In the age of the smartphone camera, there is one type of dedicated camera that all adventurers still need — a rugged waterproof camera. These pocketable underwater cameras take excellent photos and great video and are fast and easy to use. You can drop them into a mud puddle or take them skiing, snowboarding, or sledding. Better yet, these all but one of these durable cameras have optical zoom lenses, which let you get far closer to the action than your average smartphone — and that’s the point, really, action in rough, wet, and sandy areas of the world.
Note: Author Chris Maxcer has published an updated best waterproof camera guide at Man Makes Fire.
While you can take most of your photos with your iPhone camera, there is only so much a smartphone can do. For starters, it’s not particularly rugged, and while some smartphones can be “waterproofed” with a case, it’s not the kind of waterproofing that will handle snorkeling or that you can trust for white water rafting. Besides, if you drop your iPhone to the bottom of a lake, you’re out hundreds of dollars — and you just lost your ability to communicate, too.
Waterproof Smartphone Cases vs Rugged Cameras
Dedicated waterproof cameras are reasonably priced, letting you take risks that most people would shy away from with a smartphone — even an iPhone wrapped inside a durable waterproof case. Of course, I recommend rugged waterproof cases for taking your iPhone on adventures, but serious, long-term water play at depths below a couple of feet? No way. Get yourself a true waterproof camera and a whole new world will open up to you. Case in point: I just took my iPhone whitewater rafting in a brand new waterproof case, which promptly failed after my first dunking.
With a rugged waterproof camera, you can take photos of your kids playing in the sand on the beach while you’re standing in the water with your camera at an angle low to the water — or even half in and out of the water — and you just don’t have to worry about it. I had a friend who managed to snag a permit to raft the famous Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho last summer, but she only took a big DSL camera. Sure, she has some awesome photos of the landscape and her friends and family, but what’s missing? Photos from the raft. Photos from playing in the crystal clear water. Photos of joyful adrenaline. And video? No video. No first-person perspectives dropping down the river and swirling around beautiful bends.
An affordable rugged waterproof camera would have changed all that. A few years from now as memories start to fade, these are the photos that repaint special moments in your mind.
So do you need a waterproof camera? Yes, yes you do. It’s time to stop thinking about it and start using one. Even if you just want to take some photos of your kids at the waterpark or capture the underwater splash of bubbles when they jump in off the side of a hotel pool, these are the photos of your life — and this is why you need a rugged waterproof camera.
Core Rugged Camera Features
A great rugged waterproof camera should have excellent battery life, offer a versatile 4x or 5x optical zoom lens, let you take it more than a few feet underwater, and have easy-to-use tactile buttons for both snapping photos and shooting video. A few other features might also pique your interest, such as built-in WiFi or Bluetooth to let you wirelessly control the camera with your smartphone — handy for group selfies when you’re in the great outdoors. Built-in GPS lets you tag your photos with locations, and some even offer maps to help you find your way.
If you want to record decent video, look for cameras that can record at least 1080p at 30 frames per second (fps) — but 1080p at 60 fps is even better for faster action.
All of these cameras are great, offering photo and video quality that will more than satisfy most people, and nearly all contain similar types of CMOS sensors and sizes. Of course, it should be noted that their photo quality is relative . . . they don’t produce the quality that you’ll get out of higher-end point-and-shoot digital cameras, nor will they come close to the latest DSLR or mirrorless cameras. The key to remember is toughness. Rugged cameras will get you shots and video you could only imagine otherwise.
7 Best Waterproof Cameras 2016
The 16 megapixel Olympus TG-4 with the new ability to shoot RAW photos is a great all-around performer that excels with a fast f2.0 (25-100 mm equivalent f2.0-4.9) lens for shooting photos. The TG-4 has a well-balanced look with a centered lens, and its claim to fame is two optional add-on lenses: a telephoto lens that extends the standard 4x zoom to nearly 7x and a fisheye lens for super wide shots to capture a broader field of view. There is another cool accessory, though — a LED Light Guide that channels light from the camera’s LED illuminator to redeploy it in a circle around the lens. Why? It provides even lighting for up-close-and-personal macro photography — insects, flowers, etc. These three accessories make the TG-4 the most versatile rugged, waterproof camera available in 2016.
Any downsides? The price. The TG-4 costs about $379, which is one of the higher prices in this camera category. Plus, the extra lenses tend to break past an additional $100 each. As you might expect, the TG-4 includes built-in WiFi for remote camera operation through a smartphone app, as well as GPS. One last note, while the Tough TG-4 boasts 1080p/30 fps, the video quality isn’t quite as good as its photo quality.
- Recommendation: Choose the Olympus TG-4 if you want one of the fastest cameras in its class, excellent macro abilities, want to shoot RAW photos, and if you find the accessories compelling.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to 50′, shockproof to 7′, freezeproof to 14°F, crushproof to 220lbs
- Check out the TG-4 at Amazon . . . or . . . at B&H
Nikon COOLPIX AW130
The new (available this spring for around $349) 16 megapixel Nikon COOLPIX AW130 is an all-around great performer, delivering good photos and video in a robust and easy-to-use form factor that lets you take photos and video even if you’re wearing gloves. Nikon makes an optional Chest Harness for using the AW130 like an action sports camera. The 24-120mm f2.8-4.9 equivalent lens with 5x optical zoom gives you wide angle shots that also let you zoom in a little closer than most other waterproof cameras. The built-in GPS logs your exact location for shots, and the built-in mapping and compass helps you navigate and find Points of Interest for nearby photo ops. The built-in WiFi also lets you wirelessly send photos to your smartphone, as well as use your smartphone as a remote control for the AW130. Video recording goes up to 1080p at 30 fps.
- Recommendation: Choose the AW130 for its GPS, WiFi, and solid all-around performance at a competitive price.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to a whopping 100′, shockproof to 6.6′, freezeproof to 14°F
- Check out the AW130 at Amazon . . . or at B&H
Olympus Stylus Tough TG-870
The new 16 megapixel Olympus Stylus Tough TG-870 is one of the most interesting rugged camera options — it boasts a flip up screen, letting you frame shots from all sorts of angles, in addition to making it easier to take selfies. Plus, it has one of the widest lenses on a rugged camera, giving you a huge field of view that makes it easier to capture action shots or include stunning vistas. For instance, the ultra-wide angle 21mm lens captures 25% more of your subject area than 28mm equivalent lenses. Surprisingly, it also shoots video up to 1080p at 60 fps (its Olympus sibling, the TG-4, maxes out at 30 fps).
Better yet, Olympus now offers a Sportcam Mode, which you can use with the optional Sport Holder to attach to your belt, backpack, or body for action cam footage. New with the TG-870 is built-in WiFi for smartphone pairing — iOS or Android — as well as remote control. GPS now tags your location, too.
- Recommendation: Choose the TG-870 for the flip-up screen, wide-angle lens, and 1080p at 60 fps.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to 50′, shockproof 7′, freezeproof to 14°F
- Check out the TG-870 at Amazon . . . or . . . at B&H
Fujifilm FinePix XP90
The 16.4 megapixel Fujifilm FinePix XP90 — updated from the previous generation XP80 — has evolved into a solid waterproof camera contender. It has a 5x optical zoom lens (28-140mm equivalent) and can record 1080 video at 60 fps. The XP90 includes WiFi connectivity for wireless image transfers as well as lets you remotely control the camera. On the downside, the XP90 does not include built-in GPS for those who want to tag the locations of their photos. To make the XP90 versatile, Fujifilm offers a nifty Action Camera Mode that turns off the rear LCD to conserve battery while you video record action sports.
- Recommendation: Choose the XP90 for its solid versatility.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to 50′, shockproof to 5.8′, freezeproof to 14°F
- Check out the XP90 at Amazon . . . or . . . at B&H
GoPro HERO4 Black or Silver
The 12 megapixel GoPro HERO4 Black is the world’s best action sports camera. How does this differ from rugged waterproof cameras? While the GoPro is indeed rugged when inserted into its included waterproof case, it focuses its best features on videoing action-oriented activities. It has a fixed super wide angle lens — no optical zoom — and its controls are not as easy to use as those in most rugged cameras with more traditional form factors.
On the other hand, the GoPro has dozens of accessory mounts and systems for attaching a GoPro camera to your chest, surfboards, helmets, hunting rifles or shotguns, motorcycles, skateboards, and pretty much anything else. With the GoPro, you don’t bother to “frame” photos — you simply sort of point the lens in the direction you want and snap some photos. Because the lens is so wide, it will capture most anything. This means you can’t zoom in — to get a closeup, you need to hold the GoPro close to your subject. If your priority is video, though, the GoPro represents your best rugged solution — the Black edition will record stunning 4K video at 30 fps. As for the 1080p standard, the Black edition will record 1080p at 120 fps, which means you can create some seriously cool slo-mo segments at 1080p.
The HERO4 Sliver version includes a handy built-in LCD display on the back, which helps you navigate settings and frame shots. The lens is still fixed, though, and video recording features drop down a bit — 4k video at 15 fps and 1080p at 60 fps. The display, though, makes it possible for recreational sorts of users to use it a bit more like a point-and-shoot camera . . . just don’t forget that it excels at easy-to-shoot video.
- Recommendation: Choose a GoPro for action-oriented video excellence.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to 131′ (and generally shockproof)
- Check out the GoPro HERO4 Black at Amazon . . . or . . . at B&H
- Check out the GoPro HERO4 Silver at Amazon . . . or . . . at B&H
Sony Cyber-shot TX30
The 18 megapixel Sony TX30 is a sleek and slim, urban-oriented rugged camera — although I did use one at the top of Mount St. Helens to snap a photo of a mother and daughter in a rain and sleet storm. In the TX30, the form factor is its defining feature. It’s barely over a half-inch thick, and with a sliding front cover, it’s super pocketable. While it boasts solid rugged specs — waterproof to 33′ — the TX30 is more at home for shots at the pool or waterpark than it is on rivers or ski slopes. Why? You have to use the touchscreen to change the settings, which means you have to dry the screen because the touchscreen won’t work underwater.
Still, the TX30 is a solid unit, offering a 5x optical zoom and video recording at 1080/60i (again, interlaced is generally not as good for video enthusiasts, but most people will appreciate the video output).
- Recommendation: Choose the TX30 for its sexy svelte profile.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to 33′, shockproof 5′, freezeproof to 14°F
- Check out the TX30 at Amazon . . . or . . . at B&H
Panasonic LUMIX TS6
The 16.1 megapixel Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS6 is a full-featured rugged waterproof camera with a 4.6x optical zoom with a 28-128mm equivalent f3.3-5.9 lens. It includes built-in GPS and WiFi. Unlike some other rugged cameras in this class, its 1080p HD video recording ups the frames per second to 60 fps (instead of 30 fps). The faster recording option is great for motion recording — sports and activities or capturing increased fine detail. The only potential problem with the TS6 is that Panasonic seems to have discontinued it, but it can still be found on Amazon while supplies last.
- Recommendation: Choose the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS6 if your priority is taking sweet video that handles action better than most other rugged cameras.
- Rugged Specs: waterproof to 43′, shockproof 6.6′, freezeproof to 14°F
- Check out the TS6 at Amazon