Every adventurer should carry a rugged waterproof camera. Why? Every day is a different day in the great outdoors — new animals, new weather, new places, and sunsets you’ll never see again. Heck, one buddy of ours caught a 12-foot sturgeon with his young son . . . but didn’t have a decent camera to record the memories of a lifetime. That’s a missed opportunity, and the point of a waterproof camera is to make sure you have the gear you need to get the shot no matter where you are.
Today’s rugged waterproof cameras are lightweight and powerful, capable of diving underwater to film the release of a cutthroat trout in crystal clear water . . . or point skyward to capture a starry night high in the mountains. And when it’s time to zoom in to catch rutting bull elk bugling and battling — or even a wild turkey gobbling like mad — the video capabilities in these rugged cameras will let you share the experience with friends and family back home.
Then there’s the water park, boating, motorcycling through mud, and swimming in the river. And here’s a secret: Photos and video taken when you’re actually standing in the water, living life and just playing around, well, those are the best — and all of this is why you need a waterproof camera.
Rugged Waterproof Camera Features
Most tough cameras these days are waterproof to at least 30′ deep — and some are waterproof down to 100′ without needing any extra case to get you there. This means they are great for snorkeling and most water sports — where a smartphone waterproof case just isn’t robust enough to dive deep or handle the abuse.
As for photo quality, you won’t get the results you would expect from a full-size DSLR or one of the hot new mirrorless cameras, but you’re not going to take a DSLR out into the middle of a river now are you? The point is, the photo quality is fantastic for most regular adventurous humans. Surprisingly good, in fact.
As for video, it’s pretty fantastic, too. For all social media sharing, you’re covered with most any modern waterproof camera you can find these days. If you want better video quality — particularly for fast moving subjects — look for a camera that delivers at least 1080p at 60 frames per second (“60i” = interlaced, which is pretty good, but but not as good as 60 progressive, which is often noted as 60p or sometimes just 60).
As for lenses, 28mm is a wide-angle lens, 24 is a very wide-angle lens, and a 21mm is an ultra wide-angle lens. For our purposes, the smaller the lens number, the better the camera will be for close-up action sports or selfies where you want to include more of the background — for most people, the variation of wide-angle lenses here is more of a nuance than a core decision factor.
Rugged Camera Roundup
The 16 megapixel Olympus Tough TG-860 is waterproof to 50 feet. It has an ultra-wide 21mm wide-angle lens with 5x optical zoom and image stabilization. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 60 frames per second. With the cool Sportcam Mode, the TG-860 gets you pretty close to the ultra wide-angle video recording you find in most action sports cameras like the GoPro. Includes two programmable buttons, including one on the front that can start action sports video recording. Built-in WiFi lets your smartphone remotely control the TG-860, as well as transfer photos. GPS is built-in, too. Optional accessories include the Tough Sport Holder and an Underwater Housing that will extend deep dives to 150 feet.
Recommendation: Choose the Olympus TG-860 for its excellent all-around versatility as a traditional rugged camera and causal GoPro alternative — check it out at Amazon.
The 16 megapixel Nikon COOLPIX AW130 is waterproof to a whopping 100 feet. It has a 24mm wide-angle lens with a 5x optical zoom and five-axis vibration reduction stabilization. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 60i frames per second. It uses a stereo microphone. Built-in WiFi lets your smartphone remotely control the AW130, as well as transfer photos. GPS, compass, altimeter, and barometer.
Recommendation: Choose the AW130 for Nikon’s ease-of-use, all-around quality, and superior waterproof depth — check it out at Amazon.
The 16.1 megapixel Panasonic LUMIX TS6 is waterproof to 43 feet. It has a 28mm wide-angle lens with a 4.6x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 60 frames per second with a stereo microphone that compensates for wind noise. Built-in WiFi lets your smartphone remotely control the TS6, as well as transfer photos. GPS, compass, altimeter, and barometer. Comes in a camo version, as well as traditional colors, and we’re big fans of camo, of course.
Recommendation: Choose the TS6 for the blend of video capability with the 4.6x optical zoom and stabilization — check it out at Amazon.
The 16 megapixel Olympus Tough TG-4 is waterproof to 50 feet. It has a 25mm wide-angle lens with a 4x optical zoom and sensor-shift image stabilization. The f2.0 lens is one of the fastest in a rugged camera, making it a great choice for quick shots. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 30 frames per second. Built-in WiFi lets your smartphone remotely control the TG-4, as well as transfer photos. GPS, compass, altimeter, and barometer. Excellent macro capabilities for shooting very small subjects close up, particularly with the optional LED Light Guide. The TG-4 is also the only rugged camera to offer add-on lenses — a Telephoto Tough Lens as well as a Fisheye Tough Lens. Plus, it lets you shoot RAW photos.
Recommendation: Choose the TG-4 for the fast photo shooting lens, add-on lenses, and macro abilities — check it out at Amazon.
The Fujifilm FinePix XP80 is waterproof to 50 feet. It has a 28mm wide-angle lens with a 5x optical zoom with optical image stabilization. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 60 frames per second. Built-in WiFi lets your smartphone remotely control the XP80, as well as transfer photos. With an optional Action Camera Lens, you can use the Action Camera mode to record action sports through the converted 18mm equivalent ultra wide-angle lens. No GPS.
Recommendation: Choose the XP80 for the Action Camera Lens add-on with Action Sport mode — check it out at Amazon.
Canon PowerShot D30
The 12 megapixel Canon PowerShot D30 is waterproof to 82 feet. It has a wide-angle 28mm lens with 5x optical zoom with optical image stabilization. It shoots Full HD 1080p video — but only up to 24 frames per second. It has GPS for tagging locations on photos but no WiFi. On the plus side, the PowerShot D30 is easy to use and takes good photos.
Recommendation: Choose the PowerShot D30 for Canon quality, ease of use, and good photo quality — check it out at Amazon.
The 18.2 megapixel Sony Cyber-shot TX30 is waterproof to 33 feet. It has a wide-angle 26mm lens with a 5x optical zoom and image stabilization. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 60i frames per second. No GPS. No WiFi. It is super-slim, though, and features a sliding lens cover.
Recommendation: Choose the Cyber-shot TX30 for the small form factor . . . for lightly rugged duties only — check it out at Amazon.
Ricoh WG-5 GPS
The 16 megapixel Ricoh WG-5 GPS is waterproof to 45 feet. It has a wide-angle 25mm lens with 4x optical zoom and stabilization. Like the Olympus TG-3, it has an f2.0 lens. It shoots Full HD 1080p video at 30 frames per second. It does not have WiFi. It does have built-in GPS, compass, altimeter, and barometer. The built-in light ring around the centered lens offers even light illumination for macro photography. A new “Mermaid” mode lets you shoot two consecutive photos underwater, one with a flash and one without.
Recommendation: Choose the WG-5 GPS for close-up macro work or the new Mermaid shooting mode — check it out at Ricoh.
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Entry-Level Rugged Waterproof Cameras
If you’re on a very tight budget, there are a pair of relatively inexpensive waterproof cameras that do a good job at taking photos and a decent job with video, usually at the smaller 720p video size. Check these out:
The 13.2 megapixel Nikon S33 is waterproof to 33 feet. It has a 30mm wide-angle lens (equivalent) with a 3x optical zoom. It will shoot Full HD 1080p video at 30 frames per second with stereo sound. No WiFi. No GPS. Big and simple buttons make it family friendly — check it out at Amazon.
Recommendation: Choose the Nikon S33 for its price and ease-of-use — especially good for kids.
The 16.1 megapixel Panasonic TS30 is waterproof to 26 feet. It has a 25mm wide-angle lens with 4x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. It shoots 72op video at 30 frames per second. It features multiple shooting modes and creative filters.
Recommendation: Choose the Panasonic TS30 for the built-in shooting modes and excellent mix of quality for the price — check it out at Amazon.
Action Sports Cameras
The action sports camera world is still dominated — absolutely dominated — by the difficult-to-beat GoPro line of cameras. These small and boxy action sports cameras come with a rugged waterproof housing as well as a non-waterproof housing that will let you capture better audio. GoPro cameras have ultra-wide angle lenses that excel in up close and personal activities. They do not zoom. Their versatility comes via numerous mounting brackets, straps, and poles — all of which will help you find a way to attach a GoPro to most anything you want, ranging from the family dog to 12-gauge shotguns.
There are GoPro alternatives, of course.
GoPro HERO4 Black
The 12 megapixel GoPro HERO4 Black, with its waterproof housing, is waterproof to 131 feet. It will shoot a wide range of video, up to an astounding 4K at 30 frames per second, as well as 1080p at 120 frames per second (great for slo-mo effects). It will also shoot bursts of 12 megapixel photos up to 30 frames per second. Is that fast? That’s fast.
The HERO4 also features built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for remote control of the camera from a dedicated remote control or a smartphone. No GPS, and no touchscreen for more intuitive control.
Recommendation: Choose the GoPro HERO4 Black if you want the very best video recording options in a small, rugged camera — check it out at Amazon.
GoPro HERO4 Silver
The 12 megapixel GoPro HERO4 Silver, with its waterproof housing, is waterproof to 131 feet. It will shoot a wide range of video, including 4K at 15 frames per second (great for stunning vistas) and 1080p at a respectable 60 frames per second. The best feature of the HERO4 Silver, though, is the integrated touch screen on the back, making this GoPro version easier to learn and use for a wider variety of people. Plus, you can use the screen to frame a shot so you know what the camera is actually recording. With other GoPro cameras, you just point the camera in the right direction and trust that the ultra wide-angle lens will capture the shot. Like the Black, the Silver also has built-in WiFi and Bluetooth for remote control. No GPS.
Recommendation: Choose the GoPro HERO4 Silver for enviable video modes along with the touchscreen control — check it out at Amazon.
As for other action camera options, consider:
Garmin Virb Elite — Shoots video up to 1080p at 30 frames per second, has a long-lasting battery, uses digital image stabilization, and it includes GPS, accelerometer, and altimeter and tracks data for video.
Sony HDR-AS100VR — Shoots video up to 1080p at 60 frames per second, uses digital image stabilization, and the built-in GPS can track speed. It’s splashproof but comes with a waterproof housing, too.
Action Sports Cameras vs Traditional Rugged Cameras
The great thing about an action sports camera — like the industry leading GoPro HERO4 — is the small size, durability, and numerous video shooting modes. They also come with all sorts of mounts, letting you attach your GoPro to surf boards, bikes, helmets, and even shotguns or bows. While they can take some decent photos, the action camera’s best use is video — up close and personal.
Because action sports cameras have fixed lenses, they can’t zoom in. This means that while stunning vistas and close-ups are both fantastic, a moving subject that is just thirty yards away can seem too small in the video. While the GoPro gives you all sorts of video options, the one thing you can’t do is zoom in on a chipmunk stuffing his cheeks in the sunshine — so yeah, suddenly a more traditional waterproof camera with a 5x optical zoom is the answer.
At the same time, the waterproof cameras are starting to get action sports mounts through their standard tripod mount. You can use some waterproof cameras with chest straps or even buy GoPro-like mounts for helmets and surfboards. The downside? They tend to be heavier and a little bulkier.
If you’re into action sports and want to frequently wear your camera, go with a GoPro. If not, the versatility of a waterproof camera will likely be better for you.