Olympus Pen E-PL1 and PT-EP01

Hot idea, cool water

To call the Olympus Pen range and their Micro Four Thirds brethren a watershed in the camera market doesn't sound quite right, even if it's true. To call the Pen E-PL1 a watershed once housed for diving is maybe a little more understandable – though it's not any kind of shed you'd recognise from your garden. Sharing the latest toughened up styling with the housed E-620 SLR it carries off a cute Tonka toy look with aplomb, but is it merely a plaything?

Good things etc

The fact that it shares the look of an SLR case messes with its scale and it's much, much smaller in the hand than it appears on paper or the web. Olympus have scaled an SLR case down, but for the most part kept the same gauge of materials and the same size fixtures and fittings. This makes it very reassuringly chunky and quite the most rigid polycarbonate underwater housing I've handled. The cobby look is cute but clever moulding stops it being clumsy. In fact the housing isn't vastly larger than a bare pro SLR so it's easy to hold without extra handles on a strobe tray – in fact like a lot of better designed housings, it is designed to be held in the right hand with your trigger finger on the shutter, like a camera - that's not a concept that's hard to understand! Like most other own brand housings the controls are logical extensions of the camera's own layout.

The PT-EP01 is very small (and tough) for a case that protects a large sensor camera

The Pens are bigger than compacts but significantly smaller than all but the very smallest SLRs... so the case follows suit. It's about 2/3 the size of the Olympus case for my E-420 and half the size of one for the E-330 - which is more on a par with typical housed SLRs. If you have watched the advance of underwater digital photography you may know of the fond following that cameras like the Olympus C-5060 and C-7070 built up (and still have). The body portion of the PT-EP01 case is about the same size as those – although the interchangeable lenses dictate a larger port. I was surprised that the case only used a single 'o' ring but the closing and locking mechanism is so positive and that one seal is set very deep – I didn't have to clean it at all in a week of typical UK boat diving. The back seals and locks with a large single cam buckle, which also eases the back open and shut.

The rear door is closed by a large cam catch which locks shut

The case could actually be significantly smaller but it sports a generous SLR style bump to cater for the optional electronic viewfinder. Without it the case would be much lower but the EVF is a complete remedy for the common compact complaint that you often can't see rear LCDs clearly in strong sunlight. This is the same SVGA resolution as the best SLR back panel displays and shrouded from ambient light. It's larger than most SLRs viewfinders and also includes as much or as little of the typical display information as you want.

Only port in a storm

The front port is described as fixed and non-interchangeable but in fact it is easy to remove and it would be very simple to swap on an alternative... I'd be extremely surprised if someone doesn't design and sell more ports sooner rather than later. For the meantime the standard one suits the Olympus 14-42mm kit lens, a new 9-18mm wide angle and will also house the Panasonic 45mm Macro lens. Strangely the case doesn't normally include the zoom gear you'd need to change focal length – make sure you include one on your order unless you like setting the lens for the whole dive.

Although the single port is quite versatile it will be a compromise. Beyond about 75 degrees (28mm equivalent view) flat ports often suffer from chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame and it's quite bulky for a macro port. For wide angle lenses normally a dome port is ideal, although there are a number of 'wet' domes now which slip onto flat ports, this one would have to be large (and thus expensive). To provide some cost effective extra options there is an optional clip-on port cap with a 67mm thread which will allow macro lenses and, with care, a wide angle lens to be added to the front of the outfit.

Shoot and fibre

The two front fibre ports are the only outlets for the camera pop-up flash, you can't use it to light a subject directly, welcome to the grown up world of external strobes! This is the first PT-E housing not to have a wired port for external strobes (flash guns to land folk) and it puts its eggs firmly in the wirelessly controlled strobe basket. This particularly suits Olympus' UFL-2 strobes which the E- PL1 can run using its pop-up flash as a master controller. Instead of an electrical bulkhead connector there are two push fit fibre optic ports which relay flash data bursts or just plain flashing to external strobes. The wireless mode is intended for use with Olympus RC wireless protocols so pairs with the matching UFL-2, but it can of course trigger other plain slave and TTL-Mimic strobes.

There are two ports for strobe fibres

The E-PL1 offers you the option to use any one of the optically controlled strobe units. By default the flash operates as a TTL fill in flash for mimic TTL modes, such as Inon's S-TTL, but can be used to manually trigger slave strobes and still better offers the option of the wireless control... which can do all of the above from the back of the camera.

The full wireless option is a joy to use if you can stretch to it, it's quite simply a neater, tougher and lighter way to connect external strobes to a camera than vulnerable electrical cables. I'm sure you're tired of me saying that the RC wireless mode offers full dedicated control over 3 channels of numerous strobes and allows use of any shutter speed available up to 1/4000th. I didn't have the luxury of the UFL-2 strobe on my test but made out fine using a variety of others either manually or using mimic TTL functions. See the side bar article on strobe modes!

The wonderful world of strobes (and the way they work – or don't!).

I drew a comment in one of my reviews about what constituted a dedicated strobe so perhaps it's worth a quick run down of your options. Adding a strobe CAN make a huge improvement in your photos – particularly if you dive in less than gin clear waters. Unfortunately strobes differ from flashes in a number of ways and the most important of those is that they often don't work properly.

So from the bottom of the food chain upwards:

Slave – this just means it fires at the same time as another flash, doesn't imply it takes what the camera is doing into account. Just firing at the right time doesn't suit most automatic cameras.
N.B. Any optically coupled flash needs a slave sensor so it knows when to fire.

Digital compatible – able to ignore the 'pre-flash' flash pulses that many digital cameras use to assist metering. Just means it will fire when the picture is taken, not necessarily during that metering phase. This still doesn't imply that it takes what your camera is doing into account.
N.B. If your strobe isn't lighting your pictures this may be the problem.

Manual power control – allows you to set how hard the strobe fires. This works very well if you can also set your camera manually. If your camera is automatic this might allow you to moderate the flash to top-up the scene, but often it will not. The camera has no way to predict what the strobe will do and so the results are unpredictable... some cameras can react fast enough to benefit, others can't.

Auto – The flash fires and controls its own output according to its own exposure settings – which you may be able to set the camera to match... most small cameras don't make this easy or possible, but since it is sensitive to the scene contents it might work out.
N.B. If your camera has a real manual mode this works fine.

TTL Mimic – Fires at the right time and copies the duration of the camera's own flash. Flash light is mostly controlled by duration (not brightness) so it will fire as long as the camera thinks it needs to and this can work ever so well even with the most basic cameras. This uses a sensor which times the camera's internal flash (which can be masked) and finally you can have plug and play strobe fun. Inon call their version S-TTL, which works very well.

TTL – Set and controlled entirely by the camera (Through The Lens) – the way most land flash works. With a direct connection the camera has access to the strobe for timing and power control – but a cable doesn't always make for TTL.

TTL adjustment – some camera housings allow you to adjust power but if a flash is truly TTL controlled this could be easier and should be more accurate from the camera. On-strobe power controls often don't work when a strobe is TTL connected.

Dedicated – More than being intended for use underwater a strobe or flash is dedicated when it can be completely controlled by the camera. TTL is good but dedication allows access to stuff like faster shutter speeds, zoom heads and now wireless control.

Wireless dedicated – On land this can be done by radio, but radio isn't such a smart idea underwater. Olympus offer an optical remote system. This may look superficially like a fibre triggered strobe but the camera sends detailed instructions to the strobe using its internal flash... it can operate in any mode the camera or strobe support and allows all the parameters to be controlled from the back of the camera.

Using a strobe can be a vale of tears. The TTL mimic strobes are ideal for compacts but many compacts have limited control over their own flashes and cannot reliably control an external unit. There are several compacts which in fact work in reverse, they fire their own strobes at fixed power and alter their exposure to match. Even some of the best bridge cameras have limited options – try before you buy.

12.3 Million Pixels Beneath the Waves

Underwater the case is as good to use as it looks. The controls are trivially easy to use and logically laid out. The current Olympus style is to have the buttons labelled in white shot moulded lettering on black so there's no scratching your head underwater. There are a few buttons which are offset from the camera controls but not by far and not so you'd know – they're all smooth and immediate. The case without the optional viewfinder is just slightly positively buoyant, which makes for a stress free hand off to the boat since it won't plunge to its doom if you fumble it.

The rear controls couldn't be much clearer

My test dives were in the Isles of Scilly, wildlife surveying with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. The islands are a hotspot of marine biodiversity and often the first port of call for exotic species moving North towards the UK in our warming seas. The waters were clear and bright, not the sternest test of the Pen's focussing, and even 30m down it didn't really slow and despite the unstable nature of dive photography the hit rate was excellent. I was short of a couple of important elements of a full test and so I had to use a non-dedicated simple strobe flash (in manual mode) and the clip-on lens holder, which I was suspicious of, was replaced with a swiftly homemade contraption to see whether the concept worked (it did).

Squat lobsters are reclusive - a test of focus down dark holes

The kit lens is more than a reasonable performer under water and doesn't labour close up like compacts often do. It isn't a 'macro' lens but small animals (less than 3cm) aren't beyond your grasp. Critically the response remains good with a macro lens added – there are excellent apochromatic screw-on wet lenses which boost close up performance markedly and I was able to try two Inon models and Olympus own. They can even be used together to allow you to get within mere mm of your subject - although lighting is then really tricky. The front port is pretty large, at about 100mm across, to ensure the bezel doesn't encroach on the field of view. The pukka clip-on lens holder is just like the included port cover but with a 67mm threaded opening in the middle of it.

There's plenty of fanworm detail from the kit lens

I was, to my surprise, immensely pleased with the results from my home brewed mock-up of the real thing, to the extent that aside from the extra magnification I couldn't immediately spot that the extra lens was in use from tell tale optical artefacts. The 67mm threaded filters were fine with the lens pulled out until about halfway when they started to encroach on the field of view, best to leave them zoomed in. Wide angle adaptors don't work so well as they vignette earlier at the wide end and so don't add much worthwhile width. The 9-18mm lens will obviously help there, and it has an internal focussing design which is faster too. I expect in the fullness of time a dome port will be available which will make this pocket Venus very desirable for the wandering underwater photographer wanting to travel light.

The macro adaptor is great for sea slugs like this Coryphella

Another weight saver is the option to shoot decent video – no camcorder required! The Pens shoot 720P HD footage in Motion JPEG format which fills cards about twice as fast as MPEG-4/ AVCHD. You can get nearly an hour on a 16GB SD card but because it is recorded as AVI files you are limited to 7 minute sequences. For most underwater filming that's no problem and this format is much faster and easier to edit than AVCHD.

Second Opinions

I was lucky enough to share my Scilly trip with a couple of marine wildlife enthusiasts diving with the Seasearch project who were happy to take the Pen for a dive and give me their impressions. David and Sarah dive currently with compacts already configured to capture tiny animals close up but both saw the results from the Pen as a marked improvement. Their favoured field is sea slugs and they were mightily impressed by the magnification available even with the bare kit lens but also tried additional wet lenses for more extreme close up work. The results spoke for themselves – others were flabbergasted at the detail that could be extracted from scenes. Even SLR users aren't used to seeing so much detail, but if you're a specialist you know what is there to be seen.

AF is impressive, it can pick tiny, weird things out of the water column

Their verdict was that the Pen trumped their current cameras and made a leap up in quality they had been looking for without the bulk and weight of an SLR - which they very much wanted to avoid as it can get in the way of diving. I hoped that tempting them with the Pen wouldn't cause a squabble over who upgraded but that seemed to have been settled amicably – they both wanted one!

Conclusion

Not everyone wants an SLR on land and when they go underwater still more hanker for a small camera that will give great results rather than a bulky set up which will take over the dive. On luxury blue water trips when native bearers will deliver you and your weapons to the water without effort this may be irrelevant but for everyone else a 2kg set up which gives the SLR results of a 5kg system (and the Pen does) has serious attractions.

The picture character of the Pens is that of an SLR and if you are a compact user you will get the worthwhile ups and the noticeable downs of that. Dramatically better high ISO performance, choice of better lenses, the double edged sword of shallow depth of field and artistic subject isolation along with the need for more light for close up work. I think it's a step worth taking and now those steps aren't as heavily loaded down!

Up in the kelp sunlight and shadow have to be balanced

One of the most distinct things that the Pens offer over many entry level SLRs is a level of configuration that they can't even approach and a choice of ways to drive the cameras. Underwater this pays dividends as you can choose your favourite and you don't have to work round limitations. The photographic options are complete too; it isn't a crippled SLR for dummies and can mix it with the big boys, allowing you to grow into a considerable headroom of extra features whenever you need them. That it throws in decent video shooting is a significant bonus.

This big Blue jellyfish might sting but it only wants to catch floating food

The Pens may be a new idea but the technology at the heart of them has been refined and the 12 megapixel sensor is the one which put Four Thirds cameras on a par with their APS-C competitors. There really isn't any significant gap between the Pens and SLRs in their output and this option lets you put together a small, light, excellent underwater system for around half what a diving SLR rig would cost – time to take the plunge!

Ratings

Build 9.5/10 Hard to fault at all, maybe a second 'o' ring would have been added icing.
Handling 9/10 Small enough to still feel like a camera rather than a housing
Operation 9/10 Fast, good looking results – will improve with the EVF and maybe get a 10

Overall score: 9

The Pen is mightier than the compact and gives you a midget SLR

Many, many thanks to Angie Gall of the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust for her invitation and hospitality, to Dave Mcbride and Tim Allsop for some excellent diving and to David Kipling and Sarah Bowen for giving the E-PL1 an intense underwater work out.

Related diving links: www.ios-wildlifetrust.org.uk, www.divescilly.com and www.scillydiving.com.

View the Olympus E-PL1 and the Olympus PT-EP01 Waterproof Case for E-PL1 at Wex Photographic.