The top performers in our review are Nikon COOLPIX AW120, the Gold Award winner; Panasonic LUMIX WiFi DMC-TS6, the Silver Award winner; and Fujifilm FinePix XP80, the Bronze Award winner. Here’s more on choosing a camera to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
Waterproof cameras are great secondary cameras for families who want to go to the pool or on vacation and need a camera for any situation. These cameras are built for durability, so they can handle many water-based activities, cold environments and drops. Since action happens in seconds, these cameras are also extremely easy to use, just like any other point-and-shoot camera.
This review did not cover action cams, which are great for high-intensity sports. If you’re looking for a GoPro, you’ll have to look at our other reviews. Some waterproof cameras are much more bulky than regular point-and-shoot cameras, and unless you plan to use it near a pool or on the trail, you don’t always need this extra mass. Finally, digital cameras that are able to take professional images are found in our professional DSLR camera reviews. We also have several articles about waterproof cameras that offers extra tips and advice.
Waterproof cameras are essentially a more durable version of point-and-shoot cameras. They have the same level of image quality and extra features of those simple cameras, but their casings are sealed to keep water and dirt away from the internal components. The parts that open, like the battery and memory case, usually have extra seals and locks to keep water out. None of these cameras float, and some of them do not include wrist straps.
We tested each camera’s durability and image quality in settings that we felt represented normal usage of a vacation camera. We realize that these cameras are purchased for their ability to handle outdoor adventures, so durability testing took most of our time. However, as part of the durability tests, we also took pictures to make sure that the camera worked in every situation.
Durability: They Work as Advertised
Typically, people will use these cameras for swimming or boating, so we tested them at a pool with a 9-foot deep end. None of the cameras float, so when we threw each one into the deep end and watched it sink to the bottom. We then let each camera sit for 10 minutes before diving after it, turning it back on underwater and snapping a few pictures before resurfacing. All of them were able to handle the time underwater and function as normal when we retrieved them. The only real difference came from the image quality, as we detail below.
Next, if the manufacturer rated the camera for 5-foot drop heights, we dropped them multiple times from arm’s length onto a 1-inch thick sheet of plywood to see how they would react to the impact at different angles. Fortunately, those cameras continued to work as normal. We did not drop test the cameras that were not rated as shockproof. Then, we took the cameras that were rated to withstand crushing pressures and placed them under 10 pounds of weight resting on a 1-inch sheet of plywood. Again, those specific cameras worked fine. If a camera was not rated as crushproof, we did not apply crushing pressures. Finally, we placed the cameras rated as freezeproof in a freezer for five minutes, pulled them out and turned them on to see if the cold environment had any major impacts on functionality or battery life. Those cameras easily turned on and were ready to take pictures. We did not freeze test a camera if it was not rated for freezing temperatures.
Image Quality: The Pictures Varied Greatly
In each of our water tests, we took pictures to see how the camera handled that shooting environment. We started with a dry-land baseline image. This gave us a good idea of how different all of the cameras were on their automatic settings. Next, we dipped the cameras underwater to simulate the splashing you may experience at a pool or while boating, pulled them out and took another picture. For most cameras, these images looked similar to the baseline image. Finally, we took a picture underwater after the camera had been sitting under 9 feet of water for 10 minutes. Here, we saw major differences in the cameras. Some cameras presented a clear and vivid picture under the water, while others distorted the colors and blurred the subject. Our top-rated cameras delivered clear images, showing the subject in perfect focus. Because these images were so clear, we were able to easily grade the other underwater images off of them.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the cameras in our comparison both through loans from the companies and through retail purchases. The manufacturers had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. Results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
Waterproof Cameras: What Other Features Do You Need?
Like most modern digital cameras, waterproof cameras have a wide range of available options and features. Adjustments for the image quality, exposure and shutter speed are within the menus. Many cameras come with picture effects, for a more artistic touch. However, the most important additional feature is the ability to shoot video. Most of the cameras on our lineup shoot 1080p video, but a few shoot in 720p or standard definition. A camera that films in 1080p will have the best pixel ratio and therefore the clearest image, while the lower pixel ratios of 720p and standard definition reduce the image quality of the video. Finally, new features in these cameras include Wi-Fi connectivity and GPS tagging.
Waterproof Cameras: What About Battery Life and Storage?
Most of the cameras we reviewed include a rechargeable Li-ion battery. Typically, these will allow for over 300 shots on a full charge, depending on usage and shooting environment. Some cameras require AAA batteries. None of the cameras we reviewed offer both options.
Of all the vacation cameras we reviewed, only the Nikon COOLPIX AW120 had significant internal storage, offering close to a third of a gigabyte. The rest require SD cards to take more pictures. During our testing, we used a MicroSD card with an SD adapter, so that we could use all 10 cameras and easily transfer the images onto our computers. The 8GB memory card we purchased cost just under $25.
Waterproof Cameras: Size and Weight Matter
For those packing for a hiking trip, every ounce matters. Fortunately, these cameras are very light, most weighing under half a pound. There are a few cameras that seem bulky at close to 5 inches wide, but when we used them in the pool, they were easier to keep our hands on them. For outdoor adventures, we recommend small and light cameras, but for underwater photography, we lean toward large and heavy.
Waterproof Cameras: Will the Manufacturer Support Your Camera?
All of the cameras on our lineup come with a year-long warranty. They also come with a user manual, although some are little more than a fold-out paper with the most basic instructions. We prefer the manufacturers who offer several ways to get self-help or online customer service, including FAQs, email and live chat.
Our top-ranked durable cameras were the Nikon COOLPIX AW120, Panasonic LUMIX WiFi DMC-TS6 and Fujifilm FinePix XP80. The COOLPIX is not the most durable camera on our list, as it is not rated for crushing pressures, but it takes the best pictures on dry land and underwater. The LUMIX is more durable than the COOLPIX, but its underwater images turned out slightly blurry. Finally, the FinePix has comparable durability to the COOLPIX, but it does not have the same image quality as the COOLPIX or LUMIX.
One of the biggest distinguishing aspects of these cameras were the price difference in the top and bottom products. The cameras in the $200 range offer the most features and best image quality, while a $50 camera performed poorly in our quality tests. In a previous review, we ranked Ricoh as our Gold Award winner, but with its new WG-30w, the camera seems to take a step back in image quality. Also, we were able to test the brand-new Olympus Stylus TG-860, which was released during the period of this review. We were impressed at how much of an improvement it was to the previous TG-850, but it was still not as impressive as the other cameras on our lineup. You can see the specific testing images, as well as a full report of its capabilities, in our individual reviews.