Thursday, January 21, 2016

Olympus EPL-7 with Nauticam WWL-1 & CMC Lens Review

The Nauticam WWL-1 Wet Wide Lens features a sharp 130° FOV.
Nauticam’s new WWL-1 (Wet Wide Angle lens) and their CMC-1 (Compact Macro Converter) have showed how far the quality of wet lenses has come. They are specifically designed for mirrorless and compact cameras are much sharper, and have very little, if any, distortion or aberrations that were common in previous wet lenses. Nauticam has shown good results with these lenses on their own housings with higher-end Sony, Panasonic and Olympus cameras. But when I first saw the WWL-1 lens at DEMA, I was intrigued to see if it would work with a less expensive Olympus PEN E-PL7 camera and carbonate PT-EP12 housing that came out a year or so ago. Would the WWL/CMC system be versatile enough to work on a 3rd party housing?

The Olympus E-PL7 is a camera and small housing that we liked at first look, but was hampered by Olympus’s insistence that the small port that comes on it can’t be changed. It like all Olympus PEN housings can easily be changed - there’s a small set screw and the port just twists out on a bayonet. Zen and other third party ports for wide angle can then be used.

The Olympus PT-EP12 housing only supports the 14-42mm EZ electronic zoom “pancake” lens. Which is the lens that’s compatible with the Nauticam WWL-1 lens.

The Olympus 14-42mm EZ
also is a nice fish portrait lens.
But would the WWL and CMC fit and how good would the quality be? I talked briefly with Edward Lai, Nauticam owner and he said it should work - if the port fits close enough. That’s necessary to get the proper fit between the optics. Testing it in the store, it looked fine, even while using the Nauticam locking bayonet mounting system on the Olympus 67mm threaded port. Fitting the bayonet to the Olympus port worked fine, you only have to remove two set screws from the mount. While this could cause it to rotate on the port, we found that by tightening it well friction held it in place just fine. I took both lenses on and off underwater without a problem.

I outfitted the PEN 7 system with a couple of Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobes along with two sets of 10Bar arm floats. The WWL is a heavy glass high quality lens. Out of water, it weighs about 3.8 pounds. In water, I’d guess less than 3 pounds. So some floats are necessary to make it more neutral. The four 10Bar arm floats worked out well, balancing it nicely.

On a recent short trip to Hawaii’s Big Island at Kona, I was able to take the rig on a couple of dives. I was hoping to find some big animals to try out it’s 130° field of view, but never saw them below water. But I had some fun on the reefs, tried a few general shots, and “herded” around a school of goatfish.

The Nauticam CMC Macro Converter lens is free of aberrations.
The E-PL7 camera shot well, certainly rivaling it’s “big brother” the OM-D EM-5II in image quality. And actually it’s the same camera in many ways, without the viewfinder, direct controls, or weather-sealing. The “innards” including the sensor, processor and so forth are the same. But as a DSLR shooter, I was a little frustrated at it’s slower AF and overall I found it slower to use. I much preferred the Olympus OM-D E-M1.

But it depends on your perspective, I think someone upgrading from a compact camera would be quite pleased with it's sharpness and versatility.

Olympus never did make a zoom gear for the 14-42mm EZ lens, you have to do a quick button assignment to toggle the camera to zoom electronically using the left-right buttons on the back of the housing. This would work very nicely with full “zoom-through” focus from 14 to 42mm using the WWL lens.

The CMC also has a bayonet adapter which is very handy for it and the SMC; I’d say a “must-have” instead of trying to screw these lenses on and off. A flip holder from Nauticam or Saga is probably easier, but they are a bit expensive for some budgets and you can’t put a wide angle lens on them. The Nauticam bayonet is not compatible with other diopter lenses such as those from ReefNet and others that have a flat bottom.

On the same dive I tried switching it out the WWL wide lens with the CMC diopter for some macro shots. This means you need to park the 3 pound WWL lens on a Nauticam bayonet lens holder on an arm, which is not really the most balanced idea. It does work, but is quite awkward. I actually just laid it on a rock for a bit while shooting the macro CMC lens.

Unlike fixed macro lenses, you can zoom in and out
with the 14-42mm EZ and CMC combination.
The CMC lens shot fine and could be used from about 16mm to 42mm. Below 16mm, it vignettes with the bayonet adapter. Most people want more magnification and are using it for the 42mm end of the lens scale. Shots had little, or no, distortion and were pretty good quality for a “non-macro” lens with diopter. At approximately +15 in comparable magnification I was able to do nudibranch head shots easily.

So was this a setup I would recommend? Maybe, maybe not. Cost wise you are starting out pretty reasonably; $499 for the Olympus PEN E-PL7 and 14-42mm EZ lens, $759 for the housing. But you are adding on a $999 WWL and $320 CMC lens to the equation. But it’s still about $1000 or so less than a comparable E-M1 or E-M5 MKII and 8mm FE lens and Zen Port system. And more convenient - part of the savings is having to pack lenses and ports around.

Macro and wide angle on a mirrorless camera - all on one dive!
But the "kit" Olympus 14-42mm lens has it's limitations; it's never going to be as sharp or as powerful as a high quality, prime lens like the Olympus 8mm FE Pro or 60mm macro lenses.

If you’re thinking about a smaller, mirrorless camera set-up, particularly if you want video with an electronic zoom capability, this would be a good, versatile, value-priced option indeed. — Jack Connick

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Nauticam Panasonic GH-4 Review

I recently took a dive trip to Bayahibe, Dominican Republic to do underwater video. But, before my trip, I finally had the opportunity to upgrade my underwater photo/video system. 

Working in an underwater photography store for over a year now has given me a lot of time to think about what camera system would work best for me. It has also made me aware of a huge amount of technical information as well as the opinions of many other underwater photographers. Sometimes I think that made it harder for me to decide (as I have changed my mind several times over the past year) because I know of so many options.

I actually got my start on an old MX10 film camera, then upgraded Olympus digital cameras. But, until recently I have been using Canon crop frame DSLRs for about 8 years for photography as well as a Canon HD Camcorder for dedicated video. My latest Canon DSLR (purchased in 2013) was an attempt to combine photography and video in one system. But the Canon t4i / 650D, while great for photography, fell short on underwater video - due to the lack of smooth autofocus while underwater. 

So, after a year of waiting and researching, I finally decided to get the Panasonic GH4 (even though it had already been out for quite some time), since I had started doing more video than photography, but still wanted the option to do both. I also liked the idea of being able to shoot 4K video and the fact that (with an adapter) I could still use all my expensive, high quality Canon lenses while I was not underwater. The GH4 also has a huge number of options for HD video formatting. For this trip, I chose .mov files - 1920x1080p at 60fps since I was shooting wide angle and wanted the higher frame rate for more detail in movement. For more ideas on specific camera settings read the Setting Up the Panasonic GH4 for Diving article.

But I still needed a mirrorless lens for underwater. Since the majority of my underwater video has been wide angle I decided to get the Olympus MZ ED 7-14mm f2.8 PRO lens as my first lens. I was a little concerned about finding mirrorless lenses that would measure up to the Canon lenses I was used to, but this lens sure does! It does a really good job for wide-angle shooting - as well as close focus wide angle - in any condition. (See my review of the Olympus 7-14mm lens here.)
For my housing, I chose the Nauticam NA-GH4 Housing with a 180mm Optical Glass Dome Port and the N85 to N120 55mm Port Adapter with Knob. Since this is all a really big investment, I added the Vacuum system to the housing for extra security. I chose Nauticam for many reasons, including ergonomics and durability. All the buttons are so well thought out, making them second nature to use. I am also very impressed with the port system. The port and adapter is very easy to assemble and lock to place, so that I know without a doubt that they are secure. I hope to add additional lenses and ports in the future, and there are so many to choose from. That is another reason I chose Nauticam - the fact that I can easily “grow” this system. One thing on the top of my wish-list, since my focus is mainly on video, is a SmallHD 502 monitor with a Nauticam NA-502 housing.

On this trip, I also had the pleasure to demo two 4000 lumen i-Torch Venom c92 video lights. To hold the lights, I used i-DAS arms with 2 medium sized 10Bar floats added to the arms. That, combined with the amount of air around the lens in the dome port, made the system close to neutrally buoyant. (Check out my review of the i-Torch Venom c92 Video lights here.)

On my first dive day I decided to just take the camera and housing (no arm system or lights) so that I could get used to the camera underwater in a less bulky manner. This worked well for me to get confident with a new housing and it also made me super excited to the bring the lights the next day - since, even with some manual white balance, my footage was flat and too blue without the benefit of lighting. Plus, I found out I would have the chance to go wreck diving the following day! That is a “must have lights” dive for sure.

When shooting the GH4 underwater, from here on out, I used some manual white balance, plus the 2 iTorch c92 4000 lumen lights. I set the manual white balance ahead of time using a few different shades of blue - for different depths. Since I did not have a dive buddy and I wanted to limit underwater fiddling around with gear, I tried to have as much set up ahead of time as possible. I found this method of manual WB plus lights, worked the best for all situations except when there was no blue light (natural light filtered through the blue water). On my dives, this only happened in the vary dark areas of shipwrecks, but the same would be true for night dives. On those occasions just the lights, with auto white balance is good.

In Bayahibe, most of the diving was not very deep - about 40-60 feet average, but the first wreck dive, the St. George was deeper: Bottom - 144ft, Stern - 102ft and Top - 50ft. We did not go to the bottom, but we swam through many of the upper rooms at around 90-100ft. This depth, combined with the loss of light inside the wreck made nice bright lights essential for good footage

Since the water had high visibility I used the lighting position in the above
illustration, being careful to make sure the lights are behind the front of the dome port. While diving through the wrecks, I did have to keep repositioning the lights in order to be able to fit through doorways and other openings. So, sometimes I could not have the lights in ideal position while inside the wrecks. Because of this, occasionally the edge of the light was visible. I do wish the edge fall-off was more gradual, but other than that, the light from the c92s was perfect. For most dives I kept the light power between 7-9, I only turned the brightness down for very shallow shots.

I was very happy with my new system, it is a huge upgrade from my old Ikelite housings and lights. Everything felt so much more secure as well as just better engineered. The Nauticam handles are very ergonomic and all the buttons and knobs work so smooth and precise. The white balance button on the housing threw me off a little at first, as it’s a little hidden on the side. But once you know it’s there, it’s super handy positioning. I also really liked having the green light from the vacuum system - telling me everything is airtight - before I even jumped in the water! The i-Torch c92 lights offered nice bright and even light. The GH4, combined with the Olympus 7-14mm lens worked very well to give my footage great detail, color and focus. —  Margo Cavis, Optical Ocean Sales