Best Waterproof Camera:
The top models shoot it out

Bill Livolsi, August 13, 2012

The past couple of years have seen a surge in the number of waterproof cameras available, as new models from almost every major manufacturer hit the shelves. Replete with new features and higher-than-ever resolution, these cameras appeal to both casual shooters and adventure seekers due to their rugged, life-proof nature.

Today we'll look at a few models that are highly regarded by actual users - the Canon PowerShot D20, Nikon Coolpix AW100, Olympus Tough TG-1, Panasonic LUMIX DMC-TS3, Panasonic LUMIX DMC-TS4, Sony TX10. These cameras all offer similar protection from the elements; they are all dustproof, waterproof, shockproof, and freezeproof to at least some degree. All cost less than $400 from major resellers. But that's where the similarities end.

This article replaces an older version. If you want to read the previous article, please click through to the 2012 Best Waterproof Camera Shootout.

Update: Our August update adds the Olympus Tough TG-1, which shares the Best Camera crown with the Panasonic TS4.

Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS

12.0 MP, $369 (more specs)

Olympus TG-1, front panel
Olympus storms onto the scene with their new Tough TG-1 iHS. At first glance, this camera is already very different from the rest. It is slightly larger, but that size increase comes with a build quality that is second to none. The center-mounted lens makes it easy to hold, as do the body's rubberized grips. What's more, the TG-1 is a cameraphile's camera, with a fast f/2.0 lens that is perfect for the kind of low-light shooting you're likely to find underwater.

With an easy-to-use control layout and handy mode dial, the TG-1 will appeal to almost everyone. And while we wholeheartedly recommend the TG-1 for still photography, its video performance is disappointing. The zoom lens is noisy, and zooming while recording will introduce a significant shake into your movies. If you plan to shoot a lot of video, consider the Panasonic TS4 instead. Read more about the Olympus TG-1.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS4

12.1 MP, $329 (more specs)

Panasonic TS4, front panel
The new TS4 is a TS3 with a better GPS system, in-camera panoramic stitching, a time-lapse shooting mode, and slightly sharper pictures by default. Other than that, the two cameras are largely identical. Both sport the same 12-megapixel sensor and excellent water, dust, and shock protection. Both cameras beat out most of the competition when it comes to image quality and ease of use.

The TS4 and TS3, while more similar than different, are separated by a price gap of almost $100. The new TS4, at $329, is the more fully-featured camera, while the TS3 has great image quality at a bargain price. For the time being, the TS3 is still being sold, though it won't be for long. If you don't need the TS4's improvements, there's no reason not to save a few bucks and pick up the TS3. Read more about the Panasonic TS4.

Second place:
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3

12.1 MP, $239 (more specs)

Panasonic TS3, front panel
The Panasonic TS3 wowed us with its superb image quality, easy-to-use menu system, high-quality lens and overall intuitive design. The TS3 has the lowest megapixel count in the shootout, but our response to this is a hearty "so what?"

The TS3 takes great pictures. What's more, it has the best water, dust, and shock protection ratings of any camera in the shootout, which is of special importance in this category. It has a fast burst mode for quick shooting, making it a great snapshot camera for fast-moving objects, like small birds and small children. The menu system makes the camera easy to use, so there's never a struggle to get it to do what you want. That combination is hard to beat. Panasonic's own TS4 has some additional features, but there's a price gap that makes the two cameras appeal to different consumers, so both will remain on the list until the TS3 is no longer available. Read more about the Panasonic TS3.

Third Place Tie:
Sony DSC-TX10

16.2 MP, $289 (more specs)

Sony TX10, front panel
The TX10 will appeal to a different sort of person than the TS3 and TS4 will. This tiny point-and-shoot is truly pocketable in a way that the other cameras can't match. Its all-metal body is sleek and streamlined; nothing sticks out that would catch or snag. The 5x zoom lens is the highest quality of the bunch, showing remarkably little distortion. Image quality is close to the TS3. What keeps it from the top spot is its capacitive touch screen and lack of controls, which make it difficult to use as an underwater camera -- something the other two models are much better suited for. The sliding cover also has the potential to trap sand or dirt.

All in all, the TX10 is good for the user who wants a point and shoot with a built-in insurance policy, rather than a dedicated underwater camera. If that's what you're looking for, it's a great little machine. Read more about the Sony TX10.

Canon PowerShot D20

12.1 MP, $349 (more specs)

Canon D20, front panel
The Canon PowerShot D20 is Canon's first ruggedized camera since the D10, released in 2009. The D20 is a big step up from that model, with a larger screen, new lens, new sensor, and entirely new case. The design should appear somewhat familiar, despite the smooth and streamlined case; it uses the same lens placement and general control scheme as the TS4, TS3, and AW100. Its menu systems can be confusing, which detracts from its excellent picture quality, while its waterproof case can be difficult to open. Despite these flaws, the D20 is a solid performer and a good choice for someone who wants a tough waterproof model that can stand up to the elements. Read more about the Canon PowerShot D20.

Also Ran:
Nikon AW100

16 MP, $300 (more specs)

Nikon AW100, front panel
Despite being the newest camera in the shootout and having the best video modes, the AW100 leaves a lot to be desired. A noisy focus motor limits its usefulness for video. It has the longest zoom range, but a subpar lens adds softness to corners and is prone to lens flare much more so than the other cameras. The menu system can be difficult to navigate, as well. The overall experience is one of frustration, which is not endearing in what is meant to be a snapshot camera. While Nikon has made some amazing cameras over the years, this is not one of them. Read more about the Nikon AW100.