Working as a divemaster and photo pro in the Cayman Islands, I don’t always have the time (or hands) to juggle using my DSLR. There are so many amazing little critters in Cayman, but it’s hard to handle a big, bulky rig, heavy strobes, and clumsy wet lenses when trying to assist eight other divers.
But when Olympus announced their new Tough TG-4 with “Microscope” mode and the addition of RAW imaging—all in point-and-shoot form—I saw the potential for a great BCD pocket-sized camera with the ability to produce advanced results. The Microscope shooting mode enables users to push the limits of what subjects you can shoot by reducing the minimum focusing distance to virtually zero. At the same time, the ability to capture images in RAW elevates the quality achieved during post-production in terms of color correction, shadows and highlights.
Having said that, to show off the amazing macro capabilities of the Olympus Tough TG-4, all images and video included in this review did not undergo any cropping. Seriously.
1. Overview of the Olympus Tough TG-4
With its ability to capture RAW images, the Tough TG-4 has the potential to serve either as a pocket-sized backup for DSLR shooters or a primary choice for beginner through advanced amateurs. Although the camera doesn’t offer a full manual exposure mode, the ability to shoot RAW images allows the photographer to make significant corrections in post-processing without worrying about image degradation.
Olympus Tough TG4 Highlights
- 16MP 1/2.3" BSI CMOS sensor
- Olympus 4x optical zoom f/2.0–4.9 lens
- 25–100mm (35mm equivalent)
- Water-, crush-, shock-, freeze- and dustproof
- Full HD 1920 x 1080p video recording
- Built-In Wi-Fi, GPS, and eCompass
- ISO 6400 and 5 fps shooting at full resolution
- Microscope and Underwater modes
2. Overview of the Olympus PT-056
On top of the impressive internal specs, the Tough TG-4 itself is waterproof to 50 feet (15 meters), but to extend the limits of operation, Olympus offers their PT-056 housing, which gives you the ability to use the camera and all of its functions down to 150 feet (45 meters). The case allows you full access to all essential camera controls and features a base-mounting bracket to add additional accessories like trays and tripods.
Diving with the housing is a breeze. Once you have chosen your desired shooting mode, most controls can be accessed easily with your right thumb. The zoom and shutter are easily accessible with your pointer finger, and the housing itself fits nicely into the palm of your hand. If you like to keep your hands free, the camera is hardly noticeable when clipped to your BCD.
The PT-056 is lightweight, sleek and truly complements the compact, rugged feel of the Tough TG-4. If you want a housing that offers simplicity in the best way, but the ability to customize a more advanced configuration, the PT-056 is a top choice.
Olympus PT-056 Features
- Waterproof up to a depth of 45 meters
- All essential camera functions can be controlled
- Neutral buoyancy underwater
- Internal flash can be used underwater to trigger digital compatible slave
- Standard tripod socket permits attachment of lighting tray
Other Accessories Used for Review
After doing some research on the Tough series, I quickly realized that this camera had huge potential in the world of high-quality macro photography. The focus of this review is to push this rig and determine if it was capable of producing comparable images to a DSLR. Even with the following added accessories, the camera was still very compact and easy to dive with:
- Dual handle tray
- 1x Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe
- 1x Sola 1200 video light
- Ultra-light tripod
The Tough TG-4 set up for a wide-angle shot; the footage captured is included in the video below. (Great care was taken to ensure that coral was not damaged when setting up shots using a tripod)
3. Macro Photography with the Tough TG-4
Many compact setups receive praise for their macro capabilities, but most require additional lens attachments in order to achieve decent macro and super-macro images. The Tough TG-4 obviates the need for extra accessories and can literally transform into a super-macro machine.
What really impressed me about the camera was the ease of use. “Point and shoot” is a phrase that could scare off a savvy shooter, but I found this to be a huge plus for the TG-4, especially with macro imaging. With minimal settings to worry about, more of your dive can be spent focusing on composition and getting as close as possible to the tiny critters you find along the way.
The Tough TG-4 had no problems focusing on this iridescent triple fin blenny. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a single Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
4. Using the Tough TG-4’s Microscope Mode
Using the Microscope mode, the minimum focus distance feels almost non-existent. It’s actually 10mm, but that’s practically nothing underwater. Add to that the compact size of the camera, which enables shooters to get the camera into areas that large DSLR setups wouldn’t be able to squeeze into. Being able to get within 1 cm of your subject—without sacrificing the ability to focus—opens up whole new creative possibilities.
To show the true size of this blenny, I placed a Cayman quarter in the frame (left image). As you can see from the blenny close up (right image), the use of Microscope mode gives you the ability to reproduce these tiny subjects in a full-frame image
I was able to make the smallest critters fill the entire frame with the built-in Microscope mode. There is no need for external wet lenses or diopters. To take full advantage of this shooting mode, the use of an external light source is necessary, as the proximity to the subject would create a shadow using the camera’s on-board flash. I experimented shooting with both a strobe and a single video light and both successfully added color and contrast to the image.
The Microscope mode works wonders on small subjects that don’t mind you getting right up in their face like blennies, gobies, and shrimp. However, it is probably not the right choice when shooting fish portraits or more timid subjects that won’t allow you to approach closely.
Up close and personal with a Pederson cleaning shrimp. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a single Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
A tiny triple fin blenny rests in the groove of a head of brain coral. This small blenny is less than half an inch in length, yet locating it and focusing the image was a breeze with the Tough TG-4. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a Single Sea & Sea YS-D1 (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
Microscope Mode Settings for Underwater Photography
Shooting at a low ISO is the first imperative in Microscope mode. When shooting at such magnifications, and especially if you want to crop in and edit, starting with low noise level images is key. It should be noted that ISO is the only exposure setting that can be adjusted in microscope mode. For almost all of my shooting with the Tough TG-4, I stayed in Microscope mode and had the ISO set to 100.
This shot of a bearded fireworm was taken in Microscope mode at full zoom (f/4.9, 1/125s, ISO 100). As you can tell from the 100-percent crop, a lot of detail remains even when you zoom in
This slender filefish was photographed with Auto ISO. The camera pushed the ISO to 1000 for this image and you can see in the cropped version there is a good amount of noise. This can be fixed in post-processing thanks to RAW capture, but it illustrates why you should keep ISO low in order to avoid excessive noise
I found that by limiting your ISO some creative techniques became possible even with the camera’s lack of manual exposure settings. One of my favorite macro techniques is to frame the subject against a black, or dark, background. By darkening your background, the subject becomes the only focus point in your image. The compact size of the Tough TG-4 caters to this technique as well, giving you the ability to achieve angles that wouldn’t be possible with a larger setup. It’s easier to achieve this effect and other creative lighting techniques like snooting by using a narrow-beam continuous light (torch). It’s much easier to see where the light is aimed and precisely light the subject.
A red clingfish is poised against a black background. This image was untouched in post. To achieve the black background, I simply set my ISO to 100 and ensured that there was blue water behind my subject. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a single Sea & Sea YS-D1 strobe (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
5. Focusing with the Tough TG-4
After a couple of dives with the camera, the focusing abilities really made me realize the potential of the Tough TG-4. Even when you maneuver within an inch of your subject, the camera locked onto the subject with a half-press of the shutter. Very little time was wasted waiting for the camera to achieve a focus point. Of course, having a video or focus light aids the camera’s autofocus as well.
For the more advanced shooter, the Tough TG-4 even has some different focus modes that could help in the right situation. Focus stacking is one such setting, which takes up to eight pictures within just a second or two. This rapid succession of images helped assure at least one frame was in pin-sharp focus in conditions where it was impossible to keep the camera completely still. Focus bracketing in Microscope mode is a great choice for high-current conditions.
These coral polyps are tiny, but with the macro capabilities of the Tough TG-4, they were easily captured in focus. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a single Sea & Sea YS-D1 (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
6. RAW vs. JPEG on the Tough TG-4
When shooting with the Tough TG-4 in RAW format, both the JPEG and RAW file are recorded to your SD card. The untouched data that is written to the RAW file enables you to take full advantage in post-processing. This is the most significant change from the TG-3 to TG-4, and is really a game changer in the “tough/waterproof” compact camera category.
For macro images, I found the editing flexibility provided by the RAW format made it possible to bring out the shadows often produced from shooting so ridiculously close to the subjects. Also, since there is no image sharpening performed in-camera with RAW images, I was able to use more advanced image sharpening tools in Adobe Lightroom to really make those macro critters crisp. For wide angle the advantages of RAW images extend even further, with the ability to change the white balance back at home.
This is a great example of the data that the RAW format records. The left image is straight out of camera, while the right image is the final edit. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a single Sola 1200 video light (f/4.9, 1/500s, ISO 1000)
Including RAW into “entry-level” waterproof cameras is a great way to introduce even novices to the advantages of this file type. Moreover, if you really want to streamline the kit to just the camera and on-board flash, the RAW format can be a savior.
With just a little post-production knowledge, you can transform your images. So if you want to keep your underwater rig as compact and inexpensive as possible, this new feature of the camera will make all the difference. Be sure to purchase a large-capacity SD card to be certain you can record all the extra image data.
This shot was taken with only the use of the Tough TG-4’s internal flash. After a quick one touch white balance in Lightroom you are left with the image on the right. Shot Microscope mode at full zoom with internal flash (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
7. Wide-Angle Photography with the Tough TG-4
With a bright f/2.0 lens, the Tough TG-4 has the ability to capture vivid wide-angle scenes as well. I found the best option for wide-angle shooting to be the Aperture Priority (A) mode. This shooting mode gives you the best control of exposure and lets you take advantage of that fast lens by keeping the aperture locked to f/2. Shooting with an open aperture proved beneficial when shooting moving subjects without strobes, as it would allow me to use a high shutter speed to reduce blur.
This shot was taken in Aperture Priority (A) mode using the custom underwater white balance setting at around 35 feet (11 meters) in natural light. The left side of the image has decent color, but has a little bit of a blue hue in the foreground of the image. After a one-touch white balance (right), you can get rid of that hue and create a much more realistic color scheme (f/8, 1/40s, ISO 200)
In terms of color correction, the “Custom Underwater White Balance” preset worked well in the shallows, but after the 30 foot mark (9 meters), a blue hue would begin to show itself, especially in the background of the image. The RAW format is really the way to color correct wide-angle scenes with the TG-4. You can step up your system and capture wide-angle scenes and subjects even closer by adding on a wide-angle wet lens such as the iTorch M52 UWL-04 ultra-wide lens.
This nurse shark image was taken in available light in the “Underwater Wide Two” shooting mode with the custom underwater white balance at a depth of 40–45 feet (f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 100)
8. Underwater Video with the Tough TG-4
I wanted to show the versatility of this camera by displaying its video capabilities in different conditions. I tested the camera’s video ability both in the shallows (without housing), as well as with the PT-056 case, mounted to a dual handle tray for added stability. To finish it off, I added a tripod and a single Sola 1200 video light to show how a few accessories can push this compact rig to its full potential.
The camera offers Full HD (1080p) recording and the custom white balance feature produces good color at depths less than 30 feet (9 meters). Beyond that depth, the use of a wide-beam video light is needed to bring out color and contrast.
The Live Focus of the camera is fast and extremely easy to use. It felt very similar to a camcorder (a rare thing in waterproof, entry-level compacts) and there were not many occasions that I was held back by the camera trying to achieve focus. In the video above, you can tell the quality of the autofocus with the shot of a fireworm swaying back and forth with the swell. The Tough TG-4 nailed the focus: Even when the subject was swept out of the frame, it held its focus point until it returned.
The custom underwater white balance setting does a decent job, but if you want to get rid of shadows, a video light becomes necessary. The video below compares shots taken with the custom white balance setting and shots taken with a single Sola 1200 video light. It also shows you the zoom capabilities of the Microscope mode for video shooting.
Macro Video in Microscope Mode
Since the TG series has become known for its Microscope mode, I wanted to push the limits of its macro video potential. By adding a few simple accessories, the macro footage was very impressive. With the addition of a tripod for stability and a single Sola 1200 video light, the camera was able to record stable, vivid, and sharp video of some crazy-small macro critters. The size of this setup is also a huge advantage when it comes to filming macro life underwater. Setting up for a shot is a breeze and there isn’t much weight sitting on top of your tripod.
Shooting video in Microscope mode could not have been easier. With the camera’s focusing ability and small minimal focus distance, it was capable of getting very unique macro shots—especially of critters who don’t mind you up in their face.
Adding a video light makes a big difference in bringing out the color and texture of macro critters when shooting video with the Tough TG-4
9. Who Should Consider the Olympus Tough TG-4 in EP-056 Housing?
There is no one right perfect fit for the Tough TG-4. Instead, its compactness, ruggedness, and ability to shoot RAW will appeal to a wide array of underwater photographers. Having said that, there are three primary groups of shooters who should consider purchasing this camera.
1. Secondary Camera: I generally dive six days a week, and during the summer months the weather permits us to spend months in a row out on Grand Cayman’s “North Wall.” These shear drop-offs are known for encounters with spotted eagle rays, caribbean reef sharks, and, of course, gorgonian-covered ridges dropping endlessly into the depths. I find it hard to not be prepared with my DSLR’s wide-angle setup, as a pelagic flyby is always a possibility. The Tough TG-4 is compact enough to be a secondary rig while diving. If you have the DSLR setup for wide angle but are worried about missing some macro encounters, the Tough TG-4 is the camera for you.
Even with a couple of add-on treats (ultra-light tripod, dual handle tray, and a single Sola 1200 video light), this camera was hardly noticeable as I dove with my other wide-angle set up in hand
2. Watersports Camera: With its tough features—waterproof, freezeproof, and crushproof—this camera is very versatile. It’s just as well suited for snorkeling or kayaking as shooting macro critters 50 feet underwater. It is the ideal camera to have with you at all times during water activates.
3. Macro Photo Fanatic Wanting to Keep It Simple: If you don’t want to worry about a lot of settings, but keep the ability to record high-quality images, this camera would be a great fit. The Tough TG-4 keeps it simple without sacrificing image quality. You can spend more time focusing on getting closer and composing rather than worrying about adjusting settings.
The ultimate macro video setup for the Tough TG-4. (Great care was taken to ensure that coral was not damaged when setting up shots using a tripod)
This is an amazing little camera that packs huge potential for macro imagery. The addition of RAW imaging makes already impressive macro images sharper, more colorful, and generally more malleable to edit. For wide angle, the RAW format is a lifesaver when you might otherwise throw that blue-case turtle shot in the trash.
The toughness of this camera cannot be overstated. For easy traveling and worry-free equipment handling, there is a lot to be said about the durableness of the Tough TG-4. If I were backpacking around Indonesia or another critter location and had limited space, I would look to the Tough TG-4 as my rig.
With a few additional accessories, this camera can produce very impressive results. With only a single video light or strobe, macro images were brought to life. The lack of manual settings might lead you to believe that you would miss the creative techniques that you can achieve with your DSLR, but the minimal focus distance and super-fast focusing power of the Tough TG-4 makes this an extremely fun and easy camera system to operate and is without a doubt capable of creating high-quality macro images.
A roughhead blenny blends in with his surroundings. Shot in Microscope mode at full zoom with a single Sola 1200 video light (f/14, 1/100s, ISO 100)
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About the Reviewer: Chase Darnell is an award-winning underwater photographer and filmmaker currently based in Grand Cayman with Cayman Turtle Divers. With the crystal clear waters of Cayman at his full disposal, Chase is in the water daily with a camera in hand to document his experiences. He accounts his images to a simple theory: “More hours in the water equals more life-changing experiences.” For more of his work, visit his website.
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