Olympus E-M10 IV With Backscatter Octo Housing for Snorkeling

By James Moore

Here is my user review of the Olympus E-M10 IV with Backscatter Octo Housing for snorkeling. I was looking for an upgrade to my Olympus TG-4 for a snorkeling camera. (The TG-4 is similar to later TG models, but has a 16mp rather than 12mp sensor.) While I had gotten some great shots with that camera, I was looking for something that would give me a higher keeper rate, better overall image quality, better low light image quality, and a better ability to crop photos, while at the same time being light and compact enough to stuff in my carry-on and carry underwater via a wrist lanyard.

Gorgeous adult male Greenblotch Parrotfish, Scarus quoyi, Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Benefits of a Bigger Sensor Camera for Snorkeling

I decided to go big—as in a much bigger sensor. I’ve never seen a review of a large sensor camera for snorkeling, but above water I’ve used Olympus and Panasonic micro 4/3 interchangeable lens mirrorless cameras for over a decade. These cameras have a significantly bigger sensor than not only the Olympus TG series, but also the 1 inch sensors found in high end compact cameras such as the Panasonic Lumix LX10, Canon GX7 series, and Sony RX100.

This means better image quality, low light performance, and ability to crop—capabilities close to those found in even larger sensor DSLRs and full frame cameras. While at the same time they can still be quite compact due to their being mirrorless and having a 2x crop factor, which means a 100mm lens functions as a 200mm lens. I was hoping I might be able to find a housing and micro 4/3 camera that would bring similar advantages underwater.

Spotted Porcupinefish, Diodon hystrix, Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

My Choice – Olympus E-M10 IV With Backscatter Octo Housing for Snorkeling

I found what I was looking for in the form of the Olympus E-M10 Mark IV and the Backscatter/AOI Octo-housing. (Visit the Backscatter website for more info on their proprietary housing). That Olympus body is one of the lightest micro 4/3 bodies out there, has an excellent 20 megapixel sensor (similar to what is used in Olympus’ top cameras), and it can be paired with the super light (3 oz) EZ 14-42mm lens (28-84 mm full frame equivalent). The camera with lens is not much heavier than most compacts (about 480g with battery vs. 312g for my Lumix LX10).

The housing adds weight of course (835g), but is quite light as housings go (it is the same weight as the Fantasea housing for the Canon G7X III) especially considering it comes with a built-in vacuum system to ensure you have a good seal before going underwater. Unlike housings for most large sensor cameras, it travels well and is light enough to carry on a wrist lanyard underwater just like my TG-4.

It is somewhat more expensive than the current model Olympus TG-7 with housing, but the much larger sensor enabled a much higher keeper rate, I could crop photos to 100% without having the image fall apart, and it performed much better in low light (even though the lens is a tad slow (f3.5-f5.6) – the larger sensor more than made up for that).

A few qualifications. The camera has a built-in flash, but it doesn’t work with the Backscatter housing; not ideal but it does keep the housing more compact and lighter. The housing does accommodate strobes; though few snorkelers use these. Also, the camera doesn’t have specific underwater settings; I adjusted white balance on my RAW files in postprocessing. So if you only want to shoot JPEG rather than RAW, this might not be the camera for you.

Christmas Tree Worms, Genus Spirobranchus, Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Specific Notes on Using This Camera and Housing for Snorkeling

– I found the lens sharp despite its light weight. You can get quite close and approach macro image sizes with the lens; it is wide enough to capture big creatures as well, though not super wide angle.

– Battery life is good. Should last for a couple hours of heavy shooting – if not more.

– The housing performed flawlessly with a couple of exceptions. First, on a trip to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, after about an hour or so of heavy burst shooting, I would usually get some condensation on the inside of the port. But this did not affect photo quality as far as I can tell. I was staying at a resort with high humidity and without air conditioning (Papua Explorers Eco-Resort), so that may have been a factor. I tried putting a desiccant pack in the bottom of the housing, but it shifted and jammed the zoom gear. On my next trip I might experiment with taping the desiccant pack to the bottom.

Second, the instructions didn’t make clear that the vacuum system will start flashing red (which is the color for a leak) when the case is open and the battery is low. This happened towards the end of my trip, and it took me a while to figure out what was happening.

– The shutter button on this camera is quite sensitive. With burst mode enabled, it is difficult to only take a single shot, but I found taking a three or four shot burst was almost always beneficial because—especially underwater—all the shots were slightly different, with different lighting.

Pacific Sailfin Tang, Zebrasoma velifer, Dampier Strait, Raja Ampat, Indonesia

– If you use the back screen for focusing and composing (as with the TG series), you need to set the brightness to maximum. I failed to do that on my first outdoor test and could basically see nothing in the screen and was forced to shoot blind. Being used to the TG-4, it didn’t occur to me at the time that I could use the viewfinder instead!

And since then I personally prefer the viewfinder (I also set its brightness to maximum); it is obviously shaded from any glare and pressing the housing to your mask helps steady the camera. (It can be hard to see the entire frame through the viewfinder when wearing a mask though – so if that is critical the back screen would be a better option.) I did still use the back screen on a couple of occasions because doing so can reduce the distance between you and the subject, and it worked fine.

The housing comes with a rubber shade for the back screen, but I found this made the housing awkward to transport and didn’t really help much with glare, so I didn’t use it. (Backscatter sells a magnifier for the back screen; but I haven’t tried that.)

– I set the camera to “P” mode and let it choose shutter speed, aperture, and ISO; I almost never do that above water, but find it best to simplify underwater. A hidden feature of this camera is that you can set a minimum shutter speed up to 1/250 by setting the shutter speed for flash – and this works whether you use flash or not. I set the minimum to 1/200, so the camera would not go below that speed in P mode unless the aperture and ISO were already set to the maximum settings to allow light. This was helpful for ensuring I didn’t get shutter speeds so low that fish movement was blurred.

– Low light performance was good, but only really needed on a couple of occasions; most of the time there was ample light. I was aggressive with ISO and set the maximum to 12,800; got decent photos at that ISO, but some detail was lost and 6400 might be a better choice.

– The housing with the camera is positively buoyant. If you add strobes or a metal bracket with handles this would of course reduce the buoyancy. Despite the buoyancy, I found the handling and ergonomics of the housing excellent.

– I found the autofocus good and fast enough for most fish, but of course it struggled with the common problem of fish moving against a busy background. In this context, the camera nailed the focus about 50% of the time. Creature-specific AI autofocus, such as in the heavier OM-1, could be better – but I expect the problem there would be when, as is often the case, there are multiple fish in the frame the camera will have no way of knowing which one you are trying to focus on and may not lock on to the intended target.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for that review. It sounds like a great snorkeling camera, so long as you don’t mind the size. I bet you can really crop into pictures with that micro 4/3 sensor, and retain a lot of detail. If our Canon G7X cameras ever die, I might consider the OM-1, since I already covet that camera for landscape photography. For anyone else reading this, we have a Camera Features page that helps describe the differences in sensor size, mega-pixels, ISO, and more.

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