Earlier this week I received my long-anticipated underwater housing for my Olympus micro four thirds camera (Olympus Pen E-PL1). It was delivered via express mail by Optical Ocean Sales--the first shop that I could find that had the housing in-stock. (Jack Connick at Optical Ocean Sales was very helpful during this process.) I received the housing just in time for my short dive trip to the Florida Keys. I picked the micro four thirds camera system for two reasons: its compact size would make it easy to travel with and handle underwater, and the system is relatively inexpensive for the quality and level of manual control that it offers. (For more information on the micro four thirds system versus existing four thirds system digital SLRs, click here.) I decided on the Olympus-made housing because of its user friendly design, relative simplicity, and again for the price. Notably, the Olympus housing lacks a dome port or an interchangeable port system, which will be limiting for wider-angle shots.
Here is a picture of my new Olympus housing. I found it extremely simple and pleasing to use – the buttons are large, the small size of the housing makes it easy to handle under and over water, the closure system is straightforward, the housing feels sturdy. In short, it’s perfect for someone who wants to practice their underwater photography technique without getting too bogged down by the acquisition of a complicated and expensive rig.
For these first four dives, I shot with ambient light using the kit lens (14-42 mm). A 9-18 mm lens will be available for the Olympus later this year, but the flat port may result in distortions caused be refraction, radial distortion and chromatic aberration. A good description of the difference between flat and dome ports is available here.
I was very happy with my choice of gear. Despite the limitations with the Olympus housing, I think I will be able to progress with my underwater photography without the expense and bulk of a standard DSLR camera and housing system. By the time I want to upgrade, there will be a wider range of housings for the micro four thirds cameras on the market.
In terms of performance, the housing was very easy to use underwater. Without any strobes, the camera plus housing was negatively buoyant. The battery life was great–I took it on four dives without changing the batteries. I took both movies and stills, and ended up running out of space on my memory card before the batteries ran out. The video was somewhat of a disappointment. The auto focus was fairly slow. However, an Olympus firmware update announced this week will speed this up slightly.
All in all, the Olympus PEN underwater system is a great option for photographers interested in advancing their technique without expending the money needed for a large, bulkier SLR camera plus housing. As more time passes, there will also be more housing options for both the Olympus and Panasonic cameras.
Click here for more photos from my dives in Key Largo on Davis Reef, Pleasure Reef, the wreck of the Spiegel Grove, and the wreck of the Benwood.