Pentax Optio WG-2 review

The Pentax Optio WG-2 is a waterproof compact camera that stands out from the crowd. It comes in two variants: here we're reviewing the model without the GPS.

The waterproof compact camera market is now well populated, providing plenty of choice for those who want a camera that will take the odd knock, go swimming with you, or just get plain messy. 

But does Pentax's take on a waterproof compact offer anything different, or does the quirky design get in the way of practical application?

Design

As soon as you look at the Pentax Optio WG-2 it stands out from the crowd. It's a distinct shape and style. Where most rugged compacts look like, well, slightly bloated compact cameras, the WG-2 looks more like something you'd find clipped to Batman's belt. 

There's a range of interesting colours available, we had the all black model to review. It's angular lines offer up a rubberised finish and although slightly whacky, there is plenty of grip on offer.

But in running with a quirky design, there come some slight oddities. The 16:9 display on the rear is slightly unconventional and you get the feeling that this is part of what dictates the 61.5 x 122.5 x 29.5mm frame. Testing on a sunny day, we found that we couldn't make out much detail on the rear of the camera. Composing shots is generally fine, but once you've got sunscreen smeared on the rear and the sun reflecting off it, you really can't preview your photos very well.

However, the design also means that the lens sits in the centre of the front of the camera, rather than in a corner. This has some advantages, namely that it's easier to keep clear when gripping the camera with gloves, although that logic doesn't quite follow through to the controls, which are really too small, particularly for use with cold weather gloves.

The central location of the lens also means that lining up self-portraits seemed to take a little more effort - the point and hope principle returned less well-framed shots than we get from a regular compact, but this is probably something you can adjust to.

There is another oddity with the design and that's the location of the screw thread for a tripod or mount. This is located on the far right of the underside, meaning that the full weight of the camera is then working against you. It weighs 194g loaded with card and battery.

For conventional tripod mounting this makes no difference, but when we came to mount put the camera on a handlebar mount, it meant more bouncing added to the equation. It's not a point that will effect everyone, but worth considering.

The body is well sealed, with catches to secure the battery/SD card slot on the bottom and to keep the HDMI port closed on the end of the camera. It lacks the double locking mechanism of something like the Panasonic Lumix FT4, but we gave the Pentax Optio WG-2 plenty of rough treatment and didn't have a problem with the arrangement.

And yes, this camera sinks, so if you're in deep water, clip it on or buy a float.

Controls and features

The top of the WG-2 offers the power and shutter button. Both are rubberised like the surrounding area and feel a little spongy, so need a firmer press than you might first expect to take the shot. Unlike many rivals, there isn't an instant video capture button.

However, the WG-2 does have a green customisable button that you can set to video mode, although this is video toggle, rather than instant capture. Still, that gives you video with two button presses, rather than having to use the mode selector.

As mentioned, the controls in general are a little small. The zoom lever and playback button feel a little crammed in because of the slightly unconventional shape of the body. Compare this to the larger controls of something like the Fujifilm Finepix XP150 and the Pentax seems to be at a slight disadvantage.

Control of the shooting functions is split between major controls on that four-way button on the back, allowing flash, self timer and macro toggles, with face detection options cycling through on it's own button.

The shooting modes covers everything from auto shooting through program to bespoke scene modes for underwater use, including video. Additional settings can then be accessed through the menu button, for example if you want to tweak conventional photo features like ISO, white balance or saturation. 

It sounds slightly more confusing than it actually is, because in reality, the modes work pretty well and switching modes (particularly for underwater use) is fast enough not to present a problem. The settings menu offers you enough freedom to make a range of changes too, like limiting the auto ISO range, for example, but doesn't extend to proper manual control. 

Performance

There is a 16-megapixel sensor at the heart of the camera, with the 5x lens offering 28-140mm (in 35mm terms). As with other waterproof models, the lens is housed internally. The zoom is fast enough, although as we mentioned, the small controls meant we had a tendency not to use it and it isn't available during video.

We found that focusing was usually accurate, with various focusing mode controls available if you can't get it to snap on to exactly what you want. In general we didn't have a problem with it, although it's not fantastic with moving subjects, a little too slow to focus and shoot, so isn't so great for real action shots. It means the camera feels a little slow, that spongy shutter button exacerbated by the delay in capture.

One area we were impressed with focusing was in the underwater modes, which returned some very impressive results. We took the Pentax Optio WG-2 to Hampton Open Air pool (thanks guys!) to see how it performed in the water and the results speak for themselves.

It's worth noting that the underwater modes change the colour balance of shots, so things will appear over-saturated at the red end out of the water - something to bear in mind when you climb out. 

And out of the water the Pentax Optio WG-2 performs well too, offering up some great, typical, holiday snaps. It performs well in bright conditions, although like most compacts, you'll find fringing on high contrast scenes: a roof edge against the sky for example.

As the light drops and the ISO rises, you'll find that shots get softer and noisier, which could be a problem for anyone wanting to print larger images, but isn't uncommon for this type of camera. The same applies to video, with the Full HD mode offering great results in good light and becoming less impressive when things get gloomy. 

You also get only digital stabilisation, which doesn't help in lower light conditions and the lack of any real controls (like aperture) for example, means you're at the mercy of whatever the camera wants to do, up to a point.

The battery gives you about 260 shots, which isn't a huge number, so you'll need to keep a charger handy or find a spare on long days out.

Verdict

If you're looking for top-notch photos, with the option of getting wet too, then you'll find that buying a cover for a better compact camera will garner you the best results.

However, there is still a lot going for the Pentax Optio WG-2. With the exception of the somewhat slow capture, some of the results we've achieved have been impressive and the underwater results are really good, perfect for those looking for holiday snaps without the hassle. 

The design may instantly turn people off, however. To some extent it is practical, like the central lens, but in others awkward, like the small controls. Like so many things, considering how you are likely to use the WG-2 will aid you in your decision. For us, we found that we prefer a more regular design, like that from Fuji or Panasonic.

Overall, if you're in the market for a waterproof, dustproof, shockproof, crushproof camera, it's certainly worth considering, but you might want something slightly less quirky and with slightly faster capture.

Thanks to Hampton Pool for letting us shoot in its open air pool, if you're in the area, it's well worth a visit.