Most cameras are delicate objects, and the last thing you want to do is drop them or subject them to wet or freezing conditions. But there are cameras which are specifically designed to handle rough treatment. In this list, we've chosen our top five recommendations for tough cameras. Every model in this list can be dropped, soaked, frozen and, in some cases, crushed. Our recommendations cover the entire class, from stylish compacts that can handle the occasional accident to high-end rugged cameras capable of serious image quality.

Prices given are representative of street pricing, and our recommendations are arranged from most to least expensive. 

Recommendations are subject to change and are current as of November 2014

Nikon 1 AW1 (w/11-27.5mm kit zoom)

$800 / £650 | 14MP | Submersible to 15m (50ft) | 3" 921k-dot LCD | 1080/60i video

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Although the control logic of the Nikon 1 AW1 is firmly geared towards point-and-shoot photography, it's a cut above the relatively numerous tough compacts which occupy the lower rungs of the rugged camera ladder. The AW1 has an interchangeable lens mount and can be used with any 1-series lens, but with one of its companion waterproof lenses attached the camera can be dropped, frozen, muddied and completely immersed in water safely.

As such, if you're looking for something to take on an adventure holiday, or just a knockabout camera that can withstand occasional rough treatment, the AW1's image quality and general performance (especially autofocus) make it worthy of serious consideration.

Olympus Tough TG-3

$350 / £320 | 16MP | 25-100mm lens | 3in, 460k-dot LCD| waterproof to 15m (50ft)

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Olympus is a past master when it comes to ‘rugged’ cameras, and the TG-3 is the latest in a long line of compact models for dropping in the sea and throwing around. This version comes with a 16-million-pixel back-lit CMOS sensor positioned behind its 25-100mm f/2-4.9 lens. The maximum aperture at the wide end of the zoom is remarkable for the amount of light it will let in, meaning steadier shots underwater and less noise as lower ISO settings will be able to be used – though heavy noise-reduction in camera can spoil fine detail underwater.

The camera is waterproofed for use at depths of down to 15m, and can be dropped from a height of 2.1m and frozen to -10°C. Additionally the camera is crushproof, being able to bear a weight of up to 100kgf/220lbf.

Close focus comes at a distance of just 1cm, with impressive modes for focus bracketing and focus stacking, while underwater and above-the-waves action can be captured at a rate of 5fps.

GPS is built-in so you can keep track of your locations, and the camera also provides a compass so you shouldn’t get lost and a manometer to keep an eye on your depth/pressure. Images can be transferred via the built-in Wi-Fi function, which also allows the camera to be controlled and monitored from a smartphone.

There is a collection of accessories for the TG-3, including a fisheye lens adapter, a tele-converter, a light, float straps and even an underwater housing that allows you to dive to 45m.

Canon PowerShot D30

$300 / £240 | 12MP | 28-140mm lens | 3in, 460k-dot LCD| waterproof to 25m (82ft)

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A little more conventional to the eye than Canon’s previous underwater cameras, and perhaps more so than some of its competitors, the Powershot D30 is remarkable for its ability to operate to a depth of 25m – quite a bit deeper than most – without having to resort to an additional underwater housing. With a 12-million-pixel sensor it does, however, have a slightly lower resolution than most of the models it will go head-to-head with. 

The camera is fitted with a 28-140mm f/3.9-4.8 lens, and images must be composed on the 3-inch 461k dot rear screen. Underwater cameras are often difficult to use in bright conditions above the waves, but Canon has introduced what it calls ‘Sunlight LCD mode’ which brightens the screen to make it more usable. 

As with most underwater models, the D30 is also shock proof (6.5 feet) and freeze proof (operating between -10° and 40°C), and offers a GPS system so you can keep track of where you have been. 

The HD video function is a little disappointing, at 24p, and the camera lacks Wi-Fi connectivity. There is little control over shooting settings, so we have to rely on the automatic modes rather more than is always comfortable, and there are no image quality options other than the a-little-too-compressed default. 

Nikon Coolpix AW120

$290 / £220 | 16MP | 24-120mm lens | 3in, 921k-dot OLED display | waterproof to 18m (59ft)

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An only slightly updated version of the good-enough Coolpix AW110, the AW120 brings a slightly wider focal length to the zoom – 24-120mm instead of 28-140mm – and an improved video offering with 1080/60i resolution. The lens features a wider maximum aperture too, managing f/2.8-4.9, which helps towards reducing noise and the need for noise-reduction processing in-camera. The 16-million-pixel sensor combines with the lens to produce a pretty good amount of detail in bright conditions, but as with most rugged cameras low light performance is ultimately compromised by an over-active noise reduction program that smudges the finer things in life. 

Operating to a depth of 18m, the Coolpix AW120 can also be dropped from 2m and survive, and can carry on shooting even if temperatures drop to -10°C.  

While handling can be a little frustrating because the buttons are quite small and close together, the camera offers an outstanding array of features, including program, scene and effects shooting modes, an HDR option and sweep panorama. The GPS offers location, direction and altitude information, as well as indicating local landmarks and your own location on a map. 

Ricoh WG-4 GPS

$270 / £260 | 16MP | 25-100mm lens | 3in, 460k-dot LCD| waterproof to 13m (45ft)

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The groovy styling of Ricoh’s WG-4 GPS makes it stand out from the crowd just as much as the WG-3 that came before it. Capable of working at depths of 15m, the WG-4 has a 25-100mm lens with a maximum aperture range of f/2-4.9 – a fast zoom specification that matches that of the Olympus TG-3. 

New to this model is the addition of a shutter priority exposure mode that allows the photographer to choose from a range of speeds between 4 seconds and 1/2000sec, and a pair of dynamic range modes that aim to tackle over-bright highlights and blocked up shadow areas. 

Like many similar cameras, extreme macro is possible with a minimum focus distance of just 1cm from the front of the lens. Ricoh has built on this feature though with a unique LED ring light that is wrapped around the lens – and a macro stand that comes with the camera to keep it steady.

Image quality is best above ground, and drops off once underwater, but generally sharpness is fine though chromatic aberrations can spoil contrasty edges. The camera lacks Wi-Fi connectivity, has slightly slow AF and can be a bit frustrating to use, but it has a secondary, backlit LCD on the front of the camera, which displays the time, depth/altitude, and pressure, even while the camera is off. There's no landmark database or maps, but that's a feature we think most photographers won't miss. One thing that is particularly useful is an information display that has a compass and current GPS data, which you access by pressing the 'OK' button several times.