There are niches and there are niches. Now that everyone has a digital camera manufacturers have to find new things we can't do with our current model to make us shell out for a new one, that's the way life works! There has been a small but steady trade in tough cameras for years. Pros want SLRs they can use in the rain outside Kylie's hotel and sailors and walkers want the same resilience in a “pocketable” package too. Aside from diving models, only a few cameras have hinted that they'd actually be safe under the water too but that promise is now becoming much more convincing. Historically, splash-proof cameras were just that, not intended to be immersed - designed only to shed water – but now a few truly waterproof cameras have appeared. They have seals all round, unseen around buttons and dials, but obvious on card and connector hatches. They can be soaked, snorkelled with and some can now be taken on a dive – albeit a shallow one. Both Pentax and Olympus have been selling these models for a few years and that has now drawn in the biggest name in photography, Canon. The arrival of their 10m rated PowerShot D10 should be a cue for everyone to raise their game.
Not all these cameras are created equal but their ratings are literal. When a camera says you can take it to 4m it means it. In fact if you feel brave you may find their ratings are conservative, I've taken an Olympus Mju 770 SW to double its 10m limit. That's certainly not carte blanche to ignore the stickers, just some reassurance. In the past when I had a 3m camera I never took it beyond the surf but these models really do what they say on the tin!
Pentax W60 waterproof compact digital camera
In comparison with its competitors from Olympus and Canon, the Pentax W60 is less visually appealing. Of course you have to remember that the W60 is also much, much less expensive (£100-200 less) than the 10m range toppers. It looks OK on the table but doesn't have the same quality feel as the others. This is chiefly because two-thirds of the case is silver painted plastic and as a result it's also lighter by some margin. Where the others make a macho feature of their metal fasteners the Pentax W60 compact digital camera just has some plastic bungs down the screw holes on the back. However while the others invite appreciative handling, particularly the 10m rated Olympus 8000 Tough, the Pentax is all business and because of this is less likely to cramp your style for fear of spoiling its plain Jane looks. This is good as it looks as though it would mark relatively easily. If one was to arrange an impromptu game of camera 'conkers' the Olympus models don't look as though they would be damaged as they defeated the Pentax. The Canon sits between the two for robustness and might put up more resistance. It is much larger, effectively a conventional compact rather than flat with folded optics.
The specification of the Pentax W60 is quite standard for a compact digital camera in 2009 but at the good end of the specs you'd hope for. A 5x lens starts at a useful 28mm equivalent at the wide end and belies its folded optics by appearing in the centre of the body – many other flat cameras shift the front element to one edge. The far end reaches out to the equivalent of 140mm which outstrips all its rivals. That lens serves a 10 Megapixel sensor and although it is none too bright - with a maximum aperture of f3.5 to 5.5 - only the Canon with just a 3x zoom range is brighter. It takes an SD card which shares a single, waterproof hatch with a small Li-ion battery and the USB/AV socket. Apart from the hatch there's really no hint of its unusual resilience.
Splashes of colour are obviously design shorthand for waterproof too. As well as the polished stainless front of my one, the Pentax W60 is also available in red and blue. On the surface it might attract a few more curious glances but as a lifestyle guy or gal you're probably already wearing fluorescent neoprene and curious glances may not be unfamiliar or unwelcome ;-)
While the Pentax W60 is the baby of the group; lighter and less macho than the others, its modest 4m rating is enough to be confident in the water, though not enough for a dive. So it's a camera for surfers, windsurfers, waterskiers and 'gentle' snorkelling. A specification oddity suggests Pentax don't have the same conviction as the others - their 4m limit is valid for two hours. It's not clear how this translates into normal use; is that up to 4m for two hours or do you get longer if you stay shallower? More importantly does it have to be stretchered from the waves at 121 minutes? Pentax also recommend that the seals should be changed annually.
Olympus have seemingly discovered that their initial 3m system was in fact easily able to shrug off greater pressure - and thus depth – as there are no visible changes since they launched. To my mind it would behove the manuals to stress a little seal hygiene as I know how little it takes to flood a camera, but they all play the risks down... safe in the knowledge that most owners will be completely paranoid dunking £200 odd of new toy full of holiday memories. The seals are simple and easy to check, soft gaskets which are clamped shut by hatches and pressed tighter by any water pressure. Just ensure they are free of any dirt, hairs or fibres. A quite reasonable concern would be that they won't last, but our Mju 770SW has survived into its third year of 'lifestyle' activities so the basic technology is quite well proven. During my testing on a dive trip there was no chance to do anything other than a nominal dunk but it stayed on deck for candid snaps and was splashed with seawater, lashed with rain and dipped in tea – to prove a point – and looks none the worse for the experience.
The Pentax W60 is a really good companion for an active day out. It very easily slips into a pocket and is so light that it's no more of a burden than a mobile phone. Having a camera immediately to hand is often the difference between getting a picture and not. On a day where I was helping to tutor a marine conservation course it was ideal. I could take pictures of the course in progress - the kind which are always needed for reports - without distracting anyone. To keep a low profile I forced the flash off and let the camera up the ISO when needed. As expected the noise pours in but you need to be realistic under these circumstances, at 800 the output is grainy but quite usable for online reports, presentations and even small prints. You wouldn't be using this, or many compacts if you wanted to make posters from dark shots, but it's quite acceptable.
Outdoors, in its natural surroundings it's more at home. The standard metering takes care of highlights while holding on to good shadow detail. Close ups are crisp, even to the 1cm limit, the folded optics hold up pretty well from corner to corner with only the brightest spots giving rise to very slight fringing. Mid distance looks good too but approaching infinity several shots looked unexpectedly soft almost as though the camera didn't care to venture beyond 200m. It's not a tragic softness, but whilst for close work it does well, detailed landscapes don't impress. Even at low ISOs there's a gentle grain which swamps subtle, pixel level details which robs distant trees, grassy hills and the sea of texture. Bold subjects fair better. Of course you can enlarge but I'd stop at A4 when 10 Megapixels should be good for A3.
The Pentax W60 gives restrained and very natural colour, which is a pleasant antidote to many compacts which seem to pile on the saturation. Auto balance is good under artificial, natural and mixed light which makes it perfect for impromptu shots between the bar and the beach. Results are a lot better back at the PC than suggested by the screen which is, like so many, washed out in sunlight and not razor sharp - what could you expect to see on a 2.5" screen! The screen collected finger prints and the unshuttered lens was often smudged as it was pulled from a pocket. There is a digital soft focus filter as well as this old fashioned 'manual' option!
It would be easy to dismiss the Pentax W60 as unexceptional apart from its waterproof credentials but actually delving through its menus uncovers quite a few useful options. As well as a 1cm macro which works well in good natural light, and a plain macro which retains a very useful close working distance for the whole 5x zoom range you might be surprised to find a 'Pan Focal' mode. This mimics the focus free lens of a '70s Kodak for general purpose shooting with no focus delay - just the ticket for parties. There's even manual focus for when you know best. There's no option for manual exposure control as such, but the selection of scene modes is more entertaining than most and even includes an honestly described 'Program' mode for non-dummies. The list is too long to waste your life with but it does include an amusing 'Pet' mode which will track your cat or dog by shade and two panorama modes which stitch in-camera with modest success.
The mysterious 'green' button on the back can be usefully set as a short cut to a few quality parameters – image size, JPEG compression, and white balance as well as exposure compensation. Of course it has face tracking and even has a dedicated button to add or cancel smile detection. On balance it's a nice package which you can navigate easily using one button press to reach the parameters you need. For the most part it was fine in Program and I would just tap AF to choose which focus mode I wanted, very easy and very fast – just what you want in a pocket companion.
The battery in the Pentax W60 is tiny, so it should be no surprise that it has finite snapping capacity. In mixed use we got about 160 shots from it – I'd recommend a spare battery is one of the things you buy with this camera. We used the menus a lot but it was fine for a couple of light days out before we had to charge it, which takes a couple of hours.
After my first impressions I was expecting to be a little lukewarm about the Pentax W60, but it's a very honest, well thought out little camera. Really very usable, very “pocketable” and just doesn't stand in your way. Even if you're tempted into one of its novelty modes you can still steer it yourself. Want macro in sports mode? Want flash on? Then you can go ahead and do it... much less of a nanny than the Fujifilm F200 which chased it through the letterbox. In the end it was the happy feeling that it wanted to help but not interfere that brought me round and I'd be very happy to recommend it for any lifestyler who wants to do slightly more than point and shoot. It's particularly good for snapping flowers and animals you encounter without the faff of carrying a camera you have to coddle. Very handy if your SLR has to stay in its bag out of the rain too!
Pros: Light, fast enough, flexible even in fun modes and pleasing results in close and middle distance. Waterproof and tough. Excellent auto white and believable colour. Handy lens range – starts wide.
Cons: Not so great at distance, build quality below more expensive rivals, underwater options limited by depth rating, easily marked and no ‘looker’ to start with. Not the best menus. Distinctly average battery life.
6/10 build quality
7/10 image quality
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