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Need to up-armor your photography gear? We field-test 3 of the toughest

Oct. 1, 2010 - 01:15PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 1, 2010 - 01:15PM  |  
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Military Times took three rough-and-ready cameras out for a few weeks of field tests in the wet and wild mountains, beaches and rainforests of the Pacific Northwest to see what kind of beating they could handle.

All three are rated to mil-spec standards for waterproof, freezeproof and shockproof punishment.

Lumix TS2 - ‘The Sharpshooter'

The Panasonic Lumix TS2 brings up-armored protection and quick-draw speed, while layering in levels of sophistication that can make the difference between so-so snapshots and something you'd want to hang on your wall.

The Leica DC Vario-Elmar lens is a nod to the fact that good photos always begin with good glass. The camera also sports the fastest shutter speed of the three tested, and it's the only camera of the bunch that packs an optical stabilizer to correct hand shake.

It can rip out a chain-gunlike 10 frames a second in its lower-resolution "burst mode" and still crank out a respectable 1.8 frames per second when you need to keep things in high resolution.

For aspiring videographers, the TS2 shoots 720p HD video in standard MPEG4 AVI files and AVCHD Lite, a pro-level format developed by Panasonic and Sony that nearly doubles recording time.

Pros: Superfast autofocus. Consistently great pictures.

Cons: AVCHD video requires special software.

Buy it if: You want greater flexibility in picture and video shooting.

List price: $349.95

Pentax Optio W90 - ‘The Light Fighter'

Trading in the metal casing of its competitors for Kevlar-like hardened plastic, the Optio W90 weighs in at just 5.7 ounces. Its distinctive carabiner carrying strap gives it a go-anywhere look and endless options for keeping the camera out where you'll actually use it.

The W90 turns on like it sleeps with its boots on, ready to shoot within 1.3 seconds, the fastest of the bunch. And you won't even notice the .03-second trigger lag. It also cranks out a respectable 1.3 to five frames per second when things are moving fast and you just want to spray your subject in the hopes of catching that perfect moment.

While all three cameras sport clear, 2.7-inch, 230,000-dot screens, the W90 is the only one to offer a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. It's also the only one to offer an innovative lighting solution for close-up photography, with three LED lights ringing the lens.

Pros: Easy and fun to use. Awesome close-ups. Lowest price.

Cons: Tough, but the least sturdy of the group. Image noise in low light.

Buy it if: Your highest priority is speed and you don't mind sacrificing a little picture quality.

List price: $329.95

Olympus Stylus Tough-8010 - ‘The Tank'

The Tough lives up to its name — it's built like a tank. And for reasons good and bad, it also shoots like one. The heaviest of the bunch, weighing in at a little less than half a pound, the Tough protects its lens with a sliding metal plate that pops up from inside its up-armored stainless-steel exterior.

It's the only camera we tested with just one gasketed opening for access to the memory card, battery and ports. Its 220-pound load-bearing limit means you can pack it at the bottom of a rucksack and not worry about unpacking it in pieces.

Unfortunately, the Tough also moves like a tank. It's got the slowest boot time and the agonizingly longest trigger lag. It's also a fuel guzzler, sucking its battery dry faster than any other model tested. The HD video often looked like it was shot from a tank — jerky to the point of distraction.

Pros: Toughest of the tough and a solid shooter. two gigabytes of on-board memory.

Con: Slow. Jerky HD. Tends to overcook shadows.

Buy it if: Your highest priority is a camera that can take a beating.

List price: $399.99

———

REAL-WORLD TESTS

"If it ain't raining, we ain't training," the old saying goes. But did you ever notice there are rarely any pictures to prove it? Now, you can capture all the action no matter what Mother Nature dishes out.

Life's a beach

Ordinarily, sand and water are a camera's two worst enemies. With these shooters, they're just part of the fun.

• 1st place: Lumix — Clean and clear above water and below. Shrugged off sand like a "Baywatch" lifeguard.

• 2nd: Pentax — Nice exposures, seamless transition from underwater to out of water.

• 3rd: Olympus — Sand was a temporary problem with the lens cover, but was easily washed out.

Into the light

Testing the HD video's ability to go from pitch black to bright light using a water slide:

• 1st: Lumix — Smooth in and out. LED managed to illuminate feet, transitioned perfectly into the light.

• 2nd: Pentax — Grainy darkness, but smooth transition.

• 3rd: Olympus — Bad noise, superjerky.

Takes a splashin' and keeps on flashin'

From the high-dive board to splash fights and underwater portraits in the pool.

• 1st: Olympus — Consistently well exposed photos and video in and under the water.

• 2nd: Lumix — Sometimes on the yellowish side, but usually good even in high action.

• 3rd: Pentax — Best video on the high dive, but overly greenish-yellow tinting.

Rockets' red glare test

Capturing bright lights in the dark can be among the trickiest tasks for any photographer.

• 1st: Pentax — By far the best. Kept on snapping with no focus lag. Even brought out the blue glow of the night sky.

• 2nd: Lumix — Generally good exposures. Handled mix of city lights well. Not overblown.

• 3rd: Olympus — Frustratingly slow. Pictures were overly noisy and mostly useless.

When darkness falls

Whether you're after the perfect "gotcha" snap at the surprise party or your roommate's open-mouthed snoring after he's just come back from the party.

• 1st: Lumix — Best exposure, although slightly on the dark side. Excellent color.

• 2nd: Pentax — Relatively good exposure, but a little on the hot side.

• 3rd: Olympus — Solid exposure, but lots of red eye.

Scuba diving test: FAIL

We took the TS2 and the W90 on a quick bubble-blowing expedition into the Puget Sound. Although we were careful to stay well above their depth limits, within 30 minutes, both were leaking. To be fair, it was a rough-water rocky beach entrance, and they might have been jostled a bit. And while visibility was limited, both admirably captured the plankton plume until they succumbed.

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