Small Sensor Joy: Olympus Tough TG-5 By Dirk Dom

Small Sensor Joy: Olympus Tough TG-5

By Dirk Dom

My main reason for writing this article is to show you can make real nice photographs without going for Full Frame or bigger sensors. Learn to use your camera no matter what it is, discover its strong points and weaknesses and go for it!!


About three years ago I discovered the TransAmerica Bicycling Trail. Cycling about 4,000 miles from East Coast to West Coast or vice versa. I bought the maps, read lots of blogs, got info. A year ago I started serious training, walking and cycling. I was ready to do it in 2019, but I need some more money to have financial security during the trip. So it’s going to be 2020. This Spring I’m cycling from Benidorm, Spain, to Antwerp, Belgium as a rehearsal.

Last cycling trip in France I had the Hasselblad Xpan with me. Very nice camera, and I’d love to take it! But the Xpan, which I bought for €450, now costs about €2,500. If I lose it, I can’t really replace it. On that trip I carried it all the time. I forgot it in a restaurant three times! Keeping constant watch over it was real stressing.

But the shots…

Film on a long bicycle trip…

The Xpan shoots 20 shots a roll. The TransAm is about a hundred days. 20 shots a day: A hundred rolls is a lot of volume (about a gallon) and weighs seven pounds. Impossible!

I have an Olympus PEN F from 1963. Small, 72 shots a roll, great lenses. But that camera is quite delicate if I have to believe the Net. 4.000 miles of bumps and potholes!

So, although I’ve been shooting nothing but film for five years, I needed to go digital: I had to be realistic.

Enter: Olympus tough TG-5: Shockproof to 6 feet drops, waterproof to 45 feet, 12 megapix, 4.5 to 18mm lens, f/2 to f/4.9, equivalent to 25-100mm full frame. Half a pound, about 4 inches long. 20,000 JPEGS on a 128 gig card.

It was an extremely difficult decision for me, I want to shoot Kodak Ektar and Tmax 400 and I had had two previous bad experiences with point and shoots: One many years ago, when there was a lag of a second between pressing the shutter and the shot which made photographing impossible, and about five years ago: That camera had spectacular image quality, but no possibilities of making changes to the default settings but to delve into the menu and every time I switched it off it was back at default!

The Olympus Tough is somewhat expensive, about 430 Euro’s, but I found one used for €200. (see it at Amazon HERE)

The last three months I’ve been taking it everywhere. I rarely get out without it around my neck. It took me about three weeks of daily shooting to get to know it and now I enjoy it enormously.

What can’t you do with it?

Shots like this: (6×6, Kodak Ektar, 180mm wide open)

DOF cutting off sharply in front and behind the subject and unbelievable bokeh: That’s medium format! Well, with a 4.5 to 18mm lens you can forget about that: DOF is like from super duper wide to super wide FF lenses.

What also can’t you do with it?

This is a conversion from a 6×17 Velvia slide to black and white + extensive burning and dodging. For this you need 16 bits per channel. See the person, left from the fence? On your screen you probably cannot see all the nuances in grey tones.

And, what also can’t you do with it?

Sigh. Getting depressed!!!

My lifelong passion is photographing flowers, the last couple years with extremely shallow DOF, in fact nothing but bokeh. That would have to change, the DOF stuff I mean!

But I had been shooting a lot with super wide lenses. With infinite DOF you can have a lot of fun!

And, of course no shots of the ISS with 6,000 millimeter setting!

Well now, the TG-5!

There is no full manual setting. You can put it at aperture priority if you want: f/2, f/2.8, f/8. That’s it! I set it at AUTO ISO 100-200 as I’d rather have motion blur than noise, 5 images a second as the shutter is a bit on the heavy side and pressing it often causes incorrect composition the first shot, the second shot is then O.K. Drawback is that if I’m really concentrated I forget to release the shutter and I get 20 shots. Ah, well, it’s digital!

All this stuff on continuous is good for manufacturers: You realize of course that a pro camera like that latest Olympus with 400.000 shots shutter time life, at 20 frames per second, burns through its shutter after five and a half hours continuous shooting? The little Tough certainly doesn’t do 400,000 releases!!! So it ‘ll last me a year or two.

All sounds off, color vivid, JPEG only. Autofocus center. WB not on AUTO. Sharpening and stabilization I left at factory setting. Flash off. Image ratio 4/3.

Here’s some shots.


Here, I of course thought: “Wish I had my Fuji 617 with me!”

Yeah, right!! I’ve been going on that mountain for twenty years and twice I took the Big Fuji.  The little Tough did well. Of course I wanted to work the orange sky and the clouds but I immediately got weird stuff. Can’t do with JPEG what I do to a 48 bit TIF scanned from film.

Golden Light. 


Macro capabilities.

Are astounding. DOF separation is quite possible. You have full zoom capabilities. Normal Program setting goes to about 8 inches, then you have to switch over to “Microscope”. Then I can shoot flowers ¼ inch big, image filling with sufficient DOF, so that the shots are actually usable: This is not possible with APS or FF. There is an even closer microscope setting which I haven’t used: There really is no limit.

My first macro shot with the Tough.

At 18mm, in deep shade. It refused to focus, then I discovered the microscope setting. The Violets are ½ inch big. Any complaints?

I began to appreciate this little camera!

A bit nicer?


Against the light the camera, if you point it carefully, gives totally crazy Sun spots. Love it!

No real burn out

As good as my Olympus PEN EP-5!

Playing with golden light and DOF in December.

Some fun stuff:

Tennis ball.

Restaurant Chairs.

At night:

O.K., handheld for static objects due to image stab if not too crazily dark. I limited it to 200 ASA, I think you can increase sensitivity. With a tripod it’d be great!

My shadow. Weatherproof camera

Why not just induce motion blur?

At home, I started to walk Antwerp: I had a blast!

Weather was real dark, I measured the light: December, 2PM in Antwerp often 2% of the light intensity of December, 2PM, Costa Blanca! Still most of the time light with great colors.

5FPS makes composition easy:

Etc, etc.

Well, what’s my verdict?

Technically, the camera is so good the images can easily be enlarged to 24 inches!

I make no lesser shots with it. All cameras have limitations. Those are my responsibility to work with. I don’t feel bad at all when I can’t take a certain shot. The large DOF can be used for fantastic stuff: With super wide lenses and full frame finding a background with good composition or not too crazy is difficult. Here the background sharpness problem is still there but very manageable.  Spontaneity is great! I search and compose like I would with my other cameras. I have the Tough with me all the time.

Some final remarks:

HDR setting is great. You can’t set anything manual. During the day it’s sort of flat which I thought great: Like a black and white negative full of grey tones, but JPEG makes serious processing impossible. When it gets darker HDR sort of switches to deep colors. It goes to serious high ISO’s, I don’t see any noise, so handheld at dusk it’s a good option. It takes three or four images in extremely fast succession.

HDR from very deep shade to light.

HDR of flying birds.

The night settings are also great. You need a tripod.

It makes a “dark” first, photographing only the sensor noise. Four seconds later it exposes and substracts the noise from the image. I cannot say anything but that it’s perfect! No settings possible. Each exposure varies, max 4 seconds each. It keeps on exposing until you stop it. You see the subsequent exposures of it gathering light at 4 second intervals on screen.

I shoot a lot at ground level or upwards, even vertical from ground level. Straight into the Sun you can’t see the screen. A help is moving the camera slowly while pressing the shutter, five images a second will almost always give you one good composition!

Panoramas work very well, move in-between points fast and sure or the camera gets confused. Compose & straighten after in Photoshop. Always three shots. No manual settings.

Shock proof: 

Oh, yes!

My mom dropped the camera twice and I squeezed it between a very rough stone wall and me climbing it. I banged it countless times against the frame of my bicycle. I took shots burying it half in the beach. Greasy: Dishwasher detergent!

About 400 shots on a battery load.

Well, this is what you get from a sensor ¼ inch longest side!!!




  1. Dirk – I always enjoy your articles and absolutely live your style, use of colour and composition, framing – heck – everything.
    And I love the way your photos are delightful to look at and make
    Me smile when I see them – so recognisable .
    Your witty and informative style of writing is also excellent.

    And I love the fact that you can use a travel camera like this to wipe the floor with most of the Leica and Mirrorless tasteless snaps and pretentious rubbish usually on display by Gear Heads and pixel peepers – you know photography and use the light beautifully and I only wish I could have your talent

    • Whew, Ibraar!
      What a nice comment to get!

      Indeed, my passion is photography and I try to pass that on. There is no reason at all to buy an extremely expensive camera to make good photographs and that is what I want to pass on most. I went through my gear head stage, had about 70 lenses and met photographers who said: “You have far too many lenses!” and was irritated by that. What you need is an eye for composition, light and know what you can do with the camera.

      Lucky shots: Yes, they exist but you in fact generate them by being ready. I check my camera settings (manual cameras) about once a minute for what might be coming. Going to places you know and patience are so, so important.

      The 12 megapix of the Tough: Oh, yes, I’m also tempted owning a 50 megapix tool, but my first show I hung 40 inch photos from a 10 megapix camera, and people asked me how come they were so sharp!

      If I had a Hass X1D or such I’d just take the same shots, but I’d be limited to what the lenses can do. And I wouldn’t dare taking it on walks in “bad” neighborhoods.

      Thanks again,


  2. Amazing pictures Dirk.
    I have been taking pictures from 13 years of age but never made such nice pictures. I have the equipment (Rolleicord 6×6 for instance, Sony nex 6, Panasonic Lumix TZ I broke it). So I have a question. Can I come to Antwerp one day and walk with you while you take pictures? Or you come to Amsterdam? Groeten

  3. Sealife dc2000 has 1″ Sony sensor with 20mp and full manual control with RAW and is waterproof plus has optional dive outer case

  4. The TG-5 is great for snorkelling. I find that Raw gives better results than JPEG as you can tweak the White Balance to taste in post processing and the dehaze slider in Lightroom can really work some magic on photos taken in less than perfect visibility.

  5. Beautiful photos
    I love this kind of camera. The concept and the object itself to carry everywhere.
    I had a Nikon 35AWD for many years till it stopped working. Recently I bought a Fuji HDM for five euros. Both with a fantastic lens.
    Digitals are always limited by sensor capability. Or you go to a Leica X-U to get an hybrid of quality and adventure for a good price. Actually none of both: like diving with suit, tie and spectacles.

  6. Maybe Olympus should make a 1″ sensor version of their TG-5 Camera? I would be happy with a 1″ 16 Mpixel sensor and the ability to shoot RAW. The 20 Mpixel sensor in Sony RX100 would not hurt either. What do you guys Think. Is there a market for a deluxe tough camera with bright optics, like F1.7 ?

    • Hi,

      I’d immediately pay $2,000 or even more for a Tough camera with micro four thirds sensor, equivalent zoom 25-140mm, but 25-100mm would be perfect with tele attachment like Tough. Great macro, same concept as TG-5 (no zoom screwing out, hardened glass front, all aluminum etc). Image quality good enough for a fine 24 inch print which you can even crop a bit. It will be bigger than TG-5, of course, I don’t care much, I’ve een lugging five pound cameras for many miles. Let’s say max 2 – 2 1/2 pounds.

      And a really good service, so that seals can be replaced at standard cost and with quick turnaround before a serious trip!


      oh yes, and, Red!!!

      A digital Hasselblad Xpan Tough TG-5? Or a Nikonos V Tough TG-5? With 16 bits per channel? No need for 120 feet pressure resistance, 30 feet is enough.

      what interests me is real toughness

      • Nothing beats old Nikonos for toughness. Alas Nikon with such unique experience had a halfhearted try with Nikon AW1, good concept bad execution: bad waterproofing, bad ergonomics, bad sensor. Newest 1″ stacked from Sony would do wonders. Maybe FF mirrorless Nikonos?

        • I have an aw-1 and still using it frequently. I reckon the sensor image quality is plenty good and is miles ahead of the runty 1/2.3 sensors in all the tough cams. The af is fast and subject tracking is amazing. Lack of IS in body or lens is very limiting for stills and video especially. Should have made it with a fixed wide zoom totally encased and have only one properly locked and seriously gasketed door for battery and card.
          Hope Olympus will make the leap to the next sensor level soon …

  7. Very nice pictures. So true that a photographer makes any camera great. You are very accomplished in that regard. I never owned an Olympus TG camera but it has always been on my radar having owned the Olympus OMD EM 1 Mark 1 and 2 and Pen EP 5 but I never followed through. I doubt I would get the results you did. Anyway thanks for a great write up on a great little camera. Good luck on your upcoming bicycle trips.

  8. Yeah, the TG-5 is a great pocket camera for those places that would kill a better camera. The macro mode (“microscope mode”) is the best I’ve used on any compact — Olympus is also a microscope company, after all. Yes, the sensor is only a bit larger than a smartphone sensor, but you have a true optical zoom and a lens actually made of glass, not plastic. The f/8 setting is via an internal ND filter, it does not give deep into diffraction. I’d love to see them make a TG-6 with a 1″ sensor … otherwise, this camera is about perfect for it’s intended use. Fantastic shots, by the way!

  9. You’re so good, doesn’t matter which camera you’re using, your article only proves that it’s the person behind the camera that matters. Awesome pictures.

  10. Nice article, thanks for taking the time to write it. Ok…I have to address the elephant in the room….if this is all about portability and convenience then why even waste your money on this camera at all? I’m positive my new Mate 20 Pro cell phone would give it a run for it’s money and it’s always in my pocket, and smaller then this Olympus while having a bigger sensor.

    • My son has an expensive (over $1,000) smartphone, with I think a 16 MP camera in it. It’s astounding. In San Francisco on my first evening we walked to the beach to see the sunset, didn’t take my Mamiya C330, too much bother. Of course an incredible Sunset. Thought: “No big deal, will get it tomorrow!”. Next three weeks totally boring sunsets. My son’s picture was fantastic, I dare commit heresy: Sort of rivaling my 6×6, heh, heh! Of course if I had brought my camera!


    • The benefits of using a TG Tough are that it is tough, waterproof and you won’t be worrying about preserving battery power to make phone calls. Mobile phone screens are not that forgiving if you drop them repeatedly. I recently took a “waterproof” camera into the Blue Lagoon, in Iceland. Well, guess what? It wasn’t completely waterproof. The good thing was it was my spare phone and the SD card was salvagable, but the phone is dead.

      • My Mate 20 pro is completely waterproof. I know because I dropped it in the toilet the first day I got it when I was using the flashlight due to a power outage lol. I pulled it out of the toilet and washed it in the sink for another 2 mins and it never skipped a beat. I get a day and a half with the battery, which is more then I can say for my Leica SL.

  11. Hi!
    I am glad you like the TG-5. Here are some tips. I have an earlier model and have used it quite a lot. I tried using my Capture One Pro 10 Raw-converter to make some adjustments to my jpegs but I had problems with that. I actually use Luminar instead since I feel it protects the highlights better in jpegs if I alter the exposure.
    Also, I noticed that moisture had crept inside the camera after a long swim and the culprit was the seal in the battery door. It is well worth checking it from time to time to ensure that the seal is clean from sand and salt, and that is not dried out.
    I like your pictures and compositions! I would also like to point out that a small polarizing filter can make for some stunning pictures! There is no way to attach one but I hold it in front of the lens, it’s just big enough to fit outside the chrome ring around the lens. Looking forward to see more from your biking adventure!
    The Macro/Microscope mode is indeed fantastic!

  12. I’ve bought the TG-4 the week it came out as it was the first waterproof camera with RAW capabilities. I’m assuming the TG-5 has the same ability? The RAW makes post processing a breeze for an “action cam”.

    You’re 100% right though. The camera has some limitations. The macro / microscope mode is incredible though. Absolutely astounding to come out of what appears to be a mid-range point and shoot.

    Yes, you can shoot underwater, and the camera has dedicated settings for this (not that I’ve tried those). I’ve used it on countless canoeing / kayaking / rafting trips.
    There are also a bunch of accessories for it. Stackable lenses are the expensive ones, but there’s also a light ring for macro stuff.

  13. Extremely disappointed by this camera. Overall poor picture quality and lousy battery life. Overpriced. I get better jpeg with my oneplus 5 phone. The main reason I got this camera was for weatherproofing and reading some of the reviews. Ridiculous that you can’t adjust speed. Try to take a photo of a moving object and it will be blurred

  14. The article is quite nice, yet it seems to overlook the relevant fact that the TG5 generates also raw files. And yes you can dive 15 meters down and take wonderful pictures, especially close-ups of small creatures. The flash helps rendering the true colors and the micro setting works also underwater. Overall it is a small wonder, but the sensor is size is really small. When the files are compared with those produced by a full frame camera, the limitations of this camera become immediately apparent. In my experience the best compromise between portability and image quality is given by Sony RX100.

  15. It’s a good camera in many ways, but when you zoom in the quality turns to 20 dollar phone level! As a rugged gopro alternative with a few photo tricks up it’s sleeve it is quite good. But just treat it as a prime lens unless doing macro. Biggest problem for me is what I paid for it!

  16. A wonderful set of photos, that are interesting, detailed and beautiful colors.
    The joy of carrying a camera everywhere, on the beach(Leica M6 stay home!), in rain, snow and ice.
    All your images are strong. May you do well using it in bike marathon!
    I started using P+S 10 years ago after a heart excitement.Income suddenly stopped till at first unemployment and then to retirement..
    A few pro jobs (no payment to me) had me entranced with small cameras..
    Travel to family in South Africa, without film, became a joy.
    No film costs, no processing, safe duplicates on daughter’s drives.
    To those of you believing that full frame big rigs are only answer, think again.

  17. Good article with lots of photos to illustrate topics. I’m curious why you mention the limitations of jpeg several times, but you make no mention of this camera’s ability to capture raw images. You can also configure the camera to capture raw + jpeg. Did you experiment with raw images?

  18. Just be careful with it. I dropped my TG1 onto dirt one time, cracked the case without knowing and then flooded it. My TG5 fell from my pocket as I was standing up, no more than 2 feet of falling and it cracked the case on that one. Shockproof maybe, but not from falling. Also there’s no way I get 400 pictures on a charge. I do keep GPS tagging on. GPS logging is an option, but eats your battery in a few hours.

  19. Great post and pics. If it’s waterproof to 45ft can you take pictures underwater with this camera without a underwater case?

    • Yes mate, You can drop it straight into water without worry. I took mine to Kenya, it took on the Indian ocean without any issues. Still going strong. I live my TG-5 great for a walkabout camera, films 4k, 1080p slow motion, 20fps burst mode, microscope mode. It’s a beast of a camera!

    • Yes… I have the TG3 and TG5. I brought mine snorkeling in the Bahamas last December. They both work very well under water without an added case.

    • I have had a TG3 which I gave to my son, and now a TG4. While they are rated to around 45 feet, I would only use them for snorkeling, not diving. I believe there is an underwater mode for adjusting white balance. I use mine when I kayak. This included a 5 day wilderness trip in Glacier Bay, Alaska. Took many beautiful photos there which made great 8X10 prints. I often rinse it thoroughly in a pot of water to clean it. Don’t recall if the author mentioned this, but it shoots RAW. The newer TG5 has reduced megapixels for better low light performance. Overall it is a great camera where you would be reluctant to bring a nicer camera, and where size and weight matter.

    • I’ve bought the TG-4 the week it came out as it was the first waterproof camera with RAW capabilities. I’m assuming the TG-5 has the same ability? The RAW makes post processing a breeze for an “action cam”.

      You’re 100% right though. The camera has some limitations. The macro / microscope mode is incredible though. Absolutely astounding to come out of what appears to be a mid-range point and shoot.

      Yes, you can shoot underwater, and the camera has dedicated settings for this (not that I’ve tried those). I’ve used it on countless canoeing / kayaking / rafting trips.
      There are also a bunch of accessories for it. Stackable lenses are the expensive ones, but there’s also a light ring for macro stuff.

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