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I recently had the opportunity to dive the latest revise of the venerable Olympus Tough TG line up, the TG-4. This camera is nearly identical to last year’s TG-3, with the addition of capturing RAW files, an additional underwater HDR scene mode and a few software tweaks.

I had brought it along on a whim with a raft of much more powerful cameras. But most of them were delayed when I had to make a fast transfer of flights. So for the first few days of my Solomon Islands trip I relied on it and the Olympus E-M1 I had in my carry on.

I didn’t have the PT-056 underwater case for the TG-3 and TG-4 that takes it to 140’ (I’m going to pack that the next time), but for shallower dives you can use the camera alone up to 15 meters deep. Waterproof, shockproof, freeze proof, with a sharp, fast f/2.0 lens (good for low light), this camera makes a great starting camera for any aspiring underwater photographer. For more seasoned photographers, it’s a good backup/secondary camera that slips into a pocket.

Using the TG-4 underwater is as easy as turning the mode dial to the “fish” icon and scrolling through the type of scene you want to shoot; Wide (1 and 2; which doesn’t use the flash, Snapshot, Macro or HDR. The Microscope mode is a separate mode setting, and you can also choose other modes along with preset underwater white balance for more control. Other built-in scenes of every description, along with a I-Auto mode make this a simple camera to use.

1080p video makes this a more versatile camera than a GoPro with stereo sound capture as well as a sharp fast zoom lens for “pullbacks” and zoom in takes, along with it’s excellent macro capabilities.

Other cool features include a GPS marker (above water), a tiny little compass display, a depth reading (that also warns you that you are going too deep for the 15 meter limit), a Program and a (limited) Aperture Priority mode for a little more control. These can be coupled with the underwater white balance as well. I didn’t get the chance to try out the HDR mode as I can’t quite figure out how you would hold it steady underwater for the multiple exposures necessary to “sandwich” an extended range photo.

I tried it out underwater on a couple of shallower dives. Closeup, or with good sunlight, it worked quite well. In fact this camera’s underwater macro mode and even cooler “microscope” mode make it a close-in contender to other cameras that cost twice as much. The microscope mode when used with the optional little LG-1 “ring flash” I had also tucked in my bag allowed me to basically place the camera on top of a very small subject and evenly light it using the flash and LED light. It makes for some unusual images that compete with a setup I have with my full-frame D800 rig. All the the palm of your hand! The TG-4 has an expanded shooting range from 1cm to 30cm in the mode and you can also change the "microscope" magnification.

Without an external strobe, you really can’t hope to get farther away than about 1.5 or 2’ and get any light from the camera flash. So when I shot in darker caves with available light it was pretty challenged, even to take shots of the surface.

The addition of RAW capture really turns this camera into a good secondary camera, as now you can post-process and adjust white balance, exposure, and other parameters to tweak your images like you can with other more sophisticated systems.

The sharp crisp image quality that this camera can deliver should not be understated. I used an older T-8000 a few years back and found the images underwater to be ok, but the above water photos to be muddy. That’s not the case with the TG series, with proper lighting sharp crisp images are the rule.

The only negative thing I experienced underwater was when I dove close to the 15 meter mark and the camera locked up. Even diving it at 12 meters, I found it to be inconsistent, working for a while and then freezing. Rising up to around 6-8 meters, turning the camera off and then on again seemed to restore operation. However one time it locked up and I had to take it back to the boat, dry it off and take the battery off to reset it. So I wouldn’t push it past about 12 meters deep in practical use, but for most snorkelers that’s plenty deep.

I would definitely bring along the “dive” housing the next time, which also allows it to be used with external strobes and wide angle lenses to greatly extend the camera’s abilities. Olympus also makes a little “wet” wide angle lens that clips on the front of the camera and for snorkelers using the camera alone, it makes good sense, especially if you’re shooting video, but it can’t be used with the housing.

Third party housings from Nauticam and Ikelite allow for deeper (200-300') and even more rugged use of the camera.

Once my gear caught up to me, I continued to use the camera, leaving it out on the dive deck in all conditions, taking it on rough, wet dingy rides for diver snapshots and sticking it my pocket for a walkabout on the islands. It’s really nice to have a non-fussy, rugged and reliable camera along to capture those fun moments that really tell the story of your trip.