Olympus TG-6 review: the best waterproof camera on the market

Introduction

The Olympus Tough TG-6 is the company’s sixth-generation premium underwater camera. It features a 12 Megapixel sensor, 4X optical zoom lens, numerous sensors and, of course, serious protection against the elements.

Key specifications

  • 12MP, 1/2.3″ BSI-CMOS sensor
  • 25-100mm equivalent F2.0-4.9 stabilized lens
  • Waterproof to 15m (45ft), shockproof from 2.1m (7ft), crushproof to 100kgf (220lbf), freezeproof to -10°C (14°F), dustproof
  • 3″, 1.04M-dot display (non-touch)
  • Raw support
  • 1cm (0.4″) minimum focusing distance
  • 20 fps burst shooting
  • Pro Capture mode saves photos before and after the shutter release is pressed, to help you capture the right moment
  • 4K/30p video
  • Built-in GPS, altimeter, compass, thermometer and accelerometer
  • Optional conversion lenses and flash accessories

The TG-6 comes in black or red and is priced at $379.

What is it?

The TG-6 is a pocketable, ultra-rugged camera with a blend of features that will appeal to many different audiences:

  • Everyday shooters and parents who want something that can be dropped or get wet, unlike their smartphone
  • Serious underwater photographers who want to dive deeper and use off-camera flashes
  • Hikers and other outdoorsy folks who want to track their progress and incorporate things like location and altitude into the metadata of their photos

For those in the first group, the TG-6’s auto mode can handle just about every situation, and its numerous scene modes are well organized. Going underwater? Just choose the ‘fish’ spot on the mode dial, where you’ll find five choices that match the situation you’re in. It is a shame that Olympus did not create a simplified version of its menu system for more novice users, who are likely to be overwhelmed by the options and organization.

Out of camera JPEG. ISO 100 | 1/800 sec | F5 | 58mm equiv.
Photo by Jeff Keller

For the enthusiast, the TG-6 offers some manual controls, but not the full suite you’d expect on a higher-end camera. While you can adjust the aperture, there are only three choices at any one time. This is also why there aren’t shutter priority or manual exposure modes on the camera. It’s worth mentioning that you cannot adjust exposure compensation in auto mode, so you’ll need to switch to program or aperture priority mode to do so.

Olympus offers a huge number of accessories, including an underwater housing that lets the camera go 15 meters (50 feet) deeper, wide-angle and fisheye conversion lenses, the ability to wirelessly fire Olympus’s flashes (which need to be in housings too, of course) and much more.

Conversion lenses, lens caps and a ring flash adapter for the TG-6

Hikers and other adventurers can take advantage of the camera’s sensors and tracking abilities so they can see exactly where they were on their journey when they took a photo. The environmental sensors include a GPS, altimeter/depth gauge, compass, accelerometer and thermometer (which wasn’t close to accurate on the camera we tested, but the other sensors were fine). When you’re out and about, pressing the ‘info’ button displays all of the data the camera is capturing.

Pressing the Info button when the camera is off lets you see all of the data the TG’s environmental sensors are picking up.

Lastly, the TG-6’s host of close-up features not only allow for capturing subjects 1cm (0.4″) away: the ‘digital microscope’ mode lets you zoom in up to four times more, though with a reduction in image quality. Olympus sells a ring light and flash diffuser to add flexibility to your macro photography.

Out of camera JPEG. ISO 160 | 1/125 sec | F2.3 | 30mm equiv.
Photo by Jeff Keller

What’s new?

These days, updates to compact cameras are very minor, and that includes the TG-6. Very little has changed compared to the TG-5, with the main things being a higher resolution LCD, additional macro and underwater modes, and focus bracketing. Improvements have also been made to reduce ghosting and flare.

The higher resolution LCD is certainly nice, though Olympus did not address the most frustrating thing about the screen on the TG-5: it scratches way too easily. Buying a screen protector is highly recommended. It’s worth mentioning that the screen isn’t touch-enabled, but keep in mind this feature is all-but-useless when screens (or your hands) get wet.

A TG-6 with a tempered glass screen protector

Where the TG-5 only had one underwater white balance mode, the TG-6 has three, for shallow, mid-depth and deep water. Two additional underwater shooting modes were added: macro and microscope.

What stands out?

What really separates the TG-6 from its peers is its ability to capture data from its environmental sensors and attach it to photos, as described earlier in this review. Some other rugged cameras have some sensors, but nobody does it better than Olympus. Having GPS data in your photos lets you search for photos by location in software like Lightroom and Apple Photos.

Having the tracking feature on (which is how you can create the map like the one below) does drain the battery, which is why I kept the camera plugged into a car charger while driving around.

A map created with the OI Track app shows you where you took each photo.

The TG-6 is a bit of an outlier in that Olympus continues to use a 12 Megapixel sensor, rather than the 16 or 20 Megapixel sensors found on its competitors. On a chip this small, the TG-6’s lower pixel count might help its performance at higher ISOs, but the much bigger benefit is its lens’ ability to go to F2.0 at its widest-angle setting, letting in twice as much light as its closest rivals will. And, for most purposes, a 12 Megapixel sensor is more than enough.

The build quality of the TG-6 is still the best-in-class. Its chassis is solid enough that you’d think it could chop wood, though that would probably void the warranty. Both of the doors (one for the I/O ports, the other for the battery and memory card) have dual locks, a feature which has disappeared from its competitors. The camera’s dials are pretty plasticky though, and the buttons are mushy (the movie recording button is the worst offender), but this is likely due to the extensive sealing.

Note the dual locks on the battery/memory card compartment door. The same as true for the door that protects the USB and HDMI ports.

While the TG-6’s rugged specs are very impressive, when it comes to going underwater, several of its peers can go quite a bit deeper, with the Nikon Coolpix W300 (arguably the TG-6’s closest competitor) able to function down to 30 meters (100 feet). If you’re a snorkeler, that’s no big deal, but for scuba it’s a very desirable trait.

While the lens on the camera doesn’t have as much telephoto power as many of its peers (many of which reach 140mm equivalent at their long end), it is the widest available, which is really helpful when underwater. The lens is also the fastest in this class, which will keep noise levels down as light levels drop.

The TG-6 gets mixed reviews in terms of usability. As mentioned earlier, its auto mode works well and shortcut menu is fairly sensible, but the main menu is far too confusing. The lack of exposure compensation in the auto and scene modes is also a bummer, since it’s a commonly used, easy-to-understand feature.

The camera’s 25-point autofocus system works well, both above and below sea level. It can detect faces, though the subject needs to be looking straight at the camera. While the TG-6 has an AF tracking mode, it takes too many button presses to activate, and we recommend avoiding it.

One feature that no other rugged camera on the market has is Raw support. While the small sensor doesn’t have the dynamic range of enthusiast cameras, you can still brighten shadows with decent results, fine-tune white balance (critical for underwater shooting), and get more detail than JPEGs provide. While the TG-6 has in-camera Raw conversion, it’s poorly implemented. You have to set the camera’s shooting settings to what you want and then apply the edits to the Raw file, as opposed to adjusting them for each Raw image individually.

Heavy noise reduction in the TG-6’s JPEGs obliterates fine detail, like the trees and grass in this photo. If you’re comfortable with editing Raw files, you can get some of that detail back.

Download out-of-camera JPEG | Download converted Raw file

While the image quality from the TG-6 is fine, modern smartphones will surpass it in most situations, though once downsized to social media resolutions, it’s less noticeable. But, remember, your phone isn’t exactly rugged. While out-of-camera JPEGs have pleasant colors*, the lens just isn’t very sharp and too much noise reduction is applied. Turning down the ‘noise filter’ option helps a bit, but if you’re up to the challenge of processing the results, shooting Raw is the way to get the most out of the TG-6.

* Tip: Try to shoot in ‘P’ mode if you can, as the ‘i-Enhance’ color profile in Auto mode is over-the-top, to say the least.

We found the TG’s white balance was accurate, even underwater, which is always challenging. The camera tends to overexpose, so you may find yourself needing to use exposure compensation fairly often. As mentioned earlier, you can’t use exposure compensation in most modes (including Auto), so you’ll need to P or A mode to adjust it.

Out of camera JPEG. ISO 200 | 1/30 sec | F2 | 25mm equiv.
Photo by Dan Bracaglia

The camera’s 4K video is fine though, again, no better than that from a smartphone. The ‘movie IS’ does a good job of stabilizing things, though there is a noticeable crop when it’s on. Audio levels are adjustable, and a wind filter is also available. The TG-6 can shoot (silent) Full HD video at 120 fps, with even faster frame rates available if you drop the resolution.

The TG-6 uses the Li-92B lithium-ion battery, which turns in a respectable 340 shots per charge (CIPA rated), though you’ll probably do even better than that in most situations. That’s assuming you’re not using the GPS, though, so a spare battery is a must if you’re using it or the logging function. The camera can be charged over its USB 2.0 connector. There’s no external charger included in the box, but Olympus would be happy to sell you one for a whopping $70.

Despite all of its cool tracking features, the TG-6’s wireless implementation isn’t great. There’s no Bluetooth, so you have to put the camera into a smartphone connection mode and then manually find the network it’s created on your phone (a QR code is used for initial set-up, but that’s it). Olympus’s OI Share app is simple to use, though not always reliable. To get tracking data and put it on a map, you must use another app, OI Track, which downloads log files that sync with up with photos that you’ve already downloaded via OI Share.

Conclusion

Out of camera JPEG. ISO 100 | 1/80 sec | F2 | 25mm equiv.
Photo by Jeff Keller

The Olympus Tough TG-6 continues to be the top waterproof camera on the market. We like its ruggedness, expandability, tracking features, and Raw support. Its lens is faster at the wide-angle end than its peers, and its macro capabilities are top-notch. Battery life is very good, assuming that you’re not hitting the GPS too hard.

The TG-6’s main negative is pretty much the same as for any small-sensor compact camera these days: image quality just isn’t that great, especially compared to best-in-class smartphones that seamlessly combine multiple images to boost image quality. Having Raw support gives TG-6 users more flexibility to squeeze the most out of the camera, but you can only do so much with a 1/2.3″ sensor. Compared to its peers, we wish the TG-6 had a bit more range at its telephoto end (but you are getting F2 at the wide end in exchange), and the lack of Bluetooth is disappointing.

There have been several references to smartphones throughout this review, and to be clear, the TG-6 isn’t meant to replace one. Rather, it’s designed to withstand exactly what you don’t want happening to your smartphone: being dropped, stepped on, or dunked in water.

Out of camera JPEG. ISO 100 | 1/320 sec | F9 | 28mm equiv.
Photo by Jeff Keller

In the course of writing this review I took the TG-6 to Olympic National Park in Washington State. With its combination of rock-strewn beaches, temperate rainforests and snowy mountain peaks, the park is exactly the kind of place where you want to stuff your phone in a pocket, get out the TG-6, and not worry about what it may smash into. And being able to see where you took a photo isn’t just interesting: it makes organizing photos easier, as well.

Sample gallery

Scoring

Olympus Tough TG-6
Category: Waterproof / Rugged Compact Camera
Build quality
Ergonomics & handling
Features
Exposure and focus accuracy
Image quality (raw)
Image quality (jpeg)
Flash performance
Low light / high ISO performance
Optics
Performance (speed)
Movie / video mode
Connectivity
Value
PoorExcellent
Conclusion
The Olympus Tough TG-6 is a well-designed rugged camera with a broad feature set, good image quality for its class and a host of environment sensors that store everything from location to temperature in your photos.

Good for
Divers, hikers, parents who don’t want their smartphone broken

Not so good for
Those who desire smartphone (or better) image quality
76%
Overall score