I did something I've never done before the other day: I dropped a camera into a bucket of water. Luckily, because it was the Panasonic DMC-TS2, it came out fine.
The TS2 (or FT2 if you're outside North America) is Panasonic's successor to the waterproof, freeze-proof, shockproof TS1, with some general upgrades to make it tougher than last year's model, allowing it to go deeper underwater and withstand drops from a greater height than the previous model. It's nice for those of us who stand more than five feet tall.
You'll notice the hefty weight and concrete feel of the camera the moment you pick it up, as it's instantly clear the camera's built for battle. The TS2 is typical in size for a camera of this type, closely matching the Olympus Stylus Tough 8010 for size and weight, though it's a bit large for a point-and-shoot, generally speaking.
Panasonic is very careful to point out that the camera's only able to survive these conditions because it is constructed in a very particular way. For instance, it is waterproof because the two doors concealing the battery, memory card and various cable ports have rubber edges that create an airtight seal, as long as there's no debris sitting on the rubber. The camera even comes with a brush to ensure that the rubber can be cleaned effectively and there are ample warnings in the camera and manual that outline proper care -- so as to not accidentally do something foolish like open the battery door while underwater.
Still, as far as camera upkeep instructions go, the “don't chuck it against a wall, drop it in the Mariana Trench, or bring it too far below freezing” advisory is pretty lenient, and the provided silicone skin is actually quite nice, giving the camera plenty of grip, even if your hands are lathered up in sunscreen. There are plenty of waterproof cameras that come in at far lower prices because they don't also offer protection from things like drops or exposure to things like dust and sand, which are the real killers of cameras in the long term.
The TS2 features a 14.1-megapixel CCD sensor with an 4.6x zoom range at an equivalent 35mm focal range of 28-128mm while also supporting SD/SDHC and SDXC memory cards. That'll allow you to make plenty of prints far beyond the typical 8''x11'' with a bit of wide angle and a decent telephoto zoom. It also sports a 2.7-inch rear LCD with a typical 230k dot display. It suffers in bright light as LCD screens always do, despite Panasonic's press release claims to the contrary.
Those specifications bring the TS2 in line with its closest competition in the market, the aforementioned Olympus Tough 8010, which is also an updated waterproof, dust-proof, shockproof and freeze-proof model and sports a similar zoom and price tag.
Both cameras come in with an MSRP of over $350, certainly a hefty price to pay for a camera if it doesn't also offer superb image quality to go with its build quality. The TS2 doesn't include any real manual control, but with 27 scene modes in addition to the standard beach, sports, color, etc. modes, users can approximate some level of control over the final image.
You can judge for yourself looking at the images I took with the TS2, but I personally think that the Panasonic TS2 produces satisfyingly sharp images that look superb for a camera of this type. The camera does tend to over-saturate images and it doesn't have the best low-light capabilities owing to its relatively small maximum aperture (though its optical stabilization was very good) with a big falloff in quality after ISO 800. Despite those caveats, I never felt limited using the camera in just about every lighting condition and every shot I envisioned came out how I expected it to.
That's the key: You just can't get some of these images with other cameras -- such as the view from the bottom of a bucket of water -- that the TS2 and like cameras do with ease, allowing you to go after shots you just can't with other cameras.
The TS2 also offers HD movie recording in two ways, either by utilizing the dreadful motion JPEG codec or through the use of the AVCHD Lite codec. AVCHD Lite isn't the best format, but for a point-and-shoot camera of this type, the results were actually very good, certainly comparable to other point-and-shoots above $250, with HD movie recording working with full audio, even underwater.
The TS2 does have some quirks that are frustrating, such as a white balance that doesn't always work correctly on the first try and auto exposure that isn't the best in high-contrast scenes. It also constantly reminded me that my Class 4 SDHC card wouldn't be fast enough to handle its motion JPEG codec's bitrate despite that same card managing the Canon T2i's far heavier 46 mb/s HD recording in testing. In the end these were minor quirks to work out rather than deal breakers, in my opinion, as it's easy to find a work-around for white balance and exposure, and that AVCHD Lite renders the whole motion JPEG thing moot.
With beach season already on the doorstep, this is the perfect camera to have with you on those halcyon days where worrying about not getting a speck of dirt in your camera's fragile lens should be the least of your troubles, and the Panasonic TS2 and cameras of its kind are really fine companions in that regard.
Quirky as it may be, I had more fun shooting with the Panasonic than I have with a camera in a long time. The ability to really take the camera under water and never worry was a welcome change to lugging around my dSLR. While the pictures obviously didn't match up to dSLR quality, I had a lot of fun just coming up with new shots to take underwater where I'd never take other cameras.
Overall if you're tough on cameras (or buying for someone who is) or lead an active lifestyle that will see you at the beach or anywhere that a typical camera might not survive but still want quality pictures, you'll want to seriously consider investing in the Panasonic TS2/FT2.