Life's tough, so cameras are getting tougher

Olympus was onto something four years ago when it launched the first in its "Tough" line of cameras.

Consumers have long complained about fragile point-and-shoot cameras breaking after dropping out of a pocket or getting wet. Olympus engineers came up with a camera that was virtually indestructible.

The Tough series now is one of Olympus' best sellers. And in an industry known for imitation, Olympus now has lots of company.

Industry heavyweights Canon and Panasonic this year introduced their own rugged, waterproof cameras. Pentax, which has had a line of waterproof cameras for several years, recently added a "freezeproof" feature to its Optio W60, though it's not shockproof.

"We're flattered," says Andy Flagg, executive director of product marketing for Olympus. "It clearly points to how consumers are looking for more ... from their point and shoots than ever before."

The rugged cameras — known as "toughcams" — are priced substantially higher than the average point and shoot: Olympus' Stylus Tough-8000 and Panasonic's Lumix DMC-TS1 sell for $399, while Canon's PowerShot D10 is $329.

The average point-and-shoot camera sells for $157, according to market tracker IDC.

IDC analyst Chris Chute expects 34 million cameras to be sold in 2009, down from 38 million last year.

Premium cameras are "tough sells" in a recession, he says, "but with market growth for point and shoots stagnating, manufacturers need to look to alternate types of products, similar to what Olympus has been marketing for years."

How the cameras differ:

•Olympus. The top-of-the-line Tough-8000 is waterproof, shockproof, crushproof and freezeproof. The lower-priced Tough-6000 ($299) is shockproof, waterproof and freezeproof.

•Panasonic. The Lumix TS1 is all of the above except for crushproof, and also shoots high-definition 720p video. However, the video is in the alternative AVCHD Lite format, which won't play on PCs or Macs with Windows Media Player or QuickTime Player. The camera comes with a limited software program to put videos on DVDs (where they will be standard-definition unless you have a Blu-ray burner). Another, easier choice: plug the camera directly into the TV and watch video from the source.

•Canon. The PowerShot D10 is waterproof, shockproof, crushproof, freezeproof and shoots video — in standard definition.

"We've had a lot of requests from our customers for a camera like this," says Canon technical adviser Chuck Westfall of the new D10. "They really wanted something for heavy outdoor activities."

Shawn Barnett, a senior editor at the Imaging-Resource photo enthusiast website, says the tough cameras are great for vacations, but there's a trade-off in image quality.

"The best thing about them is that you get the shot even if they get wet," he says. "But if you're a persnickety photographer looking for the best images, these cameras aren't for you."

He says images on the rugged cameras can be distorted in the corners, and that better images are produced from the non-tough point and shoots. The only downside of non-tough cameras: You have to be careful with how you handle them, as they are prone to breakage.

Westfall says that traditional point-and-shoot cameras are becoming more durable. Canon LCD screens now use tougher tempered glass, he says. Still, he wouldn't carry around a pint-sized camera without a case.

"I strongly feel a case is a great way to protect the camera," he says.

So, if you insist on traveling case-less with a camera in your pocket or purse, you'll have to spring for a toughcam. If nothing else, there's always wowing your friends at parties.

"People are caught off guard when they see the camera drop and it still works," Flagg says.