Q: A couple of weeks ago, you said that most smartphones provide better picture quality than a $300 pocket camera. Is this because camera manufacturers are unable to produce such a camera, or because they are unwilling to do so for that price?
A: It is a bit of both. When you consider that we are comparing a $500 (or more — sometimes much more) smartphone to a $300 camera and factor in the ultracompetitive cellphone marketplace and subsidization from the wireless carriers, it is not surprising that smartphone picture quality is so good. From a materials, technology and manufacturing standpoint, I do believe it is possible to build a $300 camera with picture quality superior to a smartphone, but the market would have to exist to sell the product in large quantities. Smartphones have eliminated this potential market. These days, most people purchasing cameras are buying tough cameras, interchangeable-lens cameras, superzooms and specialty cameras with large sensors and fixed lenses, like the Fujifilm X100F and the Ricoh GRII and GRIII.
The compact Sony RX100 can take better pictures than a smartphone, but it is $368. The reason it is priced so low is because it is a legacy model, first introduced in 2012 for $650. Being in production for seven years has allowed Sony to reduce the price over time. Still, I compare my RX100 pictures and my Google Pixel 2XL pictures and can't see much of a difference. The RX100 has superior functionality with the placement of its buttons, bigger sensor, optical zoom and manual controls, but the Pixel 2XL pictures are gorgeous — even in difficult lighting conditions — and you get all the extra aspects of a smartphone, too. There was a time when people would tolerate smartphone photos as "good enough," but these days, good enough can be pretty darned good. It's no surprise that smartphones have undercut the compact camera market.
If you are going to carry a small camera in addition to your smartphone, why not get a camera that can do things a smartphone can't do and endure conditions that smartphones never could? Tough cameras are often overlooked because they are promoted for use in extreme environments like freezing cold, underwater or places where they will take a physical beating. That is unfortunate because they make good everyday cameras, too.
The class leader and my top recommendation is the Olympus Tough TG-6. You can take this camera 50 feet underwater, and it is freeze-proof, shockproof and crush-proof. In addition to its best-in-class still-picture quality and macro and microscope modes, it can record 4K video and high-speed 1080p video. It is GPS-enabled and has built-in Wi-Fi for transferring images.
The Olympus Tough TG-6 sells for $449. If you need to get closer to that magical $300 price point, an Olympus-certified reconditioned Tough TG-5 is available for $329. The specifications and performance of the TG-5 and TG-6 are practically identical, the main difference being the rear LCD screen, which is much sharper on the TG-6. Some new accessories are available that only work on the TG-6. If you can stretch to $449 for the TG-6 it is worth it, but for $329 the reconditioned TG-5 is a great value. See both at getolympus.com.
Send questions to Don Lindich at email@example.com. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadvicenews.com.