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Olympus Stylus Tough TG-3 review

Highs

  • Rugged qualities
  • Superior underwater images
  • Super Macro mode

Rating

Our Score 7.5
User Score 0

Lows

  • Low-res LCD
  • No shutter speed/focus adjustments
  • Poor high ISO performance
The Stylus Tough TG-3 is a good rugged point-and-shoot that can take a beating.

Feel like tossing your camera into the water, or dropping it onto concrete? Go right ahead with Olympus’ newest rugged compact. Part of the Stylus Tough series, the 16-megapixel Stylus TG-3 ($350) is designed to take a serious beating – something few cameras can handle. Besides brawns, the TG-3 has some brains for taking nice photos too.

Features and design

The TG-3 is a rugged digicam, and that means it’s waterproof (down to 50 feet), making it good for snorkeling and other beach- and pool-side activities. It’s also drop-proof from a height of 7 feet, and crush-proof up to 220 pounds. It can also handle temperatures as cold as 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and with built-in GPS and a, electronic compass, the TG-3 is great for outdoors sports, not just seaside vacations. Clearly, this rugged digicam is designed to take reasonable punishment and bring your memories home.

The Stylus retains a familiar look and feel as its predecessors, the TG-2 and TG-1. It also looks like its main competitors in the rugged category, such as the Nikon Coolpix AW120, Panasonic Lumix TS5, and, to a lesser degree, the Ricoh WG-4 GPS. Available in black or red, the TG-3 is compact, measuring 4.4 x 2.6 x 1.2 inches and weighing in at 8.7 ounces with battery and card. It’s easy to stow this camera in your pocket; we suggest you wrap the strap tightly around your wrist when the camera isn’t stored securely, even though we acknowledge the camera’s rugged attributes.

On the front of the TG-3 is a 4x optical zoom with a 35mm equivalent of 25-100mm. Because of the rugged design, the lens doesn’t extend outward. Aperture ratings are f/2.0 wide and f/4.9 tele – brighter than many competitors. Also here is an LED illuminator/AF Assist lamp next to the built-in flash. There’s a small raised grip that’s more for cosmetics than because it’s so flat. At the top deck are two stereo mics, the GPS antenna, on/off button, shutter button, and zoom lever.

On the back is a 3-inch LCD screen with a 460K-dot resolution. This is a downgrade from the 610K OLED display of the TG-2. To the right of the screen you’ll find the usual assortment of buttons: a red-dot video button, a small mode dial, Info, Playback, and Menu keys; a four-way controller with center OK button gives access to the flash, burst mode/self-timer, and exposure compensation.

The low-res LCD has major problems handling direct sunshine.

The mode dial’s shooting options include iAuto (intelligent auto), Program, Custom, PhotoStory, ART (seven special effects), Aperture Priority, Scene (22 choices), and Microscope (super macro). PhotoStory is the only unusual one, which creates a collage out of your photos – we found it useless. We’d much prefer having shutter priority, but this is a point-and-shoot and changing shutter speeds is off the table, as well as manual focus. Besides, if you’re in the middle of an activity, like snorkeling and trying to capture exotic wildlife underwater, you don’t have time to mess around with shutter and manual settings.

The right side of the camera has a sturdy latch to attach the wrist strap, while the left has a compartment covering the USB and HDMI outputs. This door and the battery compartment on the bottom have two latches each to ensure water tightness. A small orange patch serves as a warning indicator if the doors aren’t closed properly. The camera also warns you to check the latches when you enable underwater scene modes – a nice touch.

What’s in the box

You’ll find the camera, rechargeable battery rated 380 shots, AC adapter, wrist strap, USB cable, and brief starter guide. A CD contains the full manual and the Olympus Viewer 3 software for handling files. The battery charges in-camera, so plug it in, the night before using, if you don’t plan on buying a spare battery or optional charger. However, since the TG-3 has built-in GPS – a notorious power eater – a spare makes sense if you plan on a long day of extensive hiking, swimming, and so on.

Warranty

Olympus offers a one-year warranty. More information can be found here.

Performance and Use

We found the TG-1 and TG-2 to be good performers at taking photos, although we ran into some issues with the ruggedness of the TG-2, as moisture was able to develop inside the memory card compartment. With that still fresh on our minds, we quadrupled-check to make sure the compartments were all sealed. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any issues this time around.

The TG-3 has a 16-megapixel 1/2.3-inch back-illuminated CMOS sensor, pretty much the threshold for imaging devices of most compacts and mega-zooms this season. We set the camera to top resolution (4608 x 3456 pixels for stills and 1080/30p for video). The TG-3 only captures JPEGs, offering two levels of compression (Fine/Normal) – again, fairly typical for its class.

Olympus Stylus TG-3 top macro

The TG-3 has a very nice interface, similar to Olympus’ more expensive PEN interchangeable lens models. A brief scan of the manual will get you up and running quickly. Unfortunately, as we’ve mentioned, as a point-and-shoot, this model doesn’t have extensive manual adjustments. While you can change the aperture, your options are limited by the focal length, and there’s no way to adjust shutter speed. The same goes for focus, which has variations of auto. White balance parameters can be adjusted, however, as well as ISO with a native range of 100-6,400. We do like the ART filters: Dramatic Tone remains our favorite, which can take an object like a table lamp and turn it into a work of art.

What is really useful for the outdoorsy types is the data available when you press Info, after you enable the GPS. Not only do you get an eCompass but your latitude/longitude, as well as barometer and altitude readings, appears. This is very helpful information for hikers, mountain bikers, etc.

Higher ISO settings were poor. The TG-3 is a camera designed for the outdoors, with plenty of light.

We initially used the TG-3 as an aim-and-forget camera (iAuto), then moved through the options on the mode dial. Unfortunately one of the biggest issues we had was the 460K-resolution LCD, which had major problems handling direct sunshine. On many occasions we had to completely shift position in order to frame our subjects. At other times we had to shield the screen with our other hand while framing. Under the brightest of sunshine, like our Arizona test bed, you’ll find this low-res display frustrating, but it should be fine for most conditions. We do miss the OLED display that Olympus used in the TG-2.

On a much more positive note is the Microscope (Super Macro) setting that lets you get as close as 0.4-inches from your subject. We did this with flowers and cactus buds. Detail was really fine and if you like shooting close-ups, the TG-3 won’t disappoint. We had fun shooting glass beads in our pool using the underwater macro setting; there are four “UW” scenes available, a great feature given where this camera will likely end up. We were quite impressed with the underwater photos and had no issues with the LCD in this situation.

When you take a step back, the TG-3 is a good point-and-shoot. The opening focal range of 25mm offers a nice wide angle of view, but that 100mm (4x) won’t capture birds in treetops like a super-zoom. But you certainly can’t take a mega-zoom into the pool. If you plan to buy a vacation camera, factor in the type of activities you’ll do most: Will you be subjecting your camera to harsh elements, or will you be doing non-action sightseeing? That could help determine whether you get a rugged camera or a mega-zoom.

As noted in our review of the weather-resistant Fujifilm FinePix S1, when it comes to torture tests, we save them for last so we can offload our samples to a hard drive ahead of time. Although we couldn’t reach 50 feet, the TG-3 had no problems with an hour-long dunk in the pool. Olympus stresses you should exercise caution when removing the card (make sure the camera’s not dripping wet) and to give it a long bath after exposure to saltwater. We then dropped the camera four times from shoulder height onto crushed rocks you might find on a trail. Then we proceeded to step on it to check the crush-proof claim. The TG-3 came through just fine.

The Olympus grabs 1080/30p videos with stereo sound. Although color rendition was fairly accurate, focusing was rather herky-jerky, as was exposure – and this was with gentle pans across various landscapes in daylight. On the plus side, it handled underwater videos well.

There’s no doubt about it: The TG-3 is a camera designed for the outdoors. After performing our ISO tests, you definitely should use it outside with sunshine or a least a cloudy day. ISO held up to 400, then precipitously declined after 800. Higher settings were poor – one of the worst performers we’ve used in quite some time. In other words, get ready to use the various flash options in Program mode.

This Tough camera offers Wi-Fi connectivity via the Olympus Image Share app. We like the QR code setup that makes pairing with your smartphone simple. The app features the basics, including image transfer between devices, some editing, the ability to use your phone as a remote, and adding geo-tags to your shots. Nothing extraordinary, but it works – which is all that really matters.

Conclusion

The TG-3 is a good rugged point-and-shoot that can take a beating. It definitely has its limitations photographically, but for outdoor shooting it’ll do the job – and underwater images and videos are top notch. The built-in GPS/eCompass is also fine but it definitely shortens battery life, so a spare would be a key purchase. Our only super serious issue is with the LCD screen – definitely do an “eyes-on” test on that screen before you buy.

Highs

  • Rugged qualities
  • Superior underwater images
  • Super Macro mode

Lows

  • Low-res LCD
  • No shutter speed/focus adjustments
  • Poor high ISO performance

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