3. THE OLYMPUS HOUSING & UNDERWATER HANDLING.
The Olympus PT-EP08 housings for the E-M5 were the first in Europe and were sent direct to Gozo for this review. So we had them underwater even before any Olympus employee in Europe had seen them.
At Wetpixel we’re aware that it is always beneficial to review cameras as early as possible, at the time people are considering purchases. But it does mean that they are often not 100% production ready. The housing was fully functioning save for the on-off switch (not a problem), but we didn’t have a full range of ports to test. We used an Olympus 6” port for the wide angles. I would have preferred a mini-dome for 8mm fisheye work and a port extension on the 6” dome for the 9-18mm. We also didn’t have a macro port that would accept external diopters. We fitted a neoprene sheath around the 8mm fisheye to stop the internal flash reflecting on the inside of the port. The zoom gear on other wide angles acted to block this light.
Compared to a SLR housing, the PT-EP08 is smaller and much lighter. It is also expected to be much cheaper than a SLR housing, although retail price is to be confirmed. So while the E-M5 costs only slightly less than a SLR, the system cost is much less. Being a plastic housing it does have problems with fogging that compact users will be used to dealing with, but can catch out an SLR shooter like me! The housing is small enough to allow you to hold the housing directly (as you would a camera) rather than have to use handles. As such it would benefit from a strap to go across the back of your hand for very secure single-handed shooting. Although we developed a good solution, using the handle of the tray, wrapped in old wetsuit as a cushioned brace for the hand.
The housing is designed to be gripped directly. When mounted on a tray it is easier to position the handle as a brace for the back of your hand, rather than to hold directly. Regular readers may notice my signature handiwork creating a cushion for the handle in the lower image.
Over the last five years SLR housings have been going through an ergonomic revolution, with this factor becoming even more important differentiator for customers. As a result standards are very high in all major brands. Indeed, advances in housing ergonomics are such that some features are definitely easier to use on housings than on the cameras themselves. A good example from my recent Nikon D4 review is the ISO button. The Nikon D4 is an ISO king and this is a button you are likely to use frequently. On the camera the button is placed low on the back of the camera and it very hard to press and adjust with your eye on the viewfinder. On both the Nauticam and Subal housings (the only housings I have seen so far), the designers have intelligently placed this control so it is activated via a lever conveniently located below your left thumb, meaning in these housings you can change ISO without taking your eye from the viewfinder.
Picking up the Olympus housing is a bit of a step back in time. There are buttons and control knobs for all the housings features and they all work, but there is little ergonomic finesse. The design style will feel very familiar to compact camera users, but it is a bit of a come down for SLR users. Primary controls of shutter speed and aperture have separate control dials, a positive feature, but these must be adjusted by reaching across with your left hand, punctuating the shooting process. This doesn’t stop you getting shots, but feels a backward step if coming from a leading SLR housing.
The controls on the E-M5 are highly customizable allowing favourite functions to be moved to the most easily reached control buttons. For example, we assigned ISO to one of the buttons on the top of the camera for easy access. Through the current housing this is advantageous, and may become even more so if future third party housings access these customizable buttons through convenient levers. A control I really liked on the E-M5 is the Super Control Panel, a visual display that provides straightforward access to important settings, without the need to navigate endless menus.
Another positive on the Olympus way of doing things is that adjustments through the menus rarely require two hands. You navigate and confirm changes with push buttons, rather than having to push a button with one hand and turn a dial with another as you tend to have to do on many cameras.
My biggest disappointment with the housing is the poor view it provides of the E-M5’s electronic viewfinder. I had really looked forward to trying this underwater to see whether I preferred it to the screen or not. I was particularly interested in seeing how it showed colour underwater compared to an optical viewfinder and whether it offered superior viewing in very low light situations, such as inside caves or wrecks. Unfortunately the view through the housing and facemask was so restrictive I was not able to use it effectively.
Hopefully other brands of housing for the E-M5 will provide a useable view of the electronic viewfinder. I know that Phil Rudin has been extolling the virtues of using external optical viewfinders with electronic viewfinders on the Sony cameras.
The Olympus housing offers optical flash control via fibre optic cables. Olympus makes its own brand of underwater strobes, which theoretically offer focal plane synchronized high speed flash (standard synch speed is 1/250th), although I wasn’t able to test them as the ones we had were playing up. I was happy to use both Inon Z240 and S2000 strobes with the E-M5. Both worked well on TTL and manual.
One big frustration with the flash system is TTL lag. The E-M5 does not have shutter lag, but when used in TTL mode there is a pre-flash lag before the photo is taken. On manual flash there is no noticeable delay. We are most likely to use TTL flash when shooting marine life and with moving fish, this lag, which is about half a second, is enough to miss some shots. Manual flash is a better option for fast moving subjects.
In conclusion this is a fully functional housing, that is reasonably small, notably lightweight, but with room for ergonomic improvements when compared with SLR housings.
To be fair to Olympus, although I feel that their housing is a step back in time ergonomically, it is also a very welcome step back in time in terms of price too. Bringing back an age when housing prices were measured in hundreds, not thousands. And I think Olympus know that most of their users would rather have a good value housing that can access all features, than spend more on better ergonomic solutions. Those that disagree should soon have other housing options for the E-M5.
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and specs.
- The Olympus housing and underwater handling.
- Image quality: ISO, resolution, dynamic range.
- Lens performance, autofocus & stabiliser.