Olympus TG-5 for underwater usage – and how it performs with AOI wet lenses

My girlfriend wanted to buy a camera to start doing underwater photography. She knows almost nothing about photography, and asked me for recommendations. On looking at some friends’ rigs and results, I told her to buy Olympus TG-5 and a housing. It’s one of the cheapest options available so she won’t waste too much money if later decides to quit.

It happened not to be on stock in Portugal, where she lives, and there were plenty of, in Singapore, where I was at the moment, so I bought it for her, and went to Divesea for some help regarding the other parts that needed to go along with it for “serious” underwater usage.

Here’s what I also brought from them:

– A tray base and lock line arms (no handles, as they seem to get in the way on where the strobes / torches need to be).

– Sea Frogs SF-TG5 Housing. There were a few reasons to prefer it, over Olympus Underwater Housing (PT-058):

  •  Sea Frogs have both M52 and M67 treads. Olympus only has M52, so an M67 step up ring needs to be purchased.
  • Sea Frogs have Sea and Sea optic connectors on the right side (left, from the shooter’s standpoint). Olympus has an adaptor to fix them at the front, which can cause troubles as the cables swing in front of the front port.
  • Sea Frogs has a leak detector. Olympus doesn’t.
  • Sea frogs is cheaper than Olympus. 213.99 vs. 297.39 USD, (Amazon prices).

– AOI UWL-400 Wide Conversion Lens (555 SGD, at Divesea website) It halves TG-5 focal distance, for true wide angle images and video.

– Minigear MS-03 Snoot Diving Light (360 SGD, at Divesea website)

I already had AOI UCL – 09 and UCL – 900, which I use with my Nikon D810 Nauticam rig.

DSC_9987

Olympus TG-5 underwater macro rig – AOI UCL 09 + UCL 900 for maximum magnification, and the option to use Mini Gear MS-03 or a small strobe for lighting. RGBlue (at the left) is used as a focusing light.

First impressions – out of water usage

The worst mistake a photographer can make is to get a new camera and jump straight in the water without prior testing. Diving is time consuming and expensive, photo opportunities don’t often come, so it can be really frustrating. There’s nothing worse than missing a Nat Geo moment, jut because you’re not familiarised with your rig. I prefer to take a new camera (or lens) with me, on regular daily life for a few days, to understand it, before taking it underwater.

This is what I realised (and didn’t like) from those first experiences:

  1. There is no manual mode – only an A (aperture priority mode), which is the only one I use. You cannot set speed! That’s TG-5 inexplicable major flaw. Maybe Olympus engineers want us to buy TG-6 (there are rumours on a near future announcement)… So far, there are a few work arounds, I will explain later.
  2. There are only three aperture values to be selected, named F/2, F/2.8 and F/8. They change to higher values when you zoom in. I really cannot get how Olympus came out with these numbers, as depth of field hasn’t much to do with full frame’s. Image, overall, won’t be so different from one setting to another (except, of course, exposure).
  3. Manual focus assisting (zooming while focusing) maybe works with a tripod. It vanishes as you stop rotating the focusing knob, so you cannot focus by moving the camera back and forward. It is useless for most hand held scenarios (you’d certainly move the camera and miss focus in between manually focusing and pressing the shutter button).
  4. Chromatic aberration is very noticeable (something to be expected on these small, plastic lenses).
  5. It’s not made for real portraits: subject isolation isn’t great, bokeh is terrible, skin tone isn’t accurate or flattering, but under such size (of sensor, of lens and body) it couldn’t really be better.

Overall, you don’t really control any setting on TG-5. It’s all about computational photography, rather than an optics. It happens with dynamic range, even on Raw files (they are artificially flattened), resulting in areas with excessive noise (the ones that should have been darker) even shooting at base ISO. White balance (Kelvin selection mode) can be done up to a point, but there will probably be too many greens and too few magentas… You get what you pay for, and it’s a lot, comparing to what you’d get half a decade ago.

If you’re a beginner, none of this will bother you. The camera is made to help you, to guess what you want, and to deliver it, on a way that will look good on social media (though not in a truly way, assuming  there is any trueness on digital photography). TG-5 is an “advanced cellphone”, aimed for social media posting, while allowing a bit more flexibility than a regular one. Being water, dust, and break proof, you can shoot in scenarios and ambiances you wouldn’t even dream to take your cellphone.

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Aling Aling waterfalls (Bali, Indonesia) (1/2000, F/2.8, ISO 100) To get this shot one needs to climb swim across the lake and climb up the waterfall. Something only doable with a shock and waterproof camera.

 

  • Dusk / low light pictures will look colourful and pleasing.
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Alam Sambangan – The Secret Valley Club, near Singaraja (North Bali) at Sunset. (1/6, F/2.8, ISO 200) Handheld.

 

  • Interiors will look cosy (there is even a candle mode, to make they look as if they were lit from one).
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Alam Sambangan – The Secret Valley Club, near Singaraja (North Bali). (1/30, F/2, ISO 800)

 

  • Landscape is not its strongest – small lens cannot go wide enough. Good results can be achieved with careful scene selection and some post processing colour correction and sharpness.
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Rice Fields, up the hills from Singaraja, at sunset (1/60, F/2.8, ISO 100)

 

  • Macro is not so consistent, but again, under good light and with static subjects, it’s certainly possible and can deliver pleasant results.
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Nymphaea caerulea (1/30, F/8, ISO 100 – Internal Flash was used)

 

  •  Even night photography, hand held, is doable, despite requiring some “agressive” selective denoising on post processing.
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ArtScience Museum, Singapore (1/5, F2.8, ISO 200, hand-held).

 

Underwater usage

– Point, shoot, and you’d get an image that it’s not so bad. These are the good news.

Want to make it better? You’ll certainly have to invest some extra time and money.

I didn’t find any benefit on choosing the dedicated UW modes, or macro mode. They just cripple the (already limited) choices you can do, without offering much in return. Stick to A mode, ISO 100 (it’s already noisy enough – raise it only when absolutely necessary) and do the remaining choices yourself.

Wide angle

For really wide angle images or video you’ll need a wet dome, like AOI UWL – 400 (I believe the same product is rebranded as Fantasea-AOI UWL-400F and SeaLife 0.5x Wide Angle Dome). If you don’t, on most cases the excessive distance in between you and the subject will vanish the colours, steal sharpness and contrast. At the closest focus distance, TG-5 alone covers an area which is only 107 mm wide, all zoomed out, with strong pincushion aberration. UWL – 400 doubles that area and, as it has barrel (fisheye) distortion, makes it almost even, keeping, at least, diagonal lines, reasonably straight.

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Noble dive center pool (Tulamben – Bali). (1/60, F/8, ISO 100, with AOI UWL – 400) Distortions exist, on both parts of the image but the final result is very acceptable, and far more usable than a true fisheye.

Want to control the speed? Slide the camera up to the surface. The stronger light would increase the automatic speed value. When you reach the desired value, lock focus (and exposure), by pressing the shutter button half way, wait until you see the green focusing square. Then reframe and shoot. It will be focused at infinity (which is usually not a problem when using a wet dome), but the speed will be correct. That won’t work for quick, unpredictable subjects, but can be a good trick for wrecks, corals and UW portraits. If you’re using ambient light, shoot at your glove (or the bottom, if it’s sandy) to get the correct white balance (refer to the users manual to learn the steps on how to do it). If not, set the white balance to the Kelvin number (temperature) written on your torch / strobe user manual. That will work for ANY UW shooting scenario.

The compactness and light weight from Olympus TG-5 only allows a small 1/2.3” sensor which, obviously, has some limitations regarding low light performance, dinamic range and colour accuracy. Couple that with the unability to set speed, and you may get in trouble when it comes to shoot action underwater. The bar is set pretty high and we still can get decent results. Here a very unfair comparison with full-frame:

Last, I took it to an extreme test: shooting a wreck at -35m deep. Ambient light is really low and the subject size requires some shooting distance. Here is the outcome:

The first shot, done with only ambient light, left me particularly impressed.

Macro

TG-5 can produce very good macro images on its own. At maximum zoom and minimum focus distance, it covers 32 mm, horizontally so there are many subjects within this reach.

A single strobe was used, in manual mode, for all shots in the previous gallery.

– To light them conveniently, you may consider a snoot torch (I use Minigear MS-03 Snoot Diving Light  – 360 SGD at Divesea online store). Set the exposure mode to central dot. Aperture would be 2.8 (or the value that comes after you zoom). Point, shoot, and be happy. On other brands’ torches you may need to adjust the ISO.

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Halgerda willeyi – Tulamben, Bali (1/400, F/4.5, ISO 100), shot with AOI UCL – 09 and Minigear MS-03.

– If using strobes, use the same central dot mode for exposure. Set compensation to -2 (by pressing the +/- button). When using manual strobes, just do previous test shots and set the power until it’s right. If using TTL, you may want to add the +2 EV stops you took off from the camera auto-exposure, by rotating the appropriate knob (if your strobe has it.

To have a wider range of critters to shoot, you may consider using wet lens (please refer to my AOI macro lens review in here). AOI wet lenses are good for any format, including full frame, so it’s an investment that will stay with you, no matter which camera you later decide to use.

As a rule of thumb, when using wetlenses, zoom to the max. Just zoom out if your subject won’t fit the frame. (Or if you don’t have the time to screw them out, which often happens).

With UCL-09 (+12.5 magnification power), at maximum zoom:

– Minimum focusing distance is around 35 mm.

– At that distance, the frame covers  20 mm, horizontally. Thing about average to big nudibranchs, crabs, cowries,  big shrimps, about 15 mm. F/2.8 (6.3 when zoomed) should be ok.

With UCL-900, at maximum zoom:

– Minimum focusing distance is around 28 mm.

– At that distance, the frame covers 17 mm, horizontally. Thing about medium nudibranchs, small crabs and shrimps, about 10 mm. F/2.8 (6.3 when zoomed) should still be ok, on most cases.

With UCL- 900 + UCL 09 at maximum zoom:

– Minimum focusing distance is around 2mm, meaning, in real shooting it will be the least you can use and still lighten the subject. That depends only on your torch or strobes.

– At that distance, the frame covers around 14 mm, horizontally. Think about the smallest nudibranchs, hairy shrimps, or other critters about 7 mm in size. F/8 (18 when zoomed) should be ok. You’d probably want to use strobes instead of torches and the later won’t be powerful enough.

These sizes and distances previously enounced may look too similar to commit 320 USD on each of AOI UCL wet lenses. On the real world, those few millimetres make a whole lot of difference on you possibilities and subject choices, specially if you use them stacked.

Here a gallery of macro images shot with AOI UCL-900 or AOI UCL 900+09

A note of caution: the usage of these wet lenses with a magnetic, flipping, or bayonet holder is not recommended, as it will be prone to corner vignetting. It’s better to screw them directly on the port’s M67 thread.

Video

Olympus TG-5 is capable of delivering 3840×2160(4k) / 30p with nearly 102Mbps bitrate and 1920×1080 (FHD) 30/60/120fps.

Do these numbers make sense to you? If they don’t, it just means that you can capture 4K video that is slightly better than an average cellphone, you can record “normal” video and also slow motion with very acceptable quality, providing you have light.

You won’t be able to watch the 4k anywhere but a large screen new TV or computer, on which you’ll probably see a lot of flaws regarding overall sharpness, colour accuracy, dinamic range, and so on. Exporting for Youtube or Vimeo is not beneficting viewer experience as it’s going to be very compressed. It is, however handy, when you need to crop video, or pan inside the frame. That’s often necessary for Instagram, as you need to crop it to square, and sometimes the action is not perfectly centered.

Shooting 4k with the TG-5 requires you to slide the “Mode” wheel to video mode. If you just press the “Record” red button on another mode, it will revert to Full-HD recording .

You may want to set the Video Frame Rate to 30p, which in fact is 29.97 as it’s the standard for social media broadcast and the Bit Rate to Super Fine, specially if you want to fine tune it on a video editor.

Also you may want to use manual focus for video, to prevent focus hunting in the middle of a scene. Turn on the focus Peaking on the MF Assist menu, and set it to red colour. Otherwise just point and shoot – It’s very hard to see if a scene is properly focused through such a tiny screen, even with focus peaking enabled.

Slow motion works fine, but there’s a limit (1 minute and 20 seconds). After that it just stops recording, so you need to plan the scene wisely – or get lucky if shooting animal behaviour.  I was lucky, sometimes, on the following footage:

It combines 4k shooting, with Full HD slow motion, manually white balanced and processed to taste with Final Cut Pro X, later rendered to Full HD, 29.97, MP4 video for uploading. Image is quite degraded on Youtube, as its framerate cannot cope with the movement of the whole scene, but it’s still quite ok.

As for  Instagram video sharing, here a sample of the same scene (this time there was a giant trevally coming for lunch), with auto white balanced set to fish (a beginner’s mistake) corrected as much as possible on Final Cut Pro:

Conclusion

As with everything in life, you get what you pay for. Olympus TG-5 is cheap, so image quality is not comparable to a full frame DSL or mirrorless camera. It is, however a complete, capable, well planed and executed piece of engineering. It does what it promises to do and more, if you learn how to push its limits.

Is it for you?

Yes

  • If you’re willing to take your first steps into UW photography and don’t want to commit too much money on it.
  • If  you’re a backpacker who wants for your holidays, shooting both in land and underwater, at  minimum size and weight.
  • If you need an action camera which can be taken anywhere.
  • If your main usage for the images is posting on social media.
  • If you want to rent it on a resort / dive centre business.

 

No

  • If you want manual shooting and some control over your camera’s settings.
  • If you pixel peep or, in any way, need colour accuracy.
  • If you intend to print your images on a large format.
  • You main subjects are fast moving or portraits (meaning you need fast focusing, high speeds, subject isolation or creamy bokehs).

 

As for AOI glass, overall my impressions are:

  • They are as close as optical perfection as you can actually get.
  • They have a killer price tag.
  • They are well built and well planned. However, aluminium coating on macro lens could be improved, for better cosmetics.

Settings advice

There are mainly three options regarding this camera:

1 – Use it as it comes, all auto, and don’t worry.

2 – Read the manual thoroughly and try do adjust the settings and menus to your shooting scenarios – that can be strenuous and, potentially, not so rewarding, as there are many, some fall short of what you’d expect, and you’re subject can move /change, before you get there.

3 – Use it as manually as you can – my approach. It’s better to understand “photography” or “videography” as a whole than to dedicate yourself into studying a particular camera model. So, after playing with it for nearly a month, here is my list of settings, for better control, underwater:

  • Picture Mode – 3 (Natural) I prefer to post process than to have the camera doing it for me.
  • AF Area  – Single. Autofocus is pretty slow and inacurate as it is – don’t push your luck with tracking.
  • AF Illuminator – Off . It’s useless underwater as it won’t reach the subject.
  • Shooting Mode – A
  • Aperture – F/2.8 or what shows after zooming. Use F/8 when you want to block ambient light, if shooting with strobes, or when using strong wetlenses, to gain a bit of depth of field. F/2 is only to be used on really low light, when raising ISO will degrade the image quality beyond acceptable.
  • Video Frame Rate – 30p. (Use only 60p if there is very strong light, or fast movement).
  • Video Bit Rate  – Super Fine
  • MF Assist – Magnify ON / Peaking ON
  • Live View Boost  – Off
  • Flicker Reduction – Auto (or off, if using underwater).
  • Displayed Grid  – Off
  • Peaking Colour – Red
  • ISO Auto Set – I never use ISO Auto (on still images) as controlling ISO is an indirect way to control speed, which is often necessary. Otherwise leave ISO at 100. Increase it only when your images become blurred from camera shake or motion speed.
  • Noise Filter – Off
  • Noise Reduction – Off (Assuming you know how to get rid of excessive noise on post processing).
  • D (custom flash settings) all off.
  • White Balance – Usually set to the Kelvin temperature of the strobes / torch light. Otherwise, auto for land, or manually set by a test shots stored in the 4 available slots, for underwater (if using ambient light).
  • Keep Warm Colour: off.
  • Colour Space – sRGB
  • Shooting Area – 4:3 (For using the most of the sensor area).
  • Picture Mode – RAW

A few random tips:

Use manual flash, rather than TTL or AUTO, for underwater, as it’s the only way to isolate the subject from the background. In this case, set the exposure compensation to -2 EV.

Change battery every dive, though it’s usually ok for two. When it’s low on power, battery can still take photos, but won’t do video.

 

All underwater images were taken in Tulamnen / Amed area in Bali – Indonesia.

For most images shown in here, the following workflow was used, on post processing:

– Adobe camera raw: Lens Corrections / Manual / Defringe / Purple Hue slider all to the left. Amount adjusted as needed. Same with green hue and amount.

– Adobe photoshop: curve adjustment, to taste / Nik Collection Dfine 2 (for denoising) / Nik Collection Colour Efex Pro 4 (for clarity) / Vibrance and Saturation, to taste, Image resizing (2048 the widest), Nik Collection Output Sharpener / Jpeg Mini Pro (final Jpeg compression).

Special tanks to:

Noble dive center for providing the pool for testing.

Divesea Singapore for helping on choosing most of gear, specially Seafrogs and AOI.

Disclaimer: these are my true impressions and my workflow to get the sort of images shown on the galleries. Feel free to disagree or find alternative workflows. I’m not, in any way, payed to promote or embellish the results of any products mentioned.

2 comments

  1. Un post muy completo. La fotografía de la TG-5 por lo que veo está en el mismo rango que la TG-4 que es la que uso. No así el vídeo que sí ofrece un salto cualitativo. La uso en apnea hasta 8m aproximadamente y sin accesorios sigue siendo una buena opción, podéis comprobar el resultado de fotografía en este enlace https://ecopixeladas.com/portfolio/mediterraneo/
    y los resultados de vídeo en este otro
    https://ecopixeladas.com/la-riqueza-de-nuestras-costas/
    Con las indicaciones de Alex, sacaré aún más partido a la cámara. Gracias.

    Like

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