Friday, August 28, 2015

Optical Ocean Sales Expands!

Optical Ocean Sales, LLC has expanded its store/offices! The newly expanded space includes a third larger store, office and studio. The store features a large selection of underwater photo equipment in stock; cameras, video and still housings, strobes, focus/video lights, arms and trays, hard and soft cases along with many parts and accessories.  They have many unique system and lighting packages available that are ready-to-go.

Optical Ocean Sales are dealers for Nauticam, Fix, Zen, Keldan, SEACAM, Olympus, Sea & Sea, Inon, Gates, Aquatica, Fantasea, Light & Motion, Ikelite, SmallHD, 10Bar, Nanuk Cases, Seahorse, Big Blue, iTorch/iDAS, Xit404 and many other lines.

Optical Ocean Sales is committed to its customers realizing the vision of the images they wish to create. They maintain an extensive free Educational Resource Center online with many Handbooks, Reviews, Blog, Trip Reports, product comparison charts and more. Staff is always available for questions and advice based on direct experience.

They also lead Photo Expeditions to many exotic locations all over the world.

The expanded store is located at their present location on Lake Union at 1800 Westlake Ave. North, Suite 201, Seattle, WA 98109. Hours are 10-6 M-F and 12-4 on Sat. Phone +1 206-284-1142 or 800-359-1295, email or visit their webstore.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Nauticam Panasonic LX-100 Review: An Underwater Shooter Goes Small

I used to think small. My first digital underwater camera was a Fuji F-810 that was a tiny little thing, but had a great sensor and sharp lens. I still occasionally sell photos I took with it.

But once I started shooting DSLRs underwater, I’ve never looked back; performance, image quality and adjustability to conditions all seemed to be factors that I really enjoy. I moved from cropped sensor cameras to full-frame, and have just gotten used to traveling and diving a large rig, however expensive and awkward it can be.

I’ve tried other compacts along the way, notably some older Olympus and more recently a Sony RX100II, but they seemed to either excel in one aspect of photography like wide angle, or their software was hard to use or lacked features. Close focus was also lacking with these larger sensor compacts.

Then I tried a Panasonic LX-100 out. I was impressed by it’s super sharp and fast Leica f/1.7 lens and large 1 inch sensor. The camera has direct controls for ISO, notably lacking in the Sony RX100, and a unique and intelligent way you can switch into auto aperture or shutter speed simply by moving their dials to the end of the settings. No mode dial necessary.

The LX-100 is the latest of a long line of enthusiast cameras that started with the LX-3. Long on video features like 16:9 picture ratio, adjustable capture rates,  easy one-touch white balance and more, these cameras have long been viewed as a great way to capture both video and stills. The LX100 takes it much further and set the camera world on it’s ear by being the first compact camera that could shoot 4K video. Due to my bags getting delayed a week on my trip to the Solomon Islands, I only had time to shoot stills with the camera.

Nauticam’s legacy with Panasonic is evident in it’s housing design and the NA-LX100 comes with all the latest features such as a vacuum leak detection system, cam lock closure and aluminum 300’ depth rating. It’s a good, solid performer.

The housing comes with a standard, full-range flat port. This gives the best of both worlds by allowing you to shoot close-up to wider angles. But the flat port reduces your field of view by 1/3rd on the wide side. Nauticam has made two other ports in it’s N50 compact camera port range; these change with a flick of a lever. There is a N50 macro port and mini-dome - not really a wide angle lens, but it replaces what you loose underwater to refraction - so you still have a 24mm field of view. You can also add an Inon wide angle “wet” lens to the macro port for even wider shots.

I quickly gravitated to the mini-dome port. I found that it’s field of view was ideal underwater and the camera’s amazing built-in close focusing ability allowed me to take anything from extremely close focus to wide shots easily with sharp corners. The fast f/1.7 lens also gave me quick focus lock in most conditions (we had some murky days). Having a small rig that focuses down to it’s dome allows some great opportunities underwater, we were able to shoot a very small glass shrimp in it’s anemone environment giving it a “wide angle macro” feel.

Does changing the port limit you to shooting macro or wide angle? To a certain degree yes, but with some dive planning and creativity you’ll get more “winners” than a lot of mediocre shots by setting up for the type of shots you think you want to capture.

My eyes aren’t what they used to be and I really liked the “quick menu” combined with the large display of the bright viewfinder. Not so the little EVF; it’s pretty hard to see underwater, although it does have uses above water on sunny days.

Nauticam has set up all the controls to be able to access them easily. You can flick the focus control from AF to Macro without pausing. The housing features an extra large knob for that control and macro enthusiasts will love switching to manual focus and dialing it in easily. There is a setting in the menus that will show a smaller magnified view and focus peaking display can also help by showing the areas in focus in another color - “Don’t shoot ’til you see the reds of their eyes!”.

I usually shoot with manual settings, but it’s also easy to move the shutter or aperture all the way to “A” mode then click the +/- EV dial up and down to adjust exposure. Either method gives you excellent control of the camera. You also have direct control with the multi-controller and can change all aspects of the camera directly such as ISO or white balance with any of these methods.

You can program three function buttons and changing the F2 button away from the default “wireless sync” mode gives even quicker direct access. The LX-100 also has three custom modes; how about setting up the camera for macro, for wide angle and for video? However way you want to set up the camera - it’s just a button away, and easy to access from the Nauticam housing.

I shot the LX-100 with both the Sea & Sea YS-D1 and the new YS-D2 strobes and found either TTL or manual easy to change on the camera. TTL was quite accurate - EV can be adjusted on the camera or strobe. Manual flash power setting can be dialed down in the menu to make the camera recycle very quickly. This all works well and without the sync issues I’ve seen on Sony and older Panasonic cameras. Camera battery life was very good and lasted a couple of dives at least. If you want to shoot available light, the camera flash can be turned on and off.

I was diving a larger full-frame camera as well, but on a couple of high-current dives where I didn’t want to deal with the larger rig, I took the LX-100 along and really enjoyed it’s small footprint. Nauticam has shipped the housing with flanges that connect to their Flexitray tray system and it gives a very solid and reasonably small rig to shoot with. Underwater the differences in size between compact camera models goes away quickly and while it’s not the smallest footprint, it’s very small.

But the biggest question was performance. Can a compact keep up? What I found was that in decently lit situations it worked great. In dim light that lacked contrast I would occasionally get some focus hunting, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as other compacts I’ve tried. Adding a focus light and using the AF lock button instead of the half-press trigger lock improves focusing performance immensely. The frame rate was fast even shooting RAW and we quickly snapped a couple of dozen shots of a curious batfish one morning in a wreck as he posed for us. I occasionally even out shot the strobes’ recycle time - very fast performance indeed for a small camera.

The Panasonic LX-100 is certainly a keeper and I will happily add it along with the Nauticam housing system to my camera bag.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Beyond Here There Be Dragons!

Join Us on an Underwater Photo Expedition - Jan. 28 - Feb. 8, 2017 to Komodo Island, Indonesia Aboard the Damai I Liveaboard   

Komodo DragonKomodo National Park, located in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, is located at the meeting of two continental plates, this national park constitutes the “shatter belt”, between the Australian and Sunda ecosystems. The park is identified as a global conservation priority area, comprising unparalleled terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The park is best known for the Komodo “dragon” monitor, the world’s largest living lizard, measuring up to 8’ long!

Pigmy SeahorseUpwelling of nutrient-rich water from deeper areas of the archipelago is responsible for the rich reef ecosystem. The variety of marine life that you can see in Komodo rivals any of the world’s best dive destinations. From sunfish, mantas, dolphins, sharks and eagle rays to pygmy seahorses, ornate ghost pipefish, clown frogfish, nudibranchs and blue-ringed octopus, all are at home amongst a spectacular range of colorful sponges, sea squirts, tunicates and corals; Komodo is an underwater photographer’s heaven!

In Jan/February, there are good conditions in the south. Horseshoe Bay, a favorite spot, is bluer, clearer, and warmer. This charter is a repositioning cruise, as the boat leaves the Komodo area and goes to Flores Island. With luck, we'll also be able to see the fantastic Komba volcano from the water. Although 11 days in length, we are only being charged for 10!

MV Damai I
This beautifully designed wooden boat been designed to offer a personal luxury service that only a vessel of this size that is dedicated to small groups can provide. With an overall length of 40 meters (130 feet) and a beam of over 8 meters (26 feet) the vessel has large single or twin share cabins are furnished with queen beds, and ensuite heads.

The vessel has been designed with three large deck areas for relaxing in both the sun or shade and for enjoying relaxing massage and spa treatments. Specifically designed for divers, the vessel offers large dive stations with individual rinse tanks and a camera room with separate camera work stations with integrated charging stations for each photographer. The vessel offers a divemaster/guide to customer ratio of 4 to 1, ensuring the best service underwater as well as onboard.

Your trip leader Jack Connick from Optical Ocean Sales will be available to help you with presentations on subjects ranging from strobe positioning to Photoshop Lightroom.

Join us on this fantastic liveaboard trip starting at $5600!
Very limited space available!

$1000 deposit. Additional payments due every 8 months, final payment due Sept. 2016. Airfare not included.
Download the trip flyer here. See more details and signup on our website,
or call 800-359-1295 or +1 206-284-1142 today!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Olympus E-M1 & New MZ 8mm Fisheye PRO Lens Review

One Camera, One Lens - An Ascent from Desperation.

I’m just back from a 10 day live aboard dive trip to the Solomon Islands. I had packed 5 different cameras and systems to do a round table of testing and comparing in order to write some practical reviews.

As usual, I spent time going over each camera system making sure I had packed all the necessary batteries, chargers, lenses and attachments. All was reasonably packed into two cases. One was carried aboard and my Seahorse hard case and dive bag/clothes checked. With everything spread out the day before, I tried to balance their weights, airline requirements for lith-ion batteries etc. What I didn’t do was to make sure that essential chargers, batteries and mounts were all packed together with each camera. Oops.

I got to the airport only to see that my LA flight was delayed 3 hours. What’s up? Thunderstorms in LA I was told. Lighting had closed LAX on and off all day…Thunderstorms? Lighting? In a 3 year drought? Why me?…

Things improved as time went on and my flight was only 2 hours late getting in. I ran to the International Terminal and made it to the flight to Fiji just in time. But my checked luggage didn’t. I was told I could go without my bags or not go. No choice, I had the M/V Solomon Star to meet in Honiara.

So the next time I saw my bags was a week later on a dock in Tulagi. Groan.

When I landed, we hit a thrift store for a few clothes and the boat had great new rental dive gear they outfitted me with (Thanks SIDE!; so that was all good. My backpack had essentials. I had the one camera bag poorly packed with strobes and no mounts, cameras without housings or chargers. But I did have the Olympus E-M1 body, PT-EP11 housing, new mz 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO lens and matching small glass dome port, along with an iTorch v25 1800 lumen video/focus light. So there was hope.

And as luck would have it, friend and customer Bruce Versteegh was on the same boat with his wife. They had brought way too much gear and lent me a strobe, sync cord and arms. So I had the one camera and wide angle lens and for the next 5 days (along with a small TG-4 compact). Thanks Bruce, you saved me!!

One problem; no charger. Bruce only had the charger for his PM-1 system. So we had to “hotwire” leads from his charger to my E-M1 battery in a feat worthy of Rube Goldberg. Most of time it worked with lots of gaffer tape, but sometimes it didn’t; as we were in high wind and fairly heavy seas. Oh well, frustrating.

The Olympus 8mm lens saved the day. Light? Who needs light? I was able to easily shoot available light at 45 meters deep at f/2.2 or even f/4. The lens focuses and gathers light so well that it’s easy to shoot in whatever conditions you find. The PRO lenses are a huge jump up in design and quality from the other standard PEN lenses that Oly has had on the market. They have metal, weather-proofed construction with large elements. Sharp, fast and durable, they are truly joy to use. There is also a new f/2.8 7-14mm wide angle lens due to hit the market very shortly.

The first dives were very deep; 30 to 45 meters to the bottom of Tulagi Harbor. it was a famous repair base used by the British before the war, invaded by Japan and taken back by the Americans in 1942. It’s still in use today.

The first dive was on a four engine Japanese Kawanishi H8K2 (Emily) flying boat seaplane, lying still on the bottom, with the erie glow of divers’ lights looking like it might be getting ready to take of from it’s alien home.

The next dives were on a 455’ freighter (sunk before the war), an American Catalina PBY seaplane, and a smaller freighter with a nice bow gun still pointing up towards it’s attackers. The system shot easily, locking focus without a beat and
getting nice images. I had been provided a manual focus gear, but never used it. Without proper external lighting, I shot in available light and some of the images look great in black and white, which adds to their gritty wartime-like texture.

The 8mm FE lens focuses right down to the small glass dome port, so close focus wide angle shots are no problem. For the Catalina, I jammed the camera on the bottom under a wrecked engine and shot up, capturing the entire front of the plane at f/4. I used the small iTorch v25 light to add some color to the engine cowling and prop which were coated in coral.

More scenic dives the next few days gave me a chance to try out capturing fans, soft corals and undersea life. As expected, the E-M1 and 8mm FE lens worked flawlessly to shoot these types of subjects to fill the frame with color and detail. While all ultra wide lenses are sensitive to flare from strobes, this combo, using the small dome, was pretty easy to work with and aim my strobe from behind and out. Smaller arms can be used and this has a reducing effect on overall system size.

We were also taken to a very unusual cave system. It had a tunnel entrance under the water that opened into a small, very still, land-locked lagoon in the interior of the rocky island. Called “Mirror Pond”, the surface was so clear and still that it disappeared, with jungle and cave becoming one. What we weren’t expecting was the bright, sharp rays of sunlight shooting through the forest canopy and creating striking beams of light underwater.

Slow shutter speeds are what is necessary to capture these sorts of situations. On my full-frame camera, I usually use high ISOs; on this camera and lens it was fast enough that higher ISO’s aren’t necessary. In some cases I think I could of dialed the ISO down to get better dynamic range and still had it work fine.

The shots are crispy sharp even at ISO 640, f2.2, 1/60th sec. This is also where the combination of 5 axis stabilization of the E-M1 body and the bright f/1/8 lens really came into play. You can shoot wide open at slow shutter speeds and still capture very sharp images.

I also shot a couple of “over & unders”, not thinking that I’d get much with the small 100mm dome, as usually they aren’t big enough and the line of the surface on the dome is large and chunky. Since the water was so still, I was able to “dip and shoot” and not have a very thick surface line in the shots. I think this is also a tribute to the quality of the new Olympus PPO-EP02 glass dome port.

Olympus has dropped the ball for PEN and OM-D E-M5II owners to directly use this lens/dome combo. For some weird reason, they are only directly supporting the E-M5 EP-08 and E-M1 PT-EP11 housings. They have made some mention of having to return your Olympus housing to them in order to change ports - something that no other manufacturer has done. This is a very simple task of undoing one screw and twisting the port a half turn to unlock the bayonet and pulling it out. Why they insist that end-users can’t do this is a mystery and has been going on since the E-PL1 first came out. There also is no port from Olympus to support the other new 7-14mm PRO lens. I have discussed this with Olympus America and they are hoping that the parent company comes around with a better solution.

Fortunately, Zen has a ready-to-go solution using their DP-100-EP Dome along with an adapter or two to house it on these Olympus housings. There are several port solutions for Nauticam and Aquatica housing owners as well.

This is such a small setup, so fast, sharp and easy-to-use in all conditions, that I am giving some thought to packing it along with my full frame. It would be great for free diving with large animals and great to take into tight places like caves and wrecks, where a larger system is burdensome.

After shooting the Olympus EM-1, MZ f/1.8 Fisheye Lens and PPO-EP02 Dome Port for a week, I have to say that Olympus has really hit one out of the park. I think it’s a must have for all Olympus PEN and OM-D underwater photographers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Olympus TG-4 Camera Review: Tough Things Come in Small Packages

I recently had the opportunity to dive the latest revise of the venerable Olympus Tough TG line up, the TG-4. This camera is nearly identical to last year’s TG-3, with the addition of capturing RAW files, an additional underwater HDR scene mode and a few software tweaks.

I had brought it along on a whim with a raft of much more powerful cameras. But most of them were delayed when I had to make a fast transfer of flights. So for the first few days of my Solomon Islands trip I relied on it and the Olympus E-M1 I had in my carry on.

I didn’t have the PT-056 underwater case for the TG-3 and TG-4 that takes it to 140’ (I’m going to pack that the next time), but for shallower dives you can use the camera alone up to 15 meters deep. Waterproof, shockproof, freeze proof, with a sharp, fast f/2.0 lens (good for low light), this camera makes a great starting camera for any aspiring underwater photographer. For more seasoned photographers, it’s a good backup/secondary camera that slips into a pocket.

Using the TG-4 underwater is as easy as turning the mode dial to the “fish” icon and scrolling through the type of scene you want to shoot; Wide (1 and 2; which doesn’t use the flash, Snapshot, Macro or HDR. The Microscope mode is a separate mode setting, and you can also choose other modes along with preset underwater white balance for more control. Other built-in scenes of every description, along with a I-Auto mode make this a simple camera to use.

1080p video makes this a more versatile camera than a GoPro with stereo sound capture as well as a sharp fast zoom lens for “pullbacks” and zoom in takes, along with it’s excellent macro capabilities.

Other cool features include a GPS marker (above water), a tiny little compass display, a depth reading (that also warns you that you are going too deep for the 15 meter limit), a Program and a (limited) Aperture Priority mode for a little more control. These can be coupled with the underwater white balance as well. I didn’t get the chance to try out the HDR mode as I can’t quite figure out how you would hold it steady underwater for the multiple exposures necessary to “sandwich” an extended range photo.

I tried it out underwater on a couple of shallower dives. Closeup, or with good sunlight, it worked quite well. In fact this camera’s underwater macro mode and even cooler “microscope” mode make it a close-in contender to other cameras that cost twice as much. The microscope mode when used with the optional little LG-1 “ring flash” I had also tucked in my bag allowed me to basically place the camera on top of a very small subject and evenly light it using the flash and LED light. It makes for some unusual images that compete with a setup I have with my full-frame D800 rig. All the the palm of your hand! The TG-4 has an expanded shooting range from 1cm to 30cm in the mode and you can also change the "microscope" magnification.

Without an external strobe, you really can’t hope to get farther away than about 1.5 or 2’ and get any light from the camera flash. So when I shot in darker caves with available light it was pretty challenged, even to take shots of the surface.

The addition of RAW capture really turns this camera into a good secondary camera, as now you can post-process and adjust white balance, exposure, and other parameters to tweak your images like you can with other more sophisticated systems.

The sharp crisp image quality that this camera can deliver should not be understated. I used an older T-8000 a few years back and found the images underwater to be ok, but the above water photos to be muddy. That’s not the case with the TG series, with proper lighting sharp crisp images are the rule.

The only negative thing I experienced underwater was when I dove close to the 15 meter mark and the camera locked up. Even diving it at 12 meters, I found it to be inconsistent, working for a while and then freezing. Rising up to around 6-8 meters, turning the camera off and then on again seemed to restore operation. However one time it locked up and I had to take it back to the boat, dry it off and take the battery off to reset it. So I wouldn’t push it past about 12 meters deep in practical use, but for most snorkelers that’s plenty deep.

I would definitely bring along the “dive” housing the next time, which also allows it to be used with external strobes and wide angle lenses to greatly extend the camera’s abilities. Olympus also makes a little “wet” wide angle lens that clips on the front of the camera and for snorkelers using the camera alone, it makes good sense, especially if you’re shooting video, but it can’t be used with the housing.

Third party housings from Nauticam and Ikelite allow for deeper (200-300') and even more rugged use of the camera.

Once my gear caught up to me, I continued to use the camera, leaving it out on the dive deck in all conditions, taking it on rough, wet dingy rides for diver snapshots and sticking it my pocket for a walkabout on the islands. It’s really nice to have a non-fussy, rugged and reliable camera along to capture those fun moments that really tell the story of your trip.
Use with External Strobes 
The Olympus TG-4/TG-3 Cameras have a robust selection of flash modes. Generally all you have to do is put the camera in auto/forced flash mode, but on some strobes TTL won’t sync with these settings. Fortunately Olympus has provided an alternative sync mode that does seem to work. See this article for help in accessing it.