Tough going on The Ben

Rather unusually, I shall start by getting straight to the point; I wanted to buy a camera. More specifically, I wanted to buy a tough camera that could accompany me on my climbing, walking and canoeing trips, the odd beach holiday, and be used by my enthusiastic children without fear of damage. I also quite liked the idea of having GPS in the camera. I'd experimented with using GPS data before when I borrowed the Sony GPS-CS3 for another mountain trip back in 2009 and although I'd never suggest that it is a camera essential, I did rather like being able to view my photos quickly and easily on a map. After a bit of research, I narrowed my choice down to one of 4 different point and shoot cameras; the Panasonic FT3, the Fuji XP30, the Olympus TG-810 and the Pentax WG-1 GPS.

At the time, all four had been announced but had yet to be released, so there was very little additional information to be found on them. As such, in an act of selfless generosity I offered to review of all four during a trip to Scotland to climb Ben Nevis. The plan was simple - take all 4 up and down the highest mountain in the UK, and buy whichever one I liked the best on my return.

The cameras

The Pentax WG-1

The eagle eyed amongst you may have noticed that the Pentax camera is the regular WG-1, and not the GPS version. This is simply because, at the time of my trip, the GPS version had not yet been released. Although this was slightly disappointing as it meant I could not test the GPS capabilities of the WG-1, I could at least still determine how tough it was. The WG-1 has a rubberised finish to it which makes it feel slightly more robust in the hand than the all metal finish of the others. It also comes complete with a karabiner strap that allows you to clip the camera to a belt loop or the harness of a rucksack. Because this camera would not require GPS testing, for extended periods of the trip it was left in the hands of my brother's girlfriend Anna who, by her own admission, is a bit of a klutz and therefore an appropriate candidate for a camera toughness test.

Pentax WG-1 key camera specifications
MegapixelsOptical zoom35mm equivalentHD video
14 5x 28-140mm 720p
Pentax WG-1 physical characteristics
58.5mm 115.5mm 28.5mm 163g
Pentax WG-1 "tough" credentials
to 10m from 1.5m to -10°C to 100kg

The Panasonic FT3

The Panasonic was perhaps the camera I was most interested in. I, like many of the sales guys at Wex Photographic, am a big fan of the Panasonic compacts; three of my fellow trekkers already owned Lumix TZ-7s, and our Web Manager Alex owns the FT3's predecessor, the FT2, and is a great advocate of its underwater performance. However, the FT3 is by far the most expensive camera on test here, so would need to do a lot to meet the hype and justify its price tag. Like the FT2, the FT3 is supplied with a silicone jacket which can be added to the camera to make it more gripable when wet and also offer some additional bump protection, although the demo camera I was sent was missing this particular accessory. I've used an FT2 with its rubber suit and found it greatly improved the outdoor handling of the camera, so was disappointed I'd have to use the FT3 naked. In addition to GPS, the FT3 also improves on its older brother by offering full 1080p HD video - the only camera on test here to do so.

Panasonic FT3 key camera specifications
MegapixelsOptical zoom35mm equivalentHD video
12.1 4.6x 28-128mm 1080p
Panasonic FT3 physical characteristics
64.0mm 103.5mm 26.5mm 197g
Panasonic FT3 "tough" credentials
to 12m from 2m to -10°C no

The Olympus TG-810

This would not be my first experience with an Olympus Tough camera. Back in May 2009 I'd borrowed a Mju Tough 8000 and thrown it (quite literally) to the kids to play with. Incredibly, it lived up to its tough name and survived completely intact, although I wasn't blown away by the image quality. This particular TG-810 was sent to me direct from Olympus and was quite clearly a demo model - it came in a blank box, with a full sized but completely blank instruction manual, a labelled but blank CD, and a European plug. Great start. However, the Olympus TG-810 charges the battery in-camera, rather than in a separate charger, and can be powered direct from a USB port, so I was able to charge the battery from my laptop and from an in-car USB power adapter. Looking like it's been crafted form a solid chunk of metal, the Olympus looks and feels tough, and is the only camera here to have a lens cover, protecting the glass when not in use - an advantage in my opinion.

Olympus TG-810 key camera specifications
MegapixelsOptical zoom35mm equivalentHD video
14 5x 28-140mm 720p
Olympus TG-810 physical characteristics
64.5mm 100.2mm 26.0mm 221g
Olympus TG-810 "tough" credentials
to 10m from 2m to -10°C to 100kg

The Fuji XP30

I once fell in love with an ancestor of the XP30. I took a Fuji Z33WP on holiday to Crete with me and was gutted when I had to give it back, so I was really, really looking forward to getting my hands on the XP30. It was the cheapest camera in the test by some way, and at first glance it wasn't obvious why. Sure, it's only waterproof down to 5m, but aside from that it holds its own amongst the others. The lack of a lens cover was something that had worried me on the old Z33WP, and like the Panasonic and Pentax, the Fuji XP30's lens remains uncovered at all times. Whereas my previous experience with a Fuji tough camera was in a relaxed beach environment, the rocky ridge of the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête could provide more damaging to the exposed element - only time would tell. A silicone jacket - much like that provided with the Panasonic - is available for the XP30 in other parts of the world such as Australia, but hasn't made it to the UK yet.

Fuji XP30 key camera specifications
MegapixelsOptical zoom35mm equivalentHD video
14.2 5x 28-140mm 720p
Fuji XP30 physical characteristics
67.7mm 99.2mm 23.9mm 165g
Fuji XP30 "tough" credentials
to 5m from 1.5m to -10°C no

The trip

We made the 10 hour journey to Fort William with one purpose in mind - to climb Ben Nevis, the UK's highest mountain. We would be making the ascent via the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête, a thin and dramatic ridge that stretches between Càrn Mòr Dearg and Ben Nevis, and make an easier descent down the pony track. It would be a long day, but one that would no doubt present many photo opportunities. Anna was left in control of the Pentax WG-1 and kept it clipped to the front of her rucksack, while I started off using the Panasonic FT3 with the Fuji XP30 and Olympus TG-810 stowed in the side pockets of my rucksack.

As luck would have it, the weather was beautifully clear. The summit of Ben Nevis is covered in cloud 355 days of the year, but April is usually the driest month and we appeared to have been lucky. What this meant was that there was no need for gloves for the vast majority of the trip, which is just as well as using the Panasonic with gloves on would have been extremely difficult. To be fair, it later transpired that this was the case with all four cameras; although the shutter and zoom buttons were all large enough to be functional even with covered fingers, the other control buttons on the back of the cameras are far too fiddly to operate with gloved hands. On a beach in the sun this clearly wouldn't be an issue, but if you intend to use one of the tough cameras while skiing, trekking, or outside in winter months, the gloves will need to come off for many of the functions to be accessed.

In terms of performance, the Panasonic was every bit as good as I expected. Although the zoom lens was slightly shorter than the others, I didn't find this a hindrance as wide angle shots were the main staple of the day. The autofocus system of the FT3 was excellent and rarely missed a shot. In addition, the screen remained easy to view even in bright sunshine. One thing I did discover early on was that if you are wearing polarised sunglasses, the screen goes completely black if you use it in the portrait position. This meant I had to nudge my glasses to the end of my nose or tilt my head 90 degrees to bring the view back on the screen. Not a fault of the Panasonic clearly, and not unique to this camera. The image quality of the Panasonic was impressive; probably not quite as brilliant as the Lumix TZ range of cameras - a disadvantage of using the internal "periscope" type lens construction - but there's very little in it and the price is well worth paying for the extra robustness the FT3 provides.

Anna appeared to be getting on marvellously with the Pentax WG-1, and on the odd occasion that I prized it from her grip it became clear that it was a nice camera to use. Not exciting or particularly impressive in any one particular aspect, but the rubberised finish felt secure in the hand and tougher than the all metal bodies of the other cameras. However, it didn't take long for the Pentax to show some signs of wear. The screen had managed to pick up a few scratches from where it was clipped to Anna's rucksack and swung back and forth onto the buckles. They weren't anything serious, but a little disconcerting given the WG-1's intended use.

One thing that set the Pentax aside from the others was the inclusion of an adapter ring that clips onto the front of the camera and allows you to use screw on filters or a lens hood. Typically, I had brought neither, but it's a nice idea and a good thing to see on a compact. The WG-1 also has a rather fancy macro feature that got a fair bit of use. By reducing the overall image resolution it will allow you to photograph an object from just 1cm away and the ring of LED lights that surround the lens ensure that enough light reaches your subject. Several close up photos were tried - some better than others. While the curled shoot of a sprouting fern was quite picturesque, the super-macro shot of my brother's beard stubble was less so, and I will leave it out of this review. But believe me, it was very macro.

The Fuji came out to play somewhere near the summit of Càrn Mòr Dearg. Having been so enamoured with the old Z33WP, I was looking forward to getting to know the XP30. The smooth, rounded lines of the XP30 are pleasant to hold but don't feel as solid in the hand as the squarer Panasonic or the rubberised Pentax. Like the Panasonic and the Pentax, the Fuji XP30 would prove difficult to operate with gloves, with the added disadvantage that its soap-bar like shape could see the camera popping from your hands if gripped too tightly. Of all four cameras the XP30 seems to be the one most suited to life on the beach, and less appropriate for climbing mountains.

This is rather a shame, as when the Fuji got it right, the photos it took were really rather good. The colours and contrast were rich and crisp and perfectly matched the scenery of the Highlands. Unfortunately, the XP30 didn't get it right all the time. There were a few occasions where it struggled with exposure and the resulting image was far darker than it should have been, but more worrying were the issues with autofocus. Despite offering just the one central autofocus point (or face detection, which I didn't use) the Fuji XP30 managed to completely miss the focus on several shots. The photo below is a good example. The aperture is f/6.3 and the shutter speed is 1/1000th second, so there should be no issues with depth of field or blur caused by camera shake. The XP30 had bleeped to indicate the autofocus had locked on so I had no reason to assume that there would be any problems, but if you can tell me what the autofocus has locked on to in this scene, then you're smarter than me.

The Olympus TG-810 was the first camera to arrive on my desk. In fact, it arrived several weeks before the trip to Scotland so I was able to have plenty of time with it in advance. This was just as well because, as mentioned above, it arrived with no instructions of any kind. Still, I've used my fair share of digital cameras over the years and can find my way around most controls and menu systems unaided, so this didn't prove to be too much of a challenge. Because I'd already had extended use of the TG-810 (I'd taken it to Disneyland Paris with the kids) it was the last camera to be used in Scotland. The Olympus TG-810 is built like a brick. It's marginally heavier than any of the other cameras and feels so solid that I reckon you could use it to hammer in tent pegs at a push. It's also crush proof which means it tolerated being rattled around in my rucksack for most of the day with no problem whatsoever. It's also the only camera of the four to offer any kind of lens protection. When the Olympus is turned off, a cover slides over the lens to protect the front element - another great tough feature.

It's fair to say, then, that the Olympus TG-810 was probably the toughest of the tough on test. Like all the others, the controls are too fiddly for serious use with gloves, but its super-robust construction more than makes up for this. Yes, the TG-810 might have been the ideal mountain climbing companion, but it's let down by a key issue - the image quality just isn't that great. It's a problem I've encountered with other Olympus tough cameras in the past and one I'd hoped would have been improved on the TG-810. Don't get me wrong, it's not terrible, but neither is it brilliant and, like the Fuji, the autofocus failed to do its job on more than a handful of occasions. Still, it is without a doubt the camera I worried least about during the trip and for a tough camera this is praise indeed.

I had intended to use my 5D MKII (which also came on the trip, but had much less use) to shoot regular video-diary entries throughout the day giving information on how I and the cameras were getting on. However, Mother Nature stepped in to throw a spanner in the works. Although we were blessed with bright sun and no rain, we were also buffeted relentlessly all day by gale force winds. These winds made walking, climbing and even standing still incredibly difficult on occasions and on the occasions where we stopped to take a break and shooting a quick video might have been an option, getting enough shelter proved a challenge and so the video-diary idea was abandoned. To give you an idea as to the wind, these brief video clips were shot with the Panasonic, Pentax and Fuji and demonstrate just how breezy it was!

The last clip above shows the summit of Ben Nevis, with the remains of the observatory and snow still thick on the ground in places. Under other conditions it would have been a beautiful and tranquil place to sit and soak up the achievement of being at the highest point on the British Isles, but due to the unrelenting wind, we got up there, took some photos (including the traditional "Team at the Trig Point" shot) and started down again as quickly as possible. As such, there was no chance for a video to offer a final assessment of the cameras or to bask in the glory of having made the summit. However, I had been able to record some thoughts during a brief respite in a vaguely sheltered spot on the ascent of Càrn Mòr Dearg. It's not great - I was struggling to catch my breath or focus my thoughts - but it shows that at this point the Panasonic was coming out on top. It also shares the spectacular view of the Càrn Mòr Dearg Arête and the dramatic north face of The Ben itself, so for what it's worth, here it is:

I make mention in the clip above of not being as impressed with the GPS performance of any of the GPS enabled cameras as I'd thought I would be, so it seems an appropriate point at which to discuss this very thing.

The GPS test

Upon our first arrival at our campsite in Glen Nevis I had a chance to test and compare the GPS performance of the 3 cameras that offered it; the Panasonic FT3, the Fuji XP30 and the Olympus TG-810. The process is much the same with each of the cameras. With the GPS turned on you can choose whether it remains on continuously even when the camera is switched off, or have it activated only when the camera is turned on. The first option is great in that it means that as soon as you want to take a photo the camera is already locked on to a GPS signal so there's no waiting around. The downside is that this will dramatically decrease the life of your camera's battery as the GPS module puts a constant drain on the power. By contrast, opting to have the GPS only activate when the camera is turned on requires less power (although still significantly more than having the GPS turned off altogether) but may mean that you have to wait while the camera finds a signal before taking the shot, assuming that you want GPS data logged. If you have Sat Nav in your car you may have experienced a similar issue. If you've used the Sat Nav on a journey, then turned it off, driven somewhere else and then turned it back on again, it may take a short while for the Sat Nav to realise that it isn't where it was and relocate the GPS signal. It's exactly the same principle with the GPS module in the cameras.

Click to go to full map

This shows the 3 shots that I took at our campsite placed onto a map automatically using their GPS data (the images were uploaded to Picasa and then viewed on a Google map). Starting from the left, they were taken with the Panasonic FT3, the Fuji XP30 and the Olympus TG-810. They are all reasonably close together, albeit with the Panasonic being a little way off, but certainly all within 50 metres of the actual position of the camera. What's quite interesting, though, is that the Fuji, by far and away the cheapest of the GPS cameras, is also the most accurate. If I was to place an 'x' on the map to show exactly where I was when I took all 3 photos, it would be directly under the Fuji's image, which is slap-bang over where our tent was pitched. Pretty impressive.

During the trek itself I continued to take photographs whilst logging the GPS data. On occasions, it was taking so long for a signal to be achieved, that I gave up and took the photo without it. How the cameras dealt with this varied. On the Panasonic, if no GPS signal was achieved, then no data is attached to the image. With both the Fuji and the Olympus, if no current GPS position could be found, the cameras appear to have used the most recent location data and attached that to the image. This meant that when uploading the images to the map, in the case of the Panasonic shots with no data, they simply didn’t appear on the map. With the Fuji and the Olympus, several images were clearly out of position as a result of being allocated an earlier GPS log. Whether this is preferable to having no data is a matter of personal choice, but for me it was immensely annoying and led to me removing any misplaced images from the album (although I could have manually relocated them).

Click to go to full map

Nonetheless, the resulting image speckled map is quite pleasing to look at and clearly shows the route we took, with the added benefit of being able to view photos at specific locations. If you click on the map above it will take you to the online map where you can zoom in and view the images in more detail. In particular, see if you can find the 'Team at the Trig Point' photo I mentioned earlier. This photo is interesting for 2 reasons; firstly, it's a photo of us at the highest point in the UK, and secondly it's another incredible demonstration of the Fuji XP30's remarkably accurate GPS positioning.

Judging by the 2-dimensional map, the summit photograph appears to have been placed exactly where the photo was taken. Once again, an 'x' on the map to show the position of the camera would be obscured by the photo and, for a camera that is currently available for less than £140 (as of May 2011), I find that amazing. But using Picasa and Google to view images on a map also offers another option - Google Earth.

Google Earth offers you a 3-D, interactive view of the landscape and, with images with GPS data uploaded to it, the ability to see the exact location of the camera when the photos were taken. If anything, this makes the Fuji's accuracy even more impressive.

With Google Earth you can clearly see the man made plinth that supports the trig point and marks the summit of Ben Nevis. This is where we stood to have our photo taken, while the Fuji XP30 was set up on a nearby rocky protrusion, courtesy of Leonard the Gorillapod. As the video above shows, the GPS positioning is spot on. Remember, the GPS position will be for the camera - not necessarily whatever it is you’re taking a photo of, and in the case of this summit photo the GPS data has precisely recorded the position of the camera when the photograph was taken. This really is impressive stuff by the little Fuji.

Tough enough?

If the GPS was a bit of a luxury add-on, then the toughness of these cameras was the bread and butter by which their true worth should be measured. If you're heading into the mountains, holidaying at the beach, or simply messing about on the river, you want to be sure that each of these cameras will tolerate any abuse that's likely to be thrown at it and still carry on working as it should. I've already provided the details of each camera's "tough" credentials, but it makes sense to view them alongside each other to see how they compare.

Fuji XP30 to 5m from 1.5m to -10°C no
Olympus TG-810 to 10m from 2m to -10°C to 100kg
Panasonic FT3 to 12m from 2m to -10°C no
Pentax WG-1 to 10m from 1.5m to -10°C to 100kg

Now, 3 of the 4 cameras were loaned by the manufacturers and the 4th came from the Wex Photographic warehouse, meaning there was always going to be a limit as to how much I could test the toughness. Put simply, all cameras were due to be returned in one piece, so testing any of them to destruction was simply not an option. As such I felt the best way to test them would be to use each of them as I would my own camera and ignore them the rest of the time. When in use the cameras were either in my pocket or attached to my wrist and only paid any attention when I was actually taking a photo. When not in use the cameras would be stuffed in the side pocket of my rucksack. In the case of the Pentax WG-1, when not in use it was clipped to the harness of Anna's rucksack where it was left to dangle and bounce. Although by the very nature of the trek most of it took place on dry land, we did get an opportunity to test the water-resistance of the cameras when we stopped for lunch by a series of small waterfalls in the Allt a' Mhuilinn near the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut.

The cameras were left soaking while we had lunch. No ill effects were suffered, despite my pork-pie being past its best.

Needless to say, all four cameras survived their aquatic experience completely unscathed. Although not entirely relevant for our trip, one thing worth mentioning is the buoyancy of the cameras. In short, they don't have any. Were you to let any of these cameras slip from your grasp and off your wrist in deeper water, they would sink like a stone, albeit a rather expensive one. For some strange reason, floating straps for these cameras are difficult to find, but if you're buying a tough camera and intend to use it on or in the water, I strongly advise you to scour the internet and hunt down a floating strap to help protect your investment.

Beyond this deliberate dousing of the cameras, there was no additional tough-specific testing, but if you doubt that the general use of the cameras throughout the trip was not in itself enough of a test, consider this true story. Whilst removing her jacket on the way down the mountain, Katie inadvertently let go of her Panasonic TZ7. Believing it to be attached to her wrist by the strap, she was dismayed to discover it wasn't when it fell screen first towards the rocky path. The result? This:

Please note: this is NOT one of the cameras on test!

That's all the screen does now. The camera still takes photos, but you just can't compose them or review them, so it's all guess-work. Maybe Katie should have been using a tough camera...

The assessment

At the end of the day, all 4 cameras performed well, although none of them are perfect. The Panasonic FT3 is a fantastic camera, but an expensive one, and while the Olympus TG-810 and Pentax WG-1 are arguably the toughest on test, they are both let down by lacklustre performance and image quality. The Fuji XP30 suffers in this area too, but at such an incredible price it's easy to forgive it.

In an ideal world what I would like is a camera that offers the performance and image quality of the Panasonic with the build quality and indestructibility of the Olympus and Pentax at the price of the Fuji. I can dream, can't I? And what about the GPS? Truth be told, I could live without it. I only managed to get approximately 40 shots out of the XP30 with a full battery, and although the Panasonic managed to squeeze out nearly 130 shots, not all of these were GPS tagged due to the time it took to lock on to a signal. No, the GPS was probably the least important aspect of any of the cameras, but it's only fair to point out that the Fuji was the most impressive in this area, even if it did worryingly limit the number of photos I was able to take.

In the end, I judged each camera on four points: performance (AF/metering/functions etc), image quality (after reviewing the photos back home), toughness (based mainly on specs but also the condition of the camera by the end of the trip) and value (the price of the camera considering the results of the other criteria). Here's how they got on:

Fuji XP30
Performance: 6/10 Let down by some suspect AF
Image quality: 7/10 Better than I anticipated
Toughness: 7/10 Not the toughest, but tougher than most
Value: 10/10 Less than £140?! Are they mad?!
Overall score:
Olympus TG-810
Performance: 7/10 A bit hit and miss with too much miss
Image quality: 6/10 Not the improvement I was hoping for
Toughness: 9/10 The benchmark by which others are judged
Value: 8/10 A really tough camera at a good price
Overall score:
Panasonic FT3
Performance: 9/10 Reliable photos and full HD video
Image quality: 8/10 The best of the tough cameras
Toughness: 8/10 Solid, robust and improved by the jacket
Value: 7/10 A great camera, but it should be at this price
Overall score:
Pentax WG-1
Performance: 8/10 Easy and fun to use with great macro function
Image quality: 7/10 On par for this kind of camera
Toughness: 8/10 Feels like it could take most things on
Value: 7.5/10 The second most expensive on test
Overall score:

The result

I stated at the outset that my motive behind this review was to allow me to test 4 leading GPS enabled tough cameras with the intent of buying the model that came out on top. I have now parted with my cash and am the proud owner of a new tough compact camera, and from the review and the ratings above you probably think you know which one I went for. Yes the Panasonic came out on top and it is the best of these cameras, but the price means it has to be.

However, the FT3 is not the camera I bought. Having decided that the GPS was far less impressive that I thought it would be and knowing full well that the novelty of viewing my images on a map would soon wear off, it dropped to the bottom of my priorities. The build quality, performance and images produced by the Panasonic were just too good to ignore, but with the FT3 priced above my budget and GPS no longer a driving factor I overlooked the FT3 in favour of...

...the Panasonic FT2!

...and yes, I bought an orange one

It offers much of the performance of the FT3, albeit without the full HD video or GPS, but for considerably less money. It's all a matter of priorities I suppose...

So, is this a cheat? A cop out? Maybe. Truth be told, if I'd bought the Fuji, the Olympus or the Pentax there would always been a part of me that wished I'd saved up my pennies and bought the FT3, and were I ever to see another fellow trekker on the hills with an FT3 in their hand then I know I would have developed instant tough-camera envy. But as it stands, I'm more than happy with the FT2 and am happy to live without the GPS and 1080 HD video for the savings these small sacrifices have offered.

But if you were to twist my arm and force me to pick one of the original 4 cameras to be my own, then I have to go with my heart and pick - and you might be surprised by this - the Fuji XP30. It's not the toughest or the fastest or the best, but for the price (as I write this it's less than half that of the Panasonic FT3) you really can't complain. And it's a friendly little camera to use too. Like I said, it's all about priorities, but if you're off on a beach holiday and are unlikely the be exposing your camera to the kinds of risks Britain's highest mountain presents, then the Fuji XP30 is worth far more than you'll have to pay for it.

Well, we are in a recession you know.