UPDATE: After more rumors, Olympus has come out with a more clarified statement. Click here to read the full statement.
In fact … Olympus — which is celebrating its 100th year in business — is far from closing.
This wasn’t going to be my original title to this article. But after seeing a rumor earlier this week about Olympus closing its camera division in Q1 2020, I felt that the narrative had changed slightly and that this rumor needed to be addressed. I met with the Olympus team at PhotoPlus in late October, to discuss the company’s latest release as well as what’s on the horizon for them.
But before we get to that, here’s the official statement from Olympus:
“Olympus Imaging products play an important role as technology drivers for all Olympus business lines, including the advanced digital technologies used in Olympus’ Medical, Industrial and Scientific businesses. Olympus does indeed plan to continue to develop its imaging product lines, bringing products to life that embody Olympus’ core benefits, including system compactness and superior lens optics.”
If that Olympus statement doesn’t satisfy you, how about this? Olympus is releasing a new camera later this month — the OM-D E-M5 Mark III — and a new lens next year — the 150-400mm f/4.5. The company also relocated operations away from China and to its Vietnam plant in Spring 2018, as it had upgraded equipment, allowing Olympus to maintain its competitiveness.
Why would a camera company shut down their operations if they have put all those resources into their brand?
Now that we have put that rumor to bed … let’s talk Olympus, the OM-D line and micro four-thirds.
For Olympus, 2019 started off with a bang. The company launched its pro-centric OM-D E-M1X in February, a micro four-thirds mirrorless camera body that took the look of what you’d expect from a DSLR. With a built-in battery grip and more buttons than any Olympus camera before it, this camera was built for the serious pro. It featured enhanced autofocus capabilities for both stills and video, better low light performance, state-of-the-art weather sealing, a new AI tracking capability … the list goes on. You can see my in-depth review of the E-M1X here.
With that camera, Olympus was clearly targeting a specific audience. While most enthusiasts didn’t like the idea of the company making a larger camera, the company knows it was the right thing to do. It filled a gap in their lineup.
“When we introduced the E-M1X last year, some people told us, ‘that’s not small.’ But our lineup is small for the features and for the purpose,” said Vice President of Sales & Marketing Aki Murata. “[The E-M5 Mark III] is the most versatile product. You can bring it anywhere. On the other hand, the E-M1 line, you might need two SD card slots or other pro features for certain types of photography. It really depends on the customer which one fits your needs.”
Along with the E-M1X, Olympus also released a new flash and trigger system and announced the development of the 150-400mm f/4.5, set to ship sometime in 2020.
Fast-forward a few months, Olympus announced the OM-D E-M5 Mark III camera, the latest update to its mid-tier camera body. While the camera got a spec bump, many were surprised at the amount of pro-level features that Olympus included, which was standard in its E-M1 Mark II and E-M1X camera bodies. You can see my in-depth review of the E-M5 Mark III here.
Sticking to its roots
While the E-M1X was certainly a much larger camera than Olympus had produced recently, it still kept a rather small, lightweight footprint, when compared to its competitors. Pick up a Canon 1DX or Nikon D6 and you’ll find the E-M1X is significantly lighter — especially when lenses are attached. While it was larger than the E-M5 and E-M1 lines, the E-M1X was still smaller than its full-frame counterparts.
The reasoning? Well, it all goes back to the roots of the company, which from day one has prioritized a smaller, lighter and more compact system. In my interview with Murata last fall, he mentioned Olympus’ roots with the creator of the OM system, Yoshihisa Maitani. “[Maitani] said three things. We should provide ultimate reliability, a compact system and a lightweight system. This will differentiate us. He said we should be very unique, and stand out from others that way.”
That same philosophy drives Olympus today, as posted on the company’s website:
“For eight decades, Olympus’ camera business has pursued a philosophical emphasis on ‘smaller and lighter.’ Since the introduction of the Olympus PEN, a prototypical half-sized camera released in 1959, Olympus has introduced a long line of innovative cameras boasting unprecedented compactness and low weight, all built to uncompromising manufacturing standards. To this day, Olympus continues to emphasize smaller and lighter based on the enduring truth that greater mobility means greater user convenience.”
Today, Olympus is driving this point home, with its new Break Free campaign, which prioritizes creativity, flexibility and originality.
Talking micro four-thirds
Olympus knows that micro four-thirds isn’t perfect — no sensor system is. There’s always talk about the apparent “limits” of the micro four-thirds system. But the company is tackling this by advancing its software technology to minimize these concerns.
“Like we have been saying, our direction hasn’t changed,” said Murata. “We’ll stick with micro four-thirds. The reason is simple — we believe that smaller, lightweight is needed for many of our users. We want to stick to one formula.
“We understand there are limitations [with micro four-thirds], but this won’t always be the case. Technology evolves. We believe the current limits will not be present in the future. It’s important to have a smaller, lightweight system with great lenses.”
And what about full-frame? With seemingly every camera maker on board the full-frame train, Olympus has decided to stay put with micro four-thirds.
“With all of these companies, there’s a certain amount of money they have for R+D and development,” said Eric Gensel, Associate Manager Technical, Public Relations. “What happens when a smaller company — some of the ones that are developing multiple mounts — when you spread your R+D functions and dollars? That’s the one thing — we are very committed to putting all of our effort, our expertise, into this exact mount. And that will show value over time.”
What should be expected of Olympus in 2020?
There are several rumors about camera companies out there, including Olympus. While I’m not here to talk about them, Olympus did say that it’s continuing to push on the gas pedal. It will continue to release cameras that fulfill the needs of photographers across the globe.
In terms of the new 150-400mm f/4.5 lens, Olympus says that people have been really excited about this forthcoming release, in tandem with the company’s lens road map it released earlier in the year.
“There’s huge reaction from the market on [the 150-400mm f/4.5]. I think this will be a really big thing,” said Murata. “We haven’t said anything about pricing or specifications, minus the focal range. But we already have had people contact us about it and request pre-orders.”
Olympus fills a very specific void in the marketplace — for a person that is looking for smaller, lightweight gear. For someone that wants revolutionary software features like Live Composite, Pro Capture, Live ND and Handheld High Res Shot. Or for someone that wants to take photos outside — no matter if it’s 80 degrees and sunny or -10 degrees and snowing.
One thing’s for sure — Olympus certainly won’t be shutting down anytime soon.
Remember, rumors are not truth.