Home News The fall of Olympus or a bright new start?

The fall of Olympus or a bright new start?

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Water off a duck's back: Olympus E-M1 Mk II and M.Zuiko 40-150 f/2.8 (Mike Evans)

There’s a lot to read into the decision by Olympus to sell off its loss-making photographic division. By the end of the year the cameras will be controlled by Japan Industrial Partners, an investment fund which specialises in local brands which have fallen on difficult times.

Since JIP is likely to regard the preservation of the brand as paramount, it is unlikely we are looking at an asset-stripping operation as might be the case with more the voracious western venture capital operations. However, things will undoubtedly change, perhaps in terms of rationalisation of the range, which is already complex, and in a reduction in marketing and promotional costs. There is also the big question of what all this means for research and development.

Consumer confidence

Not to be ruled out, also, is the uncertainty engendered by this transfer of ownership which could cast doubt over the continued viability of the marque. In term, this would adversely dent consumer confidence, possibility resulting in defection to Panasonic or to a larger-sensor system.

At a time when all camera manufacturers are suffering, where does this leave Olympus? And what is the future for micro four-thirds which is already being threatened by the compact end of the full-frame market?

So-called “pro” micro four-thirds systems have grown in size – particularly in the lens department – while prices have risen to the point where larger sensor cameras could seem to make more sense. This is more of a problem for Olympus, which is recognised as a leader in the professional MFT market, than for Panasonic which is more consumer-orientated and, in any case, has ventured into the full-frame market. The rumoured smaller S camera could challenge MFT both in system size and, above all, in price.

Ming Thein has written an erudite assessment of the situation and I would commend it to you. He sees continued consolidation in the camera industry, with fewer manufacturers fighting for a shrinking consumer market (see the link below).

Too many systems?

I believe that there has to be consolidation, too, in the range of systems on offer. If we exclude the 1in and smaller travel market, there are currently four major segments – MFT, APS-C, full-frame and medium format – fighting for this shrinking market. And within each segment there are several different systems. How much of this variety can survive in a shrinking, more price-conscious market?

What do you think? Will Olympus continue in its present form or gradually fade away? And what future do you see for MFT?

Read Ming Thein’s assessment here

Read more about Olympus on Macfilos

20 COMMENTS

  1. You know my views. This thing has been on the cards since the beginning of digital. Squeezing digital sensors into legacy type cameras with legacy type interchangeable lenses will only take the game so far. This announcement is not the end, but rather the beginning of the end. I agree with Ming Thein that there will be further consolidation in the industry and Pentax and Nikon are obvious targets for this. As for the others, some of them are part of conglomerates, particularly Sony, Panasonic and Fuji and, to a lesser extent, Canon. The remaining parties, including Leica, will have to ‘box clever’ to survive. There is no point talking about ‘this product’ or ‘that line’ as all are at risk. The aftershocks of the ‘digital turn’ will be felt for many years to come.

    William

  2. I seem to be an object of ill omen for camera companies.! The brands I am drawn to – for whatever reason – have a habit of struggling! My DSLR gear is Pentax, who make great cameras but have been through takeovers by Hoya and Ricoh but continue to struggle despite one of the finest heritages in photography.

    And in mirrorless? I settled on Micro Four Thirds, now owning some top notch gear from both Olympus and Panasonic. I suspect this isn’t the end for Oly, but there is no doubt in my mind that the target market will shift. It has to shift. And it has to be built around the one key advantage that MFT always had – minimal size. There is little point building cameras that are approaching FF body size, no matter how good they perform or are laid out.

    This is perhaps best exemplified by the recent Olympus release of the EM5 Mkiii . It is truly compact, as MFT needs be and was always meant to be. It marks a return to the initial raison d’être of MFT, but is also not without errors in Olympus decision making. I own one. An article on it is probably well overdue.

    The market will continue to contract. It is inevitable. It will be interesting to see if the memorandum of understanding with JIP ends up going through. Arguably, it may be worse for Olympus if JIP decide it’s not worth purchasing. Whether it forces me to change to another system – and which one – remains to be seen. I won’t be rushing. The beautiful Olympus glass remains just as good today as it did yesterday. The risk, of course, is having no bodies to drive them in a decade or two as digital devices inevitably fade. Tricky times ahead for MFT users.

  3. This is saddening but not surprising. One of the critical things smart companies do is look across the portfolio and use a number of parameters to determine what brands and sub brands are ready for pruning.

    I look at some manufacturers’ ranges and I’m completely baffled by seemingly small (and likely insignificant) differentiators that create a cost burden to the manufacturer and also to the retailer. Like any manufacturer you have to keep asking the question “Why me? Why should anyone buy this product over that?” When you see the complicated positioning charts in long PPT presentations you know it’s about preserving that guy’s job, not really justifying why someone in the real world should buy it.

    Leica is different in that it produces tiny numbers of real cameras and badges the rest. Arguably Leica could retreat to full frame only and would not likely suffer that much.

  4. Earlier this year I started learning more about short film production. Despite the amazing full frame systems on the market, there are so many places where MFT systems come in as the system of choice, mainly the Panasonic GH5 and Black Magic cameras.
    I shoot with a Panasonic GX7 which is a good balance of semi-pro features and a compact size. I find it the perfect complement to a Leica M – both have strengths and handling that complement each other and don’t overlap in function where and how I use them. The combination make it difficult to be tempted by the Leica CL, SL or S lines even though they are all wonderful machines.

    • Ming also mentioned the video preference for smaller sensors, citing Panasonic and MFT. But I believe the 1in sensor is also popular. Panasonic seem to have made more of this than Olympus and are benefiting among the video crowd.

  5. Hi Mike,
    I disagree with your title. I think there is a third option which is “continued brilliance with a great future under new ownership”. The camera division had been a drop in the Olympus company bucket. There is nothing worse to be than a small specialty division in a gigantic corporation. Hopefully, it will blossom under the new ownership. However, they do need to simplify their options like every other camera vendor.
    I usually agree with Ming Thein as he is brilliant in camera technology, technique, and image artistry. Regarding image artistry, I do not like his harsh bleak black and white images that have emerged since he injured his back in a car accident that removed his ability to carry heavy camera equipment. But a style difference does not mean he is not a great photographer. I do not like Picasso but I wish I had one of his paintings (so I can sell it).
    Regarding the article of his, I disagree with him on a number of points. First it was not long ago that he stated that M43 was more than adequate for most photographers. I think that is still valid and will be valid with today’s equipment for the foreseeable future. In the article he says that Z6 or Z7 can be almost the same size with careful lens choices. Well tra la la, the smaller M43 body and glass options make the Z6/7 careful choices look large. The bigger cameras like the Panasonic G9 can be paired with high performance telephotos and zooms that make the full frame equivalents look gigantic and you need a mule to carry them. Most people do not need more than M43 so why go with his current favourite Nikon camera since he can no longer carry medium format and he now pursuing watch design and sales.
    And I also disagree quite strongly with his observation that Panasonic is more focussed on consumers than Olympus. The Panasonic G9 is a professional grade camera (I have actually used it since announced) and they have a lot of Leica glass that is second to none – I own or owned and use the following: 12mm/1.4, 25/1.4 ,42.5/1.2, 200/2.8, 12-60/3.5-5.6 and I also own/owned a number of Olympus lens that are amazing. So what is he talking about?
    I do agree with him that Nikon Z system may never see maturity but who knows or cares right now. Buy what you like and use what you have and get out taking pictures with what gives you happiness in a world that is currently off the rails.
    And if Olympus did go under, Panasonic would have a bigger sustainable market for themselves. Especially, since Panasonic is better at video and M43 is great for segments of the video market.
    If you love macro photography, M43 is the ideal format for that with its natural increased depth of field.
    I believe the camera market will shake out and down to more like the film days. We were happy with a lot less glass options and camera options pre digital. The sensor technology has plateaued for quite a while. I laugh when the reviewers mention that the latest camera has a better noise or EV range and if you do the math often it is only a 1/3 of a stop difference. Unfortunately the reviewers are not competent to realize that or they are getting rewarded to push equipment. Basically, the camera manufacturers need to simplify their camera range and stop the constant new models that have no real effective feature. Similarly, they keep cranking out endless gigantic superfast lenses that I do not want even if I could afford them.
    If one goes to B&H, for M43 there are 189 lenses listed – somebody thinks M43 is useful – and I do also. There are a lot of pros using it. However, do we really need 189 lenses for any format? Some need to fall off the cliff so money can be made.
    Anyway, photography is not dead it will return to the film day norm of enthusiasts and pros. The camera phone has taken care of the people that I wish would not show me 75 unculled images of their children and their lunch or latte. M43 is not dead. APS-C is not dead. Medium format is not dead. In my opinion, it is just about to become right sized!

    • I should mention that the Pro market will not go back to the levels of the film glory days due to many factors including stock photography. I feel sorry for the pros with so many amateurs (not earning a living from photography) giving their images virtually away and ruining for others trying to feed themselves.

    • I hope you are right, Brian, in your optimistic assessment. I have a soft spot for MFT in particular, although I don’t currently own anything other than the D-Lux 7. I tend to agree that Panasonic does produce excellent cameras. In fact, Panasonic with MFT and FF have made a lot of the right decisions.

  6. I forgot to mention that I think there is one more market segment independent of sensor size and that is rangefinder. It is a unique segment. Way back in the 70s I had photographic books that would cover different film formats up medium frame. Then the Leica rangefinder would be in a separate category. I think it is still a unique photography experience that is separate from the full frame market and its doom was forecast back in the 70s as it was going to be killed off by the SLR and later by autofocus. Forecasters of doom and gloom are not new. All formats will survive but if companies do not right size they will disappear. I think Hasselblad is better than Fuji but the new owners but their output has stalled since new owners took over and got them focussing on drone cameras. I do not see a great future for them in spite of the superior images.

    • Hi Brian, I am not really too worried about Hasselblad, in the last 4 years they have released 3 medium format bodies (X1D I & II, 907X), 10 medium format lenses and the CFV II 50C digital back. I doubt whether they have ever been this productive in their entire history…! The X1D II will serve me well in the next 3-5 years and after that nobody really knows anyway… and even if this were to be the last of the iconic Hasselblad brand I am pretty sure that within a few years prices on the used market would be going through the roof.. I will happily buy more lenses this year.

  7. Olympus were the first camera company to go all in with digital, scrapping their original OM series to do so. If they are not profitable now, it certainly isn’t through lack of innovation or quality products.
    They obviously haven’t had quality management. Konica / Minolta had similar issues, and we all know what happened to them.
    As Ming reports, Like Leitz back in the day, they were originally a manufacturer of microscopes, and have always been heavily involved with medical equipment.Then we have Leica who were hanging on by a thread just a decade ago but today are doing quite well for themselves with one of the strongest product portfolios in a long time. Their management must be making all the right moves despite the tough market. Maybe those camellama covered editions are not such a dumb idea as they appear.
    It would be sad ( but not surprising ) to see Olympus cameras go the way of Minolta.

  8. I think that something like this is going to happen to more of these companies.

    Olympus was only the first because it has never recovered from their recent management scandal.

  9. I see this in a number of ways:

    Firstly it is sad to see a key photographic marque of my life in this situation. Their heritage is up there with the best of any of our major brands, and those that many of us pick up and use when the moment takes us.

    Secondly this a sad fact of the digital age, in that the market place is crowded and being impacted upon by the march of mobile phones. Our phones seem to cover the majority of photography need for most people. I am writing this watching Liz (my wife) looking back through the covid journey with my daughter on her IPhone. In the past she would have used a small compact film camera and waited for the images to drop through our letter box. The world has moved on in a significant way.

    And finally, I often teach people about business strategy, as its a speciality I tend to focus on. And some of our key companies are not in the infinite game. They need visionary infinite leaders who can see beyond, and plan beyond where they sit today. Its not about quarterly reports, performance targets and shareholders. It is about remaining in the game and rolling on infinitely.

    A good example of infinite strategic thinking is the world built and envisaged by Steve Jobs on his second visit to Apple. The reason they go from strength to strength is that they are not a finite focused company, with a view on the bottom line.

    A fact to consider for all of our readers (yes I could write lots here), but in 1950 the average life span of a top performing company was around 60 years, in 2019 it was around 20 years and shrinking. Why? Its is all about finite leadership, finite macro-transactional reporting, and a leaning towards mass profits over sustainability. And infinite thinking goes beyond all of those points. Apple is one of a small number of companies who thinks and pushes infinitely minded. If they keep that up, and live on in Steve Jobs’s vision, then in realistic terms they could become the first infinite brand.

    I never like to end on a negative, but investment companies often come in to make the company survive, and then about five years later step off – and try to recoup their money, or more. They are a finite product, of a short term orientated product of the modern world.

    Enjoy the weekend. Keep safe folks.

    • Your statement “some of our key companies are not in the infinite game” brought to mind a recent interview with Singapore’s Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan who retired after 19 years. (https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/khaw-boon-wan-transport-minister-retire-from-politics-sembawang-12873480). I like what he says towards the end:

      “Your job is to nurture the young, because you’re not going to live to 10,000 years.

      “In my case – 40 years – a very long career, but still there’s a termination point. But if you leave with a big pipeline of people whom you have helped to mature, then, the institution can stay on for decades and decades.”

      • He is spot on, a lot of companies are in it for the headline grabbing share price, or short term wins, and not to develop a system that lives on forever, and continues to provide stable consistent delivery, year on year with the people growing with the organisation.

        We are living in a business dark age on many fronts. Its sad that short sighted money making schemes, or businesses, are accepted as the norm.

        My aim has always been to take the people working for me on a journey, where they improve, learn and become better educated. And on that journey they sow down the DNA for future generations to do healthy things. I also try to leave behind departments that over time become self sufficient, and don’t need someone to stand over them to do the day job. Sadly my experience is that the people that often follow me when I leave, have a finite, self centred mindset and usually unpick the things I spent years building.

    • Charles Handy the business writer and books like “Built to last” promotion the philosophy of management’s real goal being to sustain the company through multiple generations. Profit – the bottom line – is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s the model of traditional family-owned farming. Maybe it’s naive but companies might actually perform better if they were oriented this way rather than focused on quarterly reports and earnings. Just because you can measure performance over shorter and shorter increments doesn’t mean you should manage over shorter increments.

      I’m sure Olympus can have a strong future if given a dedicated management team who can focus on the big picture of what the brand can bring to photography long term rather than just the next quarter.

      • The infinite game is about building a company to effectively roll on forever leaving behind a decent footprint, that is about the people working there and enjoying being part of the journey. They are not interested in the finite short term bits, and other financial stuff – yes it gets monitored, but its not the bottom line.

        The finite game builds a culture of egos, backstabbing and throat cutting – and none of it is healthy, and hence why many companies grow quickly achieve big financial gains and then go pop. Its not unsustainable long term. But most CEOs seem often only interested in their tenure, and not the tenure of the people that follow them – if they thought beyond today, many companies would last longer, have healthier practices and workforces and overall probably perform better long term.

        There is lots of evidence that companies who engage in healthier practices, think about their workforce and generally look after their customers, with a customer centric business model, will flourish, have a good reputation and go from strength to strength.

        • Unfortunately if you are living with an addict called Wall St., you have to make sure the addiction to short term highs is supported in a ruthless single-minded way.

          The idea of “why, how, what” Simon Sinek approach to building brands that are consumer centric is quite often at odds with Wall St’s short-termism.

          The real solution maybe to turn the company back into a private entity that can still source capital but sets the rhythm and timeline for self-defining and achieving its own success.

          • Nice to see someone recognise Simons work, I came across his work while coaching degree students around strategic leadership. And he struck a chord with me, and with his view of strategy, and strategic leadership.

            I have tried building an infinite model of business in my last two departments, and one of them seem to have got it. The other I am not so sure, but it is still a work in progress.

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