Since the introduction of the TG-1, Olympus has been on the top of our recommendation list for tough cameras. Its latest effort, the TG-3 ($349.99), adds a few features that were absent in the TG-1 and TG-2, including Wi-Fi and a robust Microscope macro mode that supports in-camera focus stacking. Its 16-megapixel image sensor introduces a bit more noise in photos than previous 12-megapixel models, but the wide-aperture f/2 lens captures a lot of light so you can keep it set at a reasonable level. And there’s a unique LED light accessory available for macro illumination. The TG-3 is a worthy successor to its predecessor, and follows it as our Editors’ Choice for rugged compact cameras.
Design and Features Like the two models that came before it, the TG-3 eschews the standard corner lens design that most rugged compacts adhere to. Instead, it places the lens right in the middle of the body, just like most compact cameras. Despite its urged exterior, it’s still quite pocketable at 2.6 by 4.4 by 1.2 inches (HWD) and light at 8.7 ounces. This is par for the course for tough compacts—the Olympus Tough TG-850, which is a solid option if you’re on a budget, is just a bit smaller and lighter at 2.5 by 4.3 by 1.1 inches and 7.7 ounces. The TG-3 is available in black or red; we received a red unit for review and it’s a good-looking camera.
The central position of the TG-3’s lens enables Olympus to design accessories to mount around it. There’s a beauty ring around the lens that can be removed to reveal a bayonet mounting system. You can add a filter adapter to utilize 40.5mm threaded filters, and there are also fisheye ($139.98) and telephoto ($129.98) converter lenses available. One new accessory for the TG-3, but also compatible with the TG-1 and TG-2, is the LED Light Guide ($40.99), which redirects the light that the macro LED next to the camera flash outputs so that it surrounds the lens. The illumination produced is similar to a ringflash, like the model from Photojojo that we reviewed a while back, so you can really make the most out of the TG-3’s macro capabilities.
The lens is a modest 4x zoom that covers a 25-100mm (full-frame equivalent) zoom range. At its wide end it opens up all the way to f/2, a setting at which it captures quite a bit of light, but the aperture does narrow to f/4.9 when zoomed all the way in. Like most compacts, the TG-3 uses a 1/2.3-inch image sensor. As a rule of thumb, cameras with larger sensors are more capable in terms of imaging, but small sensors do have an advantage when it comes to macro focusing.
The TG-3 has a Microscope mode that focuses to nearly the front protective lens cover. In order to take advantage of this capability, you’ll need to set the mode dial to Microscope. It zooms the lens to the 1.2x (30mm) position, and it works throughout the rest of the zoom range, through 100mm. Once you’ve got Microscope enabled, you can focus on objects that almost touch the lens, but when working that close you’ll notice that your depth of field is quite shallow. If you’d like more of your subject to be in focus, you can enable Focus Stacking, which narrows the aperture and takes a series of exposures, each at a slightly different point of focus. Those are blended together in a single shot that captures more of the subject in focus, and saves it alongside the first image that was captured. It’s a neat trick, but it does require you to be working on a tripod (or to have a very steady hand) and with an immobile subject to work effectively.
There’s also a Focus Bracketing mode that works in a similar manner, capturing ten images, each at a different focal point. It doesn’t blend them together—you’ll have to do that yourself in Photoshop—but if you choose not to blend, you can pick the image with the best focus point from the bunch to share with the world. The final Microscope setting is Microscope Control mode; it’s identical to the standard version, but instead of showing you the zoom ratio, it lists the maximum magnification ratio at the current zoom setting. When the camera is set to its 30mm position, it’s a 2.9x factor, and at 100mm it’s 11.1x—needless to say, the TG-3 is a great choice if you like to hone in on small details of our world.
Controls, Wi-Fi, and Durability Most of the TG-3’s physical controls are situated on the rear, to the right of the LCD, but there are a few on the top plate. Those include the power button, shutter release, and a zoom rocker that moves left and right to control the focal length. The record button (for movies) is integrated into the rear thumb rest, directly above a flat mode dial. Also on the rear are the Info, Play, and Menu buttons, as well as a four-way joypad with a center OK button and directional presses to adjust Exposure Compensation (Up), Flash output (Right), and the Drive Mode/Self-Timer (Down). The left direction gives you quick access to the on-screen overlay menu that runs along the right side of the rear LCD.
The mode dial has numerous settings in addition to the Microscope mode. There’s iAuto, which cedes almost all shooting controls to the TG-3, as well as Program, Aperture Priority, Scene Mode, Art Filter, Photo Story, and a Custom mode that lets you save your favorite settings. If you’re familiar with any compact camera, the Scene settings won’t surprise you—there are preset settings to capture portraits, landscapes, panoramas, sports, snowy scenes, sunsets, fireworks, underwater scenes, and others. Buried in here is the Interval mode, which allows you to capture a series of stills at set intervals, which the TG-3 can turn into a time lapse, or which you can simply save as individual photos. The number of frames, time between them, and whether or not you want the camera to turn them into a movie are all configured via the main menu. You can capture up to 99 images at any interval ranging from one second through 24 hours.
The Art setting is one that’s common to many Olympus cameras. It adjusts the color output to give images to give them a distinct look. There are several filters available, including an oversaturated pop art look, a grainy black and white film emulation, soft focus, and a mode that mimics a pinhole camera. There’s also a Diorama setting that replicates the tilt-shift effect that gives real life scenes the look of miniatures in a model train display. Photo Story is also pretty neat. It provides a grid with three squares (a large vertical, a small square crop, and a small vertical), so you can capture three distinct images and save them as one. The resulting file is a square crop that’s custom made for Instagram. But you’re not limited to that arrangement, there are a number of others that you can select, and different filters that you can apply to images.
Depending on the mode you’ve set, you’ll be able to adjust different shooting settings using an overlay menu that runs down the right side of the rear LCD. Program gives you the most options. From there you’ll be able to adjust the color output (Vivid, Natural, Muted, Fish Eye, Sparkle, and any of the Art Filters are options), flash output, exposure compensation, white balance, ISO, drive mode, image resolution, and image aspect ratio. Other modes are more limited, with the exception of Aperture Priority. It adds the f-stop to that control list, with settings for wide open, stopped down one stop, or stopped down five stops. This gives the camera a minimum aperture of f/8 at the wide end and f/18 at its telephoto extreme.
The rear LCD is 3 inches in size and with a modest 460k-dot resolution. It’s a step back from the 610k-dot OLED display that Olympus used in the TG-2, but it’s still adequately sharp for image framing and review. It’s plenty bright for outdoor use, and it can be viewed from askew angles with no issues.
There’s an integrated GPS that adds location data to your photos when enabled. It requires about 30 seconds to lock onto a signal. There’s also a digital compass, which can give you some guidance if you’re stranded in the wild, a barometer, and an altimeter that shows how far above ground or below water you are.
Wi-Fi is built in as well. There’s no NFC, so you’ll have to pair manually with a smartphone, either by entering a password to access the network that the TG-3 broadcasts or taking a photo of the QR code that it displays when you’re first setting up the Olympus Image Share app. The app, which is available for free for iOS and Android, lets you copy images from the camera to your phone, or use your phone as a remote control to take photos with the TG-3. A Live View feed streams to your phone, and you can adjust the lens, change the aperture, set the ISO, dial in exposure compensation, adjust white balance, change the drive mode, tap on an area of the frame to focus, and fire the shutter via your phone’s display. The app also lets you apply Art Filters to images after they’ve been captured, and also includes a location log function that you can use to geotag photos—but you won’t need to utilize that feature if you enable the TG-3’s in-camera GPS.
The TG-3 is rated to go as deep as 50 feet underwater, survive drops from heights of 7 feet, be crushed under 220 pounds of pressure, and operate in temperature as low as 14°F. We weren’t able to take it that deep underwater (this reviewer doesn’t know how to swim), but it did survive a trip into my kitchen sink and dozens of drops, and it worked fine after a night in the refrigerator. There are two doors, one for the battery compartment and one for the ports, both with double locking designs that will help prevent an accidental opening when underwater. If you need to go deeper than 50 feet, you can add the PT-056 Underwater Housing, which is rated to 150 feet, but expensive at $299.99.
Performance and Conclusions The TG-3 is speedy. It starts and captures an in-focus image in just about 0.9-second, focuses and fires in 0.05-second, and can shoot a continuous burst of about 30 images at 5 frames per second before slowing down. You can shoot faster by lowering the resolution to 3 megapixels; the TG-3 can capture 100 low-resolution images at 15 or 59.4 frames per second. The Pentax WG-3 GPS, which also features an f/2-4.9 lens, is slower. It requires 2.5 seconds to start and shoot, focuses in 0.2-second, and can only fire continuously at 1.4 frames per second.
I used Imatest to check and see just how sharp images from the TG-3’s lens are. At 25mm f/2 it scores 2,045 lines per picture height on our center-weighted sharpness test, which is better than the 1,800 lines we use to call a photo sharp. The outer edges of the frame are very soft (1,083 lines), which is typical for a compact camera at its widest angle, and the middle third of the frame is also a little less than we’d like to see, showing 1,784 lines. Narrowing the aperture to f/2.8 improves the overall sharpness score to 2,280 lines, with the middle third topping 2,000 lines, but it doesn’t do anything to sharpen the edges of the frame. The lens delivers its most even performance at the 2x (50mm) zoom position. The maximum aperture there is f/3.2 and the lens resolves 2,001 lines, with the entirety of the frame topping 1,800 lines. Stopping down to f/4.5 boosts the center-weighted score to 2,215 lines. At 100mm it’s at its weakest, showing just 1,507 lines at the maximum f/4.9 aperture. The Olympus Tough TG-850 is just a bit sharper at its widest angle with a 2,330-line score. Its sharpness holds up through most of the frame, but it also shows weakness at the edges, and its 21mm f/3.5 lens captures less than half the light that the TG-3’s 25mm f/2.
Imatest also checks for noise. As you increase a camera’s sensitivity to light, expressed numerically as ISO, noise increases in kind. If there’s too much, images take on a grainy look and eventually grain overtakes fine detail. Compact digital cameras combat this by applying noise reduction, too much of which can also harm detail. It’s not uncommon for noise to increase along with pixel density, and the move to a 16-megapixel image sensor, which packs smaller pixels into the same space that was utilized by the TG-2’s 12-megapixel sensor, causes this model to show more noise than its predecessor. The TG-3 only keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 400, and jumps all the way to 2 percent at ISO 800. Close examination of photos on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W show that there’s a noticeable drop off in image quality at ISO 800 as fine lines start to run together. There’s only a slight drop in detail at ISO 1600, but you should avoid ISO 3200 and 6400 if possible as images are very blurry there. The 12-megapixel TG-2 handles noise better; it keeps it under 1.5 percent through ISO 1600, but it too shows smudged details when pushed that far.
Video is recorded in QuickTime format at up to 1080p quality. The footage is good, with sharp details, and the TG-3 focuses quickly as the scene changes. There’s not much evidence of rolling shutter, even during quick pans, but the audio leaves a lot to be desired. The lens makes a lot of noise when zooming and focusing, and there’s a constant high-pitched whirring noise from the image stabilization system. Even when it’s disabled, the motor is active in order to keep the lens elements in the right place. It’s a good idea to enable it, however, as it does a great job smoothing handheld footage. You can plug the TG-3 into an HDTV via a micro HDMI cable to review footage. A double-locking door protects that connector, and the proprietary USB port is right next to it. Olympus doesn’t include an external battery charger, so you’ll have to plug the TG-3 directly into a wall outlet via the included cable and AC adapter in order to recharge the battery. Another double locking door houses the battery and the SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot.
The Olympus Tough TG-3 is one of the best rugged cameras money can buy, but it’s not without a few faults. The 16-megapixel image sensor captures photos that are a bit on the noisy side, and its lens is a bit soft when zoomed all the way in. There’s a lot of good to balance those complaints, including a lens that captures more light than most others in this class, integrated GPS and Wi-Fi, fantastic macro capability, and in-camera tools to set your images apart from the crowd. You don’t have access to full manual controls, but you can set the lens aperture, and there’s a scene mode for sports for those times when you want to ensure a quick shutter speed to freeze action. It’s also one of the more rugged tough cameras out there, and an underwater housing is available if you need to go deeper than 50 feet. If you don’t want to spend $350 on a compact camera, the Olympus Tough TG-850 is a fine alternative with a few less features that costs about $100 less. But we feel that the TG-3 is worth its asking price, and are happy to name it as our Editors’ Choice.