Washington State's Pacific coastal beaches are quite the contrast to what you usually find around Puget Sound near Seattle. The pebbles, barnacled rocks and copious sickly sea foam give way to pillow-soft sand, waves you can surf and mountainous, craggy rock formations that make for an otherworldly visual experience. As a local, I'll admit that I love both varieties. But despite how picturesque a trip to the beach can be, I absolutely hate going with a camera in tow. Sand can kill.

Even brief exposure to sand and saltwater can make for a deadly combination for just about any electronic device, so in planning for a three-day, two-night camping trip to Washington's Second Beach in La Push, I had basically written off any possibility that I'd bring a camera along. Then, I remembered we had the Olympus Tough TG-5.1

The first leg of the journey was a ferry across Puget Sound to get us closer to the ocean.

And in considering the TG-5, I was reminded of a well-worn saying; 'it's not the camera, it's the photographer.' I happen to think there's an awful lot of truth in that, but even so, as a nerd as well as a photographer, there are usually lines in the sand (apologies) I don't cross. One of them is using a dedicated camera with a smartphone camera-sized sensor.

There are usually lines in the sand I don't cross.

But then again, my smartphone isn't rugged or waterproof, and doesn't have an optical zoom. Adding to that, the TG-5 offers Raw capture, GPS logging, good external controls, a more powerful flash and a crazy good macro mode. With the Tough, you've got a pretty compelling, compact package without the hassle of endless smartphone apps, clunky waterproof cases and fiddly lens attachments.

The TG-5's 'microscope' mode sounds a little goofy, but it results in very good macro performance. And check out that background blur despite the small sensor!

Besides, I still find some satisfaction in using a dedicated camera as opposed to a smartphone for even casual photography. So, was the TG-5 the absolute perfect camera for this trip? Turns out, it's got a couple of quirks. But it was still darn good.

What worked

One of the joys of visiting La Push with the TG-5 was access to tide pools at low tide. Then I discovered they were all just occupied by the same green sea anemones. Maybe next time I'll try snorkeling to get some more variety.

The very first thing I did with the TG-5 when I grabbed it from our camera cabinet was run it under the tap. Of course, it's fun to do that just because you can, but it also had some sunscreen on it from a previous user that I wanted to rinse off.

So the TG-5 is very well-sealed against both moisture and dust and dirt intrusion. This meant I could comfortably leave it lying around our beachy campsite even though everything was covered in sand.

The very first thing I did with the TG-5 when I grabbed it from our camera cabinet was run it under the tap.

I could put it in my sandy pocket, or deposit it in my sand-filled bag in our sand-filled tent and not have to worry at all. I brought it along on rocky beach hikes where it was likely I would fall into the ocean. This capability alone is pretty much worth the price of admission in my book, especially if you spend a lot of time outdoors.2

The TG-5's resolution and sharpness never blew me away, but the Raw files have at least some flexibility in them for the sensor size, and I ended up with a ton of photos I wouldn't have taken if I was leaving a DSLR in a bag the whole time for protection.

Every image you're seeing in this article is the result of a Raw file from the TG-5 processed through a beta version of Adobe Camera Raw (more samples available in the gallery). This is probably my favorite thing about the Tough; even though the images can be noisy even at base ISO, I was able to salvage some clipped highlights and lift some shadows to bring detail back in high-contrast scenes, which you're likely to encounter in outdoor photography.

The TG-5 is, thanks to an updated processor, also a very responsive camera. Start-up, focus and shot-to-shot times were all very quick, making it easy to whip the camera out for a quick shot on the move (and the well-sculpted grip makes it feel secure in the hand). But sometimes, quick shots on the move proved to be a problem for the TG-5. Let's explore what Olympus could improve on the next iteration of their tough cam.

The TG-5's metering did a pretty good job here, but I was able to go into the Raw file and pull down some highlights that had clipped in the JPEG file due to the dark background.

1. Okay, and a Nikon D7200 that stayed safely tucked away in a bag for much of the trip.

2. Some sand will still get stuck around the screen and port doors, but nothing another good rinse under a tap won't take care of.