Why rugged cameras are not as rugged as you'd think

If you bought a waterproof camera thinking it'll be indestructible, better read the manual carefully before you use it.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
4 min read

If you've ever read user reviews of rugged or waterproof cameras, you probably wouldn't think they could handle having a glass of water spilled on them, let alone a 33-foot dive in the ocean.

The fact is, however "rugged" a manufacturer says a camera is, whether it can survive such treatment has a lot to do with the user. Maybe too much.

For example, the top-rated Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS is marketed with some of the highest durability claims for a compact camera: waterproof down to 40 feet, shockproof up to a 6.6-foot drop, freezeproof to 14 degrees Fahrenheit, and crushproof up to a weight of 220 pounds. That sounds pretty great and it is, but there's a bunch of fine print that goes with that marketing message.

Buried at the back of the TG-1's operation manual (page 70 of 80 pages) are the specifics for its water and shock resistance. According to the manual, its "waterproof feature is warranted* to operate at depths up to 12m (39.8 feet) for up to 1 hour." The asterisk on "warranted" refers to a footnote on how Olympus arrived at that rating:

As determined by Olympus pressure testing equipment in accordance with IEC Standard Publication 529 IPX8. This means that the camera can be used normally underwater at a specified water pressure.

As it says, the IPX8 code means the camera can survive continuous immersion in water at a depth and for a length of time specified by the manufacturer (39.8 feet for up to 1 hour for the TG-1). That is the limit to its waterproofing -- in a controlled test -- so doing anything else could result in a failure of the protection. This includes things like jumping or diving with it into water or putting it under a running faucet.

And I'm just using the Olympus TG-1 iHS as an example; all rugged compact cameras have these and other limitations. Take your camera to a hot beach and run into the cold surf and your lens may fog internally with condensation. Go from the cold water to the hot beach, you may get the same result.

Not soaking and cleaning the camera within an hour after use, or letting it dry in the sun instead of the shade, or subjecting the camera to heat or cold for an extended time are all things that can damage the seals. Also, the camera manufacturers recommend having the seals replaced yearly to prevent failure. So, even if you think your waterproof camera is good to go anywhere, it might not be.

The same goes for shockproof ratings. Typically, manufacturers do drop tests for shock using MIL-STD-810 methods. If a camera has a shockproof rating of 5 feet, that's a 5-foot drop onto 2-inch plywood. I don't know about you, but I don't spend a lot of time walking around on plywood. Drop your rugged camera on a harder surface and it might not survive. Or even if it does live to shoot again after a drop, the shock can damage the waterproof performance. (Heavy vibration can also cause waterproofing to fail.)

Nikon is one of the most upfront about the rugged limitations of its AW100 camera. Sarah Tew/CNET

According to data I received from independent warranty provider SquareTrade, 10 percent of cameras are broken in the first two to three years, damage caused most commonly by drops, liquids spilled on them, traveling in a bag or suitcase, and rain. About 30 percent were damaged in the home, with other common locations being the beach, on vacation, and boats. These are all things rugged cameras are designed to handle better than a regular point-and-shoot. If you're going to be rough on your camera, you're better off buying a rugged one.

On the other hand, a SquareTrade representative said, "While rugged/waterproof cameras are built to be more sturdy, they, too, have limitations and hence we don't handle these camera claims any differently." That pretty much sums up what I'm getting at: they're tough, but they are not indestructible. And even if you precisely follow their restrictions, you may still end up with a busted camera simply because they are electronics and electronics occasionally fail.

When I test rugged cameras, I test them to see if they'll survive under their specified conditions because that's what they are manufactured to handle. (To a point, at least; I don't have access to a 40-foot-deep body of water.) In the future, I hope to torture-test them to see how much they can actually take, but that wasn't in the cards this year. But again, even if my cameras did survive, it's not a guarantee that the one you buy will.