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Colourful forests of hard and soft corals, fish of all sizes and magnificent landscapes will await you at Musandam, a magical place located north of the United Arab Emirates at the Hormuz Strait. The peninsula is surrounded by high mountains that extend along coast and create impressive fjords. For about one week, I had the pleasure to experience a wonderful dive trip there and tested the OM-D E-M1 Mark II.
The clock had passed midnight when I landed in a rainy Dubai. Our little group of travellers was gathered together by a representative of the dive centre before we went to Dibba, Oman. With tired eyes the two hours trip in the minibus passed by in no time. When we finally arrived we were warmly welcomed and got a brief introduction at Al Marsa's dive centre before boarding on one of their live aboard ships, the Queen of Musandam. This Dhow (Arabic boat type) would be our home for the next five days. After a quick installation in the cabins and a few hours of good night's sleep we woke up to a clear blue sky, a pleasant warming sun and last but not least the smell of breakfast. At noon we set sail and started our journey along the Musandam peninsula with its spectacular scenery and magnificent high mountains stretching along the coast and creating impressive fjords which have given the region the name “The Norway of Arabia”.
It was time for our first dive of the trip, so we got our equipment ready. Traveling with underwater equipment can be difficult and problematic – something that all underwater photographers know very well. The equipment is often too heavy or bulky, especially for airplane dimensions. As a result, many photographers choose to bring a compact camera. When I packed my diving equipment for this trip, it was Olympus’ new flagship, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II that I packed in my carry-on luggage. Or more correctly speaking, this time my whole underwater photo equipment fitted in my carry-on bag without any extra kilos, something that was impossible with my DSLR that approximately weights twice as much. What else did I pack?
My photography pack list for Oman:
The first dive site we visited was called Wonderwall. It was wonderful! We jumped in the 23-degree water and – in the slow current – found ourselves in a forest of corals and soft corals, which illuminated yellow, blue and purple. Fish of all sizes were everywhere. We followed the current along the cliff side and always kept our eyes open in case a Mola Mola swam by for a stop at a cleaning station. I had time to check out my new companion a little more closely.
Niklas Nilsson • OM-D E-M1 MarkII • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 8mm 1:1.8 Fisheye PRO • PT-EP14 • PPO-EP02 • Sea&Sea YS-D2
Underwater equipment has always been a high priority for Olympus who offers housings and accessories for nearly all of their cameras, from compact to mirrorless. The OM-D E-M1 Mark II was no exception. Its solid construction, the magnesium-alloy body and a great weather sealing make it well adapted for rough handle. The underwater housing PT-EP14 is built of Polycarbonate, which makes it both solid and light, perfectly suited for traveling. Its ports are made of optical glass, which provides a great combination and high resolution from the sensor to the port. I was well-acquainted with the balance below the surface, whether I used a macro or wide-angle port. The combination was slightly negative and therefore, I didn’t require any buoyancy arms to create correct buoyancy. The underwater housing can handle a depth of 60 meters, which suits the majority of divers well. With the Olympus flash FL-LM3 (included with the camera) and optical fibre cables you can easily synchronize the camera and the underwater flashes, both with TTL-automatic and in manual mode. The port system was easy to handle and you could change the lenses and ports without opening the rear. The ports were of very high quality, especially the dome port. So far so good.After a wonderful lunch with a nice mixture of Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, the Queen of Musandam continued her journey along the magnificent scenery and its rock formations. And while we took a siesta on the upper deck the sun slowly but surely went down at the horizon and the darkness made its entrance. Time to go to bed? Not yet! We made ourselves ready for a night dive at Ras Samid. The bioluminescence sparkled when the speedboat left the ship and the clear starry sky was the last thing we saw before we disappeared down into the dark sea hunting for Musandam's night-active underwater life, such as cuttlefish, stingrays, morays and small prawns. The fact that a camera should focus properly is the most important thing in my opinion, especially in the low light. A blurred photo always ends up in the trash bin. During my dives in Oman, I had time to test the camera in a variety of lighting conditions and I am glad I could shoot in the dark as well. The 30mm and 60mm macro was the lenses I mostly used during low light such as night dives and both worked excellent. Smallest contrast in the subject and the focus was spot on instant!
Niklas Nilsson • OM-D E-M1 MarkII • M.ZUIKO DIGITAL ED 30mm 1:3.5 MACRO • PT-EP14 • PPO-EP03 • Sea&Sea YS-D2
So, it is of course also the lenses that make a difference. I think many photographers are focusing too exclusively on the camera features, such as megapixels, sensor sizes and dynamic range, but they completely forget that it is also the lenses that make the biggest difference to the image. With a bad lens, even the best camera can be completely useless. Olympus’ M.ZUIKO DIGITAL lenses have a very high optical performance and in addition to that, they can deliver all the focal lengths you could wish for as an underwater photographer, from fisheye to macro. All the lenses I tested also had extremely good minimum focusing distance, which I think is an extra important detail in underwater photography.
The days past fast then. We were traveling in a real wilderness and did not meet any civilization or other dive boats, only a handful of local fishermen. Four dives per day were on the schedule, and each was characterized by a paradise of both soft and hard corals. All the time, we found something new, such as big sting rays, turtles, leopard sharks and sea horses. And for the sharp eyed, there was small critter everywhere, such as nudibranchs, shrimps and gobi fish. During all of my dive trips I usually have a favourite dive site. Traveling along the coast of Musamdam, Octopus Rock was our favourite, a lone cliff above the surface with rock branches in all directions underneath the surface. The first visit was the third day of diving and it was definitely a welcomed revisit when we went back there on the last day of the trip. The water literally cooked with trigger fish and in the crevices there were different species of morays, such as the photogenic honey comb moray. In the soft corals, we also found different species of sea horses.
With its 121 crossed autofocus points spread across the Micro Four Thirds image sensor, the OM-D E-M1 Mark II was up for any of these challenges. Whether you chose a larger group of focus points or an individual point, the focus was fast and accurate, even in low light or with fast moving subjects. The visibility during the dives was in average 10-15 meters and sometimes big amounts of particles in the water forced me to work with wide-angle and macro lenses to get crispy shots. Thanks to the camera's built-in 5-axis image stabilizer, I could also get stable 4K movies with both macro and wide angle lenses.
Five days along the coast of Musandam had passed and I can summarize my impressions as great and interesting diving despite the variable visibility. The feeling of the wilderness, the silence and the mighty landscape really fascinated me and the E-M1 Mark II was the perfect companion to capture these moments. Before I tested the camera, I was unsure whether autofocus and image quality could match the professional fulI-frame DSLR I owned before. After summarizing hundreds of photos, I’m very positive – a definite message that it is time to switch to a mirrorless system!