Pentax Optio WG-2|
Sort of like the Subaru of rugged cameras, the Pentax Optio WG-2 impresses, and then some.
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer and Carol Cotton)
Here at ScubaDiverInfo.com we love waterproof cameras, we've been reviewing them for years, and we're glad to see the industry paying increasing attention to this fascinating class of tough, outdoor-oriented cameras that can take a beating in the wild or underwater without breaking or getting flooded. Pentax has a long history of making such cameras as part of its Optio lineup of compact digitcal cameras, starting with the water-resistant WR-Series models (2003), then the WP-Series (2004) and W-Series (2006) of waterproof cameras, and finally the completely redesigned WG-Series. The Optio WG-2 reviewed here is, according to Pentax, their 13th generation of "adventure series digital cameras."
Optio WG-2: A different kind of camera
To understand the WG-2, it probably helps to know the background of Pentax. Going back to right after World War I as a lens maker, and then known as Asahi Optical, the company established itself as a well-known photographic equipment maker in the second half of the 20th century. Having used the "Pentax" brand name since the mid-1950s, Asahi changed its name to Pentax in 2002. In 2007, Pentax became a subsidiary of optical product manufacturer Hoya which, in 2011, sold the Pentax camera business to Ricoh. Ricoh makes its own digital cameras and, for a while, was quite successful with its Caplio compacts. They still have a line of interesting cameras, such as the Ricoh GXR with interchangeable lens modules, but in the US, Ricoh's camera lineup is pretty much limited to the G700 line of rugged data capture cameras geared towards professional applications, cameras with wireless, GPS and even bar code readers (see the most interesting Ricoh G700SE brochure).
Why all this history? Because it may help explain why the Pentax WG-2 is so different from any of its competitors, and even from all earlier generations of waterproof Pentax cameras. We're not privvy to how the WG-Series came about, but given Ricoh's interest and expertise in industrial quality optical gear and equipment, it seems reasonable to see Ricoh's hands in this design. Then again, the WG-2's no-nonsense controls remain virtually identical to even the earliest all-weather Optio compacts.
That all said, whether Ricoh or Pentax designed it, the WG-2 is quite different from anything else on the market. It's playful and overstyled to the max with endless little design features and quirks, sort of like something out of a Transformer movie or a role playing video game with dragons. The WG-2 actually looks like it has scales, its loud in its vermillion-red version, all of its features are printed right onto the body (shockproof, weatherproof, crushproof, coldproof, adventureproof, CMOS, 16MP, etc.), and, by and large, the (often water-shy) reviewing press hasn't been terribly kind to the WG-2. Which is a mistake, but we'll get to that.
What does Pentax offer with the Optio WG-2
Pentax calls the WG models "adventure cameras," and that's what they are. Unlike standard digital cameras and the smartphones that have begun replacing them, the WG-2 won't break if it is dropped, rained on, frozen or even stepped on. In fact, the ruggedness specs are impressive: the camera can survive 5-foot drops, it's coldproof to -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit), and — of the greatest interest to divers — it is waterproof to 40 feet, deeper than any of the competition with their 33 feet limit.
Technical specs are equally impressive. This is a 16-megapixel camera with a 5X optical zoom that starts wide at 28mm and goes up to 140mm (35mm equivalence). It has 88MB of internal storage, which means there's room for a few pictures even if the SD storage card is full (or if you forget to put a card in), and the WG-2 can take full 1080p (1920 x 1080 pixel) HD video, at full 30 frames per second speed. The bright 3-inch display has a contemporary wide-format aspect ratio unlike most of the competition that still uses the old 4:3 format. Quite impressive, all.
In terms of size and weight, the WG-2 measures 4.8 x 2.45 inches, is 1.2 inches thick, and weighs 6.8 ounces, including battery and memory card. That actually makes it quite handy. The wide format is a bit unusual at first, but the camera body is very grippy and it's easy to hold and operate.
Features: plenty enough
Camera manufacturers need to differentiate themselves from, and at the same time keeping up with, the competition. Which over the past several years has led to including numerous operating modes, tricks like face recognition, numerous in-camera edition functions, filters, effects, etc. The Optio WG-2 has all that, in addition to technological advances like its very good 3-inch LCD display, the inclusion of 1080p HD video, and that nice 5X optical zoom.
What the WG-2 doesn't have is GPS. GPS can come in handy to add location info (latitude, longitude and elevation) to still images and movies, but for that you'd need to get the Optio WG-2 GPS that costs US$50 more and comes in shiny orange or gloss white instead of the non-GPS version's black or vermillion red. Also missing is optical image stabilization.
In terms of shooting modes, the camera's Automatic setting intelligently selects from :
In addition, there are all these menu-selectable modes:
- Portrait (standard, blue sky, sunset, backlight, night scene)
- Night Scene
- Blue Sky
- Group Photo
- Program (you can select flash mode and resolution)
- Night Scene
- Handheld Night Snap
- Underwater (special underwater white balance)
- Underwater Movie (special underwater white balance)
- Digital Microscope (2mp pics as close as 0.4 inches, with auto LED lights)
- Interval Shot (10 second to 99 minute)
- Interval Movie (records a movie from interval pics)
- High Speed Movie
- Digital SR (digital image stabilization via higher speed and sensitivity)
- Surf & Snow
- Night Scene Portrait
- Digital Wide (stitches two 3mp pics together for a wide-view)
- Digital Panorama (stitches three pics into a panorama)
- Frame Composite (you can add frames)
- Report (1280 x 960 pics for reports)
Underwater color is especially tricky and it comes in handy to set white balance manually; that is not available on the WG-2. The competition generally offers that.
Almost all digital cameras used to have CCD sensors. Now almost all have switched to CMOS sensors, and that has opened up the way to advanced video capabilities. The WG-2 can not only record in full 1080p HD video at a full 30 frames per second, it can also record at 60 fps in 720p HD mode, and at 120 fps in VGA mode.
There is no full manual control, but in Program and some of the other modes you have control over exposure compensation, metering, ISO, contrast, white balance, color tones, continuous shooting, and manual focus. The very complete printed user manual has a table that shows control over what functions are available for each mode.
The WG-2 has some totally unique features as well: even with power off, push the OK button and the WG-2 becomes a clock, complete with date, time, and an analog clock face. Need a nightlight or low-power flashlight? Just push the green button on the WG-2 and the six LEDs light up. The LEDs also come in handy when in the camera's "digital microscope" mode where you can go as close as 0.4 inches. My cat volunteered as a close-up model. Below is his nose.
The WG-2's 3.0-inch LCD is pretty much standard size these days, but not its wide aspect ratio format that makes perfect sense in a world of HD TVs and wide format computer displays. It is also very sharp and has a very wide viewing angle in any direction as well as special anti-reflective and scratch-resistant coating.
Design and controls
As far as design goes, the Optio WG-2 is in a class of one. There is nothing like it. But once you get past the over-the-top dragon scale styling and numerous labels, it all works amazingly well. The 5X optical zoom is completely internal and doesn't protrude at all. There's a very sturdy metal strap lug for the included metal carabiner hook. The two waterproof doors (one for battery/SD card, one for the I/O ports) both have positive action, spring-loaded levers to make accidental opening of the doors impossible.
The button controls are a bit of a mixed blessing. They use the standard digital camera layout (and in a form that makes them familiar to users of pretty much every prior Optio), but given that this is a tough waterproof camera, we'd have liked to see larger, grippier buttons.
The back features the very nice wide-format 3.0-inch LCD, a small zoom rocker, and playback and menu buttons. There is also a five-way navigation arrangement, with the "OK" button in the middle, and four directional buttons each of which also brings up one of the common screen menus. The WG-2 also has a "green" button that quickly lets you revert to basic shooting mode, and a face detection button that cycles through a variety of face detection modes.
We initially missed a separate video button as most of the competition has, but quickly got used to selecting modes via menu.
On the bottom, the plastic-threaded tripod mount is all the way to one side; we'd rather have seen it centered.
The Optio WG-2 uses a 925 mAh, 3.7V Li-Ion Pentax D-LI92 battery. A full charge is good for about 260 pictures, 70 minutes of movie recording, or four hours of playback, though that depends on how often you use the LCD. Replacement batteries are inexpensive and widely available, so I'd get a spare or two. The WG-2 comes with an external charger for the battery with a six-foot power cord.
Pentax Optio WG-2 in the Sea of Cortez
Thanks to Pentax's cooperative PR team, we had a chance to take an Optio WG-2 along on a 7-day dive and exploration trip through the Midriff islands of the Sea of Cortez aboard the good ship Rocio Del Mar. We felt that was a great way to see how well the WG-2 performs under the often trying circumstances on a scuba diver live-aboard. Below is the 110-foot Rocio Del Mar, our home for an awesome week of diving , snorkeling and photography. Note that all pictures in this review (except for the ones with the Optio in it) were taken with the WG-2.
The Pentax Optio WG-2 turned out to be a handy and very popular companion for this type of salty, wet and occasionally wild exploring. We used the WG-2 as it was intended to be used, in the sand, on beaches, swimming, snorkeling, and for diving.
The Sea of Cortez itself (which the Mexican government officially renamed the Gulf of California) is about 800 miles long, between 30 and 150 miles wide, and has an average depth of almost 2,700 feet. Also known as the Islas Grandes, the eleven Midriff islands are located in the upper third of the Sea of Cortez. All are uninhabited and there's a haunting, stark beauty to them.
Due to currents, diving was off inflatables. So it was a good thing that the WG-2 is completely waterproof. Now here's an interesting twist: most tough, waterproof cameras are rated for a maximum depth of 33 feet (10 meters). That is just borderline for actual scuba diving as most dives are deeper. The Optio WG-2, however, is rated 40 feet (12 meters), and that extra depth can make a big difference. We actually had the Optio down to 50 feet (see picture of dive computer display in the sidebar) and the WG-2 never missed a beat and functioned perfectly.
We swam and snorkeled with them in the Bahia de los Angeles, a coastal bay on the eastern shore of Baja California. The almost fully enclosed bay is part of a biosphere reserve, and we came here to see whale sharks. Whale sharks are filter feeders and the largest living fish on the planet. They can be over 40 feet in length, weigh almost 40 tons, and go back some 60 million years. They pose no danger to divers and snorkelers, and they can be observed as they are slow swimmers. The picture below was taken with the Optio WG-2, and we also took WG-2 1080p HD video of the whale sharks.
The WG-2 was also perfect to get close to some of the many sea lion colonies we encountered. The pups are friendly and playful, but you have to watch out for the big males.
Taking pictures underwater is very different from taking pictures on dry land. Underwater you don't have time to agonize over settings, study manuals, or spend a lot of time trying to figure things out. Taking pictures must be easy and intuitive, and the Optio WG-2 got that job done. It was easy to switch between normal and macro modes, it was easy to set the flash, and the Pentax quickly locked on with a green rectangle, ready to shoot. We didn't have very clear water on this trip, and there was plenty of krill, so we couldn't take any of those luscious blue lagoon shots.
Below is the computer log of a dive with the Pentax WG-2. For the most part of the one-hour dive we photographed at 30-40 feet. We hit 50 feet on a couple occasions and the Optio WG-2 easily handled that. One thing we noticed was a faint horizontal line in the center of the LCD at depth. It lessened in length as we ascended, so it's likely a pressure issue.
How well did Pentax hit the mark with the WG-2?
Given Pentax's many years of experience with rugged/waterproof digital cameras, how well did the Optio WG-2 hit the mark?
On the plus side...
- A real dive camera. With a class-leading 40-feet depth limit, you can take the Optio WG-2 on many real dives. By "real" I mean you can take it on actual scuba dives; it isn't limited to just snorkeling. A lot of dives are deeper, of course, but a good number are well within the reach of this Optio; it's not just for shallow reefs.
- Truly tough. The WG-2 can handle 5-foot drops. Though no one means to drop a camera, it happens, and especially out there in the field. It's good to know the WG-2 can handle it. We also like the wide operating temperature range, which is likely even wider than Pentax specifies as I'm pretty sure it can take pictures past its 104 degree Fahrenheit maximum. The Optio is also crushproof (we didn't put that to the test).
- Folding 5X zoom. You don't really need zoom underwater, but above water a full 5x optical zoom is just so much nicer than only a standard 3x. It is also very helpful, both on land and underwater, that the zoom starts wide at 28mm, which comes in handy in cramped spaces.
- Quality pictures. Some of our esteemed competition complained about the WG's picture quality, especially at higher ISO sensitivity levels. We actually found the WG-2 to have consistently very good picture quality, with very life-like colors and hues, good contrast, and very good sharpness. This extended to underwater shooting where the WG-2 did very well even in marginal visibility.
- HD video and video modes. The WG-2 can shoot in full 1080p 30fps video, as well as 720p at 60fps. The high-speed (120fps) slow motion mode is also fun, though limited to VGA (640 x 480).
- Bright LCD. The very bright 3.0-inch hi-res wide-format display with its anti-reflection and scratch-resistant coatings and wide viewing angle is a good choice for an outdoor and underwater camera.
- Build quality. The WG-2 is light, but it feels remarkably tough and sturdy.
- Underwater shooting modes. The camera has underwater still and video modes that correct color in underwater conditions.
- Quick and handy. The camera locks onto subjects very quickly. This is important underwater where things (and the diver) tend to move around a lot. Switching between normal and macro modes was quick and easy, and so was switching between flash modes.
Things we weren't so crazy about...
- Small buttons. The good news is that all buttons are in a very standard layout, and also a layout already familiar to past Optio users. But for an outdoor/underwater camera, the buttons are very small.
- Image stabilization. Optical image stabilization is pretty much standard in this class, but the WG-2 only has digital stabilization. It's no real big deal, but it'd definitely be nice to have.
- Features choice. The WG-2 is brimming with functions, but considering that it's a tough outdoors camera, we'd expect functions to match, not the same playful lineup you'd find in every consumer digicams. For example, while the camera can go deeper than the competition, it has only a single underwater mode for stills and one for video, and no way to adjust underwater white balance. We'd like to see features that better match the tough outdoors nature of this camera.
- We did notice a slight softness in 1080p video, especially underwater. And we did miss a dedicated video button, though we quickly got used to mode selection via menu
- No housing available. For deeper dives, some of the competition offers an optional deepwater case. None is available for the WG-2 from Pentax.
- Styling.... It'd be interesting to know where the somewhat weird dragon scale design with all of its design elements and labels came from, or why the menus of this otherwise so tough camera look so whimsically playful.
Bottom line: Pentax Optio WG-2
The Optio WG-2 is the latest in a long line of waterproof/rugged cameras from Pentax. This niche has now become almost mainstream with offerings by Canon, Nikon, Panasonic, Fujifilm and a number of specialty manufacturers. The uniquely styled camera is pretty much as tough as it gets and well equipped to handle whatever abuse it may encounter outdoors. It can be used in freezing weather (down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit), it is dust, crush and waterproof, and it can handle being dropped from up to five feet.
Divers can take it down to 40 feet of depth (and it worked at 50 feet in our tests), enough for many scuba adventures. The camera was very easy to operate and locked on quicker than most. We were impressed by color accuracy, vibrance, and sharpness.
720p and 1080p high definition video modes, at full 30fps speed, greatly add to the usefulness of this camera, but we'd like to see more underwater modes and also manual underwater white balance settings and adjustments.
The WG-2 has a bright and vibrant wide-format 3.0-inch LCD display with anti-reflection and scratch-resistant treatment. The camera's controls are simple and logical, but a bit small. The 28-140mm equivalent 5X optical zoom works great underwater where wide angle shooting is almost mandatory. We missed optical lens stabilization.
The list price of US$349 is relatively high, especially since this version does not include GPS, but still in line with the rugged/waterproof competition.
Overall, the Optio WG-2 seemed quirky at first with its unusual styling and shape, but quickly made friends with its very good image quality, easy handling, and ability to go deeper than virtually all other waterproof cameras. In the end, we came to view it as the Subaru of tough cameras, like those somewhat quirky all-wheel-drive cars with superior handling and performance, and a dedicated and growing number of fans.
- Great tough camera: waterproof, dustproof, crushproof, can shoot in freezing weather
- Grippy, and easy to handle underwater
- 720p and 1080p HD video
- Bright, high-res anti-reflective wide-format 3.0-inch wide viewing-angle LCD
- Can go deeper than the competition (40 feet, worked at 50 in our tests)
- Good picture quality
- 5X optical zoom that starts wide
- Very good and comprehensive printed manual
Not so much:
See the Pentax Optio WG-2 web page.
- Controls a bit small
- No dedicated video button
- Busy styling
- Feature set somewhat playful for a tough outdoor camera
- No underwater manual white balance or adjustments
- No optional deepwater housing