Olympus PT-E06 Review

Olympus PT-E06 Underwater Housing for the E-620 – The case for the defence

In the web pictures I'd seen of the Olympus PT-E06 I wasn't really struck by any one feature. In the flesh however this new case is an impressive upgrade. (The PT-E05 for the E-510 incorporated many of these changes too but I never got to lay hands on it.) Where the case for the E-330 was over butch with a few design eccentricities and the minimalist model for the E-400/10 and 20 perhaps looked a little effete – now the PT-E06 looks just right.

Olympus PT-E06 wearing a dome port and UFL-2, filled with E-620 and 9-18mm lensOlympus PT-E06 wearing a dome port and UFL-2, filled with E-620 and 9-18mm lens

Due diligence

The most obvious changes are aesthetic, the normal glass-clear polycarbonate has gone from the front of the case. Although the opaque black material that replaces it is probably no stronger it looks Black Ops cool and gives not the slightest hint of weakness. The rear of the case is still transparent but more strongly frosted, which makes it look thicker than before. All clever set dressing as there was nothing wrong with the strength of the housings in any case. What you notice once you've handled it is that there are myriad design improvements which show that this case has been very thoroughly re-thought through.

A few of the main points are:

  • Black front section, with two fibre ports and one wired strobe connector
  • Frosted back with clear section - so you can check for leaks
  • Labelled buttons - no more peering at transparent, moulded letters
  • Outer 'O' ring now captive piston type - door doesn't have to be tight to seal - it just fits
  • Inner 'O' ring is now captive and easy to inspect.
  • Single large locking wheel - instead of finger nail breaking catches
  • Zoom control gear now has smooth teeth - huge improvement
Nerd detail! The inner O ring is a captive gasket, the outer is a piston typeNerd detail! The inner O ring is a captive gasket, the outer is a piston type

O Ring the changes

Although the case bulges to allow the flash to pop-up, the seals now take an easy path over the top of the camera. While I had precisely no trouble with my PT-E03, there were a few people who blamed the bump above the flash for allowing the case to flex - more likely the zig-zag the 'O' ring had to follow made it vulnerable to careless fitting. That's a thing of the past, this case has buttresses each side of the flash and the 'O' rings follow a smooth path. In fact, the whole back door seems to have been reworked by the people who did the cases for the little Fuji’s – which are models of tough, low maintenance, common sense. The case looks massively stiffer than previous models, which makes the 40m depth rating seem very conservative.

The front half of the case is now opaque, black, and very cool it looks too. Rather than pure macho, the main reason for the black look is to cut down on light scatter from the case when using the pop up flash to trigger strobes. This also addresses perhaps one of the most detrimental aspects of the old Olympus house style, which gave some people the impression that their SLR cases were constructed in the same way as the much smaller compact cases. This lost sales in comparison with other brands which fooled people into thinking that the clear cases were fragile - they weren't. Polycarbonate is used for bullet proof screens and jet fighter canopies – it's good stuff!

The young Bib on the Norfolk wrecks are in great conditionThe young Bib on the Norfolk wrecks are in great condition

Wireless (optical) remote control of strobes is all the rage now and the UFL-2 is ready to play and has two ports for fibre connections. The data bursts from the pop-up flash carry fine on the surface but not underwater, so the point to point relay of light down a fibre optic cable ensures a reliable connection. The two ports allow a pair of strobes to be connected directly and more could be added with splitters.

Earlier this year I was out in Borneo diving with my 'amateur' set up alongside one of the 'professional' housings and while the big, expensive case looked the part, it was the one which started shipping water. On examination we saw it had multiple fractures. The generic 'pro' case had cracked on the flat faces between buttons and even the port aperture was riddled with stress fractures. On the PT case curved faces spread loads and eliminate the localised stresses that caused that kind of damage. The port fixing is a heavy gauge metal screw thread. My fellow photographer was stunned that I could happily pick up the housing and strobes by the port. All the main port parts are machined aluminium or optical fluorite glass.

Any port in a storm

If you're new to using Digital SLRs underwater, you'll have to be ready for some more choices too – ports. You might buy a general purpose port, to match the kit 14-42mm lens (the macro lenses will also fit), but you'll soon want to explore the options your new SLR offers, rather than pretend to have a huge compact. The two prime genre options underwater are macro and wide angle... I dig into the reasons for this in the underwater SLR guide. Olympus have some great lens options. Their 50mm Macro is famously one of the very sharpest lenses and while the awesome 7-14mm lens may be a little rich for your palate at first, they have added a compact 9-18mm zoom which has picked up great reviews. Of course there are plenty of others too!

Lightbulb sea squirts, impossibly detailed tiny animalsLightbulb sea squirts, impossibly detailed tiny animals

To match these very different lenses Olympus has a family of ports to choose from. There are some general purpose flat ports for the mid range zooms, but the most interesting ones predictably are for the most interesting lenses! Their macro port is one of the best tailored you can buy and you can fit a teleconvertor for extra reach by adding a matching extension ring to the port. For wide angle lenses, Olympus have just a single dome option but what a dome it is, made for them by Japanese glass wizards Athena– it is a beauty. With the right extension rings it works brilliantly with most of the Zuiko Digital wide lenses but doesn't need one at all for the 9-18mm (or 14-42mm and 8mm fisheye). A glass dome port is quite an investment but I've found it very flexible and time after time I've been very glad that it was glass... a few weeks ago I swam back from from an inshore dive in heavy waves and was knocked down repeatedly as I got back to land. Although the camera and I were rolled in the gravel I was able to hose the sand and stones off the housing without any problem. Try that with an acrylic port, especially one which is secured with plastic clips! You can try to polish the scratches out of acrylic, but that's just as well as it scratches easily.

Once you've chosen a housing brand, in the same way as an SLR brand's lenses, you can transfer ports on to the next one when you upgrade. My dome port has been used with 5 different models of camera.

Handling charge

All the added toughness (and the extra thickness of the E-620) has made the PT-E06 thicker than the PT-E03. That's a bit of a shame as the older housing was comfortably small enough to use single handed – very useful if you want to dismount one of the strobes to change the mood of your lighting. All the improvements have made this case more muscular than its ancestors. I normally discard the right hand straps on housings but for the PT-E06 I might fit it as I couldn't quite secure it with one hand – but that is in comparison with the very small PT-E03. I could just invest in bigger hands!

Hermit crabs are ornate little gladiators, always looking for a new shellHermit crabs are ornate little gladiators, always looking for a new shell

The overall makeover has extended to the buttons, they have been spread out and enlarged slightly. To do that the OK button has been moved from the centre of the cursor pad which is less intuitive, but as they are better spaced out the furthest ones don't need to be so tall. I liked the button arrangement on the housing and the clear white on black labels helped me get used to the slightly different layout.

The deep buttresses either side of the flash bump do make access to the flash connector and more importantly the mode dial a little cramped. From a pure ergonomics point of view this is a shame, but controls which stick out are vulnerable. On balance it's much better to have a housing which still works, not all boats have spacious camera tables and when cameras mix with dive gear it's rarely the dive gear which suffers.

Fish portraits are tough without fast, accurate focusFish portraits are tough without fast, accurate focus

The housing has the usual, for Olympus, metal plate underneath with 6 tripod screw fittings which allow matching trays to be securely fitted in a number of positions. This system spreads the stress of mounting a tray and heavy strobes – two thumbwheel screws are used and prevent any hint of twisting. On top there is a cold shoe which is well placed for mounting accessories such as focus lights.

News flash: Strobes

Using the housing with the new UFL-2 strobe is a piece of cake (read Rob's Olympus UFL-2 review). The wireless system even adds control options over the equivalent wired, housed FL-36 and there's no difference in exposure or flash performance at all. The optical RC flash mode is extremely straight forward. You trade a display of flash status and control for the standard Olympus Super control panel in this mode, but the primary controls, shutter and aperture, are still associated with the dial and exposure button - by the shutter release. The optical fibre connections are much smaller and less obtrusive than wired connections so it's another way to save bulk, weight, vulnerability and complication.

We call these Scottie Dog slugs but it's really an Acanthodoris pilosaWe call these Scottie Dog slugs but it's really an Acanthodoris pilosa

As a pair the PT-E06 and UFL-2 work very well together, nicely balanced, easy to handle and with well integrated control. Of course you can use other wired or optically triggered strobes too. Third party strobes won't be able to use the fast shutter speeds in the E620's FP mode, but with an SLR you have all the control you need to work in any manual or auto mode.

The UFL-2 is a great macro strobe but needs back up to light big scenes, a pair would be so easy to use that they would be the obvious choice for a simple, light travel set up. If a housed version of the FL-50R becomes available it would offer coverage of bigger scenes, faster cycle times and retain full integrated control. Because the wireless system brings all the control to the back of the camera it would be very easy to work with an asymmetric pair – with the benefit that the zoom headed UFL-2 can be used very effectively for spot lighting within a scene.

Photo finish

Of course the pictures from a housing depend primarily on the camera not the case, but they are influenced by ease of control and convenient handling. A good housing is an extension of the camera inside and doesn't divorce you further than it has to from the controls you are used to. As far as the latter goes, the PT-E06 retains the ergonomics of previous PT's and it's quick and easy to change configuration as you go.

During macro and wide angle sessions off North Norfolk I had a great time first capturing tiny wildlife and then taking in the scenery. Macro is always a technical test which the image stabilisation of the E-620 helped with, as it is nigh on impossible to hold still while floating in a sea with even the slightest surge. You are very reliant on auto focus which works well and it did, hopefully you'll enjoy the slugs as much as I did!

The Crystal Sea Slug is well named, this one was riding some waving weedThe Crystal Sea Slug is well named, this one was riding some waving weed

For the wide angle underwater you need a camera which can cope with a wide dynamic range as there's almost always some surface and deep shadow included – and it makes for a good looking picture. The E-620, like a lot of current SLRs, has its best dynamic range above base ISO. In common with Canon and Nikon models, ISO200 is where the greatest depth of detail can be captured. It's one of those factors which doesn't really affect real life, but as a good little tester I have to follow these leads. It's very easy to blow out the sunlit blue of the surface behind subjects – yes even in UK diving, doubting Thomas! The Olympus E-620 probably made my little dip off the beach one of the most rewarding dives of the year. Conservation bodies always want photos which show their most important wildlife habitat off and my friend Kate and I found the chalk reefs of Sheringham in fine form. Even the lobsters were cooperative. The E-620 did a great job, I hope you agree.

Conclusion

From a standing start in 2005 the PT-E series has made continual strides and Olympus are still the only SLR manufacturer to have created a full underwater SLR system.. The relatively mass production of these housings has allowed a depth of engineering and design which is absent from more generic alternatives – producing the smallest housings on the market. For the same reason they are also some of the most attractively priced housing options – through scale not compromise.

Kate face to face with one of the Sheringham reef residentsKate face to face with one of the Sheringham reef residents

As an evolutionary progression the Olympus PT-E06 polishes the strengths and makes many improvements while addressing some of the perceived weaknesses of it's predecessors. It makes for a very convincing package with the Olympus E-620 which itself has achieved a uniformly warm reception from the market. While slightly larger than my current E-420 kit it is still the smallest SLR set up available. Compared with housings where a generic box is tailored with specific controls this is a much more compact offering. Top of the range metal housings may be a similar size but they will cost 2-3 times as much!

It's a build and operational improvement over my current set up. Perhaps not as comfortable to use but a better working tool, it inspires confidence. As a diver you sometimes have to trust people with your babies as you leave the water and I'd be much happier handing this over in to the care of a 'helpful' boat skipper than my previous toys!

Ratings

Build 9/10 - Feels bullet proof
Design 9/10 - Thoughtful and thorough
Handling 8/10 - A handful but well laid out
Overall My next housing!

Read Rob's review of the Olympus E-620 digital SLR.
Read Rob's review of the Olympus UFL-2 strobe.