Olympus E-330 housings with high ambitions
Friday, July 7th 2006: A remote valley, deep in the Alps. A small group of divers meets for a special event. Dive, where no one has before, in lakes at an altitude above 2400m (about 8000ft). Amongst their equipment are two Olympus E-330 cameras, one housed in an Olympus PT-E02 housing, the other in an Aquamir / UK-GERMANY housing. They will have to face hard conditions.
Dive sites at high altitude are wide angle territory. Therefore both rigs have a typical WA configuration:
Olympus PT-E02 8mm f3.5 fisheye with PPO-E04 port FL-36 strobe in a PFL-E01 housing mounted with a PT-BK-E01 and PSTA-01 arm.
Aquamir / UK-GERMANY
Other Test Equipment:
An Aquamir housing for the E-500 and some Inon strobes didn’t make it in time to take part in the test. Hugy was out of stock with their E-500 housing and so the E-500 had to stay topside. So did my E-1 (my E-1 housing is still not available). I used both to take some top side shots with the 50mm macro, the 50-200mm and the 11-22mm lenses.
Assembly and Functions
The housing is made of acrylic glass. It features wheels and buttons for all functions of the camera. The camera is mounted on a metal plate that slides into the front part of the housing and is locked with a lever. All wheels (main dial, sub-dial, program dial) are located in the front part of the housing. Some of the parts look a bit fragile. They allow smooth operation and fit well.
The rear part of the housing has a window for the LCD screen and several buttons. The optical finder may be viewed through a simple lens system. It is hard to use it while diving and it is even smaller than topside. Ports are thread mounted. That means you’ve to adjust the shade carefully to avoid vignetting. This causes problems with wide angle lenses and especially with the fisheye lens.
The housing is sealed with two main o-rings. The transparent housing allows early recognition of a leakage without additional electronics. Olympus sticks to their proprietary bulkhead for the strobe connection. Luckily there are already third party converters and replacement kits available. The Olympus bulkhead allows the connection of a housed land strobe with full TTL functionality.
Aquamir/UK Germany Housing:
A first look at the Aquamir housing will tell you that it’s a classic UK-GERMANY design. There is some similarity to a brick but it’s simple, sturdy, and functional. It’s also easily kept clean. No fancy curves, just plain smooth surfaces.
The housing is milled from an Al-Mg alloy. It’s covered in velvet inside to keep down reflections and to buffer humidity. A fact that saves you fiddling with silica gel bags.
You’ve got used to it. The housing doesn’t have an optical finder at all. As the first DSLR that features live view on the LCD display, the E-330 doesn’t really need one. The housing allows the LCD to be held at an angle of 30°. The effect is close to an angle finder. It is ideal for a low camera positions or shots towards the surface.
The camera is mounted on a plate that slides smoothly into the front part of the housing. The wheels for the dials are located in the rear part. This needs a bit of care in the beginning but you get used to it quickly. The shallow front part allows changing of batteries and memory card without un-mounting the camera. The lens release button is a nice feature. You may remove lenses without opening the housing through the port hole. Ports are mounted with a UK-GERMANY bajonet mount that holds the port tight after just a short turn. A single o-ring seals the main housing parts. An electronic leakage warning is built in for additional safety. The housing has two N5 bulkheads by default. You may choose between a plain X-contact and a TTL converter that fits inside the housing.
Our targets are above 2500m (8300ft) and therefore above the timberline. Expected water temperatures are below 10°C (50°F), few traces of life, lots of landscape. The ideal place for wide angle and fisheye lenses. The surrounding mountains are calling for half-half shots. Depending on the weather, visibility may change from zero to marvelous. The testers have quite some experience shooting SLRs and DSLRs but this will be the first dive with a housed E-330. All images are taken in manual mode for shutter speed, aperture and strobe power.
The high lakes are accessible by helicopter only. The equipment is carried in a net tied to the helicopter. Cameras are stowed in a small compartment at the rear of the helicopter or underneath the seats. Only the strong survive.
A rare sight: Divers sitting near a mountain trail, waiting for the helicopter.
Lake Obersee (2016m, 6720ft)
The only lake we could get to by car. It’s sort of a warming-up. Located below the timberline, it contains a wide range of tree trunks and branches. The bottom is covered with fine silt. A single wrong move and visibility goes down to zero. The rainy weather of the days before stirred up the water. It causes a spooky atmosphere. Temperatures ranged from 14°C (57°F) to 6°C (43°F) with an inversion layer at 6°C.
The first buddy teams enter the water.
Lake Geigensee (2410m, 8030ft)
Carved out by a glacier hundreds of years ago but still quite cold. The surroundings are picturesque. A small waterfall fills the lake with clear freshwater. Alpine vegetation and rare flowers everywhere. This lake too has a fine layer of silt that is extremely sensitive to movement. The temperature stays stable at 7°C (45°F) for the first 5m (17ft). An ideal spot for half-half shots. There haven’t been divers in this lake before.
A first glimpse of Lake Geigensee, viewed from the helicopter.
The helicopter closes in to our base camp at approximately 1900m (6330ft).
The helicopter is landing next to Lake Geigensee.
Lake Oberseitsee (2580m, 8600ft)
The lake is located close to a drop-off leaving a marvelous view across the valley. There’s stony ground, nearly no silt. Large rocks are spread across the ground. While we were in the water the owner of the lake emptied a tank with young fish so we could follow them and watch them exploring their new home. The surrounding panorama is ideal for half-half pictures. The temperature went down from 11°C (52°F) to 5°C (41°F) without a significant inversion layer. There haven’t been divers in Lake Oberseitsee before either.
Pre-cooling the cameras to prevent fogging.
The shape of the housing allows a steady grip. On the right hand side there’s a rim and a wrist strap. On the left side you may mount the optional strobe arm which makes a nice handle too. The shutter release lever isn’t ideally positioned. You can’t reach it well with average sized hands in thick gloves. The quite good view on the LCD screen makes the optical finder nearly obsolete. It’s small and dark anyway. In shallow water and for half-half shots the LCD is close to unusable. Reflections and the vertical position make it a pain to use. It’s better for shots towards the surface and close to the ground than the optical finder but the vertical position makes it hard to read. The +/- button that is also used to switch the main dial function is too small. Pressing it while turning the dial needs some training but you may get used to it.
The strobe housing is quite large for the small guide number and angle of light. To compensate for this the strobe arm is too short. The strobe is ok for macro but it fails completely to light a wide angle or fisheye shot.
Lake Obersee lies below the timberline. It offers a wide variety of trees, roots and trunks.
E-330 meets E-330.
Generations apart: Nikonos RS and E-330.
Lake Geigensee half-half.
Rock formations in Lake Oberseitsee.
Aquamir / UK-Germany
You may equip the housing with either two handles or one handle and a strobe arm (recommended for larger strobes). T-stones may be mounted to the handles to allow further add-ons. The shutter release works well, even with thick gloves and cold fingers. The +/- button is driven through a lever that allows one to keep it depressed. Single handed control of the main dial in all modes is therefore easy. The 30° tilted LCD display acts like an angle finder. It allows an absolutely relaxed viewing position. The shade is a bit short and so the LCD is hard to read in shallow water. A modification of the shade could help. Maybe I’ll dig out granddad’s old black cloak. Two bulkheads (N5) and a large number of thread mounts allows mounting nearly any add-on you dare to think of. The TTL adapter shipped with the housing allows full TTL functionality with compatible strobes. The Hartenberger 250 used for the test (in manual mode) is a good choice for WA shots.
Roots and trunks in Lake Obersee.
Spooky tree trunk in Lake Obersee.
Divers and helicopter at Lake Geigensee.
You need good buoyancy because of the fine silt in Lake Geigensee.
The ground in Lake Obserseitsee is covered with rocks.
The red focus indicator of the E-330 is of great help. The large LCD still isn’t good enough to focus exactly (it is, zoomed in in macro mode) but good for image composition. Both housings may be used in cold water without problems. While the temperature changed quickly there was no fogging. Although it has only one o-ring it seals so tight that it is hard to open after a change in altitude of only 500m (1660ft).
My absolute favourite of UW lenses is the 8mm f3.5 fisheye. Even misplaced behind a 122° dome (the PPO-04 has even less angle) it performs great. What a pity that none of the manufacturers provides a true 180° dome for this lens. The 7-14mm is also quite good behind the 122° dome. The rectilinear projection looks unnatural - it’s something you need for architecture but not for nature shots. Corner sharpness isn’t that good at f4 but gets better when closing down.
Using the 11-22mm behind a flat port (as Olympus suggests) is a crime. I used this great lens for topside shots. All together the Aquamir / UK-GERMANY housing is better value for money. You can see and feel three decades of experience wherever you look. The wide range of possible add-ons and the option to get customized parts makes it the choice for those who want more than the basic configuration.
Different projections: Left, the 7-14mm wide angle lens, right, the 8mm fisheye.
Thanks to Olympus Europe for providing cameras and lenses and the housing. Thanks also to Aquamir and UK-GERMANY for the housing. I’d also like to thank all participants of this event. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.