Thriving in conditions that the average compact would cease to operate in, rugged cameras are built to go wherever you dare to tread. Waterproof, dust-proof, drop-proof and freeze-proof to varying degrees, there aren't many shooting situations they can’t handle. Whether you’re looking to document a day on the beach, a ride through the woods, or a dive into the deep, they’re the ideal companion to take along with you on an adventure. As the saying goes, ‘The best camera is the one you have with you’, and these devices can go almost anywhere.
Much more affordable than buying waterproof housing for a DSLR, rugged cams still manage to pack impressive features into their robust bodies, like GPS and 4K video shooting. Okay, so they all have non-interchangeable lenses and small sensors that limit the image quality they can produce, but their tough build opens up opportunities that would be otherwise unavailable.
We’ve pulled together six of the best in this roundup, ranging from the affordable Fujifilm XP90 at £175, to the video-focused Sony FDR-X1000v at £359. Read on to find out which would make your perfect sidekick…
Fujifilm FinePix XP90 Best for value
It may be the lowest-cost option in this roundup, but Fuji’s colourful XP90 is a highly capable device.
Built around a 1/2.3in BSI (Back Side Illuminated) CMOS sensor, it captures reasonable quality 16.4MP JPEGs, and Full HD (1080p) video at a rate of 60fps. While RAW shooting isn’t possible on any of these cameras, a full-resolution burst of stills can be captured at a speedy 10fps. The camera has 22 fully-automatic and scene-based shooting modes to choose from, including Underwater, Beach and Sport options. A Manual shooting mode is not present, however. It’s waterproof to 15m, freeze-proof to -10°C, shock-proof to drops of 1.75m and dust-proof.
With a versatile full-frame equivalent focal range of 28- 140mm and an aperture of f/3.9-4.9, this camera can cope easily with most subjects in well-lit conditions. Focal length is controlled via two dedicated buttons on the thumb rest, while a zoom of up to 10x is possible in collaboration with its ‘Intelligent Digital Zoom’. There’s sensor-based stabilisation for sharp shots and smooth footage built-in. Fairly quick and accurate in testing, the camera’s contrast-detect AF system features Single-shot and Continuous modes, as well as face-recognition and tracking options. There’s an AF illuminator to aid focusing in dim light and an inbuilt flash. Thanks to the inclusion of Wi-Fi, remote shooting and wireless image transfer are both possible.
Weighing just over 200g and measuring less than 11cm by 3cm, the XP90 is truly pocketable despite its tough build. On its rear is a fixed 3in 920K-dot LCD monitor for composition, while menu operation and setting controls are kept simple. Overall, it’s a great value option that would be ideal for a family holiday.
Video: Full HD
Nikon Coolpix AW130 Best all-rounder
With GPS built-in, the AW130 can log the route you travel and record location information as you take your photos.
It also touts an electronic compass to aid orientation, an altimeter, barometer and depth gauge, from which readings can be recorded as part of a file’s information. With its 1/2.3in BSI CMOS sensor it produces high quality 16MP JPEGs, and Full HD video at 30fps (interlaced footage can be shot at 60fps). The camera has two continuous shooting modes available at 7fps and 2.2fps, the first with fixed AF and exposure.
With a slightly wider angle-of-view than Fuji’s XP90, the AW130’s lens has a full-frame equivalent focal range of 24-120mm (5x optical zoom), with a variable aperture of f/2.8-4. This range is expandable to 10X with the digital ‘Dynamic Fine Zoom’, while the camera’s Close-up mode enables macro shooting. A lens-based stabilisation system helps to combat camera-shake, while its contrast-detect focusing proved accurate and speedy during our test. Like all those in the group, the AW130’s shooting modes are predominantly automated, featuring 16 Scene choices alongside options for panoramas and time-lapse.
The camera is waterproof to 30m, shockproof to 2m, cold resistant to -10°C, and dust-proof. Available in five different colour schemes, it’s lightweight at just over 221g, and measures 110x66x27mm (WxHxD). On its front is a raised grip that gives a comfortable purchase, while round the back is a 7.5cm 921k-dot OLED for composition and menu navigation. Alongside its small rear controls, the AW130 has an Action Control button on the side that allows you to navigate key settings by shaking the camera – great for those wearing gloves. It has an inbuilt flash, AF illuminator, and features Wi-Fi and NFC for wireless image transfer and remote shooting. With more features and more complex operation than the Fuji XP90, this camera will appeal to fans of hiking and diving.
Video: Full HD
Panasonic Lumix FT5 Best for stills
Sitting at the top of Panasonic’s rugged camera line, the FT5 offers a solid blend of features and protection.
While it can’t go quite as deep as some of the others here, it’s waterproof to 13m, shock-proof to 2m, freeze-proof to -10°C, pressure resistant to 100kg and dust-proof as well. Fitted with a 16.1MP 1/2.33in High Sensitivity MOS sensor, it captures JPEG stills and Full HD video at 50fps with stereo sound. 10fps burst shooting is possible with the autofocus locked, while 7fps is possible with the camera set to its tracking mode.
The lens has a 28-128mm full-frame equivalent focal range and a variable aperture of f/3.3-5. Like the Nikon AW130, this camera has GPS for route logging and location recording, as well as a barometer, compass and altimeter that can display and capture data as part of a picture’s file information. Optical image stabilisation is present to control camera shake. Available shooting modes include 16 Scene settings and various automatic options, and there’s even a Manual mode for total control, though it’s a little bit fiddly to operate.
The camera’s contrast-detect autofocus is fast and accurate in good light, while an LED torch aids focusing and illuminates subjects for video. The camera has Wi-Fi and NFC that enables remote shooting and speedy transfer of files to a smart device for upload to social media. Its rear 3in LCD screen offers 460-k dot resolution – slightly lower than some here. Overall, it’s well-rounded and competitively priced.
Video: Full HD
Ricoh WG-M2 Best for sports
Roughly 40% smaller and lighter than it’s predecessor (the WG-M1), Ricoh’s WG-M2 is a video-focused, rugged action cam that impressively captures 4K footage at 30fps.
Fitted with a 1/2.33in sensor, it carries an 8MP resolution – lower than others here. This makes its JPEGs less suitable for larger prints. Slightly ‘boxy’ in design, it features just six large buttons on its sides. This keeps handling simple, but makes the menu system slightly slow to use. Its shooting modes are mainly automatic, but the camera does allow Exposure Compensation by +/- 2EV. Burst shooting at 8fps is possible through a dedicated setting.
Unlike its rivals that offer a zoom, the WG-M2’s lens is a fixed 1.6mm, giving a full-frame equivalent of 14mm. It can however be set to one of two angles-of-view – an ultra-wide 202°, and a wide 150°. While this means the WG-M2 offers very little reach and suffers from wide angle distortion, it does give its video and stills a very immersive look that’s highly popular with fans of action sports. It has a fast f/2 aperture to aid low-light shooting, but there’s no inbuilt flash or AF illuminator. The lens is a fixed-focus unit, keeping everything beyond 0.2m sharp within the depth-of-field created, and enabling images to be captured with minimal delay upon pressing the shutter.
The camera is waterproof down to 20m with its removable lens cover attached, freeze resistant to -10˚C and shock-resistant below 2m. A range of accessories sold separately allow it to be mounted or worn in a variety of ways, and it can also be set to record footage upright irrelevant of its own orientation. GPS functionality is missing, but it does sport Wi-Fi for remote use and transfer of files. The WG-M2 will appeal most to those who want to record high quality video, with stills as more of a secondary option.
Olympus Tough TG-Tracker Best for features
Part camera, part adventurer’s tool, the TG-Tracker is Olympus’ newest Tough camera release.
It boasts 4K video recording at 30fps, Full HD at 60fps and a stereo mic. Alongside its digital 5-axis stabilisation system, it’s shipped with a separate Steady Grip handle to help keep handheld footage smooth. With a 7.2MP 1/2.3in BSI CMOS, it outputs 8MP JPEG files through interpolation – the same resolution as the Ricoh WG-M2. Stills and video shooting modes are mainly automatic, but White Balance and Exposure Compensation can be easily adjusted. It’s waterproof to an impressive 30m, freezeproof to -10°C, shockproof to 2.1m, crushproof to 100kg, and dustproof, too.
With GPS, compass, barometer, thermometer and acceleration sensor built in, it can display, record and track a wide range of location and movement information. Add in a powerful torch that can be turned on and off independently, and the TG-Tracker offers much more in terms of features than some of the more affordable options.
The camera has a fixed lens with a fast, f/2 aperture and a full-frame equivalent focal length of 13.9mm. This provides an ultra-wide 204° angle-of-view (reduced to 161° with IS enabled). It’s a fixed-focus unit, with anything beyond 0.2m appearing sharp.
The TG-Tracker is the only camera here to feature a flip-out display. The 1.5in 115k-dot LCD makes composition feel much more natural than a fixed monitor on its side would have. With just six controls including the power switch and shutter button, operation is kept basic, and its uncomplicated menu system is easy to navigate.
With Wi-Fi and the Olympus Track and Share apps, you can monitor your journey’s progress, remotely control the camera and transfer images. Overall, it’s a pocketable device that will appeal to those who value versatility.
Sony FDR-X1000VR Best for video
It may be the most expensive option in this roundup, but the Sony FDR-X1000VR is worth considering for any aspiring videographer.
It captures 4K footage at 100Mbps when used with U3 memory cards, and uses the sensor’s full-pixel readout to ensure optimum frame quality. It can also shoot Full HD video at 120fps, giving smooth slow motion, and outputs 8.8MP JPEGs. Its 1/2.3in CMOS sensor is paired with an f/2.8 lens that has a 17.1mm equivalent focal length. This provides an ultra-wide, 170° angle-of-view, and there’s the option to use a narrower 120° angle if desired. Minimum focus distance is 50cm, making it less well-suited to close-up shots. The camera uses SteadyShot electronic stabilisation to help give results free from camera shake.
While it’s only splash-proof without the included external housing, the X1000VR is waterproof to 10m when inside. It’s also drop proof to 1.5m, freeze-proof to -10° and dustproof. A Dive Door, sold separately for £24, allows the camera to go much deeper and is rated to a depth of 100m.
The camera has a small LCD on its side that’s used for simple settings controls and reference, but cannot be used for image playback or Live View-style composition. The X1000VR we reviewed came boxed with a wearable Live-View remote (the R in the name) which has a screen for this purpose, but the camera is also available without it at a lower price. It offers GPS for location logging and there’s Wi-Fi for file transfer to a smart device. An external mic socket is featured for enhancing sound quality on dry land. This is one of the best rugged cameras for video, but will appeal less for those focused on stills.
This review was first published in the August 2016 issue of Digital Photo - download back issues here.