5. LENS PERFORMANCE, AUTOFOCUS & STABILISER.
One of the attractions of M43 format is the wide lens choice, but don’t be mislead, they may be pocket sized but they will empty your pockets to a similar degree as SLR lenses. Irrespective of format you still pay for quality.
I love shooting fisheye and I really liked the 8mm fisheye lens (which is made by Panasonic) on M43. The lens is sharp and because of the small format delivers excellent depth of field without needing to be stopped down that much. This means we can illuminate wide angle scenes without the need for very large strobes. Or shoot available light scenics with ample depth of field with faster shutter speeds. With 16MP of resolution there is room to crop if you are unable to fill the frame with this ultra wide optic.
The 8mm fisheye also has a filter slot, ideal for filter photography underwater. Just FYI, Magic Filters have recently released blue and green water filters sized specifically for the filter slot on this lens.
The M43 format offers quite a few options for wide angle and mid range zooms. I was only able to try the 9-18mm during this short review. This rectilinear lens covers a useful range of coverage, being ideally suited to bigger creatures and diver portraits. We did not have an optimum port setup available for the 9-18mm, but as long as it was stopped down beyond f/8 is produced quality results. Certainly much more forgiving than shooting such a lens on a full frame SLR.
This lens is also designed for video shooting, giving smooth changes when apertures are adjusted during recording. On video it gave good corner to corner sharpness with very little distortion. However, I think that auto focus should be locked while recording. I find the AF adjustments in the clip of Bluefin tuna below a distraction. It should be noted that this was not an easy situation for autofocus with multiple subjects moving through the frame in low contrast conditions.
Video footage of tuna shot with the 9-18mm. The corner sharpness and lack of distortion is impressive. This clip was shot with the autofocus ON and I find the adjustments a distraction. For tricky subjects like this I would recommend shooting video with focus fixed. Please don’t let this video fool you into thinking there are many Bluefin tuna in the seas. These were in a pen and the only place they are swimming to is someone’s plate. I am surprised by the number of divers who won’t eat shark fin soup, but will eat Bluefin sashimi.
For macro I used the 45mm, which was very sharp. I know people are excited about the forthcoming 60mm macro lens, but I think the 45 might be more useful in lower visibility diving. The focus was swift and accurate with this lens.
Olympus state that the E-M5 has the world’s fastest auto focus. It is a fun claim, and I am not sure how it is measured, but using it in the low contrast underwater world it is clear that the AF is inferior to the very best SLRs. But it is nonetheless impressive in AF-S mode. The AF was rarely found hunting in the sunny, clear Mediterranean waters that bathe Gozo.
AF-S is good for static subjects and high magnification photos, but is less helpful for frame filling shots of erratically moving subjects such as fish. The focus tracking of the latest SLRs is impressive with these subjects and it is one of the few areas the E-M5 cannot match them. I tried AF-C once underwater and it really struggled. I gave up with it and switched back to AF-S, which quickly picked up the subject again.
The AF also struggled in low light shooting. I tried it in very dark conditions, where some SLRs would also struggle and the E-M5 would only focus with a focus light. In fact, in the caves I would focus and then switch off my Sola and switch (through the menus) to MF before shooting a series of images.
If this section reads critically it shouldn’t, I am judging the camera against SLR standards. The E-M5 has very good autofocus, a different world from any compact and much better than any M43 camera I have tried. But to believe the advertising hype that it is a world-beater is misguided. Much of the time it matches SLR performance, but lags behind when shooting moving subjects like fish in the low contrast underwater world.
One of the most exciting features of the OM-D E-M5 is its image stabilization. It is an area that the E-M5 arguably outperforms SLRs, using an in-body system with 5-axis image stabilization. Being built into the body, this system will work with any lens that is attached to the E-M5. This has significant advantages for long exposures underwater, which underwater photographers traditionally use when shooting balanced light wide angle images in low light, blue background macro shots when we don’t want to sacrifice depth of field and scenic shots in ambient light. No SLR can offer an image stabilized fisheye.
The cushioning effect of being suspended in water means that we can commonly surpass where established wisdom places the limits of shutter speeds for hand held long exposures. But even so, the E-M5 exceeded my expectations to such a degree that I didn’t really push it far enough to establish its limits. It produced excellent images pretty much whatever I tried. Image stabilization doesn’t just benefit ambient light shooting, but also allows us to use continuous light to add colour to our images, instead of strobes.
The image stabilization combined with the ISO performance will allow E-M5 shooters to use available and continuous light sources in new ways and create original underwater images. There are few more exiting things that an underwater camera can offer a photographer than new types of image.
I should make it clear that the long exposure limits of the E-M5 aren’t a safety blanket for poor technique. Instead they will reward good technique. If you are stable in the water and used to pushing exposure times, you will be amazed by how far you can push the E-M5. If you are not stable in the water, your images will still be blurred!
- Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and specs.
- The Olympus housing and underwater handling.
- Image quality: ISO, resolution, dynamic range.
- Lens performance, autofocus & stabiliser.