With the market increasingly saturated with me-too camera models, manufacturers are branching out in more exotic directions. One area that possibly hasn't had enough interest is the adventure camera market. A typical compact doesn't respond well to a snorkelling holiday, a spot of caving, or desert trekking. Back home it may stop responding at all if water and sand damage take their toll.
And so to Ricoh's Caplio Wide range. Although marketed as a tool for builders, architects and firefighters (who have their own, unique exposure mode listed in the settings), the 500G Wide plays well as an adventure-cam.
Its double-cased build uses sealed rubber buttons, and extra seals around the various compartments make the design waterproof and dust-proof. It's also built to take knocks, passing a military-standard one-metre drop test on to a variety of hard and angular surfaces.
Waterproof here means what you'd expect it to - up to a point. You can dunk the 500G into liquid up to a depth of a metre and expect it to keep working - in fact, it floats, which is rather sensible. This doesn't mean you can take it surfing or scuba diving.
Heavy waves, a strong waterfall, or even a powerful bathroom shower may apply more than a metre's worth of pressure. So the waterproofing is only enough to make rain irrelevant, and allow some low-intensity beach immersion.
Taking a look inside the case, the Caplio is a fairly standard compact with some interesting twists. The lens is equivalent to a 28mm wide-angle, which is more useful and also more fun than the more common 35mm. Wide landscapes and towering architectural portrait-mode shots are where the Caplio seems to feel most at home.
There's a 4x digital zoom, and a 20m flash range, improved from the previous 400G model; a wide aperture range that touches f/2.5; and a full selection of exposure settings from 8 seconds to 2/2,000. More obscure features abound and include low-resolution 320x240 video recording; sound recording, for photo annotation and standalone; and a TIFF mode, apparently included to take photos of documents.
The optics are reassuringly sharp and impressive for its class. There's a hint of fringing, but it's unobtrusive and only shows up at high magnifications. Sadly, the electronics are less convincing. There's no support for RAW files, which limits interest to more serious enthusiasts. JPEG quality in Fine mode is good, and in Normal mode images are only slightly less clean.
With a nominal 8 megapixels, resolution isn't an issue, but without access to raw CCD, fine control of white balance and exposure becomes very difficult. In both of these areas the Caplio is less than completely confident and sure- footed. This is partly because the list of exposure modes and options isn't completely intuitive, and even when following the rules, the Caplio very occasionally completely misjudges exposure.
The colour balance naturally tends towards warmer hues, which is a good thing for portraits, but less so for nature shots or architectural photography. Reds generally seem over-emphasised, making red items pop and lose definition. Vivid Colour mode exaggerates them even further and noise is visible in red areas.
With a small CCD providing 8 megapixels of data some noise is inevitable, but it was more obvious in low-light shots than it should have been. So overall, the visual performance is merely average - not bad, but a long way from the best. All told, the Caplio 500G would be at home on building sites and would make a good holiday camera. It's not convincing as a first-choice compact, but it has potential as a specialised second camera. Richard Wentk