Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait (Part 2)


Can see some issues in the corners

This is the second part of a two part post, part 1 can be found here: Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait Part 1

The second camera I used was the Olympus EM-1 in a Nauticam housing, which I coupled with two different lenses:  the 8mm fisheye wide angle and the 12-50 zoom lens along with the Nauticam SMC-1 diopter.  The first thing that I noticed about the Olympus system, compared to the Sony/Nikonos system, was that it was much smaller and lighter; it had more of the feel of a compact camera than the Sony system, which was a plus in my books.  Once again I used two Inon S-2000 strobes for the set up and I spent one day shooting wide angle with the 8mm Panasonic lens and two days with the 12-50 mm lens.


8mm, very wide!

On the first day, I used the 8mm lens with the first dive at a true muck dive, Jahir, a black sand slope with good critter potential for shooting CFWA.  The first thing I did was take a few test shots of some still subjects in order to see how wide the fisheye was and how I would need to position my strobes to avoid backscatter.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that this lens is just as wide as the 10.5mm on a Nikon and that scatter and flash flare were going to be an issue just as they are with a 10.5mm.  (I note here that I was not a big fan of these small strobes for wide angle use, as a wider angle strobe like my usual Sea and Seas YS 120s would have been preferable, however, for the 12-50mm lens these strobes were great, lots of power in a small size)  The very small size of the camera and mini dome port allowed me to get as close as I wanted to my subjects (much closer than the 15mm) which gave me better creative control over composition for CFWA.  It was easy to get in close and position the strobes correctly as well, however, I would have preferred wider strobes as mentioned earlier.   Looking at the photos on my computer screen afterwards did reveal that there is certainly some corner distortion with the CFWA shots on a wider aperature such as f6.3 (look at the white eyed moray shot to see this).  It wasn’t as obvious on higher apertures and to be honest, didn’t really bug me too much on the shots that I did take, however, I would need to shoot more to see where I really stand on this.  (This is common with SLR and fisheye as well)


Corners were better at distance with 8mm

On the next dive I found a massive coral head that was covered in baitfish that were being preyed upon by several large lionfish, the perfect opportunity for a more classic wide angle photo.  I was much happier with these shots, taken from further away, but still shot between f5.6 – f8, as the distortion was not nearly as obvious in the corners.  This is not to say that this camera creates more or less distortion than my D7000 and 10.5mm, both have corner problems at less than f11 for close up work, but I would say the D7000 is marginally better in that aspect than the Olympus, but, not by much!  Overall, I was happy with the wide angle from this combination and would most definitely use it again, although with wider angled strobes.


Focus was quick and accurate with 12-50mm

Next up was the 12-50mm lens and flat port for some “normal” shots of Lembeh critter diving.  I coupled this flat port with the Nauticam flip arm for the SMC-1 diopter in order to have an added punch of macro goodness for the small subjects that I was hoping to find.  What was really interesting about this lens and port combination was the ability to “turn on” macro mode with a simple twist of a dial.  The 12-50mm lens has a “macro” mode that allows the lens to focus very closely with it set at 43mm and the port has been designed to be able to access this function quickly and seamlessly by twisting a dial on the left side without having to manually tune the lens to that length or having to push a button to turn on the “macro” mode.  I found this to be a very cool feature of both the camera and housing, if I then wanted even more macro, I just had to swing the SMC-1 into place and I was good to go; this was a very simple and effective solution. Typically, I am not a big fan of composing through the screen on the back of a camera, especially for macro, as I find it very hard to see if what I want in focus is actually in focus; this is much easier with the viewfinder on an SLR where you are looking at the actual animal through the lens, as opposed to a screen.  On the Olympus, I was expecting to hate the focusing for macro due to this issue, however, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting.  The camera was able to lock focus very quickly and for the most part I was able to tell if the areas I wanted in focus were the ones that ended up in focus.

Macro mode worked well

Macro mode worked well

As an SLR user, I have always been a bit jealous of compact camera users who were able to zoom in and out at will as well as attach close up diopters or wide angle adaptors during a dive.  Using the EM-1 and 12-50mm with it’s native macro capability was a real eye opener for me, I found it to be a very versatile setup with the ability to shoot the eyeball of a wonderpus and then shoot a wide angle shot of it with the mere twist of a dial.  By adding on the SMC-1 with the handy flip port, this set up quickly became my favourite choice of the lenses I had tried and I didn’t even bother with different lenses after that.  For Lembeh, the 12-50mm was the perfect choice as there are so many different subjects to shoot from big to small!  With an SLR I always concentrated on one lens, but with this set up I could take great photos of every subject that I came upon.  In short, I really liked it!

SMC-1 was easy to use with swing arm

SMC-1 was easy to use with swing arm

Overall, I had a better experience with the Olympus setup than I did with the Sony, however, I am really comparing apples to oranges here as I didn’t actually try any other lenses with the Sony other than the Nikonos 15mm.  I am quite sure if I spent more time with the Sony and used comparable lenses I would have had similar results.  However, of the two cameras I was more favourable to the Olympus and I am quite inclined to buy one for myself in the not too distant future.  Looking at the images on a 27 inch screen shows that they are just as sharp and clear as an SLR and I could sell images from both the Sony and Olympus with no problem as the quality is very good.  The only downside I see of the Olympus is the strange (to me) ratio of the resulting images as I find the 4/3rds size to be squarish looking when compared to the ratio of an SLR camera and it leaves me with the sense that the photos have been cropped without locking in the ratios, but, that could just be me!

Testing Mirrorless Cameras in Lembeh Strait (part 1)

Before our recent Underwater Tribe/NAD Lembeh Photo Workshop, I decided to head to NAD Lembeh Resort in order to try a few new things in my diving life.  After a few days spent learning the ins and outs of Closed Circuit Rebreathers with the Poseidon Mark VI CCR, which is taught exclusively in Lembeh Strait by Simon at NAD, it was time to take some photos.  I decided to take advantage of Simons rental camera selection to try a few “new to me” setups while I had a few days of free time.  In fact, I didn’t even bring one of my own SLR housings, as I wanted to put these systems through a proper test and not give up mid way through and go back to my own trusty gear.  The rental systems that NAD had available for me (and for anyone interested in renting a camera while there) are a couple of the latest and greatest mirrorless cameras:  the  36 mp full frame Sony A7R and the Olympus EM-1, both with Nauticam housings.  I also rented two Inon S-2000 strobes to complete the desired “small” system that I wanted to familiarize myself with.


15mm Nikonos on Nauticam Housing

First up was the Sony A7R, which we paired with the legendary Nikonos 15mm lens, this system garnered a lot of press when it was first launched as the Nikonos lens is still considered one of the best ever wide angle underwater lenses due to its small form factor and great optics.  As someone who used the Nikonos V and 15mm combination for many years and thousands of dives, I was very intrigued by this new digital 15mm hybrid as I loved the 15mm with film because it was such an effective lens.  My goals were simple really: 1 – to see how the CFWA capabilities of the 15mm would compare to a modern SLR with a fisheye and teleconverter combination.  2 – see if the system was effective by being able to set the focus of the camera to a preset distance and be able to quickly capture sharp images.

Upon first inspection, this combination was certainly larger than a Nikonos V but was also smaller than an SLR, a plus for close focus images.  One of the first benefits of this setup that I noticed right away was the fact I could compose through the lens of the 15mm, whereas this lens only had a parallax viewfinder for use with the film version.  Being able to actually see the frame of what you want to compose is obviously a huge benefit!  One of the issues of this combination that I was expecting is the fact that the 15mm is a manual focus lens, so, there is no real way to tell if it’s actually in focus.  There is a “work around” for it as the Sony has a system of “coloured highlights” that can be activated on the screen to theoretically show what is in focus, however, the effectiveness of this system is not all that accurate and I never did trust it.


Can’t get too close with CFWA

As I was in Lembeh, the close focus opportunities were abundant and varied with subjects such as octopus, common seahorses, snake eels, and other fist sized or larger animals easily found.  What intrigued me about the 15mm and mirrorless camera combination was the small size of the lens itself which would provide an easy way to aim the strobes without a bulky dome port getting in the way, common with an SLR housing.  This did prove to be true, as I was easily able to position my strobes without having any shadows intrude into the photos.  However, what was disappointing was the distance I had to remain from the subjects to get sharp focus.  With the Nikonos V and 15mm combination a working distance of 15cm was about the minimum focus distance, and this was also true of the Sony and 15mm combination so I shouldn’t have been surprised.  However, after working with a fisheye and TC for so many years, with a 2cm to 3cm minimum focus distance, the Sony combination was not satisfactory for smaller subjects such as seahorses. I kept catching myself trying to get closer which of course ended in out of focus results.


Classic Wide Angle shots were perfect

On the second day of using this system, we headed out to the northern end of Lembeh Island to dive at some of the “classic” wide angle dive sites that offer stunning soft corals and seafans.  These photo opportunities were more inline with what I used to shoot with the Nikonos and I hoped taking these types of photos would prove more satisfactory than the CFWA ones did.  The “sweet spot” of the 15mm lens for general wide angle work is to set the focal distance to midway between 2 and 3 feet and the fstop midway between f5.6 and f8, this allows the lens to focus from about 30cm to infinity and is the setting I used for the vast majority of photos of such things as seafans and people shots with a Nikonos, and so I set it the same for the Sony. The Sony offers a wider variety of shutter speeds to work with as the Nikonos only synched between 1/30 and 1/90 with strobes (it can be set at 1/125 or higher but it only fires at 1/90 regardless).  My hopes were higher for this style of wide angle photography with the Sony/Nikonos combination and my hopes proved to be correct, my percentage of keepers were quite high compared to the CFWA photos I was shooting the day before.


Corner sharpness was very good

Everything that I shot between 1 to 4 feet proved to have sharp focus and brilliant colours, I was also very happy with the corner sharpness in these photos.  Corner sharpness can often be terrible when using a DSLR, with both fisheye and rectilinear lenses, especially at fstops less than f11.  The ability of this camera setup to shoot “from the hip”, without waiting for the autofocus to catch or having to “dial in” manual focus, was a definite advantage, especially for larger subjects.  I can certainly see this as a great combination for larger, fast moving situations such as feeding mantas, great white cage diving, whale sharks, whales, or baitball action.


Close up of the bottom left corner of the previous shot, very sharp

Overall, I found the Sony and Nikonos 15mm combination to be an interesting wide angle option but it wasn’t something I was “itching” to try again and again.  Although the sharp corners and quick shooting capabilities were a definite plus, the lack of being able to see exact focus and the 15cm minimum focus distance were negatives that put me off the system.  I would certainly consider it as a great option for fast moving subjects and in situations where smaller cameras are a plus, but the considerable cost of the camera itself means that it would be a very expensive “second camera” for most people.