# 1020. We are never ready … (farewell Olympus)

By philberphoto | News

Jul 01

There are few industries if any, that report numbers as horrible as photography. Total sales of cameras down 86% from their peak. So, to use the title of the last film made -and never released- by Marilyn Monroe, “something’s got to give”. Too many manufacturers chasing too few sales. And no cake to eat when bread ran out.

We all knew it, foresaw it, prophesied it. Some of the weaker manufacturers would have to fold, sell out, merge, whatever could reduce the pain. The first major one happened a few days ago (not counting Samsung, 3 years ago, but that was not a loss of comparable magnitude).

Olympus Flex

Olympus, after 84 years making cameras, sold its business to a Japanese fund. And we’re not ready. We never are.

Because, criticize all you like, Olympus was both respected and loved. They were one of the few innovators in the business. Think the best IBIS in the market, or the first mass-market pixel-shift… And Olympus cameras and Zuiko lenses were always famous for delivering lovely colours.

Olympus carved itself a position in the market for its products being small. Even in SLR film days, Olympus invented the half-frame camera, a compact alternative to full-frame. In digital years, Olympus championed the 4/3 format, then the even smaller M 4/3. At a time when the whole industry seems to be downsizing cameras from DSLRs to mirrorless, Olympus’ lead in that segment should make it one of the big winners, right?

Olympus Pen

Well….. not really. Because the Olympus way into smaller camera bodies was always to reduce sensor size, like the half-frame decades ago. Smaller sensors sport adavantages (smaller, cheaper lenses, smaller, lighter bodies), but also carry handicaps in todays world. First, they don’t come with the same “numbers-glamour” as larger sensors (resolution, ISO, DR). Not good when numbers are just about the only feature maketing puts forward to sell new-and-improved cameras. Second, if you really want small and uncomplicated, you will be tempted to simply use your smartphone. The smaller the sensor, the smaller the IQ gap with a smartphone. If that gap is no longer large enough, why bother with a camera at all?

And in M 4/3, Olympus are bedfellows with Panasonic. Who chose a different niche for themselves: video. A very wise choice, as that market segment is not collapsing like that for stills. So, while Panasonic do not have the storied past of Olympus, and are arguably not respected or loved the way Olympus are, when the music stopped, they had themselves a chair, and Olympus was left standing.

Olympus OM-1

They were, in a way, the un-Sony. Sony made all the right strategic calls, and combined that with massive technology and marketing resources. But their cameras feel -to some, not to me- like they were designed by committess where technology and marketing drown out user experience. Olympus were the opposite. But too many missed strategic calls eventually came home to roost.

We knew it was coming, but we were not ready. The camera business will be more business without you, but less camera. R.i.p. Olympus 1936-2020


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  • pascaljappy says:

    My very first camera was a tiny Mamiya. A poor-boy’s substitute for the glorious Olympus OM4 that haunted my teenage dreams. Decades later, an OM finally came into my possession: the digital EM-5. And it was every bit as glorious as I had hoped.

    It’s a sad fact that being great at strategic thinking puts you in a better position than being great at pleasing customers. And I want to blame Sony’s number fest for Olympus’ disappearance. But that would be unfair, and a mistake. Pleasing customers is a strategy. Some brands please with haptics and “je ne sais quoi”, others do so with numbers and technical capability. Who’s to blame the latter for the market’s preferences?

    Kodak is slowly coming back from the dead. Will we ever see Olympus again? One can only hope so. Rest in peace, and come back soon, Oly. Please do. A creative world needs you.

  • Nermin says:

    Hi, I regularly come here to read, never to comment. I am a Olympus user. My first ever camera was an Olympus compact. My second Olympus one was the E-M5…what a breath of fresh air.

    Why would I comment now?
    I just want to say thank you for this post.

    I hope they come back…

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Olympus has arisen from the flames before – let’s hope that with the help of a more business oriented financial backer they can do it again. The way these “rescues'” work in the so-called “western” countries is that a predator – kind of like a shark – snaps at the weaker fish, takes it to the lair, inspects it closely, and having paid next to nothing for its victim, tries to work out only one thing – how to maximise the return on “investment” (AKA “acquisition price”), while minimising the turnaround time.

    Those are all important goals – because the predator (AKA friendly rescuer) has other fish to fry, and has to flick this corpse on fast, to clear the operating table for the next carcass.

    I understand this is not the case in Japan. The financier that has taken over is NOT expected to behave like the corporate cowboys of western economies. In Japan, that kind of behaviour is simply “not done”. Anyway, those of us with long memories will remember when Olympus went through similar pain, and re-emerged not long afterwards as the Olympus we’ve just “lost” this time.

    All of which is, as Philippe points out, sad. Olympus has gone where no other camera maker went. Making cameras that still looked like cameras. Producing incredibly good images, from a comparatively small – and convenient – camera.

    I had a friend in the 1960s who swore by his Olympus, and was immensely proud of it – and of the images it produced.

    My wife had an Olympus and loved it so much that it literally went all over the world. Beijing – the Alhambra – Melbourne – Ulan Bator – St Petersburg – Stratford on Avon – Kuala Lumpur – Paris – Mont St Michel – Karratha – and heaps more. Sadly, she kept it way past the safe number of shutter clicks and it died, while still serving its mistress, and the last SD card had to be rescued by StellarPhotoRecovery. She’s been borrowing one of mine ever since, and I was about to buy her another one, when this news broke. I am a little apprehensive about it now, because obviously any warranties may be suspect. But I still think she would prefer that, rather than continuing with mine. Her old one did everything she ever wanted, and she was used to it and its controls – she’d undoubtedly feel good about a new one from the same firm.

    I’ve seen yowls in the photographic press about other makes, and I cannot help feeling that the commentators are causing the problem they think they are alerting us to. It cannot help any of these firms – Canon, Nikon, Fuji, Leica, Hasselblad, Panasonic, SIGMA or ANY of the others – to have “professionals” and well recognised authors in photography magazines predicting the impending death of Brand X. They CANNOT know the future, they DON’T own the companies they do it to, and they should cease and desist. Other people – real people – own these companies, and these companies employ real people, and ALL of those people deserve a little respect – ESPECIALLY in difficult times.

    Ever since I got seriously serious about digital, I’ve gone with Nikon. Not with all their lenses, but certainly with practically all of my cameras. I’m now on cameras no 4 and no 5. I’d have to go and look, to see how many of the lenses are Nikon, but it’s around 5. And the cash tied up in glass that’s compatible with both my current Nikons is cash I’m wildly unlikely to ever be able to lay my hands on again, so no matter what I think, I’m shooting Nikon from now till I die – or go blind or something.

    Except that every now and then, SIGMA teases me with comments about their Foveon – and plans for a full frame version with a sensor having equivalent 150 MP, putting it up there with Fuji and Hassy – sigh – to do that, with a Foveon sensor, is a dream – an unfulfilled wish – and I WANT one! Even if I can never afford more than one lens for it. After all, I shot 35mm with an expensive Zeiss camera, and the number of shots that used anything but the prime 50mm lens was inconsequential.

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Post script/addendum – there are already articles about Olympus rebounding – phoenix arising from the ashes! – with a string of improvements and new products.

      I must admit, I’ve always admired the fact that Olympus has retained the idea that cameras should actually LOOK like cameras. And although I’ve not personally tried Olympus, I’ve never met an Olympus owner who wasn’t happy with his camera[s]. (NOTE – given their current situation, can we PULLEEZ all act nicely, and not say a bad word about them!]

    • Peter Oosthuizen says:

      Pete, I have to take issue with your use of predator for the companies taking the risks of attempting to resuscitate bankrupt businesses. It’s not as if they had driven the companies they buy to bankruptcy – without them the creditors would get even less and the users of their products nothing at all.

      If Olympus is to have any hope of emerging it needs investors (aka risk takers) to strip it of non-essentials and to concentrate on its business – image production. Previous management dealt the death blow through financial mismanagement – to be charitable 🙂

      We all love our hardware but seem to forget that we’re really after the output – the image.

      Years ago someone made the point that no-one wants a 1/4 drill but they do want a 1/4 inch hole.

      Camera manufacturers need to get their heads round this and to reduce the cost and ease of use of their offerings to the fundamentals.

      My 2c

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Peter, we’re talking about two different scenarios. One that DOES try to revive the business, the other is the “asset stripper” version who has no interest in the business and simply wants to exploit weakness by stripping the carcass of the business to maximise return on the cost/purchase price.

        Olympus is a large company and Olympus is continuing in business – without its photo imaging section. It has sold its photo imaging section so that it can concentrate on its other areas of business. Which are substantial. “Olympus Corporation is a Japanese manufacturer of optics and reprography products. It holds roughly a 70-percent share of the global endoscope market, estimated to be worth approximately US$2.5 billion.” Its staff has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and the medical division’s revenues have more than trebled over that period.

        The new owner of the photo imaging section has committed to keeping the camera business going. Of course new management will make adjustments. But so far, all the comments that I’ve been seeing – here and in other places – seem to suggest it’s “game over” for Olympus cameras. At least for the time being, that is simply not true. And saying it will be damaging to the business, to the interests of the new owners as they take control and try to make any such adjustments.

        Camera stores around the world aren’t going to invest heavily in stock they later can’t sell. Photographers around the world aren’t going to spend heavily on a camera system that is going out of production. And both of these changes are quite likely to be CAUSED by any such comments or suggestions – whether it’s here in DS or elsewhere in the photographic press or YouTube, or anywhere else.

        • philberphoto says:

          Pete, I am not sure about your figure of 70% markets share in endoscopes for Olympus. My brief research shows a total endoscopy market somewhere between US$ 30bn and 40bn p.a. In 2010 Olympus reported worldwide sales just short of Y800bn, or US$ 8bn, 52% of which were made up of endoscopes. That is close to US$ 4bn. Olympus themselves report this 70% market share figure, but “only” for gastro-intestinal endoscopes, which is where the vast majority of their endoscopes are sold, whereas there are many other types as well. Now 70% of any world market is nothing short of remarkable, but 70% of the whole endoscope market would require them to be about 10x larger.

      • philberphoto says:

        Well put, Peter, I agree! Besides, on a side note, it is interestng that, this being Japan, the camera division was sold off (though whether any price was paid, or if the business was given away, is not clear). In most Western countries, bankruptcy of some sort would have been a way to restore equity in the business at third-party expense. But that is not so in Japan….

  • John W says:

    In another life, when I worked in camera stores, I could buy used equipment at cost. For the princely sum of $250 I bought an OM1 with the power winder, a 24, 35, 50, 85 and 200mm and some miscellaneous bits and pieces. Such a sweet little jewel of a camera and the lenses were excellent. It eventually ended up in the closet (I also had a bag full of EOS gear), ignored and unloved till my brother-in-law asked my advise on a camera for my niece for her photography course at school. She inherited the collection with a vest to carry it all and blew her teachers mind when she told him her uncle had given it all to her. Don’t know what it did for her photography, but she definitely had “bragging rights”.

    Never cottoned to their digital cameras. Found the colours too harsh, though I assume that was fixable in post. Sad to see another venerable name bite the dust. Do hope they can recover.

  • Steve Mallett says:

    Having been, until very recently, an Olympus m43 user I am especially sad to learn of their demise. Olympus have been over many years true innovators in an industry that has become sadly lacking in innovation. That said there have clearly been mistakes in their strategy. One of the compelling reasons for my use of m43 over the last six years was IQ to weight ratio with small bodies and high quality, small light-weight, relatively inexpensive lenses. In recent times with their Pro lenses Olympus have down the route of increasingly large, heavy and expensive glass negating much of their USP whilst at he same time seemingly stalling on sensor development. I recently traded most of my m43 kit for a Nikon Z7 and native Z glass, there now being no appreciable weight differential between it and an E-M1 with Pro lenses, with the benefit of higher IQ especially in low light and higher ISO. The Z7 sensor allows for deep cropping when desired and the use of Z mount DX lenses still gives a 20mp file. Of course Nikon may also turn out to be another casualty….

    And I still have my Pen-F and a couple of lenses, ‘cos it’s such a fun camera!

  • Dallas says:

    Philippe another great article. It’s sad that great bands disappear or do they just come back in another form. I love the shots included, my favorite is the one of the round window.

  • Sean says:

    Oh dear, this is saddening news. My first serious camera was an Olympus OM10 (gave it to my father) followed by the OM2 (wore it out) then, the OM1 and OM3 along the EP-3 (still have these three). Olympus glass is generally quite good – some lenses are gems, in my eyes. That being said, I say farewell to Olympus, it was worth it at the time. However, the circumstances of time move on. In the end, I suppose it comes down to commercial reality.

  • Pascal Ravach says:

    In the 80’s I moved to Olympus. Compact and so ergonomic, well-built.
    I was so much in love that it was my only brand for a decade… 13 bodies, from the OM-1 to the 4.
    I kept one OM-4 and one OM-4 Ti, these being – as far as I know – the only material implementation of Ansel Adam’s Zone system with their “Zone spot meter”, something I love to use for landscape and studio work.
    30 lenses, from which I kept my 10 favorites.
    And all the TTL, motors (“winders” as we said) and accessories.
    People often mention their “recent” inventions, like IBIS, but in those pre-digital times, they also lauched TTL Flash! And 1/320 sync (OM-4 and T280i, if I remember well).
    And, with Nikon as a nice second choice (both brands manufacturing also microscopes, no coincidence here), Olympus was simply untouched for macro… six or seven macro lenses, bellow, auto-tube (unique), double macro flashes, the famous ring flash with a double crossed pola (only way to take flash of a fishtank through the glass!), etc etc; that’w why I still own a very large bag of all their macro offering.

    To me, their biggest mistake has been to never release a full-frame digital body for all of us in love with the Olympus OM glass and macro tools… I waited, and waited, and waited… nope.
    30+ years later (!), I ended up buying a used Sony A7RII for that sleeping glass; a lucky move, since the match proved very interesting, at least for the top-performing glass like all the macro lenses; it tells a lot about these gems, since putting a 42 MPx sensor on old legacy lenses is usually a big “no”…
    But I have been unsuccessful up to now to get the TTL working cross-brands, even with the new Cactul v6 and v6s flash transmitters… more work to do 🙂
    I am often suggested to simply buy new flashes, but then again… nothing compares to my T45 “Street reporter” monster, nor to my T10, T20 macro flashes.
    One day…

    In 20 years, I tried other stuff in digital, and moved to Micro Four Third, gaining compactness again, so nice for travel. Whatever the sensor limitations, I love the ergonomics of my E-M1, lenses like the 75F1.8 (really a jewel, so discrete), the Pana 7-14F4.0 (so small it’s unbelievable), the 12-40F2.8 Pro (can take the combo in the heaviest rain, in the snow etc… and never had to brush the sensor in years… here again, ultra-sonic self-cleaning works best on Olympus…).
    And now orphan again…
    Oh well… Life goes on, but I know I will keep these babies working as long as I can!

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      If I wasn’t already so wedded to Nikon and so heavily invested in their stuff, and appropriate lenses, I would have given Olympus very serious consideration. My wife had one till 2 years ago, and it frequently managed to outshoot a much more expensive & elaborate Panasonic Lumix that I had a while back.

      And Olympus is 1) much lighter & more convenient, 2) much more intuitive and 3) much more like a “camera”.

      Stick with it Pascal – watch the space – with luck, the Phoenix will arise, once again – in the meantime it’s still in business, just under different ownership.

      • philberphoto says:

        Nothing says that a financial buyout is always a one way way street to the corporate graveyard. But most of those turnaround stories happen when a sleepy, overly burocratic division of a larger group is bought out by eager managers. In ths case, there is the minor problem of a market that is 84% below its peak… and that the same fund hasn’t exactly rejuvenated the Vaio computer divsion they bought from Sony…

    • philberphoto says:

      Ah, Pascal, it is difficult to let go of (good) old glass and the fond memories they embody. Just talk to Pascal J about it…!-)

    • philberphoto says:

      Indeed, Alan, and thanks for the link. That said, when “new Olympus” indicate that “they will concentrate on high end”, I have 2 reservations. One is that all the camera companies are doing it, if not per choice, perforce, because the smartphones are eating up their market share from the bottom up. The second one is that M4/3 is not the best toolkit to go after high end IMHO. Thtat said, I’d love to be wrong because that would mean that Olympus innovated once again.

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