Dropped and bouncing the desert highway like a tumbleweed, submerged unnoticed in a Scottish burn, like the unkillable TG Hilux, my Olympus TG never stopped working.
You’ll have read it again and again: the best camera is one you can whip out and shoot off in a jiffy. On a bike, that won’t be a bulky 3/4 mirrorless or DSLR stuck in the tankbag. It’ll be a back-up P&S in a quick-access chest pocket or mounted on your belt or daypack strap. The exposure of bike riding means it wants to be weatherproofed if it’s going to last, chiefly against dust, but if you can use it in the pouring rain, so much the better.
For this waterproof ‘diving’ P&S cameras with an enclosed lens are ideal. Rain, shine or sandstorm, you never have to worry about missing a shot or ruining the camera, and the sealed lens – tiny though it is – is protected. Over the years, along with lots of blurred rubbish, I’ve grabbed many great, one-handed shots while riding with such cameras. With it tethered to you (as right) or attached via a neck strap, just pull it out, switch it on (thin or finger-chopped gloves help), Point & Shoot. Switch off and re-pocket.
I used Panasonic’s Lumix FT2 ‘wet’ cameras for 13 years or more, a simple, slim, one-handed, all-weather P&S which didn’t have to be mollycoddled. In 2011 we even used them to make a packrafting movie. Later models seemed to lose the functionality of the FT2 so as mine died or sank, I replaced them with used ebay cheapies until they got too hard to find.
Desert, pocket or sea, I’ve always liked the Lumix range’s preference for a wider 24mm-ish lens. Ridiculous zoom levels are far less important because with the tiny lens, picture quality dives. But after a really old FT1 burner unsurprisingly failed to survive a few minutes of snorkelling, I decided to try a used Olympus TG-5 (left) recommended by some paddleboarding bikers on one of my tours.
The Olympus TG-5 and Panasonic FT7 (right) got rated as the best waterproof cameras you can buy but they seem expensive for what they are. And when you consider the tiny zoom lens tucked inside the inch-thick body you’d think you’re never going to get great shots, especially in low light or at full zoom.
Even then, my old FTs always needed to be tricked into slightly lower (correct) exposures by half-clicking on the sky, pulling down and composing the shot before full-clicking. It was only when I got a Lumix LX100 a few years back that I realised a: how handy an EV Comp dial (right) can be; I use it on almost every shot (usually to under-expose a bit) and b: how relatively crappy some of my FT pics were. My photos improved greatly with the LX and I used the FT less and less.
With all the essential controls – actual buttons and levers on the body, not buried in a digital menu – the compact LX was very nice to handle, but wasn’t really suited to ride-by one-handers or paddling. Like all such cameras with extending lenses, each time you turn it on the lens sucks in dust which eventually gets on the sensor and appears as marks or smudges on most images. It drove some LX owner-reviewers nuts, though it’s far from unique to this model. You can’t easily reach the sensor as you can on a mirrorless camera, even if the marks can easily be erased in iPhoto. But here’s a great trick: zoom in and out as you hoover the lens via a bottle (left). It really works.
After a few years of mostly desert trips my LX dials got grittier and grittier, and the deployment of the lens and the zoom got slower and slower. Eventually, it needed a tug to extend fully and a push to retract. The 2018 LX100 II got some improvements, but sadly weather-sealing wasn’t one of them, so I flogged my crunchy LX before it seized completely and bought a slightly larger but weather-sealed Sony 6300 mirrorless (here’s a great list of similar cameras) which, with a 24-105 Zeiss lens I’ve started using more and more. But it’s not pocketable, is heavy at 800g with the tele, and that lens is not sealed so dust still gets to the sensor every few days in the desert. The great thing is, it’s easy to remove with the lens removed.
Back to the TG-5. Watching one of the vids below I learned an unmarked control dial in the same, top-right position can work as an EV Comp dial. That alone is worth the price of the camera. No more point to the sky to expose correctly.
Having even been inspired to RTFM, I now realise the TG-5 is actually much closer in quality to the LX than I realised, not least in terms of the staggering number of things it can do – most of which go way over my head.
For riding, you can easily screw on a clear filter over the lens window to stop it getting scratched. It may not show up on photos, but a filter is easily wiped by a cuff or replaced for a few quid. To mount it you need the Olympus CLA-T01 adapter (£20; or a £6 JJC knock-off; right) to which you then screw in a regular 40.5mm filter: UV, polarised, whatever (left). Add a piece of screen guard over the LCD and the Olympus Tough can now be treated Olympus Rough, with both screen guard and UV filter being inexpensively replaceable.
Note: towards the end of my TG’s life I dispensed with the 40-mm filter to make it slimmer in the pocket. Within a few months the stock built-in lens cover glass/plastic (left) had become scratched to the point of ruining pictures and finally finished off the still-working camera for me. Moral: fit a quality UV lens filter; the stock cover is not up to it.
I used the TG for a month in Morocco on my Himalayan and again in November loved the Mr-Whippy-like accessibility. It too has a wide 24mm so you know you’ll shoot something, and closing the EV Comp down to -0.7 means great exposures. On very bright days -1.
It also has an easy to use custom self-timer, a blessing for us adventure-riding singletons. Normally I’ve had to settle for 3-shots-at-10 seconds, or simply shoot video and extract a cruddy still or a more complicated 4k. On the TG you press the sequential shooting dial and set: delay time, # of frames and shooting interval. With this I was able to grab some of the key riding shots which magazines require. (Even my Sony hasn’t got as good timer options.) At 4000px width resolution, that’s enough for a magazine full pager. And when shooting others, the 20fps burst speed is staggering. And all this without having to fuss about knocking the lens, dropping the camera or crap getting in it.
The battery is a slim 1270Ah which still did masses of shots – a week or more – and can be charged in the camera which means one less thing to carry. But for 20 quid I bought 3 clone batteries plus a travel-friendly USB- (right) charger, which will work off a laptop, battery pack, USB wall plug or a solar panel. I’ve hardly used them.
I always use a tether while riding, but one time in Morocco the chunky red Olympus strap unknowingly came undone just as I chose to let it go… It should have dangled from my wrist but instead fell on the road and tumbled along. I swung back expecting the worst but, apart from a small hole bashed through in one corner, it still worked fine! Its snorkelling days may be over before they began, but that was amazing. A bit of duct tape kept the dust out of the hole. Focus remained sharp. Another time it quietly fell out of my pocket while sat on a slatted footbridge in Knoydart and dropped 10 feet into a stream while I watched my stove boil. I fished it out and removed the card and batt but slowly the functions died off as water seeped through and I thought that was it. Back home I bought another immediately but before that even arrived the dunked TG had dried out and recovered fully! Stick that in your tractor shed, Jeremy Clarkson!
Once I’d have said GPS position, elevation and a compass in a camera were gimmicks. Now I’d admit they add some redundancy when a proper GPS unit goes flat. The Olympus accesses this data with a simple press of the Info button with the camera off (left). Up it comes for 10 secs, north by northwest. The TG-5 also takes great pictures.
Easy to turn on and zoom one-handed
EV Comp dial in the usual position
Battery charges in the camera
Spare 3rd-party batteries from £4; USB charger from £8
Good hand grip
Rated at 15m of water so ought to survive some splashes
Slim and light (260g with chunky wrist strap)
GPS, elevation, compass, and even a tracking app, with the camera off
Easy to access and configure custom self-timer
Red; easy to find on the river bed or by the roadside
Now used from £150
A baffling new menu to master – sigh
LCD text is a bit small
Wrist strap undoes itself in the wind
Stock lens cover is scratch prone
Annoying ‘OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA’ meta data needs to be manually removed
Discontinued by Olympus – current TG6 at 400 quid.