In this article, the final one in the series, I will explain my personal experience with wide-angle underwater photography using the Olympus OM-D EM-5 camera.
With macro photography, the dynamic range is rarely very wide, as there are typically no extreme highlights if an image has been properly exposed, so virtually all modern digital cameras are eminently capable of doing a good job of macro with the right lenses and in the right hands.
Wide-angle photography, however, is quite different—with many of the best images in this genre, and certainly the ones that really have that “wow” factor, having a broad or even extreme dynamic range. A typical example being that in addition to the main subject of the image, the sun (or at least its rays) is included in the image to provide a dramatic backdrop and create a vibrant and emotive photograph. Recording detail on the main subject is largely a function of using strobes to properly illuminate it, while capturing detail in the extreme highlights of the sun is very much related to the capability of the digital camera’s sensor.
Digital technology continues to advance rapidly, and the latest generation of full-frame sensors has really moved the goalposts on dynamic range, with the current overall champion being the Nikon D800, which the camera ratings site Dxomark.com measured at an incredible 14.4 Evs. This means that images that were not previously possible, because the dynamic range between the shadows and highlights was too large, can now be captured.
Can mirrorless cut it?
My personal journey with mirrorless cameras was driven by a desire to have a small and dedicated macro rig that could also double-up as back-up to my main D800 wide-angle outfit.Overall, my experience to date with the OM-D E-M5 has convinced me that mirrorless cameras offer a great alternative to DSLR’s for macro photography because they are capable of producing excellent images but are smaller, lighter and most importantly cheaper, which lowers the entrance bar and has to be a good thing.
However, I was less convinced about wide-angle photography, as I doubted whether the Olympus’ relatively small sensor had adequate dynamic range—although Dxomark.com did measure the E-M5 at a very capable 12.3 Evs.
A recent trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, provided me with the chance to try out the E-M5 on sites I knew would provide numerous wide-angle photo-opportunities.
Lens and port options
The Olympus-Panasonic Micro Four Thirds technology has by far the best range of lens options for wide-angle underwater photography, with Panasonic offering its 8mm (16mm equivalent) fish-eye lens with a bright f3.5 maximum aperture and close-focus distance of just four inches. Panasonic also offers a very nice extreme rectilinear zoom lens—the 7-14mm zoom—which is their equivalent of Nikon’s very highly regarded 14-24mm zoom. While Olympus offers their 9-18mm (18-36mm equivalent) zoom lens, which is both small and compact plus has a close-focus distance of just six inches.
The good news is that Nauticam supports all of these lenses. However, the bad news is that dedicated ports are required—not one dome port and different extension rings as is usually the case with DSLR’s. So, I opted for the Panasonic 8mm fish-eye and the small Nauticam 4.33-inch dome port that is designed specifically for it.
I will spare you all the gory details, but a variety of unplanned and unpleasant surprises turned my 28 days of diving in Raja Ampat into just 12, and all my carefully laid plans for a variety of different tests had to be boiled right down to the bare minimum. So, I decided to start by establishing how the E-M5 would perform on a clear water reef scene with a bright highlight in one corner of the image and dark shadows in another.
I was pleasantly surprised at the overall result, with the E-M5 producing a very nice image, while zooming in to 100 percent showed both detail and clarity in the highlight and shadow areas. While not at D800 levels of performance, the E-M5 produced a very nice image that could easily grace the walls of your living room or the pages of a magazine.
From there I wanted to see how the E-M5 would cope with strong highlights right in the image and a dive at Blue Magic in the Dampier Strait provided a quite unique photo-opportunity when one of the boat boys decided to check out who was on the deco line.
Similar crops of the highlights and shadows demonstrate that the OM-D E-M5 does a very credible job in such situations—again, not D800 quality but most acceptable ...