Note: The Olympus Tough 6000 has now been replaced with the Olympus Tough 6010. All links from the Tough 6000 will take you to a choice of Tough 6010's.
After testing waterproofs from Pentax and Canon recently, it seems only fair to revisit Olympus who kicked off the niche. Their current two model range offers the 12 Megapixel, 10m rated TOUGH 8000 and the 10 Megapixel, 3m rated TOUGH 6000. It's the 6000 I'm trying here, but it doesn't look like the base model in a range.
Like all the Olympus TOUGHs (and the SW labelled models before them) the 6000 is a flat bodied camera which uses folded optics to cram a zoom into the case behind a small window. This is a well proven technique used by Pentax, Fuji and others which means the lens needs no external moving parts. The beauty of this is that where a moving lens needs clever waterproofing or a bulky port, a simple window does the job for a flat camera. Olympus has covered this window with a moveable metal screen to keep it free from handling fingerprints. Folded lenses are a smart bit of engineering, but as they are essentially a periscope, their optical performance is something of a compromise. It works out pretty well, but you have to appreciate that you are trading something for those svelte lines.
My review camera arrived with a restrained lemon yellow example frolicking on the box. On opening it, I found the sample they has sent was finished in a gloriously rich golden orange. There's also a great blue and a more sombre pure white if that doesn't appeal. Like all the Olympus Mju range the finish is excellent. The 6000 is plastic framed and clad with shaped metal panels on the front and all four edges. Only the back is plain plastic, but it's a crisp self coloured dark charcoal which looks like it will wear well, though it helps to highlight fingerprints on the 'Hypercrystal' LCD screen. The plastic frame robs the Olympus 6000 of the big watch feel of the range topping Olympus 8000, but it still feels much more solid than the competing Pentax W60. The Olympus 6000 looks as though it will shrug off more abuse than the Canon PowerShot D10, but there's no denying that the plastic tripod mount shows that it’s a cheaper option. The range topping TOUGH 8000 in contrast however is the definition of solid! The splash of colour on the Olympus TOUGH 6000 is the only extrovert feature, in all other respects the camera is quite grown up. The buttons are all metal and there's a showy scattering of screws to lend a macho industrial feel. They are good looking slabs of technology although no longer look as cutting edge as they did, simply through familiarity I think. The line is more grown up than the brash Canon D10 which may tip the balance either way depending whether you are elegant or extrovert.
The 6000 is a small camera which has to crowd its buttons in after squeezing a large LCD on to the back panel. It's one of my pet peeves with any camera that's supposed to be used outdoors that buttons this small just can't be used with gloved, cold hands - but Olympus have done something about it, at last! They have added what they call 'tap control', which when enabled means that sharp taps on the top, back or sides will provoke a reaction. While taking pictures it allows you to set the flash and macro mode or toggle in and out of playback mode – in playback you can step back and forward through your pictures. Obviously this isn't total control, but perhaps the next version will do a little more.
The Olympus 6000 isn't the most responsive camera, but it improves with faster memory cards, so make sure you have one ready. Interestingly the box includes an adaptor to allow the use of microSD cards, at last! For years little Olympi have been tied to xD cards which haven't become popular and have fallen behind other cards for serious performance and larger capacity. Slipping a teeny microSD card or a fast xD card into the camera opens up several extra options – the most significant being the removal of a time limit on video recording. The top video quality is 30fps VGA which doesn't rate as remarkable in itself. The adaptor also relaxes one of the slightly sneaky things that Olympus have done in the past, ensuring that some functions work only with their own brand xD cards. For example, the panorama function still works... another very sensible change.
One advantage of the non-protruding folded optics of the lens is the elimination of any flash shadow close up. Which would be great, but in their wisdom Olympus disable the flash in the super macro mode, which is a shame, as this mode would benefit in particular. All is not lost though, as the focus assist light is a super bright white LED and can be set to come on and help out. I'd like to see the flash available close up, but the LED does work so you aren't limited to macro just on sunny days.
One very useful feature found whilst digging in the menus was Pixel mapping. Despite some of the best known SLRs having suffered badly from 'hot' and failed pixels, this still isn't something you see on all cameras. Pixel mapping corrects pixel variations by analysing the sensor output under controlled conditions. It means the camera can compensate for the ageing of its 'film', which helps to make it a good long term investment. Fitting, as it's proof against 3m of water pressure, -10C of freezing and 100kg of careless sitting down, you should be able to carry it for years to come. If the built-in toughness isn't enough, there is even a dive housing available, the Olympus PT-047, which will keep the camera dry down to 40m – which is deeper than most dive qualifications allow.
Olympus are quite grown up and don't often stack up fairground novelties on their cameras. Most of the features on the Olympus Tough 6000 are quite considered, but the Beauty mode does stand out as gimmicky. In this mode, after you take a picture a second 'lovely' version is created. An interesting addition since it means you can compare how horrible you really are with your ‘perfect’ evil twin... in fact the changes are really quite subtle, it didn't make me beautiful unfortunately, but I was glad of the attention. Using face detection, the camera works out where the spots and wrinkles will be concentrated and then tries to iron them out. The result is reduced in size; down to 3.2 megapixels – which is a shame, as if it could make me truly appealing I'd want to print it out as a massive poster!
The Olympus panorama mode has been vastly improved; it used to be just a set of guide lines, but at last the on screen guide can show the edge of the last picture. This made Canon’s panorama mode one of my favourite features of their cameras in the past and the 6000 does it in full screen rather than with tiny thumbnails. You can choose one of three panorama modes, two of which stitch in-camera - old style guiding lines and new style guiding edge snapshot. Those are both limited to three pictures, but the third panorama mode leaves the work to a computer after download and doesn't worry about how many pictures you shoot – or help you out so much.
As well as digital zoom the Olympus Tough 6000 also offers a 'Fine zoom' mode which drops the photo size to 5 megapixels and adds a little more seamless digital zoom without degrading the picture beyond usable. To my mind this is the way any digital zoom should be done: let it crop out the bit you are using rather than blowing tiny parts of the picture up to 'full' size.
I usually hate built-in help systems but the Olympus 6000 scores here too. If you're sitting wondering what the hell 'Fine zoom' is you can just press the DISP button and it will give you a helpful hint. With such complex modern cameras it's a good attempt to take the frustration out of the mazy menus.
When you are going somewhere where the survival of a camera or any piece of shiny techno toyware is questionable, these are the photo partners of choice. This is great for rough and tumble days during the British Summer (or winter of course). Photos under duress make great memories!
Talking of duress, we took the Olympus Tough 6000 on a shallow dive to check it out. Although only rated to 3m, the seals look very similar to those used on the 10m Olympus Tough 8000. Our Mju 770SW has the same system too and hasn't missed a beat in three years. Of the competing waterproofing designs, this is the one I find the easiest to maintain. A finger run around the seals and matching face of the case does the job, whereas a full blown 'o' ring really needs regularly picking out and re-greasing. To really test the underwater claims, we were naughty and took the camera to just beyond 6m and, as expected, there were no problems at all.
Underwater the small buttons do at least protrude but they are still hard to separate by touch. This isn't as much of a pain as it could be as the tap control system worked really well, which I wasn't really expecting - I thought my neoprene dive gloves would deaden the taps. The tap controls are ideal underwater where flash and macro are the two most important options. We tried the 6000 in the early summer sea off the coast of Norfolk, so we didn't expect stellar results, but it worked well there so warm water fun should be a piece of cake. The cloudy water off Norfolk slowed auto focus and scattered flash light but the LED lit Super Macro mode worked very well. Another clever little touch.
As always with a small camera with a small battery the advice is to add a spare to your bag for a day out. You should be able to wring more than 200 shots per charge out of each battery, but I think the optical stabilisation is helping it soak up more power than early models – though of course you can always turn it off.
The tough outer case does compromise layout, but the power and shutter at the top work really well. It's the back panel which seems cramped with nowhere to rest your thumb for one handed use other than the mode dial. That said, the dial for mode selection is fine and doesn't spin easily but makes the playback button appear somewhat superfluous – especially since one of the tap options is direct entry to playback mode too.
Optical quality is hard to assess. Folded systems simply aren't as good as direct lenses, compromised by the need to use reflection to reach the sensor. The lens is a 3.6x which starts at the usefully wide equivalent of 28mm. The results on land look sharp enough for normal users, but underwater and close up results aren't razor sharp. This is probably a lot better for people than “things” and may be an aesthetic choice – as a “thing” photographer I crave more detail. Conventional concertina optics do still seem to perform better. In comparison to the current vogue for vibrant, perhaps overdone colour, the Olympus Tough 6000 tends the other way. This leaves its result looking a bit flat, though fairly true to life. However, this gives a clean basis for tweaking at home if you want to turn up the wick.
Once the Olympus 6000 has been dunked, it can be quite tricky to clear the lens window of smears which can give rise to blur and veiling flare – although the screen shows them clearly, so you can't pretend it was a surprise! There is a coating on the lens window to dispel water droplets but the shutter mechanism seems to hold quite a bit of water and needs a good shake to clear it.
The Olympus Tough 6000 is as tough as any normal person would ever need, albeit not quite as gorgeous as the 8000. I guiltily think there's room for fetish objects in an active life... much better than buying a Rolex just for Friday nights! Since I'm a fall everywhere, drop everything, soak anything kind of nerd, I'd go for the Olympus 8000 myself and save the Olympus 6000 for friends and family.
Even if the 6000 lives in the shadow of its big brother, there's still lots to like and plenty to explore. It doesn't try to interfere in your photography and if anything it hides its light under a bit of a bushel – the new panorama mode for example is the second of three options, so many people might not find it.
The Olympus TOUGHs are really all about the whole package. They are thoughtful, full-featured cameras which give a great return over what you can realistically expect to be long lifetimes. As bulletproof backup cameras they are, at present, unique.
9/10 build quality
7/10 image quality
This review and all images within it are copyright of Wex Photographic and Rob Spray 2009. www.1townhouses.co.ukBack to top