Olympus’ new TG-3 rugged camera may be brawny, but it has a bit of smarts packed in, too

[Update on April 1, 2014: Olympus made a clarification today to the TG-3’s specs. The Super Macro Mode is 1 cm (o.4 inches) to infinity, with a focal length of 30-100mm (35mm equivalent).]

It used to be that if you wanted a rugged, weatherproof camera, you had to sacrifice some performance and features. Newer models prove that’s no longer the case. Case in point is the new 16-megapixel Stylus Tough TG-3 from Olympus. The flagship of Olympus’ rugged point-and-shoot series, the TG-3 has a fast f/2.0 lens (the fastest in its class, Olympus says), and is the first Olympus point-and-shoot to have Wi-Fi and GPS built in.

The camera uses a 16-megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor and the newest TruePic VII image processor (the same processor used in the high-end OM-D Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens cameras), both components working together to deliver great low-light performance – handy for underwater scenes. The camera can dive down to 50 feet, and withstand dust, temperatures of 14 degrees Fahrenheit, drops from 7 feet, and weight (crushproof) of 220 pounds (same specs as its predecessor, the TG-2). The lens has a wide-angle, 4x optical zoom (25-100mm) and f/2.0-4.9 aperture (also unchanged from the TG-2). ISO ranges from 100-6,400, and continuous shooting is at 5 frames per second (up to 25 images at full resolution).

What’s new is Wi-Fi for wireless transfers and smartphone connectivity/remote operation, and GPS for geotagging your photos. You can upload and share your photos while vacationing abroad (provided there’s Wi-Fi or if your smartphone has service), with extra info like how deep underwater you were during the snorkeling trip. There’s no near-field communication (NFC) for quick pairing, but Olympus uses a system where you can use your iOS or Android device to scan a QR code, which then automates the pairing process. We’ve used Olympus’ Wi-Fi implementation and found it to be easy to set up and effective to use. Unlike older cameras, Olympus says the GPS in the TG-3 works efficiently and won’t drain the battery. (The TG-3 also supports GLONASS satellite system used in Russia.)

The TG-3 has an enhanced Microscope Control Mode that lets you adjust the camera’s lens to mimic the controls of an actual microscope, letting you zoom as close as 44.5x at a distance of 1cm. It lets you see details of things like a snowflake. A new feature is Focus Stacking, where the camera takes eight shots at different apertures; the camera then retrieves the areas in focus from each shot, and combines them to create one image with full focus. This depth composition mode happens in-camera, and is great for macro shots. You can also go back to those eight individual photos to pick one that you like (focus bracketing). Also new is a scene mode called Underwater Macro, designed for close-up shots and corrects white balance, color saturation, and contrast while shooting underwater. Rounding out the new features are Art Filters and a Photo Story mode that automatically creates a collage in-camera. Moves are recording in Full HD 1080p.

What’s unfortunate is that the 3-inch display got downgraded from bright OLED to a standard LCD.

Design wise, the camera has a similar form factor as earlier models, but there are noticeable cosmetic changes, such as an improved grip. What is unfortunate is that the 3-inch LCD got downgraded from a 610k-dot OLED in the TG-2 to a standard LCD with 460k-dot resolution. It will be interesting to see how much this affects screen brightness, especially when used in bright sunlight or underwater. Olympus is offering some optional accessories to pair with the TG-3, including an LED ring light (LG-1, $40) that’s idea for close-up stills and videos, as well as waterproof fisheye and tele-converter lenses.

One issue we hope not to encounter is water tightness, as we discovered with the TG-2. During our testing, moisture developed inside the memory card compartment, and rendered the camera unusable for a day. In general, Olympus makes very good rugged cameras, but water tightness seems to be an issue that other users have reported as well.

Available in black and red, the TG-3 will go on sale in June for $350.

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