Geek week: Olympus goes to Gozo
“WOULD YOU LIKE TO VISIT GOZO to try out a range of Olympus cameras under water” the Editor asked me. “Is a pig’s hindquarters pork” I replied.
I set off to meet Pete Bullen of OceanFoto, based at the Moby Dives centre in the heart of the beautiful Xlendi Bay. Pete, who trains and guides underwater photographers, had put together a team of us for a proper “geek week”, pixel-peeking and talking RAW formats over dinner and drinks, and putting the cameras through their paces.
The team included DIVER photo columnist Dr Alex Mustard, Olympus expert Rob Spray, Ocean Leisure Cameras’ Mario Vitalini and me.
A three-hour hop from London to Malta, a short shuttle-ride to the ferry-port, and 15 minutes later I was in a taxi to Xlendi Bay. I had checked into Mark Cassar’s Moby Dives Ulysses Hotel and sorted out my kit when Alex and long-time partner Eleonora Manca arrived, and declared that they wanted to squeeze in a dive before dinner.
“Choose a camera, Nige,” said Pete.
I had never used anything like the micro four thirds (M4/3) system before, so for now I opted for something that would behave like my DSLR.
The new flagship Olympus camera the OM-D E-M5 with a 45mm macro lens, fitted the bill. I could shoot it in full manual mode, allowing me to set the aperture, shutter speed and ISO on the fly. Rob quickly ran through the menus, settings and controls for me. I was ready to get wet.
A 50m walk from Moby Dives took us to the beach. After a short surface swim we were submerged in clear water with seagrass and sand leading up to a rock wall as our backdrop.
Rob led the dive, navigating us to a cavern with a swimthrough, the beautiful evening light forming dappled rays that danced around the entrance.
MACRO SUBJECTS WERE HARD to find, but I eventually located a large hermit crab sitting on the rocky floor of the cavern.
Setting the OM-D up for a shot was simple enough. With fibre-optic cables triggering the flashguns, I could shoot in TTL mode, something that hasn’t been possible since I retired my film cameras eons ago and took the DSLR route.
I took some test shots of a similar-sized stone to assess the exposure and lighting angles, and with both flashguns firing, all looked good.
When I shot the crab, however – you guessed it – the right-hand flash died.
I took two shots with the remaining flash. Doh!
Pete and Rob had been diving and shooting with this camera all day, and in our haste to get a late dive in had neglected to replace the batteries.
The image I captured was good, however. With the camera’s focus system having no problem locking onto the subject in the poor light, the single flash delivered a pleasing exposure.
At an aperture of f7, the depth of field was greater than I had expected. In the confines of the cavern, a shutter speed of 1/80sec rendered the negative space black, isolating the subject to make it stand out.
Impressed with the camera but disappointed with the flashgun failure, I ended my photo-shoot and went for an hour-long mooch around the seagrass with Rob, finding shoaling bream, fireworms, red seastars, scorpionfish, wrasse, goatfish and the odd jellyfish.
Olympus had sent Pete a range of cameras and lenses with their own dedicated housings and ports. Lined up in his de-humidified office at Moby were the newly released Olympus Tough TG-1 iHS and XZ-1 compact cameras, alongside the micro four-thirds Pen Mini E-PM1, the Pen Lite E-PL3 and
the OM-D E-M5 I had already tried (the Olympus naming system isn’t easy to get your head around).
We also had generic lenses for the M4/3 systems, ranging from 8mm fisheye to 50mm macro from both Olympus and Panasonic; we added trays, arms and our own flashguns to complete the set-ups.
Monday was to be spent diving at Xlendi Bay. On the first dive I took the OM-D and 8mm fisheye set behind a 150mm dome port, with freshly charged batteries in my own INON flashguns.
I was joined by Kristina Hartwig, the lovely twin-set-wearing GUE diver from Moby, as my model.
A stint in the cavern capturing images of Kristina set against the bluewater entrance ate up our dive time, as I experimented with different settings and modes on the OM-D.
This tiny alternative to my own DSLR proved more than capable of producing the goods. In manual mode its light meter was a joy to use, and changing aperture and shutter speed is wheel-driven and intuitive, although a two-handed exercise.
The external flashguns are triggered via fibre-optic cables from the dedicated hot-shoe and USB-mounted internal flash, but the camera’s pre-flash needs to be accounted for when setting up the off-board flashguns (thanks, Alex).
The tiny Olympus 8mm fisheye lens with 180° coverage (equivalent to 16mm on a full-frame sensor) created pin-sharp results, which, with the camera’s 16 megapixels, produced images that could compete with high-end DSLRs.
On my second dive, I changed cameras and buddies, taking the Pen E-PL3 for a spin with my new model Babs, a Moby Dives instructor.
The E-PL3 is another M4/3 camera, and it was fitted with an 8mm fisheye, though set this time behind a 100mm mini-dome-port supplied by Billie Libecamp of UW Cameras.
This camera is menu-driven, so another pre-dive geeking session with Rob was needed to give me an insight into how to use it. His know-how was proving indispensable, so I conned him into joining us on the dive.
BACK IN THE CAVERN, I wanted to shoot in similar light conditions to before, so that I could compare the results to the images of Kristina.
The smaller camera and housing and menu-driven functions make this camera feel and behave a little like a compact. Close-focus wide-angle shots were a doddle with the mini dome set-up, and the whole package could be carefully positioned without disturbing the quarry and the lens appearing to focus close to the edge of the port.
I took some shots of Babs’ eye as a test, and the images showed just how much detail this little M4/3 can capture.
In the cavern, Babs adopted a similar pose in the same opening as Kristina had, and I flailed away with the camera.
Using various combinations of settings for aperture, shutter-speed and ISO, I obtained remarkably similar results to those of the top-end OM-D.
I sat out the third dive of the day, as I had grown a little chilly after three hours in a 5mm wetsuit. Note to self: put your glasses on when reading pre-visit emails informing you of the water temperature, and take a drysuit like everyone else.
The water temperature at the end of May in the Med is around 19°C, so while it’s OK to dive in a 5mm suit, 90-minute dives will become an endurance test.
I spent the afternoon capturing topside shots, however, and even caught Alex Mustard sheepishly sneaking back to the dive centre kitted up in full scuba and drysuit to get his weight-belt – we’ve all been there at least once!
The hire car turned up next morning, a little Maruti 4x4 with a deckchair-striped awning, and bearing the legend “Franks Garage”. We were off to meet British expat Peter Allday, skipper of a chartered RIB providing access to offshore sites around Gozo.
The day started poorly when I was unable to start the car. Apparently a PhD was needed to understand that it had a choke, so it was fortunate that I had two doctors of science on board,
in the shape of Alex and Eleonora.
I spent an exciting 20 minutes trying to keep up with Pete’s 4x4, but it was as well not to get too close, because I struggled to stop my car with both feet on the brake pedal, while using the steering wheel for leverage!
WE LEFT THE FERRY PORT on Peter’s boat in flat-calm conditions to collect our supervisor in Malta. It’s mandatory to be supervised when diving our next site, the tuna-pens.
The Atlantic bluefin tuna industry in Malta is said to have an annual turnover of half a billion euros, less surprising when you realise that a single 269kg fish was sold at auction in Japan for £472,000 this year.
The species went on the endangered list last year – its cousin the southern bluefin is now critically endangered.
This might be my only chance to dive with these beautiful leviathans.
Wide-angle photography was the order of the day. We had only three dome-ports for the Oly housings between us, so I volunteered to take my own Nikon rig on the dive, rather than draw straws for a macro set-up.
Peter moored besides one of the floating circular booms suspending the nets off the seabed. Our supervisor provided a safety briefing as we kitted up, and I was first in.
Below the surface, I got my first glimpse of around 800 2m tuna swimming swiftly on an anti-clockwise circuit, the sun glistening off their silver flanks. The sight will remain burned into my memory forever.
Mario was next in, and we descended in the centre of a tuna tornado to just above the bottom of the net, at around 35m. Looking up, we could see the fish silhouetted against the surface.
A few shots, and it was time to ascend to a sensible depth, but this ascent was a struggle. The mass movement of the tuna was causing a vortex that forced us back down. It felt like being washed down a plug-hole.
We finally arrived at around 15m to find Alex and Eleonora in among these huge fish, which were speeding past at around 3 knots. I hovered while I tried to make sense of the movement.
My mind was telling me that I was spinning backwards with the two doctors, and that the fish were stationary. With no reference point
on which to focus, I soon felt nauseous.
Aware that I was suffering from vertigo and with a severe headache starting, the sensible decision was to abandon the dive. Even so, that 18 minutes spent with the bluefins goes straight into my top 20 all-time dives.
PETER MOVED US ON to beautiful Comino Island, nestled between Malta and Gozo. The island is a honeycomb of caves, caverns and swim-throughs and is very popular with divers and boat tours.
After our surface interval we rolled
off the RIB into a huge shoal of snapper congregating in the shade of the boat. We all took time with them, as they are fantastic subjects to capture on a camera sensor or, in my case, to use as a backdrop for some diver portraits.
A short swim put us in Zorro Cave, named because of the Z-shaped opening, where Alex was kind enough to pose for us. Ninety minutes of diving and shooting in these surroundings seemed to pass in the blink of an eye.
Because of early flights we had time only for one morning dive the next day. Pete wanted to take us to a favourite site, at Ras il Hobs, and I wanted to give the OM-D another run-out, this time Pete’s own example, fitted again with an 8mm fisheye and 150mm dome-port.
The camera was growing on me and as I was considering upgrading my Nikon D300 I wanted to decide whether this model was worth considering.
The drive to the site was another white-knuckle affair but, like the OM-D, the little 4x4 was also finding a place in my heart as it negotiated steep sand and gravel-covered inclines with ease.
The dive was to a pinnacle with a crevice cutting through its top at around 10m, the sides falling away to 90m at the seabed (no wonder Pete kept signalling me to clip his camera onto my D-rings).
With subjects easy to locate and shoot, I once again worked away with the camera, experimenting with settings and lighting angles.
I felt as if I was getting to grips with it, but the housing was starting to niggle, with its awkward ergonomics. Both hands were needed to change settings, and I was soon longing for my Subal.
In fairness, I would probably set the tray and arms up differently if it was my kit, enabling me to access the controls more easily.
On this evidence, the Olympus range of cameras should have something to meet the needs even of diehard top-end DSLR-shooters, who might like to try the two Pen models and the OM-D.
As far as housings go, there are said to be third-party offerings available soon that will be ergonomically superior, though at a price.
Pete Bullen is keeping the kit we used, so if you’re in the market and want to try before you buy, or are interested in M4/3 systems and compacts from Olympus, contact him and have a go yourself.
Olympus Cameras, www.olympus.co. uk; OceanFoto, www.oceanfoto.co.uk; Moby Dives, www.mobydivesgozo.com; Ulysses Hotel, www.ulyssesaparthotel. com; Peter Allday, www.oceandreams. uk.com; Malta & Gozo Tourist Board, www.visitmalta.com