Going Mirrorless – Taking my Olympus OMD underwater

Olympus OMD in Nauticam Housing

Before I go too much further with my Red Sea images, I wanted to tell you a little bit about my new gear. I’m not usually a gear head but quiet a few people have been interested so I thought while it was all fresh in my mind I’d get it down here. The flow of new holiday images will resume tomorrow!

At the beginning of the year I was lucky enough to have two week use of an Olympus OMD in Raja Ampat (thanks to Alex Mustard who had his spare when my luggage didn’t make the flight). It worked well for my own needs so when I got home I started selling my nikon gear (theres still some lenses and a housing left if you’re interested) to buy into this new little system. This most recent Red Sea trip was the first trip with my very own Olympus OMD. Here I’ll list what I liked and disliked and some tips & links I found useful.

So pros & cons… urmmm.

Pros:

- Tiny & Lightweight. This is greatest point for me not only for travelling but also in the water. I can hold the rig with one hand without my arm falling off! I have RSI in my wrists so I always found the subal housing a bit much. Also, for photographing around London I can look more like a tourist (you get away with less hassle from officials with a small snappy looking camera) and it fits in my handbag. It also fits on a very small gorilla pod which also fits in my handbag :)

In the picture below you can see the size comparison between my wee little camera and the D300 subal like I used to use.

Size Comparison

- Great High ISO performance. I got up to ISO 2500 in the caves in Jackfish Alley. Here is one at ISO 1000. My D300 didnt really like to go much above 800 before the noise started to creep in. Its useful for filter shots too as they lose you one stop of light and its good to bump the ISO to maintain a decent shutter speed.

- Magic filters are so much easier now, I used to have to tape it to the back of the lens but the little Panasonic FE has a little filter slot…

Magic Filter

This photo of Yolanda Reef was taken with Magic Filter (as were many of up yet to be blogged about Schooling Snapper photos so stay tuned over the next few days). I also found the custom white balancing less of a pain in the rear.

- Video! My old camera had no video capability. I’m a pretty bad camerawoman for video but I’m sure I’ll get better with practice. Its really nice to have the option to switch to video. This is especially effective with a magic filter on (because I dont have any movie lights) or in very shallow water.

Here is 4 seconds straight from the camera. No filter, just really shallow. You can see it in HD on vimeo here.

I took a lot of little video clips with my Oly and my GoPro so after I’ve finished going through my photos I’ll see what I’ve got to show you :)

- x2 crop factor. While everyone else is going full frame crazy with D800 etc I was loving the DX crop (x1.5) factor on my D300 for macro work and holding out for a D400. Now I have x2 crop factor – even better for macro! This also means I only need one macro lens. The 60mm on my Oly is really 120mm which is somewhere between 105mm (155mm) and 60mm (90mm) for my two macro lenses for the Nikon D300. In Raja Ampat I was easily able to take Pygmy seahorses & Skeleton Shrimp with the 60mm.

- Screw thread on the macro port. Another macro plus point, I’m able to screw a subsee lens straight onto the housing without the need for an adaptor. I know what I want for Christmas! ;)

- Tiny 3.5″ dome. This is a pro & a con depending on how you look at it (see below for the con). For close focus wide angle I’m able to get my tiny camera lower & closer to things to get a different view point than before. Here is a crocodile fish I found under the boat…

- Configurable buttons & dials. This is great. You can really customise exactly what you want for each button to do if you have the patcence to go through all the menus initially. Alexs settings guide is a great place to start. I didn’t use all the same settings because I wanted to keep the video for video but many of the same. One thing to bear in mind if you are going to reduce your flashes down to 1/64th though, make sure to have your Inons set to flash only once (with no pre flash). I Spent a whole dive wondering why my flash guns (set on manual) were very dim and its because I was only getting the pre-flash power – doh! (You have to push a lock the little button on the back of the strobe to be normal position.

- Optical triggered Strobes. I cannot tell you how cool I found this. You can actually take your strobes off camera underwater and slave trigger them with no other gear required. In fact when I wanted to experiment with off camera strobe I fixed the slave unit to a sync cord on one strobe(just so I could hide the strobe) and fastened it to the optic until I needed it off camera then just detach it, set it on the tripod and volia!

These sweepers I blogged yesterday were taken with an off camera strobe to light up the caves behind them:

I also experimented with off camera strobe in the wreck – those images coming up in tomorrows post.

- Really nice iAuto mode. I’m pretty lazy for topside photos. I find the auto mode be produce great photos right out of the camera.

- Takes SD memory cards. This is another pro & con. Pro because SD cards are more flexible, you can use eyefi cards etc, also a pro because I don’t need to carry an extra card reader because SD fits straight into my macbook air :) And my GoPro 2 takes SD cards. It’s a con because I had to buy all new extra memory cards because most SLRs take CF so just another added extra expense of change over with no need for CF cards anymore.

Cons:

- Only small domes. With my Subal housing I had a mini dome and a larger dome. The larger dome is useful for split shots in rougher weather. I did try a dive with the 4″ dome which has better corner sharpness than mine and was able to get this one…

In completely dead flat water in the mangroves of Raja Ampat I was able to get this one with my 3.5″ mini dome but the sea is rarely completely glass still like that:

- No lens reuse with my old system. I’m having to sell all my nikon stuff which is a pain. If you know anyone who is after some great condition Nikon lenses please give them this link: http://suzywalker.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/nikon-subal-gear-for-sale/

- Slightly slower auto focus in some cases. This is a pro & a con actually. I mentioned above that now I only use one macro lens. I think this focuses faster than my 105mm Nikon (which hunts like crazy underwater) but no where near as far as my 60mm Nikon which was alway my favourite lens.

- Not in the Adobe LR list of lens corrections. This is just weird. Both Olympus & Panasonic are missing from the lightroom list of cameras & lenses you can auto correct the distortion etc on for such instances where you’d like to de-fish your fisheye lens.

I think that’s it for the pros & cons. If I think of anymore I’ll edit the post or add them as a comment below. There are some things which are neither pro or con just different and needing a mental adjustment for. I am enjoying now shooting for a 4:3 frame and hardly ever shoot to crop for 3:2 aspect ratio. And changing from amazing viewfinder on the Subal housing to using the screen on the Nauticam (it has a view finder buts its pretty unusable on the housing) has been a bit of a stiff adjustment for macro subjects. I often find myself pointing the camera in the completely wrong place for the critter and having to mentally map the contours of the coral to find the critter on to the screen.

Here is my Equipment List for reference:

  • Olympus OMD EM5 with kit lens. Important not to buy body only because you need the little flash unit that comes with the kit.
  • Olympus M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 60mm 1:2.8 Macro lens
  • Panasonic Lumix G Fisheye 8mm lens
  • Nauticam Housing for OMD
  • 3.5″ semi-dome port (for the FE lens)
  • Macro port 45
  • Gear ring to make the 12-50 kit lens fit inside the macro port. They do a port specially for it but its very expensive and yet another thing to carry.
  • Nauticam knob that fits in Coldshoe to attach my strobe arms too. You can get trays & handles but I wanted it without.
  • I already had the strobes (two Inon z240′s and ultralight arms)

And here is the list of useful resources for taking the Olypmus OMD underwater:

If you have any comments or questions please feel free to leave a comment below. And if you have an OMD and love it too then also comment to say why if I haven’t listed your reason! Stay tuned for more red sea pictures. Tomorrow, the Thistlegorm wreck, one of the most visually interesting wrecks I’ve ever visited.

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38 thoughts on “Going Mirrorless – Taking my Olympus OMD underwater

  1. Suzy, thanks for this detailed list of pros and cons. I found it very helpful. I currently shoot with a Canon G12 with Fisheye Fix housing, and while it is a great system, I’m ready to step up. I own a cropped sensor SLR (Canon 60D), but I’m not sure that it is the camera that I want to take underwater. For the past several months, I’ve been researching Olympus Pen -vs- full frame SLR. There is so much info out there, but I’m unable to make a decision.

    -How would you compare the image sharpness in the Pen -vs- the Nikon D300?
    -Do you find that the Pen has shutter lag compared to your Nikon?
    -Have you tried enlarging the images from the Pen?

    Thanks again!

  2. Hi Suzy,

    Excllent information and looking forward to more photos.

    I have been using the EM5 since its release with the Nauticam housing and I now shoot the 8mm fisheye with a Zen adapter for Subal type III ports. This allows you to use larger ports like the Zen 200 and 230mm for split shots. A new adapter has also been released for Sea&Sea ports. I also use the Nauticam 45 degree viewfinder with the EVF so you can get better use of the viewfinder at about the same cost as upgrading a DSLR.

    Phil Rudin

  3. There is no Adobe LR list of lens corrections because Panasonic&Olympus lenses are automatically corrected by Adobe Lightroom (chromatic aberration for Olympus and chromatic aberration&distortion for Panasonic). No need for additional correction.

  4. Most helpful, Suzy – thanks for taking time to review the camera. As anticipated, this serves to increases my dilemma! But only because you’ve effectively become another good advocate for the 4/3 set up. I’m arranging to do what you did and have an opportunity this November to shoot the same camera alongside both my SLR and my compact. I’m buying plenty of excess baggage allowance to allow it, but hope that it will be worth the modest investment. I was very taken by the capability of an INON wide angle lens and its small dome on my compact. Coincidentally, I also found some new angles on a Crocodile Fish – http://www.mpcolley.com/crocodilefish-at-cave-entrance
    I’m not rushing to any decision yet about what might replace my D300 (hurry up Nikon on the D400, please), but for me you keep another idea alive…

  5. Interesting thanks Phil, do you have a link for the subal type 3 port adaptor? The one I found when I first looked didn’t fit the Mirrorless nauticam housings.

  6. Hi Suzy, that’s quite impressive. Your O/U shot is great stuff. This may be a system Angie would be interested in as she also hates the weight of the Subal housing. Nice meeting you!
    Rand

  7. Hi Meredith. I think you might be confusing this with the latest olympus pen e-p5. Mine is the OMD EM5. I know, great naming system right! The pen 5 is slightly smaller, has the same chip but less customising dials etc and no view finder. Alex Mustard has had both and I think he preferred the omd for its customisableness (is that a word?)

    In terms of your questions omd vs Nikon d300…

    I haven’t compared the sharpness explicitly. Read Alex’s review (which I linked too) it’s very comprehensive on all the nitty gritty of image sharpness & quality. I know that he’s had images from the OMD published in dive magazines etc. I haven’t blown them up myself yet though. In terms of shutter lag I’d say its possibly not *quite* as quick but nothing major. As far as my photography goes the pros far outweigh any slight cons & small differences.

    I don’t know if that helps? Keep your eyes peeled on wetpixel.com, if he hasn’t already I’d be surprised if Alex doesn’t do a OMD vs Pen 5 review.

  8. Suzy, you are correct. I was confused by the naming…

    Your response was very helpful. I will read Alex’s review.

    Thank you again. Keep up the great work. Your images are stunning.

  9. Suzy, as for lens correction in Adobe Lightroom you can always use manual correction to change distortion level. But real optical distortion that comes from lens is corrected by LR (in Panasonic lenses) and you can’t switch it off. Even more, focal lenght and angle view of Panasonic lens is given after correction.
    BTW. your photos are amazing, I like them very much.

  10. Thanks Mist :) I don’t de-fisheye my images very often but occasionally its useful if I get man-made structures (like wrecks or jetties) in the wrong place in the composition they go a bit too bendy.

  11. Hi Suzy – great pics, much better than my efforts. In terms of the speed of focus on the 60mm on the Oly v 60mm on the Nikon – did it mean you had a lot of fuzzy fish? I quite like fish photography, and would be quite frustrated if none came out in focus.

  12. Hi Kay, no, not lots of photos of fuzzy fish (well no more than normal ;)) but it didnt feel as snappy as I remember the 60mm on nikon. I have the old 60mm though, I think you have the newer one and I dont know how that compares? Bear in mind though I haven’t used my Subal since Bali so these are my feelings based on those memories and it was my fav lens seen through rose coloured spectacles. Also, I’ve just had a look through my fish photos and I managed to get quite a few of a tiny nemo who was flitting around like nobodies business so I probably have just scared you for no reason at all. I like fish photography too and I’ve no complaints about my switchover :)

  13. Nice writeup Suzy. I am not too familiar with the 4/3 variety cameras, but one thing is sure tempting is the weight reduction. After investing so much in my Nauticam D700 setup, I am really hesitant to even ~think~ about something else so soon – but nice to know the smaller setups are capable of great quality. Love that crocodile fish shot.

  14. Thanks Mark. Yes, it’s hard to let go when you’ve invested so much into something but I’m glad I made the leap. Now if only I could get around to selling the rest of my Nikon gear ;)

  15. Thanks for the link Phil. This didn’t exist when I was first looking a few months ago. Glad to see the gap in the market has been met! I still have my 4″ zen subal type 3 mini dome :)

  16. Thank you..So great and informative.. Now I can’t wait for my setup to arrive.. I’m going for a similar setup, only with the gazillion $$ 12-50mm port & gear.. and the Oly 60mm macro, which is supposed to fit in the 12-50mm port.. I cant decide on the 7-14mm or th 8mm FE.. this article helped (a bit).. Nik

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  20. I realize I am way late to this post but I just discovered your site. I really enjoy your pros and cons for conversion to a smaller camera system underwater. I am hoping you can help because my previous experience with Sea Life D1200 with dual strobe system was light and portable but the shutter/focus lag was very aggravating. I bit the bullet and spent $10K on a Sea & Sea housing with dual INON strobes for a Canon 5D MKII. So the choice was $1,500 vs $10K. Image quality and speed of focus made the decision to go from small to large housings worthwhile but I am sure getting tired of hauling that large system around. I now spend a lot of time snorkeling or scuba in Florida Springs where a large camera with dual strobes is very cumbersome. Have you tried the Canon G15/16 or Sony RX 100 with appropriate housings? Supposedly the Sony RX 100 has faster focus times for a mirrorless system. I ask because I am thinking of switching back to a smaller system.

  21. Hi Michael, I haven’t used any of the systems you mentioned but I wouldn’t downgrade any smaller than I have. I still use the dual inon strobes with this set up, you’ve gotta have good lights to get good photos. The small body & tiny lens reduce the weight enough for me and your canon 5d mk2 is even bigger than my Nikon d300 was!

  22. This Olympus OMD is the system you now use. How is the shutter lag and focusing speed? Before I switched to my SEA/SEA & 5D MKII I was useing the Sea Life D1200 with dual strobes. I ran into a unique wildlife opportunity in Morrison Springs, NW FL. I had a river otter show up underwater. The sun was out and the water crystal clear. From the time I pressed the shutter release to the time the shutter and strobes fired caused me to miss almost 2/3rds of the photos. Luckily I got a couple of blurred images to at lease prove my story. Hopefully the Olympus OMD shutter lag is not too slow! Size & weight v.s. Shutter lag is a tough choice. I also noticed that you may be using fiber-optics for the strobes. How is the reliability of your fiber to strobe/camera connections? My Sea Life system kept disconnecting the fiber-optic connection causing very unreliable strobe firing. I don’t mean to turn your travel photo blog into a camera help blog! Thanks

  23. Hi Michael, I haven’t had any problems yet with the fibre optics but I’ve only done two trips with them. I haven’t noticed too much shutter lag, my old compact camera was a devil for it so I know your pain. It’s been a couple of months since my last trip but I don’t recall being frustrated with shutterlag. The only thing I would say is the internal flash takes a bit more time to recycle than I’m used too. What you should probably do is try & borrow or rent one & do some tests with it yourself. I think there’s a newer version now, EM1? But I haven’t tried it myself.

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