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Choosing Mirrorless Cameras for UW Photography

While the number of camera manufacturers with horses in the mirrorless race has now reached critical mass with the recent entrance of Canon and its EOS-M, and the earlier entrance of Nikon with the J1 and V1 cameras, the number of models available has grown even more. However, for underwater photography the choices narrow somewhat and the early entrants in the mirrorless race, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony, are very much in the lead.
Choosing Mirrorless Cameras for UW Photography
Published in X-Ray Issue: 52 - Jan 2013
Authored by: Don Silcock | Photography: Don Silcock | Translation:
In the previous article, the first in this series on mirrorless cameras for underwater photography, we looked at the basic technology associated with this new genre of equipment. In this second article, we will take a look at the mirrorless cameras and lenses suitable for underwater photography that are currently available as this issue goes to press.

This is because of two key factors—the availability of lenses suitable for underwater photography and the availability of housings to put the cameras in. Underwater photographers look for three basic types of lenses—wide-angle, macro and general purpose “hunting” lenses for when the site is unknown.

Mid-range zooms, often the type offered as a kit-lens, will usually fit the bill for the general purpose category and most of the manufacturers have something credible to offer. However, for wide-angle and macro, the choices are more limited and because Olympus, Panasonic and Sony have been in the mirrorless race the longest, they have much better selections of lenses available than the late entrants do.

The Olympus and Panasonic Micro Four Thirds technology has a distinct advantage, because the lenses from one manufacturer are compatible with the other manufacturer’s cameras, meaning a much larger overall selection of lenses to choose from. Whereas Sony uses its own format and therefore has less lenses available.

The current camera of choice in the Olympus/Panasonic stable is very much the Olympus OM-D E-M5, which has created a wave of interest generally, and in many ways signifies the coming of age of the Micro Four Thirds standard.

Modeled on the very popular Olympus OM film cameras of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the OM-D was initially so popular that there was a long waiting list to get one. But even now that the initial glow has faded, it is clear that the OM-D is an excellent camera with a nice choice of lenses as described below.

On the Panasonic side of that stable are the GH and GF range of mirrorless cameras plus the GX-1, all of which are very competent but have not really excited underwater photographers like the OM-D has!

Over with Sony the choices are around the popular NEX 5 and NEX 7 cameras, both of which excel technically because of their large APS-C sensors.

Micro Four Thirds lenses
The choice of lenses currently available for the Micro Four Thirds standard Olympus and Panasonic cameras is quite impressive across both wide-angle and macro, with some nice options for mid-range zooms also.

Panasonic offers the 8mm (16mm equivalent) fish-eye lens that has a bright f3.5 maximum aperture and has a close-focus distance of just 4”.

Fish-eyes are a very important lens for underwater photography and some of the best wide-angle images ever taken are done with these extreme perspective lenses.

Panasonic also offers a very nice extreme rectilinear zoom lens, the 7-14mm zoom which is their equivalent of the very highly regarded Nikon 14-24 zoom.

The development of such a flagship lens by Panasonic back in 2009 signaled how serious their commitment to the Micro Four Thirds standard was, and the lens performs very well above water.

However extreme rectilinear lenses – lenses that create straight lines in the corners, rather than bent ones like fish-eyes do - are notoriously difficult to get good results with underwater, because of issues related to the curvature of dome ports.

So just how useful the 7-14mm is underwater is not clear but it does appear that it suffers from softness in the corners just like the Nikon 14-24 does underwater.

Olympus offers a very nice alternative to the 7-14mm for underwater use with their 9-18mm (18-36mm equivalent) zoom lens, which is both small and compact and has a close-focus distance of just 6”.

Wide-angle zoom lenses in this range are much easier to get good results out of underwater and the Olympus 9-18mm looks to be a much better choice than the Panasonic 7-14mm for the underwater photographer.

At the macro end of town there are two very nice lenses available for the Micro Four Thirds standard - the Panasonic-Leica 45mm (90mm equivalent) and the Olympus 60mm (120mm equivalent).

Both lenses offer true macro capability with 1:1 reproduction ratios, bright f2.8 maximum apertures, high quality glass and excellent close-focus distances of 6” for the 45mm and 7.4” for the 60mm.

Finally in the mid-range zooms, Olympus has an interesting offering with the 12-50mm zoom which is offered as a kit lens with the OM-D. The lens has a very good range, but like most kit lenses is not a stellar performer optically above water.

But beneath the waves some of those issues don’t matter too much and combined with its macro capability at a fixed focal length of 43mm when engaged, means that it is an interesting prospect for underwater photographers.

However, to utilize that macro capability requires a rather expensive port as will be explained in the next article, therefore the 14-42mm kit zooms from both Panasonic and Olympus may be better choices for that general purpose “hunting” lens!

Sony lenses
The Sony NEX cameras do not have the array of lens choices that the Panasonic and Olympus range do, but there are still a lot of very good underwater photographs being taken with these cameras as subsequent articles in this series will show. (...)

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Choosing Mirrorless Cameras for UW Photography