Olympus Stylus 720 SW
Stylus 720 SW (courtesy, Olympus)

What’s the toughest digic on the market?

Can you recommend a digital camera that is durable enough to survive the rigors of an extended trip covering a variety of terrain and weather conditions, is small enough to fit into a pocket, yet will still produce high-quality pictures of everything from landscapes to wildlife to action shots? All for $500 or less. Ryan Winnipeg, Manitoba

Olympus Stylus 720 SW

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Well, it all depends. Are you going to tie a string to it and pull it behind you like a dog on a leash? Or put it in a camera case and take care not to beat the crap out of it? Because any camera will fall apart if abused, and any camera will do fine if it gets a little TLC. I’ve been shooting outdoor pictures for years, and only once had a camera let me down. And that was because I slipped on a wet rock, the camera went one way, and I went the other.

Olympus Stylus 720 SW

Olympus Stylus 720 SW Stylus 720 SW

The other caveat is that you’re probably looking at a point-and-shoot camera—given price constraints and the desire for compactness—which will dictate several compromises. The zoom lens is rarely long enough to do much with wildlife, and there’s usually some shutter delay—plus time needed before the camera can shoot again—so fast-action photography can be limited. That said, the quality of today’s digital point-and-shoot cameras is amazing.

One good choice would be the new Olympus Stylus 720 SW ($400; www.olympusamerica.com), which is nicely compact, boasts seven-megapixel resolution, and is designed to take it on the chin (think waterproofing to ten feet and the ability to withstand drops from up to five feet). It has a 3x zoom lens, roughly equivalent to 38mm-114mm in 35mm film terms—meaning it goes from moderate wide angle to short telephoto. Nothing that will capture zebras on the horizon, however. It also has a big LCD viewfinder, though remember to use the traditional viewfinder, too—you’re better able to really “see” the picture.

Another solid camera is the Canon PowerShot SD430 ($500; www.powershot.com). Its specs are similar to the Stylus camera: five-megapixel resolution, 3x zoom. But it adds a WiFi card so you can transfer photos without plugging the camera into a notebook or desktop computer. That’s a convenient innovation. Canon’s PowerShot SD600 offers six-megapixel resolution without the wireless feature for $350. I have a Canon digital that I rate highly; Canon really understands photography, so I think the interface on their cameras is better than some.

For a big telephoto lens, the choice is back to Olympus and its SP-500 UZ ($350). It has a 10x zoom lens, equal to a 38-380mm lens in the 35mm world. That’s pretty good—enough “pull” to bring things in from some distance. But it’s a fairly bulky camera, which will be the tradeoff for you.

One problem you might run into could be battery life, unless you have access to outlets and can recharge. Nikon’s Coolpix 7600 ($330; www.nikonusa.com) has good specs—7.1 megapixels, 3x zoom—and takes AA batteries, maybe the most ubiquitous battery on the planet.

Anyway, all of these cameras will do a good job of handling most picture-taking tasks, with the Stylus 7200 perhaps the most attractive due to its durability. But with reasonable care, any camera can survive anything from a ride down the Grand Canyon to climbing Denali.

Pick up a copy of the 2006 Outside Buyer’s Guide, on newsstands now, for a look at the best cameras and 396 other torture-tested products.

From Outside Magazine, April/May 2021 Lead Photo: courtesy, Olympus