Last week Olympus announced, what has been rumoured for a few months now (and even longer ago), that they are selling their camera division to Japan Industrial Partners (JIP). Olympus has been losing money on its cameras for three years and also took a reputation hit from an accounting scandal in 2013 which did not help either. All of this just as Olympus imaging celebrated its centenary only last year.
In the press statement Olympus says that JIP will “maintain the research and development functions and manufacturing functions globally , continue to offer high-quality, highly reliable products; and also continue to provide support to the products that have been distributed already“.
This is indeed a sad event for such an iconic brand. The Olympus OM-1 was my first professional level SLR and I have had many of the companies fine cameras and lenses over the years; most recently using their OM-D E-M line of cameras and brilliant M.ZUIKO PRO lenses.
UnfortunateIy however I felt the company began to lose its way a little a couple of years back when it introduced what to me was the disastrous E-M1X rather than a straight forward upgrade of the E-M1 Mk II. As I wrote here I was in need of a refresh having stuck with the wonderful E-M1 Mk I for a number of years and was hoping to get a slightly larger sensor and upgrades to the in body stabilisation (IBS) that really did excel in Olympus cameras. Alas this was not to be and as a result I was tempted to look elsewhere and began to invest in Fujifilm. I finally broke my affair with Olympus altogether in April of this year. This was both a hard and sad decision for me and one I hoped I would reverse one day; and indeed hope I still will.
Clearly the decision to sell off the camera division does not mean all the excellent cameras they have made, and will hopefully continue to make, are not still great image making machines but it does inject some FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) into the brands longevity. Investing in a camera system is not cheap and photographers need certainty that their investment is protected, both in terms of ongoing technical improvements as well as maintenance and repair support. Moves like this are going to sow some seeds of doubt for a while until the new owners intentions are made clear. There is also the slight nagging doubt that the micro four thirds sensor size maybe something of a technical dead end as there has been no significant sensor upgrade for a number of years. The company instead has chosen to circumvent what is, by today’s standards, a modest sensor size by using software to create higher resolution 50Mp files by stitching together multiple images using a handheld ‘High Res Shot’ mode.
The micro four thirds form factor of the OM-D (and PEN) range of cameras is both Olympus’ Achilles heel as well as its USP. The new companies challenge is to accentuate the latter and dampen the former. For most uses a 20Mp sensor coupled with fabulous lenses and IBS is more than adequate and the added benefit of smaller, lighter kit is, or should be, a huge selling point. Unfortunately in the consumer end of the market that is still somewhat hung up on the perception that (sensor) size matters the 20Mp sensor, no matter how clever the software gets at ‘faking’ higher-res images, is going to be a problem. This means the company is now caught in the middle ground of smart phone cameras getting ever better and so called ‘full-frame’ sensors from the likes of Nikon getting ever cheaper (and the bodies that house them also getting smaller).
Whilst the new owner is going to have a real challenge balancing these opposing forces maybe their sweet spot is to go the way of Leica and build more on the older companies heritage. I always thought the company did not make enough of the PEN range of cameras which accentuate even more the small form factor (though did look a bit weird when coupled with some of the larger M.ZUIKO PRO lenses). For me smallness and lightness coupled with a quality build as well as large aperture (but still small, if that’s technically possible) lenses would be the way to go.
In the meantime however I am having to say farewell Olympus but I do hope to meet you again one day.