For many years I have carried an SLR on canoe trips, switching from 35mm film to Olympus digital as the technology came within reach of my budget. Recently I tired of not only carrying the weight of camera, lenses and waterproof case around but also, missing many shots of my paddling companions in poor weather conditions where I was reluctant to pull the SLR from its protective box.
Selena has used an Olympus for a long time but I never liked the position of the lens up on the top corner, plus the buttons are a bit small for me; I’m the guy constantly making typos on my smartphone because I press two keys at once.
A couple of other offerings on the market from Ricoh and Pentax looked like they could work for me but I was never quite happy with what they offered. The Olympus TG series seemed to provide something close to the features I wanted: good weatherproofing, respectable image quality, and a level of customisation that would allow me to set things up for the kind of pictures I like to take.
I’ve used it for a while now and thought I would describe some of the reasons I believe that this makes a good camera for paddlers (and other outdoors folk).
Image quality isn’t really the primary consideration my review; there are plenty of other folk more qualified to right about it, but so far I have been pleased with the results. You can find a useful review by some camera pros here (https://www.dpreview.com/reviews/olympus-tough-tg-4-review)
By the time I pulled the trigger on a new camera, the current version was the TG-4 with a 16 Mega Pixel sensor, specifications that would definitely produces pictures that are good enough for my needs. Like most compact cameras, the limited size of the imaging sensor does impose a limit on how good the image can be. For web use, I often end up reducing the image size, anyway, to make loading faster. The TG-4 records photos in jpeg format, by default; it can also record in uncompressed RAW format, if I ever need better quality.
I have found video quality to be pretty good, though some reviews have said that underwater quality is better than footage recorded above the surface.
Paddler Friendly Features
Most cameras have two options for a self-timer, a short two-second delay used with a tripod to prevent camera shake and a longer 12-second delay that is good enough for group shots or selfies. The TG-4 also comes with a customisable timer; it is possible to set up the camera, climb into your canoe, and paddle into frame before the picture is taken. I don’t use this option a lot though, mostly relying upon the excellent interval shooting mode to take a string of several pictures, giving me a better chance of getting an image I like.
I love this option. I’ll clamp the camera to a thwart and just leave it to run, perhaps adjusting the direction and angle of the camera throughout the day to vary the perspective. Options are available to delay the first shot, set the interval and choose how many pictures to take. Most photos you see are taken in good weather on calm water, the last thing you want to be doing when the water gets rough is stopping to take pictures. With the camera set up and taking pictures every minute (or whatever I set), I have some shots to remind me of those times when you start to wonder if being in a canoe was the best place to be. Some folk will use a Go-Pro for this but whilst they are good for shooting POV video I find the menu system and small buttons more complicated to change the settings, plus they lack other features that I want from a camera.
Good times on Kilvert lake
Not so good on Ethelma
Night Time Photography
Shooting pictures at night adds another dimension to recording life in the backcountry. The TG-4 has several features that help make this simpler and help get good results. I most frequently use the hand-held night shot feature. This is an extreme version of anti-shake, producing improved photos by cancelling out the blurred images that would normally result from not using a tripod for the long exposures needed in low light conditions. Shooting photos this way does produce lower quality pictures than using a tripod. So although images are fine for the web, you are unlikely to get pictures good enough to blow up for your wall.
Winter camping gives plenty of time to experiment with night photography
Live composite is a fun feature that I am still learning to use. It uses the same inputs as the interval timer to layer multiple night pictures on top of each other, but each photo only adds new bright pixels to the image. For me, this means shooting star trails, but you could use it for other freaky effects such as paddling past the camera in the dark wearing a headlamp.
Overall I have found the move to a compact camera has meant I take way more pictures, particularly of my paddling companions. Battery life has been good, except in -20 weather, so not so much an issue for paddlers, but I do always carry at least one spare battery for anything more than a day trip. One feature I would have liked is a longer zoom, but I believe this was left off to make the camera more waterproof. I guess you can't have everything.