Dive with Olympus: A beginning shooter tries the TG-4 and the E-M5 Mark II

Ever since I started carrying a video camera on every dive a few years back, I wondered: If this thing starts to flood, will I know? What if it’s flooding right now and I just can’t tell?

Turns out, oh yeah, you’ll know. But if the camera you’re using is the Olympus Stylus Tough TG-4, it really doesn’t matter.

Recently six underwater shooters at skill levels from rank beginner — me — to the CEO of Backscatter Underwater Video & Photo came to Islamorada’s storied Cheeca Lodge to meet with a team from Olympus Cameras, to get hands-on underwater experience with the new OM-D E-M5 Mark II, the Stylus Tough TG-4, and the OM-D E-M1 FW 3.1. One of the first things that caught my attention was when Olympus technical specialist Eric Gensel told us the TG-4 is waterproof on its own to 50 feet, or 150 feet in the PT-056 housing.

That proved handy when, on the last day of our experiential, we descended at Key Largo’s Winch Hole and I suddenly realized I had joined a very special club. One look at the camera made very clear that the housing was filling up fast. (User error: I had allowed a corner of a desiccant tab to breach the seal.) Sheepish, I popped back to the surface, waving the TG-4 at Gensel, who simply handed me another camera and grabbed a freshwater hose, to give the salt-soaked housing a good rinse. Otherwise, no harm done.

That’s pretty typical of our experience with the TG-4: It’s built tough, as we proved again when ours were beat to heck on a wild and crazy jet ski tour of the bays and cuts around Islamorada. Like those Timex watches of old, the TG-4s took a licking and kept on ticking.

Earlier in the week, we had gotten about 10 minutes instruction each on the OM-D E-M5 Mark II, with PT-EP13 housing and UFL-3 strobe; the TG-4 in PT-056 housing with the same light; and Olympus’s OI-Share app, which among other things controls the cameras via built-in wi-fi. That was all that was necessary to get us ready to take the cameras underwater, even for a newbie like me. (Full disclosure: This was only the second time I had handled a DSLR, or a still camera of any kind, underwater.)

Coolest factoids from our briefing: The TG-4’s built-in GPS, which is designed to save your dive route to within 25-foot accuracy; and its “microscope mode,” for extreme close-ups. Shoots RAW, too.

Olympus underwater rep Bob Hahn chose dive sites perfect for our purpose. Within a half-hour to 45-minute boat ride from Key Largo are many shallow, sunny, fishy reefs popular with snorkelers and divers alike. Easy in, easy out, and lots to see without hardly moving the boat.

We started at the beloved statue of Christ of the Deep, which stands in about 25 feet of water at a site called Dry Rocks. From the Spurs — a fishy series of cigar-shaped small bommies inhabited by turtles — and action-packed Triple A reef, where every few feet seemed to offer a different macro circus, it was on to the spooky-cool wreck of the Hannah M. Bell, where a big bottlenose dolphin suddenly bombed past our two groups of divers arrayed around the expansive 19th-century remains. We finished up at Winch Hole and Hole in the Wall, and relished our last hour in the garden of sea fans at the Wellwood Restoration Site, where coral cultivation by Scuba Diving’s 2014 Sea Hero of the Year Ken Nedimyer is taking shape at the site of the 1984 wreck of the freighter Wellwood.

(Tip for anybody looking for a spot to try out a new system: the Upper Keys shallow, fishy reefs provided an easy testing ground, with wrecks, historic artifacts and swim-thrus, and a steady stream of big animals like sharks, turtles, rays and snorkelers.)

What were my takeaways? I didn’t try the OM-D E-M1 FW 3.1, Olympus’s professional rig, for which I’m clearly not ready. And I’m not qualified to review the other cameras per se, either, but several participants are. You can read Backscatter Underwater Video & Photo’s take here (TG-4) or here (E-M5 Mark II). Or Brent Durand of Underwater Photography Guide here (TG-4). And Dave Pardue from Imaging Resource on the Olympus housings we used here.

What sticks with me was the amazing video captured by the E-M5 Mark II — motion-picture quality; see for yourself at some of the links above — and how easy the TG-4 was to use, switching from video to stills, and the clarity of the screen displays, plus its live composite function, where you can watch a long exposure at night take shape before your eyes, in real time. Both systems were slightly negatively buoyant and easy to handle. Here’s hoping I get to handle one again, and soon.

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