Olympus Imaging sold off – my thoughts

Written by Gary on June 26th, 2020

Olympus announced this week they have sold off their Olympus Imaging Division to Japan Industrial Partners (JIP) after 3 consecutive loss-making years.

See the MOU of the transfer here.

“Olympus considers that, by carving-out the Imaging business and by operating the business with JIP, the Imaging business’s corporate structure may become more compact, efficient and agile and it is the most appropriate way to realize its self-sustainable and continuous growth and to bring values to the users of our products as well as our employees working in the Imaging business. “

This is extremely sad for me as Olympus has been one of the main companies that has been inspirational and innovative in the industry for many decades. I have bought many of their products from the OM-1 and OM-2n SLRs of the 1970s, through to digital bridge cameras such as the C-8080 and then Four Thirds dSLRs and finally through to their awesome Micro Four Thirds gear.

It is however not surprising!

The camera industry has taken a massive hit in declining sales over the last decade and it is not just in the entry level products which smartphones have cannibalised, but also in the higher end as photography as a profession has become a lot more difficult to be profitable in such a competitive world which has essentially devalued the worth of photographers due to the sheer accessibility now of photography for the masses.

A quote from July 2019:

“Macquarie Group’s Thong, who has been covering Canon, Nikon and other Japanese companies since 2002, said that photocopiers have been a cash cow for Canon, protecting it from industry changes. Other camera makers like Olympus and Konica Minolta have similar B2B bulwarks, allowing them to continue their camera businesses almost as a hobby.

But for Nikon, Thong said the evaporating camera market is a bigger threat, in part because it failed to embrace video early on. “

The Olympus Imaging Division just became too expensive of a hobby for Olympus and it seems just had to be sold off to keep the main company profitable.

Whilst Micro Four Thirds has some unique qualities which make the system perfect for many people and indeed it probably still is the best system for vlogging whilst walking, it has been squeezed from both ends of the camera technology spectrums as full frame cameras have become smaller and less expensive and even some of the full frame lenses have been produced to be nearly as compact and similarly priced.

It would seem that Olympus even in 2019 was worried that it could no longer support a loss-making venture and perhaps the Covid pandemic, Panasonic’s move into full frame, and ongoing media negativity impacting sales which were the straw which broke the camels’ back for Olympus.

Ironically, Olympus continues to be the best camera seller in Japan and perhaps the Japanese government will be reluctant to see this fail.

We will have to await what the new owner will do with the Imaging Division and patents. It is unlikely they will tolerate an ongoing loss-making business venture so what would be likely is a major restructuring and probably a significant revision of its products.

They aim to still release the Olympus micro ZD 150-400mm f/4.5 TC1.25x IS Pro lens given that the R&D costs have already been spent. It would be interesting to see how this would sell – there may be a lot of wildlife photographers just dying to get their hands on such a lens given it will probably be the last of this quality and capability. A full frame equivalent at that aperture would be prohibitively expensive and heavy.

This lens which was displayed in 2019 has full frame equivalent base focal range of 300-800mm, and in addition, a built-in 1.25x teleconverter can be activated which increases its reach to 1000mm f/5.6. Coupled with the Olympus micro ZD 2x Teleconverter MC-20, the lens becomes a 750-2000mm f/11 in full frame terms. This is all with an industry leading 7.5 stop image stabilisation system.

The newly announced Canon RF Diffractive Optics technology super telephoto lenses whilst relatively compact, only give 600mm f/11 or 800mm f/11.

Hopefully they can create a price competitive E-M1 mark IV for 2022 with a new sensor and further improved AI AF tracking – neither of which would require significant internal R&D or re-tooling.

The reality is they will probably focus more on making a price competitive E-M5 or E-M10 or whatever they see as their potential mass income earners.

There is a history of these scenarios still working out reasonably well for consumers such as IBM selling off Lenovo computers and Google sold Motorola to Lenovo whereas other scenarios have resulted in the new owner just stripping out any value. We will have to wait and see.

What will the mean to existing Micro Four Thirds users?

Many will be angry and upset that they feel they may be forced to sell their gear at a loss and buy into another system, but it does not need to be that way for most.

The cameras and lenses are likely to be fully functional for at least the next 5 years, hence why, when I was worried with the pandemic this may happen, in March I actually bought a further Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III because that is such a wonderful camera that has unique capabilities not found in any other camera with lovely ergonomics and the best weathersealing and image stabilisation you can get.

I am sure I will probably not even notice there is a new owner to the Olympus Imaging Division as I have all the cameras and lenses in the system I need – just like I do for the Bronica SQ medium format film system and the Mamiya C330 Twin Lens medium format film system.

I don’t really need a company to be ongoing to keep photographing with these and I am sure the new owner will keep availability of parts and if they do continue to create great cameras and lenses then that just value adds to my gear.

In the interim, I have been slowly building up a full frame system to compliment my Micro Four Thirds gear but I do worry about the day I will be forced to take my full frame gear with me when I hike or travel – the weight and cost burden is too excessive.

I hope that Micro Four Thirds continues as a system – Panasonic and third party manufacturers already play a role here (Panasonic has recently released the G90, 10-25mm f/1.7 and 25mm f/1.4 mark II lens, and just yesterday the G100) while Black Magic Design and the drone manufacturers will almost surely keep it going from their perspective.

Even if Micro Four Thirds comes to an end and our cameras become unusable from old age, we will probably still be able to adapt our lenses, especially the superbly sharp telephoto lenses onto the Nikon Z mirrorless full frame system when they come out with a 80mp camera it could be used as a 2x crop 20mp camera for your Micro Four Thirds lenses …. if only Nikon can survive …

Is this just the start and will other manufacturers be forced to sell?

We are living in very unique and trying times with the Covid pandemic seriously impacting multitudes of industries and a recession is coming and it may be with us for several years.

This will create enormous pressures on camera manufacturers who are already struggling in the declining and competitive market.

Severely reducing costs will be imperative for survival.

This is likely to severely impact R&D and thus we may see a substantive slowing of new innovations being brought to the market.

Loss of innovative competition such as that from Olympus will further reduce the imperative to be innovative.

It may be that only the electronic company giants of Sony, Panasonic and Canon will survive as major players in the new world with the remainder having niche roles if any. This would not be in the interests of consumers, but the next decade may be tougher than usual for businesses and consumers.

We are living in a new world, there are worse things happening

The loss of any camera manufacturer severely impacts diversity, competition, downward pressure on prices and benefits for the consumer, and Olympus will be missed, especially their ability to subsidise the wonderful R&D innovations they have been renown for.

We are living in times where there are far more important problems we face and which have been exposed by this pandemic – equality for all, the need for a massive change in cultural attitudes, tolerance and respect.

And perhaps more importantly, the apparent incessant drive towards a form of idiocracy and apparent lack of basic understanding and knowledge in those who drive policy.

Sometimes I think as a photographer this should be documented, but having documented the aftermath of a massive devastating bushfire many years ago, I found I, let alone others, never wanted to re-visit that imagery and that perhaps it is better just to get on and look at the positives in life.


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