Monday, October 31, 2016

The Best Botanical Expedition Camera so far? An Intimate Review of the Olympus Tough TG-870.

With beach sand and dust, sea and salt air, Cape Verde is a tough environment for plants and botanists alike. Sleeping outdoors every night, climbing epic peaks and roughing it ups the ante for botanists and the equipment they carry hugely! This is my first equipment test as the Rogue Botanist: expedition tested equipment that won't fail, so you never have to!

Considering the physical challenges of the locale, I scoured the web for a backup camera for my trusty joined-at-the-hipbelt companion - the weatherproofed Olympus OM-D EM5 Mk II. My eyes naturally gravitated towards Olympus, and in particular the 2016 release of the TG-870 - the latest in Olympus's lineup of 'tough' cameras. There are several things that I consider critical when choosing a camera: is it tough enough to handle the field, does it have a good macro, does it focus on the foreground subject and can I take shots with one hand? The TG-870 ticks all these boxes and more. It has a wider-than-usual lens, relatively quick GPS, a flip screen for viewing tricky subjects, has a dust-proof body and is submersible to 15m.

The Tough TG-870 promo image from the Olympus website

There are several excellent sites out there that give hands on reviews of this camera (eg. Ken Rockwell, Digital Camera HQ). In this review focused on botanical expedition-worthy equipment, I'm going to give my considered, harsh yet fair appraisal of this dynamite-comes-in-small-packages camera. I think I’ve picked up many points not covered in other reviews. This shows the camera after three months of solid use that leaves this camera scratched, dented and dinged - but less worthy equipment broken and deflated on their first day out.

My Digital Camera Background
I've had many cameras, and was one of the earliest botanists within South Africa to recognize the tremendous advantages of digital cameras over slides in documenting and cataloging plants. My first camera was the extraordinary 3MP Nikon Coolpix 995, purchased in 2002. This was an astonishing camera in many ways, and packed crisp photos into a tiny and tough body. It had a brilliant macro which thanks to its tiny sensor gave better than 1:1 macro, it was compact and light, dustproof and my favourite part – a split-body  that was both intuitive and engaging that compelled one to point the screen at oneself while the subject faced elsewhere. It had an unparalleled macro with huge depth of field, and the form factor meant that you could get shots of flowers at ground level almost without shading them. In many ways I have been pining for a worthy successor to this model ever since. 

The extraordinary botanical juggernaut - the Nikon Coolpix 995 (Photo:

Two years later I upgraded to the 4MP Coolpix 4500, a step backwards in several ways, one of which was losing the focal-distance scale (replaced with a ridiculous scale bar), and the other having a cheap trigger setup held by plastic pins that eventually broke. Sticking with Nikon I upgraded to the D70 SLR that took great pictures but was big and heavy and lacked video. It eventually died when the pins of the horrible flash-card format got pushed in for the second time. From there my Lumix GH-2 promised excellent image or video quality in a lighter-weight body. Yet it too succumbed, this time from corrosion due to a rainstorm. Times were hard and I ended up buying a series of medium range compact cameras from Canon that broke within months.

Last year I splashed out and settled on the weatherproof, ridiculously customizable OM-D EM-5 as my serious camera. But despite being small and lightweight compared to most APS-C DSLR’s, it is still big and clumsy, and most importantly lacks a decent wide angle macro lens that is fully compatible with the camera (the supposedly compatible 35mm Olympus lens alas, does a terrible job of focusing). Also I didn’t have a wide-angle lens beyond the 28mm kit lens, nor a camera that can do panorama stitching. I found an early model of the TG range which was cheap, but dinged and scratched with a barely useable rear screen. So I looked online to see if Olympus had released anything more… enticing. Enter the elegant-looking, mean-acting, quick-thinking, strong-enough for Mr T - Tough TG-870.

Lens and lens quality
The TG-870 boasts one of the widest lenses of any compact camera, a 21 – 105 mm equivalent lens. This is technically in ultra-wide territory, and far wider than my 14 - 40mm kit lens which on the OM-D is a 28 mm equivalent lens. For landscape shots, this lens delivers good shots which paired with the 16MP effective Backside Illumination-sensor and Truepic VII imaging engine, delivers clean images, rich colours and a blue sky.

It has a reasonable and fairly pedestrian 5x lens. I barely use the zoom-in feature except when trying to snap fruits or flowers that would otherwise be inaccessible, or when documenting bushes on adjacent cliffs. I would like in these circumstances to be able to zoom further, but it is a minor issue superseded by more pressing issues.

The macro is fantastic – about the same… nay better in macro mode than my 2:1 equivalent macro lens on my bigger-bodied camera. I love that the 1cm macro is paired with a wide-angle lens delivering a delightful view of macro subjects in context. The difference in sharpness between these lenses at macro level is obvious and palpable though. On the Tough, purple and yellow fringing appear and images appear hazy, particularly towards the outside of the image. So obvious in fact that it makes super-macro mode all but unusable!

Image quality
Images from the camera are acceptable verging on good. They lack a certain sharpness and crispness that is unfortunate. Nonetheless for record shots which is what I spend most of my time doing, it fits the bill. The compressed 4608x3456 (16MP) images are a bloated 7MB in size, which is acceptable for my Olympus OM-D, but seems excessive for this camera given the softness of the lens.

A picture of Carprobrotus that reveals the quality this camera is capable of.

A pixel-peeper crop of the image above displayed at 1:1. Not bad!

Despite its BSI sensor, I found the noise a force to be reckoned with, especially above ISO 400 or in low-light.

A picture of "Mordor" on Cape Verde. Almost no detail is visible. This is taken at a modest ISO 800 and 1/30th of a second.

A crop of "Mordor" showing almost no detail and significant chroma noise.

Layout of controls
My old Coolpix 995 and several other cameras have suffered from poor layout that led to me accidentally pushing on or more buttons. Other than the zoom button that I sometimes find myself accidentally pressing, I find most of the controls reasonably laid out with good tactile feedback.

Menu Layout
I find the menu system acceptable bar one glaring irritating flaw – deleting images. Something one does fairly often, especially on a long trip with limited disk space. There is a button earmarked for deletion. Press it and you will find out how NOT TO SET UP A DELETE BUTTON - Olympus! Step 1. Press the play button. Step 2. Press the erase button. Step 3. Skip past Slideshow and Edit to Erase. Step 4. Don’t be tempted to Sel(ect) Image(s), but skip to Erase. Step 5. Skip Cancel and select Erase. There, you’ve deleted an an image, that wasn’t so hard, was it?!

The rest of the menus are poor to adequate – nothing special, with some powerful features embedded several screens away. The first screen has such arcane things as Wi-fi start (a feature I have not yet figured out how to use), Reset (I haven’t dared press it though I guess it resets everything to factory settings – sounds like a last resort). Compression  – something you’ll do once in the life of a camera (set it to fine) unless you are running out of space. AF Mode (again I’ve never changed it), and Metering (something I’ve never changed).

I found the choice of features a little irritating to get to as well. I’d frequently have to spend 15 seconds changing the settings to obtain the one I wanted. An example is THE SELECT MENU.

No quick way to adjust the exposure. (Press OK, scroll past picture filter and flash setting to exposure, then select exposure value and press OK). Fortunately the auto-exposure does such a great job that it seldom blows out the brights from yellow or white flowers.

I love customization. If this is for you, then don’t get this camera. There is no ability to change the aperture, and no ability to manually focus. That’s right folks. None. In all fairness – the exposure is usually spot on and focus is usually quick and simple – but not always.

One useful change is the button setup. Go to the Menu | bottom-most Settings Menu 3 | For the top one select Super Macro. The red button at the bottom front left of the camera I use for all my macro photos. It allows you to focus closer than a few cm, and zooms in very slightly allowing that wide-angle macro view. This is different to super-macro that zooms in significantly more and introduces lots of fringing and unwanted image artifacts.

Picture Styles and the Scroll-Wheel
The scroll-wheel has a raft of eight useful looking options.
iAuto Mode is just a crippled mode for people with no brains and no style.

The P Mode is my go-to mode for all my partial customizable settings. It even has access to picture styles.

I use three or four picture styles. My standard ‘normal’ one is Vivid. Natural and Muted appear no different to me. Reflection is my favourite filter – reflecting the image around the X axis. Dramatic Tone I have used a few times to good effect, but it seems to unfortunately radically degrade the picture quality. Some filters like Keyline and Watercolor just seem horribly implemented and virtually unusable.

A ridgeline trail at the St. Antao, Cape Verde. Taken with Dramatic Tone setting that gives great effects but loses details.

Scene (SCN) gives access to all your favourite (NOT) art filters – exactly the same but without the reflection, fisheye and jumble effects, or the tonal effects. Scene gives the HDR option, the most important picture style of them all (but I tend to forget about it because it’s under SCN. This is also how you access Interval Shooting (which you setup first in Menu | Settings | Interval). Pressing OK is also how you access a raft of other scenes like Wide 1 which has a picture of a fish and is ‘ideal for underwater landscape photos’, vs. Wide 2 which has a picture of dolphins and is ‘ideal for underwater action scenes’. Yes, did you pick up my sarcasm. I’ve barely experimented with these because of the obscure usages or because potentially useful things like Interval Shooting and Live Composite will take too much battery.

Sepia picture style - Euphorbia tuckeyana at the crater of San Antao

Keyline picture style

The absolutely useless Watercolor picture style. Yes this is a picture.

Vintage picture style

Grainy film picture style

Pinhole picture style

 Super macro is really useful, or would be if it didn’t give such atrocious picture quality.

Sport I have never used. The only time I would need it is for a rabbit bursting out of the bush, and then it will take me too long to setup the camera for this. Also this doesn’t have the zoom, picture quality or performance for most sports photography, so it seems a little redundant to me.

Panorama mode is pretty well implemented. Simply set it to auto and start panning. Unfortunately there is no guide keeping you on track. And really unfortunately the resulting picture resolution is so low (as I found out after my trip) that it is essentially useless for printing. That’s right. It’s better to take normal photos then stitch them afterwards using your favourite pirated stitching software. But wait – did I mention there is no way to lock the exposure outside panorama mode!

Panorama showing adequate picture but poor resolution and sky blown out.

Portrait mode I never use. Let’s see... Oh wait – it’s simply a subset of five of the Art photographs!

Movie mode (the back orange button by default) is pretty good and has image stabilization built in as well as impressively allowing HD shooting at 60P. Pity you can’t focus or change the lighting – but it’s a good start. Also there is no external microphone jack, and the sound quality is good, but not great. Especially when there is lots of wind, like most of the time in Cape Verde or the Cape of South Africa.

Build and Build Quality
But back to the virtues of this camera. It feels lovely and solid in the hand. They claim you can drop it from 2m (onto sand). I’ve tested this inadvertently on a few occasions, and it thus far delivers on the promise! A lesser camera would not have survived the drops I have subjected this camera to. The lens is slightly recessed so it has no scratches on it. Lucky because there is no cap or protection for it. It does mean that wiping the screen regularly of dust and gunge becomes a necessity. The lens is also positioned at the top of the camera. Clever – because at the macro distance at which this camera shines, a centred lens would obscure light. It also allows me to turn the camera upside down and get those itsy bitsy subjects at ground level. Pity the screen only flips one direction, so you can’t angle the camera screen to facilitate this.

Waterproof and dustproof. True as Bob, I have put this guy through some serious dust and water tests, and it’s shone nearly every time. I even dared (though I had two weeks of footage on the camera) of swimming out to an islet with the camera. I never dived more than about 3m with the camera, but what I found is that the inside of the camera misted up, and took hours to demist. Was there a tiny leak in the housing, or another explanation? Uncertain, I never took the chance again so it remains from henceforth a terrestrial camera.

The TFT screen is has good resolution (921K pixels) and generally allows me to see whether something is approximately in focus or not. I occasionally really appreciate the flip-screen. Pity this is the weakest point of the camera. Not the hinge of the screen which seems solid, rather that I placed it in my pocket along with my credit-card holder. The plastic was enough to scratch the monitor and totally impair my ability to see that portion of the screen which appears as a misty lens. Unlike most compacts, I don’t find the lack of viewfinder much of a hindrance in bright light, though it definitely could be brighter or less reflective.

Crippled features
So they have some cool features – like night photography. Pity that you can’t use this mode because you can’t manually focus on the stars (and yes, focus is usually poor at night).

LCD screen
One gripe I usually have with cameras is the screen in bright African sunlight. I have to say I didn’t find this on this camera. I found the screen generally usable in all conditions, and of high enough resolution to determine whether focus is adequate (though maybe I also use the sound of focusing for this to an extent). So kudos to Olympus (though I would still like an OLED screen please).

Macro capability
I love and hate the macro on this camera. With its quick on, quick foreground focus and flip screen, a press of the button makes for a quick macro photograph. Is the photo any good though. Below are two photos to highlight the good and bad of the macro mode. A good depth of field at macro is challenging. Can I reduce the depth of field to highlight a particular plant feature? No. Does it deliver high quality pictures. No. They’re bright and delightful, but on closer inspection especially in the corners it is not just lackluster, its downright abhorrent. That means instead of composing my picture properly, I have to place my image subject near the centre of the picture to ensure reasonable sharpness.
Good from far but far from good - picture soft off the centre. (but this is not super-macro which is far worse!)

Here’s what I love about this camera. When all is said and done, and despite all the minor flaws – this camera is great to use. It’s exposure is usually spot on. Focus is super-quick and usually correct too. Sometimes I need to put my hand behind a small subject to get focus lock, then remove my hand, but I think there is not a compact camera out there that can match it for focus accuracy, and few DSLRs would not stumble over similar subjects. What I love is that it PRIORITIZES SUBJECTS IN THE FRONT (take note camera manufacturers). Thank you Olympus for that! Startup is almost instant and because of the quicker focus, it’s quicker to take a photo than my OM-D. I also love that it has the wide-angle perspective on flowers and nature that really allows me to explore my subjects. Throw in the ‘reflection’ filter, and I found myself spending literally hours exploring a graveyard or a plant, and had to be dragged away by myself (like a scene out of Fight Club) to continue. Touring Cape Verde I would frequently find myself loving the solid feel of the camera and whipping it out when I encountered something interesting. I felt like a gunslinger in the wild-west, pointing his (or her :-P) gun at every bottle and taking a shot – though I think my kind of shot is more rewarding!

The led light and flash
I also found the inclusion of a LED light ridiculously useful. The LED light is great for macro footage (except when the subject was really close) and for fill-in flash up close. I frequently leave it on as a default. When I found I had left my headtorch on the Canary Islands, this became my main torch (simply hold down the trigger button to obtain light to setup camp/cook/eat/brush teeth with).
The flash is a bit weak and not great for human subjects, but exposes well up close, even for macro shots (take a lesson, Lumix with your terrible GH-2 flash implementation!). Big kudos here Olympus.
A photo taken with the LED "flash". 

The battery
I found the battery life to be adequate, but not great. Sometimes I’d make the mistake of taking a movie, and within moments the low-battery indicator would flash. Darnit, I’d just killed potential for another 50 images! Fortunately when paired with a separate Powerbank or laptop, I could get several more charges out of the camera without the need for electricity. It was even possible to photograph with the Powerbank connected up.

The cable
Seriously Olympus! When we have cables that are universal like micro-usb, why go and make a slightly different proprietary Olympus cable. Besides the concern of losing my cable, if I leave the cable behind it means I can’t charge the camera on a trip. It’s that serious. It does mean that you don’t need a separate charger, and can use a battery pack unlike the OM-D, but it also means requiring two cables (one for mobile phone, one for camera) instead of one. Flippin’ use a standard micro-usb cable, Olympus!

I found this both fantastic and incredibly frustrating. In general a hot-start would take mere seconds to obtain a fix. I liked that if I took a photo before it had a fix, it would give the photo the previous locality. Not a bad assumption. What miffed me though, is that there was no way to see which satellites it was picking up or where they were. No indicator at all of it’s progress in this regard, except that once it got a fix the flashing GPS would become fixed. Indeed no idea of accuracy either – a fairly standard feature on anything with a GPS. So what about when it didn’t work? Sometimes off a cold start it simply wouldn’t find a GPS – I’m talking waiting for 10 minutes or till the camera automatically turned off. This meant that sometimes I was wasting precious battery life trying to obtain a fix. I recently tried it in the nearby forest, a place where nearly every GPS struggles except my Garmin HCX gps, and no surprises, it didn’t find a fix till I came out into the open. It even has the promise of registering a track while the camera is turned off (don’t forget to save it to access it from the computer). Yet with the track on and the camera off it still seemed to take a while to obtain a fix – though it should have had one. Mystifying!

One handed operation
Clinging from a cliff while photographing a cremnophyte, one-handed operation is sometimes the most difficult yet necessary thing to pull off. This camera does the job admirably. Only problem is that if extending one’s hand to the subject, which is at right-angles to one’s body, one then can’t see the screen. The OM-D flip screen not only folds in to protect the screen, but allows sideways and downwards flipping. It is even possible to access the menus one-handed, as one’s hand grip changes to hold the camera with the index finger alongside the trigger and zoom switch.

Aah, a normal selfie taken with Vintage picture style on. Good easy use of the camera's flip screen.

Aaaaahhhh!!! Extreme photo taken of both Echium vulcanorum  and I clinging to a cliff.

A shot showing the arm in the way. This was taken ascending a treacherous cliff on San Vincente.
This is an expedition camera I want to use for long trips taking hundreds of pictures of plants a day. The OM-D has the right idea with a calendar-like view if you scroll out enough. The Tough just doesn’t. It shows 20 thumbnails at a time, it pauses before scrolling, then scrolls too slowly. Press the trigger button and your hard-earned position 1000 back is magically lost… again.

File Naming
Good thing I read this up on Ken Rockwell’s site otherwise I would have been mighty confused:
“Folders aren't a programmable option, but the file names cleverly begin with the month and date to help keep things straight.
Files are named as PMDD####.jpg.
P means normal sRGB color.
M is the month; the months go 1234567890AB.
DD is the date.
Today is June 17th, so the files I shot today are P617####.jpg.”

For the form factor of being able to slip this into a top pocket (where it fell out of at least twice when I bent over), for the lightweight yet solid feel, for the rapid focus and the almost indestructability, for the excellent macro capability, and the GPS I would highly recommend this camera for expeditions or nature photography.

It loses serious marks for the terrible super-macro picture/lens quality, for the terrible menu functionality (erase issue), the lack of changing the aperture or locking of exposure, manual focusing (even my old 995 had this!), for the poor implementation of filters, particularly low panorama resolution, and for the flip screen that is not scratch proof from even plastic.

+ form factor
+ build quality
+ lightweight
++ flip screen
+ 1 cm macro ability
++ wide angle macro
+ wide angle lens
++ GPS
+ easy one-handed operation
+ quick startup
+ dedicated wide-angle macro button at the front (though you have to set it up)
+ excellent flash implementation
+ love the LED light for fill-in purposes and as a flashlight
+ good video quality

- panorama stitch resolution and implementation
- lens sharpness especially at macro
- no manual focus or focus lock
- no manual setting of exposure or locking of exposure
- poor focus in low-light and at night
- really stupid erase operation
- no focus or light adjustments in video mode
- - proprietary camera cable
- no raw images

In the end I give it a much lauded Rogue Botanist 7/10. For documenting plants, between my OM-D and this, I’d take this any day as I don’t need a separate GPS or to change the lens for macro. It’s just quick and easy. Olympus - It could have been an easy eight with decent software and menu implementation. If you didn’t cripple the camera it could have been a nine. To get that ten would have required a better quality lens and a multi-direction scratch proof flip-screen.

If I could buy only one camera on a limited budget for documenting plants – this would be it! Then again – many smartphones cost the same but have better quality images, a GPS as standard, are more versatile with upgradeble firmware / software, and can be used for a myriad of other purposes. The role of dedicated compact cameras is fast being eroded. You win the Rogue Botanist Award for toughness, but certainly not for IQ. Your cameras got great potential, but it’s time to up your game, Olympus!

A special mention to my sponsor: Hemporium who provide me with hemp t-shirts - the only clothing I trust for comfort and durability on an expedition. Hope you enjoyed the review - I'm off to tackle Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro in four hours. Happy botanizing!

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