The Olympus TG-5: Riding the Wave of Technology

An underwater photographer's journey through the Olympus Tough series, from the TG-1 to the TG-5
By Tom Caruso

A Note From the Editor

The Olympus Tough TG-5 is an award-winning camera known for its versatility, ruggedness, fantastic macro capabilities and extremely high performance-to-cost ratio. After we reached out to our dedicated readers and customers, photography instructor Tom Caruso shared some of the amazing photos he's taken on his journey through using every TG camera, from the TG-1 to the TG-5.  – Bryan Chu (Associate Editor)

Check out our full review of the TG-5 here!

Starting Out

Like most underwater photographers I didn’t start out with a $15,000 rig. I started out small and worked my way up.  My underwater photography addiction started with seeing the incredible images in National Geographic and on TV with Jacques Cousteau. When I finally learned to dive, I earned my first specialty in underwater photography. We were using the Nikonos 4 back then. Those were the days when you really had to be brilliant with a camera to take good underwater photos. I wasn’t brilliant. I used disposable film cameras in an Ikelite housing. It even had an attachable metal frame for macro shots.  

Twenty years ago I got my first real underwater camera, the Sea & Sea MX-10. As I learned how to take better photos, I realized it was time for a real camera: the Nikon N80 film camera. I convinced my wife that the Subal housing and Ikelite strobe were worth the $6,000 price tag. Those were the days when suitcase sizes and weights weren’t a big issue. 

When DSLR cameras were introduced they were changing too rapidly to justify making a large investment, since any camera I bought would have become outdated within a year. So, rather than investing in a top-of-the-line full-size DSLR, I upgraded to Nikon’s prosumer D700 DSLR instead. Knowing I was only going to own this camera for a short time, I did not invest in a housing or new strobes (strobes for analog cameras are not compatible with digital cameras). This forced me into a temporary hiatus from progressing into higher quality underwater images. 

Enter the digital point and shoot. I started using the Olympus Tough series of cameras as an inexpensive stop gap between film cameras and the ever changing DSLRs. They were a handy way to take a small camera on vacation. (Smartphones with built in digital cameras hadn’t been invented yet.) I would upgraded models every 16 months and this got me by.

Taking the TG-1 to Raja Ampat

In 2008, my wife and noted marine biologist Nancy Caruso watched a video on the Discovery Channel about the biodiversity of Raja Ampat, in Indonesia.  This immediately became our highest priority dive destination. After a series of life’s funny curves, we finally had a chance to go there 4 years later.  By this time world travel had changed. Luggage weight and size limits were closely monitored. I had even read stories of people whose luggage never got loaded onto their plane because it was too big. We couldn’t let that happen to us.

It was my job to find a camera setup light enough to pack with our dive gear for a trip to the other side of the planet. And I had to buy two: one for each of us. After a month of research I found the new Olympus TG-1 to be the best camera for our constraints. They arrived the week before the trip so we only had time to pool test them. Since we had already owned several other Olympus point and shoots, the learning curve was small. 

That trip to Raja Ampat was magical. We saw everything from pygmy sea horses to giant manta rays. Our TG-1s did a stunning job at capturing every moment of our 46 dives. After I put together the video from that trip, I sent a link to our local Olympus representative. He told me that within hours, nearly every senior executive had seen the video. (In my humble opinion, I don’t think Olympus knew how much of a game changer this camera was going to be until they saw what regular people were doing with it.) The detachable wet lenses and the compatibility with Olympus strobes made underwater photography easy and simple. The product line ushered in a new wave of underwater photographers who didn’t have to spend a fortune on a good camera rig. And it was only going to get better.

Raja Ampat TG-1 video.

(Editor’s note: join us for one of our upcoming Raja Ampat workshops!)

Raja Ampat Photo Workshop 2018
Raja Ampat Photo Workshop 2019
Raja Ampat Photo Workshop 2020

Upgrading to the TG-2 and Beyond

Several months later we were getting ready to go to Maui when I decided to check in with my “new friends” at Olympus. I told them where I was going and asked if they wanted me to test any new equipment for them. I was kidding, but their response was serious. They called me the next day from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where they had just announced the TG-2 camera, with a release date in 3 months, and told me they were going to overnight a prototype model to me so I could take it on my trip. Wahoo!

TG-2 video.

When we got back we eventually purchased one more TG-2 and sold our two TG-1s.  We’ve been upgrading regularly with each new product release ever since then. It’s actually been a wonderful ride. Olympus halts production of each old model several months before the new model comes out.  This makes the supply low and creates a fantastic resale market. Our most expensive upgrade was the move to the TG-5, at a net cost of only $140. The others averaged only $100. The housings have a better resale value: we’ve usually made a couple of dollars reselling them.

 

Equipment Thoughts

There is absolutely no going back (or forward or sideways) to a DSLR/mirrorless in a housing for me. Olympus uses some of the same high-end sensor technology in the TG-5 as they do in their high-end mirrorless micro four thirds cameras (although the TG-5 has a smaller sensor size and lower resolution). And the image processor, the TruePic VIII, is the same as is used in the flagship OM-D E-M1 Mark II, although without the E-M1 Mark II’s dual quad core.  The same high-end CMOS sensors in the Olympus TG series are taken from their high-end mirrorless four-thirds cameras.  The current set of features on the TG-5 rival high-end DSLR/mirrorless cameras at 5 times the price. Did I mention that you can drop this camera 7 feet onto concrete? That always freaks people out when I do that in front of them.

My new favorite piece of equipment is hands hands-down the UWL-04 wet-lens dome port.  As a photographer I use the following mantra: Expose the unseen. Now that everyone seems to have an underwater camera these days, I try to focus on the shots that others aren’t taking. I actually enjoy the complexity of trying to get a good over-under shot (aka split shot). The lighting has to be just right, you need a subject out of the water, AND you need a subject under the water (although it should be very near the surface).  The flexibility to go from super wide to super macro in 10 seconds is the greatest reason in the world to use this lens. Of course, it comes at a cost.

While in Moorea, French Polynesia last year swimming with the Humpback Whales, I had a goal of getting an over-under of a Humpback Whale spy hopping. As luck would have it, our very first encounter had this exact situation happen barely 15 feet from me. Sadly, I was removing the air bubbles from the surface of the wet lens at that moment and only captured the whale as it came back into the water. Later in the day I was told that encounters like this happen maybe once per season. I knew I might have blown my once in a lifetime opportunity because I wasn’t ready. 

(Editor’s note: for more info on taking over-unders, check out this article.)

(Editor’s note: join us for an opportunity to experience snorkeling with humpbacks!)

Humpback Photo Workshops 2018

Videography

Although I missed the shot in Moorea, I’ve been able to capture amazing images and video with this lens.  A good example is a video I shot of a green sea turtle while snorkeling in Kona, Hawaii. I dove down 20 feet to the bottom, left my camera in front of the turtle for a couple of minutes, and watched from the surface. I’m pretty sure this turtle had never seen its reflection before (the curvature of the glass of the UWL-04 dome is like a mirror underwater). The results were incredible. So now my new favorite pastime is capturing just about anything with the UWL-04, although I am really starting to enjoy the over-unders. 

Green sea turtle video, from leaving TG-5 on the bottom next to it.

Olympus has also made great progress with the video features of the TG-5. While in Alaska I was able to capture super slow motion video of a bald eagle pulling a fish out of the water at 480 frames per second. It turned a 3 second event into a 38 second video. The 4K video is equally impressive, but takes up lots of memory so I travel with 2 extra chips and a 2 TB hard drive.  

Slow motion video of bald eagle pulling fish out of water in Alaska.

My TG-5 Rigs

As with all aspects of photography, lighting is critical. I’ve seen horrible photos come out of $15,000 rigs because the photographer didn’t understand how to light his or her subject. You can’t just buy an expensive camera and hope to get better photos if you don’t understand lighting and composition. 

(Editor’s note: Be sure to check out these articles on lighting and composition.) 

My underwater “rig” has 2 configurations:

1. Light travel - Olympus TG-5, Olympus PT-058 housing, UWL-04 28mm wet-lens dome port, and i-Torch Pro6+ video light.

2. Full setup - Same as above plus dual Olympus UFL-02 strobes with fiber cords mounted to a 10-inch tray on 16-inch flexible arms. I fabricated an additional mount so my video light is right next to one of the strobes. 

Every few years I anticipate the release of a new camera from Olympus in their TG series. Once the TG-5 was released, with its strikingly long list of high-end features, I couldn’t imagine what they would come up with next. They addressed many of the missing features from the TG-4 like: 4K video, 60fps HD video, sharper picture quality, and underwater HDR. When you add in improved macro focus stacking you can capture nearly anything you encounter underwater. I have been so lucky to have chosen a product line where I could grow with it from its infancy to full adulthood. There might be a few shots that I miss when compared to a DSLR/mirrorless in a housing, but for the $3,000 to $5,000 I saved by not switching, I can take more cool trips around the world and still have stunning photos to prove it.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Caruso fell in love with the outdoors as a child. He loved the water most: he was the first one in the pool and the last one out.  While playing in the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, he would dream of being a fish. As he grew up he loved to travel and would share his adventures by way of photographs. A trip to Club Med after college gave him an opportunity to see the beauty of the Caribbean and his career in diving began. He took a liking to photography so he dedicated himself to learning as much as he could. He continues to travel the world taking photographs while trying to “expose the unseen”.

He began teaching photography in 2015 and is a guest Photography Lecturer for Carnival Cruise Lines. As a perpetual student of life, he loves to talk photography with as many people as he can hoping to pick up a nugget or two. “I never want to stop learning”, he says. “I believe you can learn something from anyone if you take the time to ask questions and listen.”  You can follow Tom on Instagram and Facebook with user “photocaruso”.

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