes in Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley, and rowed the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon twice.
I love Tough Cameras, cameras that are tough enough to go the distance through all kinds of conditions and bad decisions and keep on working. Just like me. The highest compliment I can give any piece of gear is to say that it’s “Dean-proof.”
In 2015 I left my newspaper career to hike the 500 mile long Colorado Trail; a film about that hike-The Long Haul-won a Heartland Emmy Award. All of the still images in The Long Haul were taken with a Tough Camera, an Olympus TG-4. My latest project is hiking and photographing the 3,100 mile-long Continental Divide Trail and to date most of that has been photographed with a TG-5.
The most important feature of a Tough Camera is its ability to function in wet conditions, be it monsoon, blizzard or a plunge into lake or ocean. There is nothing worse than having a camera cease to function because it gets wet. Being waterproof is a matter of withstanding water pressure, which increases incrementally with depth. All the cameras considered here are fully sealed against moisture and rated to work at a minimum of 45 feet underwater with two rated at twice that depth. I value the waterproof qualities of Tough Cameras almost above all else since I’ve had 4 non-tough cameras (along with their lenses) die watery deaths through various boating mishaps.
If you intend to take your camera skiing, backpacking, mountaineering, snowmobiling, or ice fishing, chances are temperatures will get low. At temperatures below freezing, the housing of non-rugged cameras can become brittle and possibly crack or break, lenses can malfunction-especially the zoom. Temperature extremes, for instance taking your camera outside into the cold or vice versa, can cause condensation to penetrate the camera body and lenses; lenses may fog to the point of being unusable. LCD viewing screens on non-weatherproof cameras may grey out or lose contrast in cold temperatures. All the cameras that made our list can handle the cold down to at least 14 degrees F.
While spending time in the wild the odds are good that you’re going to drop your camera or bump it off of someplace you’ve set it. A typical point-and-shoot camera can break and cease to function after a hard fall. If you drop your phone and don’t have it in a protective case you stand to lose a lot more than just the ability to take photographs. All tough cameras are meant to withstand unfortunate accidental blows. In the San Juan mountains of Colorado I once knocked my very expensive non Tough Camera off a small cliff and watched helplessly as it tumbled to the bottom. A Tough Camera would have survived that.
Should a heavy footed friend step on your Tough Camera, run over it with a mountain bike or stomp on it with skis it’s nice to know that it won’t burst into pieces. At the extreme end a Tough Camera can probably survive being driven over (at least in the dirt), smashed under a boulder, tossed under a snow machine or stepped upon by an angry elephant. While I can’t personally vouch for a Tough Cameras toughness in those last scenarios I’m fairly confident, given my experience with TC’s, that I could pick it up and keep on shooting. Once I had a packhorse fall on a steep trail and roll downhill several times; that particular horse was carrying most of my non-tough camera gear as part of its load. The horse was fine. An expensive Nikon was crushed to pieces. A Tough Camera would have survived.
Dust is subtle and destructive. The same things that make a Tough Camera waterproof-a tightly sealed body and a protective lens housing-also shield it from sand, dirt, dust and mud. Dust can scar the lens of a non tough camera, grind buttons, knobs and levers to a halt and tear up the delicate insides-and dust will find its way inside. Tough Cameras are as at home in a Kalahari desert sandstorm as they are at the local Tough Mudder.
A lenses focal length determines its field of view. The smaller the number, say 25mm, the wider the field of view. The larger the number, say 100mm, the narrower the field of view. The focal length of the Tough Cameras reviewed range from 25mm to 140mm. Wider lenses are better for scenics, selfies and groups. Longer focal lengths are better for portraits, wildlife, flowers and pulling in distant landscape features. Although 140mm isn’t really long by telephoto standards and won’t shrink the distance between you and that faraway shot by very much it’s still better than having only a fixed focal length lens (such as in cell phone cameras) to work with.
Apertures regulate the amount of light needed for an exposure. The higher number of aperture, f/22 for example, the less light a lens can gather for exposure. Thus, smaller aperture numbers are best for low light situations. As a lens’s focal length increases, when you’re using the zoom function, the size of it’s aperture decreases: f/16 allows less light in for your exposure than f/2.
But, and this is a big but, the lower the aperture number the shallower the depth of field. If you want your subject in focus from the wildflower in the foreground to the mountains in the background, you’ll use a smaller aperture to increase the depth of field.
A basic understanding of how this works is nice to know and some Tough Cameras do have a manual aperture and shutter speed settings so you can control depth of field and exposure.
But the reality is, Tough Cameras and their various settings take care of all the guesswork for you. I shoot 90% of my Tough Camera photographs on the “Scene” setting and “landscape” subsetting with the focal length and aperture at its shortest and widest focal length and aperture.
Photographers can get excited about the number of megapixels a camera has. A megapixel is 1 million pixels. A pixel is a small square, like a piece of tile, that when fit together with other pixels creates a photograph. The density of these pixels determines the resolution of your picture. The denser the megapixels, the higher the resolution making your photos sharp and crisp and the colors vibrant. With a higher resolution you can blow the photograph up to hang on the wall or make it a screen saver without the image becoming pixelated-when scant pixels are stretched too far. The Tough Cameras reviewed range from 12MP to 20MP. Here’s the catch.
Megapixels alone don’t determine image quality-a camera’s optics and the size of its processing sensor does that. A camera can have fewer megapixels but a larger sensor and a better lens and produce higher resolution images than a 20MP camera with a smaller sensor and optically inferior glass.
We’ve listed the type of processing sensor these Tough Cameras have along with their MP’s.
Raw Format Support
Only one of the Tough Cameras we reviewed is able to shoot RAW images. Although most users will stick to the Jpeg format, the ability to capture images in Raw (you can shoot RAW and Jpegs at the same time) allows for major fine-tuning adjustments in post-production editing, especially in highly contrasting or low light situations.
Tough Cameras (all but one reviewed here) have Wi-Fi and/or Bluetooth capability so that no matter where you are in the world, images can be transferred easily from the camera to a cell phone or tablet.
Some of the cameras we reviewed have GPS and the ability to geo-tag photos based on your location. Some also come equipped with thermometers, barometers, altimeters, electronic compasses, and depth measurements for underwater photos.
The cameras we considered shoot in 4K, 1920x1080 full HD, or 1080 video.
Only one Tough Camera reviewed had the option of using an electronic viewfinder (EVF, instead of the usual LED back of the camera screen). With an EVF you can compose your photo through a viewfinder like you find on full size cameras. All the Tough Cameras reviewed had LED monitors for viewfinders. Although all monitors were about the same size, even a small difference in monitor size helps when composing or playing back for review.
Always carry spare fully charged batteries. Manufacturers describe battery life by the average number of shots you can get. But I’ve found that battery life can vary depending on the weather, if you shoot video, how much you push the review button, and especially if the GPS is turned on. Being conservative in use and keeping my camera battery warm at night I’ve been able to go for several days between battery changes. But I’ve also burned through a battery in a day when I’ve been inspired or it’s freezing cold. (We’ve got other tips on how and why to keep electronics warm in the backcountry here.)
All of these cameras can be had for under $500 and there are numerous deals, sales and discounts to be had that make them even more affordable.
Note: Photos in this story were taken on the Olympus TG-5, Nikon CoolPix AW100, Panasonic Lumix DC-TS5, and Ricoh WG-40, some of which are previous models of the cameras discussed in this story. All cameras were purchased by the photographer and not provided by the manufacturer.