I love the sea. Some people consider mountains the most sublime, but for me it's the ocean. Every time I'm at the beach, my first inclination is to take pictures, to capture the vastness of powerful, mysterious water stretching out to the distance. Usually I'll take a couple rushed shots upon immediate arrival, overwhelmed with the scene. Then I'll walk to the shore, slow down and get a horizon shot. I'll bask in the sun, taking it all in visually, capture what I can, maybe record an Instagram story. I put down my stuff, worried a bit about sand. I pack minimally - just a little tote bag with a towel and wallet basically, and try to keep equipment simple. When it's time to swim, first I'll take whatever camera I have to the water's edge again, then wade in as far as I can go - up to my waist, usually - cautiously lowering the camera to the water, making pictures. Then I'll walk back out, hide the camera in my bag on the towel, and finally dive into the sea.
You can do all of this with any camera: a big DLSR, a smartphone, anything. But it's great to have a camera that doesn't need coddling, that I don't need to run back to put away on the beach blanket. It's great to be able to take pictures of the sea from within it, to simultaneously dive in, and shoot from under the water's surface. It's fun to capture the frolicking moments of my friends and other beach-goers, and of the waves crashing around them. And it's just so convenient to swim around with a camera tied to my wrist, or in my swimsuit pocket - a fully weather-sealed, tough, waterproof camera, like the Olympus TG-5, for instance.
That's about it. I'm not a diver. I snorkel on occasion. I would never consider a serious housing for underwater images. I'm not even really interested in sea life, or things inside the ocean. I only care about the landscapes, the motion of water at the surface, human bodies moving, and the freedom to take pictures and video while swimming. I’m not so serious about the ocean, I’m just an enthusiast. Likewise with photography: I’m not trying to shoot a documentary or work for National Geographic. I just love the poetic possibilities evoked in the ocean. So what sort of camera do I need? The acclaimed Olympus TG series? Or would an iPhone or Pixel do the trick?
I purchased the TG-5 in July 2019 for €380, just after the release of the TG-6, figuring to forgo the minor improvements and save €100. I brought it on holiday to Greece and Albania with my girlfriend, and we had fun with it. But at this point, I'm questioning my decision - not for want of the newer model, but for a higher quality camera in general. I suppose I'm in the camp that just cannot believe that there isn't a proper “one-inch” sensor in any of the totally waterproof camera options - one that has some utility in my daily life, something I can carry around without worry, to knock around in my laptop bag, that can still create high quality images.
I know about the Sealife DC2000 (and I love the article written on DPRreview about it). It does indeed have a 1-inch sensor, and compact design with fixed 31mm prime lens. But I balked at its questionable handling characteristics. Plus, I kept reading about how perfectly niche the TG series is: ideal for people in my situation, and within budget. I was just taken with the idea of the TG series, with all the talk around it, all the love it gets. But frankly, I don't understand it. This sensor is way too small, barely bigger than my smartphone, and with none of the computational advances. I'm happy with some images from it, but many are cloudy, soft, with less than ideal color science. Even with post-processing on the DNG files, I’m left wondering if that’s all there is.
As a lover of the Fuji X100 series, I'm wondering if I wouldn't be happier with the DC2000, even with its quirks. Maybe I don't need to zoom as much as I think. With a sensor four times larger (116mm2 vs 28mm2), I think I might prefer cropping over zooming. But why doesn’t Fuji make a rugged version of its X Trans sensor line-up? Or Canon, or Panasonic? All the offerings seem target to kids. On the other hand, there’s the Leica X-U, but that’s prohibitively expensive for such a niche product.
I think photography enthusiasts deserve a better "tough” option, or else we need to be able to take our enthusiast mirrorless cameras for saltwater dips. We need more thorough explanations of weather-sealing specifications, and we need them on way more products. I don't see why most cameras these days (especially with fixed lenses) cannot withstand a dunk into a lake, if not an ocean. IP67 should be commonplace, and the standards need to address saltwater - is salt equivalent to dust protection? I'd like manufacturers to be more clear about it.
Now that summer is over, I'm wondering when the next time will be that I care about the TG-5. It's definitely not my main camera - I shoot MFT or APS-C regularly, and I've gotten used to a certain level of quality. For daily journaling, the iPhone XS or Pixel 3 are just as good, if not actually better, and definitely more convenient. I’ve lent the Olympus to my girlfriend to shoot with, but she still prefers her iPhone 7, merely for its handling and convenience. Even if the TG-5 offers nominally better quality over a smartphone (debatable), it cannot match its feature set.
Those features include a microscope mode. I personally don't really care about macro photography. It's a nice lark, but nothing I'd miss. I don't have kids, so the rugged drop-proofing of the camera is nice, but again not the biggest deal to me. Of all the features, the zoom range of 25-100 is the most important. Such range is very nice to have, and I do miss it on my phone, and prime lens cameras, which can often feel limiting. But every year, and with every software update, this seems to be less and less important. When it truly is important, I'll reach for an ILC with a proper sensor in it.
I read over and over again: why doesn't Olympus put a larger sensor in one of these? I'll reiterate it again: WHY NOT?? Ok, it might make the camera larger. That's totally fine with me, so long as it can still fit into a pocket. The zoom range would be sacrificed. Go ahead! (Though obviously the Sony RX100 series can do plenty with a 1" sensor and zoom range, and it's tiny. How much bigger would total weatherproofing make it??) Make a TG model with a 1" sensor, limit our zoom range to 24-35, or 28-50, lose the macro mode. I'd love that camera.
I guess I'll hold onto the TG-5 for my next beach vacation, in four months or so. I suppose I do make it to the beach often enough to justify it. Or maybe I’ll put it on eBay and try out a Sealife DC2000. But I’ve also started watching smartphone tests in ocean water, wondering just how strong our phones are now in the elements. Yes, we could lose them, and yes, they're more delicate. But seriously: I find the TG-5 more of a hassle, crippled too much by its paltry 1/2.3" sensor, when my ILC and smartphone together cover almost all other use cases. Perhaps €400 is better spent on the iPhone 11 Pro.
There remains just that one moment for which the TG-5 exists for me: that first run into the sea, swimming freely, framing the beach from 50 meters out in the ocean, taking in the seascape at all angles, and not worrying about the tool I use to capture it. Is it enough to justify ownership? To have another gadget, for this niche purpose? I’ll keep asking myself this.
All photographs shot with the Olympus TG-5 in July, 2019 around the island of Corfu, Greece.