Olympus is one of the few camera manufacturers who make dedicated underwater housings for their cameras. With each new top-end OM-D camera there’s a new housing.
Back when I started shooting with Olympus I took the dive housing to the ultimate test: I started shooting surf with it.
Before using the OM-D E-M1 Mark II I was shooting with the original OM-D E-M1 (Mark I) in combination with the Olympus PT-EP11 housing.
In fact, this was one of the reasons for my switch from Canon to Olympus a few years ago: a dedicated, compact, portable housing with access to ALL camera buttons and functions made by Olympus for Olympus. That’s a big deal!
What, back then, I didn’t know was how it would hold up in the conditions I was going to use it for. This housing (and all others) are made for dive photography and my idea was to take it into crashing waves. I was unsure of how well the housing would hold up to some serious beating, bashing and pulling by massive surf conditions.
It was a bit of a risk, but in the end it turned out to be a good decision. The housing allowed me to travel to places and capture images I would never have been able to take all my Canon gear to (without extreme excess luggage fees).
For almost 2 years now I’ve been shooting surf with it. In all kinds of conditions. We almost drowned together, captured some of my favourite surf shots and even once spent a month in Tahiti together. Needless to say, I love that housing!
But, with a new camera comes a new housing. So it’s time to take the Olympus PT-EP14 (what a sexy name…) to the test.
Why is this new piece of kit so exciting?
Well, let me tell you, the E-M1 Mark II, which happens to be the camera this housing is made for, is MADE for action sports photography. And if surfing isn’t the ultimate action sport, I don’t know what is.
60fps, unpaired auto focus capabilities, weather sealing (even outside of the housing) and the 2x crop factor of the micro 4/3 sensor make capturing the action so much easier!
There aren’t many underwater housings that give you access to every single button and wheel of the camera and the ones that do are not exactly cheap. Think of it: each and every button or wheel on the housing is a potential point of entry for water. A LOT of thought and design goes into making these things as waterproof as they are. No surprise that you usually pay a decent amount of money to keep your camera dry. And when we take a closer look into the inside of the housing it looks almost like the inside of a watch with wheels, cogs and knobs all around responsible for aligning the movement of the outside buttons and wheels to the ones on the camera on the inside.
Build and feel are quite similar. It is made of the same material as the old model. The depth rating has also increased from 45m with the PT-EP11 to 60m with the PT-EP14. I’d expect the PT-EP14 to hold up to even bigger waves if it came down to it. Great!
The housing weighs 1,390 grams and is quite light. However, the Olympus ports are made of glass and once added to the housing make up the biggest part of the weight. On land the housing + port combo feels quite heavy and bulky, but once in the water it’s much easier to handle. It doesn’t float, (it sinks very slowly) but is pretty close to it and the weight is no longer an issue.
It’s the biggest underwater housing Olympus has built yet. Naturally, since the OM-D E-M1 Mark II is also the biggest mirrorless camera built to date.
What I really liked about the housing was the added grips. It’s much more comfortable to hold than the Olympus PT-EP11 underwater housing and the controls are easier to access too. Especially the front and rear wheels which are (in most cases) the main control points for your camera (shutter and aperture).
The other nice surprise was the new trigger mechanism. It’s much larger and has much longer travel which makes pushing the shutter button halfway to focus much easier. Although I do recommend setting up back button focussing (more on that below).
As with the Olympus PT-EP11 the camera just slides into the housing without any problems or preparation required. I recommend using Peak Design straps as those are easy to clip off and the camera will fit in the housing with the strap ‘dongles’ still attached.
However, I did find that the E-M1 Mark II sits very tightly in the housing and is almost impossible to remove once it’s fitted. The only easy way to get it out is to remove the port first, allowing for some more movement to wiggle out the camera. Not a major issue, but it did leave me scratching my head at first.
The Olympus PT-EP14 takes the same ports as the Olympus PT-EP11. Awesome!
Olympus produces a series of dedicated ports that fit a whole range of lenses. Luckily for us they provide a beautiful chart that makes it much easier to find out what port you need for what lens.
The port bodies are constructed of durable polycarbonate and the front element is made of glass. They are super solid and pretty much indestructible.
Most ports for surf housings are made of acrylic/plastic and will easily scratch. Also, shooting through plastic instead of glass is an easy way to lose sharpness in your images.
As mentioned in the video: there are 2 different types of ports: flat and rounded/dome ports.
The shape being the obvious one, but more importantly, the technique of how they are used being the biggest difference.
Flat ports are shot dry and are usually used with longer focal lengths (anything above 12mm, that’s 24mm full frame equivalent).
Because the front element of Olympus ports are all made of glass you can use chemicals like Rain-X to keep your port from staying wet. That stuff is like magic. Even after shooting for 3 hours I’ve watched the water just peel off the port when pulled out of the water for the 500th time that day.
Note: DO NOT apply Rain-X on acrylic ports!!! It will ruin them!
Dome ports on the other hand are meant to be shot wet.
I can imagine that shooting them dry is a possibility as well, but they are usually much larger in surface area and because of their rounded shape much more difficult to keep dry. Think about it: a dome port will almost always have a side that’s facing close to horizontal and the drops won’t just run down.
So to keep a dome port ‘wet’ the best option is to
1. keep it underwater as much as possible
2. spit on it before you head into the water
3. lick it every now and then.
Yep, not exactly a pretty picture, but I promise you, it works!
Wide angle lenses (which are used with dome ports) tend to make everything that’s close up look huge, so even a tiny drop will, in most cases, ruin your shots.
I also recommend using Silica Gels. Add 1 or 2 of them into the housing when you close it up to prevent the port from fogging up. Acclimatising your housing (bringing the inside temperature to the same as the outside air temperature) is also recommended. Take the housing out of your car or bag and leave it open in the fresh air for a while before sealing it up.
There are a few things you can do to help get a better shot. These recommended settings work for action sports of all sorts. Obviously they might need some tweaking depending on the sport.
The OM-D E-M1 Mark II is made for action. Its weather sealing, ability to be customised, incredible fast focus and high FPS are the perfect starting point for this kind of photography.
Here a few tips to get the most out of your E-M1 Mark II for action sports photography:
1. Back Button Focussing
When shooting action, the most important part is to nail the focus. So it’s really beneficial to take away the focussing from the shutter function and allocate a second button for this. Most sport photographers use this system. I’ve learnt to use it for all my photography. It’s called back button focussing.
Basically we are going to remove AF-Start Function (Auto Focussing) from the shutter button and instead allocate it to the AEL/AFL button.
Follow the image below to set up back button focussing on the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II
To make the most out of this in connection with the Olympus PT-EP14 underwater housing, change the button function of the Fn1 button to be the same as the AEL/AFL button. Now you have 2 buttons on the back of your camera that will activate the auto focus.
The reason for this is that because the housing is slightly bigger it is quite difficult to reach the AEL/AFL button while holding the housing. The Fn1 button is much easier to get to.
Note: this setting does not apply for video mode but can also be set up separately for video inside the video settings menu.
2. S-AF, C-AF or AF Tracking?
For surf photography I recommend C-AF. This is because there is just too much movement going on while you are swimming in the water to use tracking mode. The camera is constantly trying to look for your subject and will consider everything that is moving as a potential area to track and select as next for auto focus area.
Tracking mode works great when you have a static background, you/your camera is static and the only movement in the frame is your moving subject.
When we’re capturing something like surfing from the water however, everything is moving, you, the water, the subject. Too many areas to confuse the camera with.
When using C-AF the camera won’t actively look for movement. Instead, it continuously measures the distance between the selected auto focus point(s) and your subject. This takes some practise as you will have to make sure that your subject (the surfer in this case) is inside your focussing point and stays there during the entire time you hold your AF button.
Generally I use one single AF point. But you can also chose to use a grid of multiple focus points (a cross of 5 or even 9 focus points). It’s personal preference, but once you nail the technique it’s best to avoid giving the camera additional areas to potentially try to focus on.
On the E-M1 Mark II be sure to set the sequential shooting mode to Sequence-L (in mechanical and silent mode) and C-AF to get the camera to continuously focus in when shooting bursts.
3. Burst Mode
This one is obvious really. The faster your camera can shoot, the more likely you are to capture the action. The E-M1 Mark II can capture up to 60fps when only focussing once at the beginning (S-AF) and up to 18 frames per second when focussing continuously (set to C-AF and set to Sequence-L). That is with a silent, electronic shutter. (15fps and 10fps respectively with the mechanical shutter). Mind you, all of those burst rates are at full, uncompressed 12 bit RAW! Very impressive!
Remember to take a big memory card with you.
I use the 64GB Lexar x2000 UHS-II SD cards. They write at up to 300MB/s and haven’t let me down.
Be sure to use the upper SD card slot on the E-M1 Mark II as it’s the only one of the two that has UHS-II capabilities.
Also, remember to format your card, take off the lens cap and use a fully charged battery. Nothing worse than battling your way out into double overhead waves at 4:30AM before sunrise only to realise you left the battery in the camera bag…
Yes, in case you were wondering, been there, done that…
Hot Tip: I always shoot a photo of my feet and review it before I head off into the water. That way I won’t forget a thing.
Using those settings combined with the skill of the longboarders I managed to get a few decent shots. Couldn’t have been happier with them really.
See and judge for yourself.
Congratulations, you’ve made it!
Sooo… my verdict for the Olympus PT-EP14 and surf photography with the E-M1 Mark II?
The housing equals it’s predecessor in terms of build quality. The ergonomics have been improved and it’s easier to access the camera controls. The Olympus PT-EP14 in combination with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II is probably the most exciting setup for surf photography on the market right now! The housing is made for the camera and the camera is small, lightning fast, has incredibly accurate focus and is super customisable. The housing performed well and the glass ports give me the best possible image sharpness I could wish for when shooting in the water. That doesn’t leave many points to argue about…
As a result of all this: It’s fun to use. To me it really brought back the joy of shooting surf from within the water again.
Negatives? I could argue that the housing is pricy, but hey, you’re taking the most capable, high end mirrorless camera and submerging it into the most destructive environment you would want to take your tech to… you’ll need solid protection!