At the end of September I find myself heading for Austria to go diving in mountain lakes. Naturally, there's a camera packed in my suitcase to take some nice underwater pictures. I decided to take along the Olympus E-520 including the PT-E05 underwater housing.
For two weeks, I stayed
nearby the Attersee in Austria. The Attersee is Austria’s largest lake
and its surface is 48 km2. The Attersee is situated in a region called
Salzkammergut. There are many more lakes in this region, for example;
the Mondsee and the Grundlsee, however, nowhere is diving better
arranged than around the Attersee. At local tourist offices, diving
centres and hotels around the lake, a brochure with a description of
all the diving spots is available. A drawing of each diving spot is
also at hand, enabling you to picture exactly what you can expect
underwater. You can select the spot for depth, wrecks, underwater
wildlife or trial platforms. A huge billboard is found in every diving
spot, carrying the same information including a drawing. It helps you
to plan your dives yourself, independently from a diving centre. A
second advantage of the Attersee is the relatively low location of the
lake. Most lakes are high up in the mountains, however, not the
Attersee which is found at a mere 480 meters altitude. Divers will
benefit from this. Since the air gets thinner the higher you go, you
have to count with this when going for a dive. The diving tables that
tell you how long you can stay at a certain depth, are only suitable
for diving at sea level. If you go diving in the mountains, you need to
adjust the values in these tables. The higher a mountain lake is
positioned, the larger the correction of the values in the table and
the sooner you reach the diving limits. It obviously means you can't
dive to an equal depth. Despite the modest altitude of where the
Attersee is located, the area is not flat. The Höllengebirge (literally
meaning mountains of hell), with a height of up to 1,800 m, are located
southeast of the lake. Situated to the southwest of the lake is the
Schafberg (the "Sheep Mountain", 1,782 m). If you enjoy mountain walks,
you will also enjoy a stay around the Attersee, and these mountains
will offer you walks with height differences of more than 1000 meters.
The distance Rotterdam - Attersee is approximately 1000 km. There are numerous hotels, pensions and several campsites found on the Attersee shore. We drove down with a camper and decided on a campsite in a small village called Seefeld. Our campsite was right on the Attersee shore and the distance from the camper to the water was no more than 20 meters. One hour after we had arrived, I could not resist the call of the sparkling water of the Attersee, and decided to go for a dive.
The Olympus E-520 is the successor to the E-510 and its performance is ranked in between the extremely compact E-410 and the professional E-3. The E-520 is able to simultaneously contain an xD and a CF memory card. This considerably enhances the storage capacity of the camera. The battery is similar to those used in other Olympus DSLR models. Therefore, if you own a range of Olympus DSLR cameras, the batteries are exchangeable and you only need one battery charger. The camera has been equipped with an anti-dust system. Upon activating the camera, the Super Sonic Wave Filter is activated. It's the best way of preventing dust from reaching the sensor. LCD monitors are gradually getting bigger and this also goes for the LCD monitor of the Olympus E-520; 6.7 cm is a nice and big size and it is indeed a very clear monitor. It makes working with Live View extremely pleasant. It allows for zooming in at Live View to check the sharpness, and it works particularly well when shooting in macro mode since it gives you a good idea of the depth of field. In addition to Live View, the Olympus E-520 also features a viewfinder. The viewfinder is large compared to its predecessor, yet in comparison to DSLR cameras of Nikon or Canon, I still find it rather small. The camera has only three focus points. In badly lit conditions, it unfortunately takes a while for the camera to focus, and you might be better off selecting a manual focus.
The underwater housing is made of polycarbonate, a strong type of plastic. The front of the housing is black and the back is semi see-through. Olympus has developed a new lock for the underwater housing which works perfectly. It is an oval button, the rotary buckle, that is placed on the left side of the housing. Upon turning the button a quarter, the housing opens up. It's only possible to rotate the button when a slide is pressed at the same time. It means; you need two hands to depress and rotate, ensuring the housing is perfectly secured against accidental opening. The see-through side of the house comes out to the right and will remain attached to the front of the housing. No need to find a place to stash a separate back if you want to take the camera out of its housing. The underwater housing features two o-rings ensuring the waterproof feature. Using two o-rings offers extra security to prevent water from entering the housing up to a depth of 40 meters. Since the diving limit for the sports scuba diver is also 40 meters, he or she can take the camera along on every dive. A screw that has to be rotated fixes the house inside the underwater housing. There is no screwdriver required for this action and the camera will stay in its place without a problem. You can switch the battery or the memory card without having to take the camera out of the underwater housing. The buttons on the outside of the underwater housing that serve to operate the camera, don't stick out equally. Olympus has purposely extended one button to leave the other on a lower level, so that you don't depress two buttons at the same time, unwillingly.
PT-E05 underwater housing: ports
Naturally, the Olympus ports fit to the underwater housing. And also ports of other brands like Inon can be used. The port is mounted on the underwater housing by means of its screw thread. At the end of the screw thread, there is an o-ring making it completely waterproof. Using screw thread has the advantage of not coming loose by accident when turning or banging it. It takes quite a bit of strength to loosen the port again. Olympus offers five interchangeable lens ports to enable using the following lenses: 8mm fisheye, 7-14 mm, 11-22 mm, 14-42 mm, 14-45 mm and 50 mm macro. I also took a 12-60 mm lens along underwater and used the dome port and the ring PER-E02 for it. This is a combination that works perfectly. No distortion whatsoever is visible at 12 mm.
PT-E05 underwater housing: possibilities with external flash units.
Four flash cable connectors are available on the underwater housing. Two of which are for electronic cables and two for optical cables. The connectors for the electronic cables are unfortunately the Olympus type. This is a size deviating compared to the general Nikonos connector. Not many manufacturers deliver cables with an Olympus connector. Yet Athena offers an adapter with two Nikonos connectors mounted to it. This adapter has to be connected to one of the connectors on the housing. Thankfully, the housing offers the possibility to connect two optical cables too. This way it is easy to operate two external flash units. It does require the internal flash to be folded out before placing the camera inside the underwater housing. Many flashes currently also have the possibility of slave-TTL exposure, and although I prefer the manual setting of my flashes, you can also opt to leave the thinking up to the flash units.
I am standing near the River Traun in Austria. I have put on my flippers and am ready to enter the water. Whilst shuffling forward, I hesitate and stop. The river Traun is no less than four meters below me and the only way to make a snorkel trip is to jump. I muster courage and I put one step forward. It then feels as if I am falling for ages. In fact, it takes so long that I find it even scarier than being on a rollercoaster, and this thought hasn't yet left me as I start screaming vigorously. There's a big splash when my body breaks the surface of the cold water and my nerves cool down at the same time. The Olympus E-520 gets a more luxurious descent. I didn't dare to make this jump with the camera in my hand. The risk of the housing snapping open when touching the water surface with a blow, and water entering it, is too big. Therefore, my buddy carefully drops the camera attached to a long line. I receive the camera in its housing, detach it from the line and swim to the other side to sit on a rock. This gives me the opportunity to try and capture my buddy jumping down, however, she hit the water a lot quicker than I thought. Hmm, that jump did not last the 30 seconds I thought it did…
Whilst I am still sitting on my rock, I notice a grass haulm in front of the lens. Obviously, I wasn't careful enough when putting the camera into the housing and closing it. I am afraid this grass thing will be visible in every picture, so I open the housing very carefully, take out the grass haulm and close the housing again. Once again I test to see if there is no leakage and to my relief I don't see any bubbles rising. I am ready for the 1.8 km snorkel tour. The water of the Traun in this area is 80% source water and therefore extremely clear. Below me, I can see salmon trout and brown trout swimming along. Unfortunately, I cannot capture them since I am snorkelling this time so I am unable to descend to their level. Moreover, I have equipped the camera with a fisheye lens which is completely unsuitable to capture small fish, as it is an extreme wide angle lens. Five minutes later, we pause at a spot with small waterfalls. According to the guide, the water is so clear at this spot that you can drink it and he suits the action to the word. I think this spot is perfectly suitable to take some pictures halfway down the surface of the water. I pick up the camera, activate Live View and notice a blurred spot on the LCD monitor. At first I don't understand why I see this blurred area, so I turn Live View off and look through the viewfinder. This also offers a blurred vision. I turn the camera towards me to find out the dome port is completely covered with condensation. I feel so mad I could have hit myself. How could I be so stupid to open the underwater housing whilst it was already dipped in the cold water? This cooled off the underwater housing, however, since I opened it again, warm air entered the housing. During snorkelling, the warm air cooled off which caused condensation to appear. It is entirely my own mistake that I go the entire snorkelling tour without being able to take even one small picture. The next morning I put on my flippers and I am ready to enter the water. I shuffle forward and hesitate again. Am I crazy enough to jump a second time?
Operation PT-E05 underwater housing
The buttons on the housing carry a text or a drawing, which makes it easy to operate the camera even if you're not yet familiar with it. When using the optical cables, the internal flash has to be folded out before sliding the camera into the housing. There is no button available on the housing to make the flash pop up. I find this a real pity; if you find out underwater you haven't folded out the flash, there is no way you can use the external flash. You can prevent this from happening if you always take a sample picture before dipping yourself and the camera. On top of the housing, a hot shoe is located. A special holder can be mounted to it to attach a guide lamp, which is very convenient. This guide lamp enables faster focussing since it sheds additional light on a subject. And because the guide lamp is attached to the house, you can hold the camera steady with two hands (instead of holding a light in one hand and the camera in the other). There are no handles on the housing to hold the house or to attach flash arms. You need a tray with adapters and/or handles in order to use the external flash units. Personally, I prefer the handles directly attached to the underwater housing. It saves you the hassle of carrying a tray as additional luggage on your travels. The housing comes with an adjustable strap that can be attached to your right hand. Since I always use flash units, I used a dual handle tray. I don't find the strap all that pleasant to work with. I'd rather use a spiral cord to attach the camera to my stab jacket to prevent it from getting lost. The water in the Attersee passes a depth of 15 meters and has a temperature of only 4 degrees Centigrade which is why I am wearing thick gloves made of Neoprene. That is why the uneven levels of the buttons are very pleasant. These thick gloves don't leave room for very precise operation, you only have rough control over your index finger which would easily cause you to touch the wrong button. Not with the PT-E05, thankfully. The shutter release button is easily operable even with my bulky gloves. You can still feel very well when you press halfway down to focus and when you depress to take the picture. The Olympus E-520 features only one command dial to adjust aperture or shutter speed, though it is possible to set the camera to manual and shoot whilst you yourself are in control of all the settings. The dial on the back of the camera allows you to set the shutter speed directly. Aperture can be set by depressing the +/- button and rotating the dial at the same time. This works really well underwater too. The buttons are placed on a spot that lets you depress and rotate the dial with one hand only. Olympus is the only brand that manufactures its very own underwater housings for its DSLR cameras.
Reflection in the domeport
The Traun is also suitable for scuba diving. Directly located near the Traun is dive centre Atlantis Qualidive in Viecht. And although the Traun is very much loved as a spot for diving, the owner of the diving centre, Franz Pramendorfer allows only a limited amount of divers each day. That way, every diver is able to enjoy the pikes to the fullest. We choose to go for the so-called longtrail. The owner takes us 1.8 km down in a bus, and we only have to let ourselves float back with the current of the river. Franz opinions that the pikes are not on the shore where we enter the river but on the other side. We cross the river underwater and it doesn't get any deeper than 5 meters overall. Trees are growing on the shore across, and even underwater many branches and tree trunks are found. I take a picture of a tree trunk and notice a bin bag on my monitor. I look up to see where the bag is, however, I don't see any dirt on the water. In the next picture, I again detect a spot in the top left corner. I check the water surface again and I cannot detect anything. Next, I take a self-portrait and here too a spot appears on the LCD monitor. When I zoom in on the pictures just taken, I find out it is reflection in the dome port. During this dive I used the 8 mm fisheye with dome port and two Sea&Sea flash units. The flash units are operated by two fibre-optic cables. It means that the flash of the camera has to be folded out and the external flashes will be activated by the optical cables. It turns out to be the reflection of the internal flash that is visible in the dome port. Olympus should solve this problem. If you do it yourself, you have to stick black tape to the inside of the housing. However; this reflection is absent when using the 50 mm macro lens in combination with the macro port. The macro port tapers prevent reflection from reflecting on the glass of the macro port.
The view underwater in the Attersee is generally very clear. It's not an exception to be able to see further than 20 meters. Unfortunately, when I was there, I had a disappointing view due to the fact it was September and the plants underwater die in that season, which creates a white blur in the water. In between the dying plants, some fish were found such as perches and small pikes. And although the fishermen at the campsite caught huge pikes, I did not even see one of these creatures in the Attersee. I am luckier in the river Traun. Just beneath the surface, a pike resides with a length of no less than a meter and a half. This prey fish is hiding between the branches of an overhanging tree. Very carefully and slowly, I approach the pike. I can tell he has noticed me by the way he is carefully following me with a fixed glance. Very slowly, I try to get even closer to it to get an even more astonishing picture. He doesn't seem to care about the flash lights, however, when I exhale the bells frighten the fish away, and he is gone in a mere second.
The Olympus E-520 is a refined, quite small DSLR offering many possibilities. The plastic housing is moderately priced at € 1000. The LCD monitor has large dimensions with 6.7 cm which is extremely pleasant when using Live View. The Live View functions works well on still objects, however, it is too slow for moving objects. The option to zoom in on the monitor whilst using Live View is convenient to check the depth of field beforehand. The fact the housing offers two connectors for both electronic and optic cables is very pleasant, although it is disappointing the electronic connectors are of the standard (deviating) Olympus type. Nearly all the functions are operable with obvious buttons. Even with thick gloves it is easy to operate the housing. I can only come up with two comments: one is the lack of the possibility to fold out the internal flash through a button on the housing. And secondly, reflection of the internal flash in the dome port when using the 8mm fisheye should be prevented.
+ small DSLR-camera in a compact housing
+ good price
+ easy to operate buttons
- deviating Olympus connectors for electronic flash cables
- reflection of internal flash in fisheye dome port
- no handles attached to the house
More images using the Olympus E-520 in the PT-E05 housing by Karin Brussaard
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