No matter how sleek or high-res today's digital cameras are, a surprising number fail when faced with nature's sloppier side. Sand at the beach can wreak havoc with delicate mechanics; even the mysterious lens-fogging that comes after a rainy outing can stymie tiny micro-circuits. In my case, a fall in slushy snow last winter ruined my second digi-camera in as many years.
In such cases, repair is often not an option. Too late, I was told that my warranty considered such seemingly normal use to be unreasonable. Next, as many iPod owners have been chagrined to realize, I discovered the $200-plus cost of a major repair was just about equal to the price of a replacement. It was then that I resolved to find a new camera that was waterproof and rugged enough to take a knock.
Just two point-and-shoot cameras fit the bill. My favorite is Olympus' impressively engineered Stylus 720SW ($370), which can be dunked down to 10 feet for up to an hour and is "drop proof" up to five feet. For about $120 less, you can snorkel down to five feet for as long as 30 minutes with Pentax' Optio W10. Just don't bang it on the coral -- it is not shock-proof. I also tried a one-time-use underwater film camera ($9) from FujiFilm that offers an affordable, if just-adequate alternative.
Watertight models get their advantages thanks to beefier construction and better seals at key junctions. The on-board shooting software is customized for everything from X Games-style action to dinner parties. Action-friendly modes, such as underwater, sport, or snow settings, change exposure and shutter speed to make the best of demanding lighting situations.
To get these rugged features, you'll have to accept some trade-offs. To eliminate an opening in the camera body, both digital units lack a see-through viewfinder. The photo quality can be excellent but doesn't match cameras in this price range designed for great optical quality. And both come at a premium to their hydro-phobic peers. Strip away the watertight features, and you can pick up a similarly capable Olympus Stylus 710 for $150 less. Waterproofing adds weight, too. At 5.3 oz., the Olympus is nearly 50% heavier than its landlocked sibling.
The Olympus' heft comes partly from its body, which is milled from finger-pleasing stainless steel. The case wraps around a 2.5-inch LCD that was plenty visible in all but the brightest sun. The camera shoots up to 7.1 megapixels and includes a helpful automatic sliding lens cover. It has an almost-overwhelming 28 preset shooting modes, including even a "cuisine" setting, presumably optimized to capture that special dish at Cipriani.
Although clad in plastic, Pentax' 6-megapixel Optio W10 weighs a bit more than the Olympus. It has 25 shooting modes, and the interface is easier to navigate than Olympus'. I also prefer the Pentax' ergonomics: a longer body and a big shutter button make it easy to handle even with sweaty fingers.
The lower price means some sacrifice. The W10's plastic body feels more breakable, and its 2.5-inch screen washes out more easily. For a model meant to be at home in sloppy settings, the lack of a lens cover is a problem. One consolation: You can rinse it off.
If you're not ready to take the plunge with one of these digital models, a one-time-use underwater camera can do in a pinch. You need not fear ruining FujiFilm's $9 QuickSnap 800, a chunky plastic-cased unit. Shooting in harshly lit snow fields, the camera delivered rich prints. But if you want to e-mail photos, you'll have to develop and transfer the negatives to a CD, at up to $20 per roll.
All three units offer the peace of mind that they won't fail when the going gets wet. I recommend the Olympus 720SW for its superior ruggedness and design. For two-thirds of the price, Pentax' W10 can go to the same places. But it's less likely to survive one of the all-too-common bumps or bangs of outdoor life.
By Adam Aston