One of the biggest developments in the camera industry occurred a few weeks ago when Olympus (after months of denial) announced a pending deal to sell their camera division to equity capital firm Japan Industrial Partners (JIP).
Of course this is the cause of much uncertainty and angst amongst the Olympus loyalists, but has been an occasion of near celebration for Olympus’s detractors and other critics of the MFT format. To be certain though, Olympus has a long, illustrious, and innovative history as a camera manufacturer and it is sad to see them go, and go they will joining the ranks of Minolta, Konica, Yashica, Contax, Polaroid, Bronica, Mamiya, and may others.
Most people who are in the photography world want to know Olympus’s future. Especially those heavily invested in the Olympus system. Most likely Olympus will become a very small regional brand mostly offered for sale in Asia, where they have one of the highest market shares of any brand, and some parts of Europe and South America where JIP has had previous success. A sad end to what once was a highly innovative camera company that offered somewhat revolutionary products. That is exactly what happened to the Vaio computer brand that Sony sold to the same company years ago. It’s a shadow of its former self.
Most of Olympus’s innovation though, was in the golden age of film photography from the late 1960’s through the 1980’s. Admirably they followed their own ethos in design and engineering rather than just jump on the bandwagon of the next big thing. Unfortunately, as a result, they didn’t adapt to the autofocus revolution of the late 1980’s and were slow to enter the DSLR market in the early 2000’s and when they did, they chose the 4/3 sensor format and relentlessly pursed that format continuously until now and, probably will, into the foreseeable future. Olympus has also been heavily invested, since the 1990’s in the consumer camera market which has been all but obliterated by the smart phone. Take these ingredients and add in a major financial scandal that lead to major losses some years back and include three recent consecutive years of zero profits from their camera division and you have a recipe for ruin.
Meanwhile there’s Pentax. Another camera manufacturer that has had a very similar arc to Olympus.
Much like Olympus, in the digital era Pentax has been a niche company relying on brand loyalty rather than quantum innovation. Pentax offers competent technology with a range of innovative features including (like Olympus) high quality weather sealing for both bodies and lenses, and class leading image stabilization.
Pentax recently doubled down, in a news release, not only on their commitment to the digital camera but also, in the era of mirrorless camera market dominance, committing exclusively to the DSLR, which by the assessment of most internet pundits and self appointed experts is a dead technology.
I find this fascinating as both are niche companies with a very small share of an ever shrinking camera market. One appears to be thoroughly committed to serving their market share while the other has thrown in the towel.
Why the difference? Olympus was the only photo-centric company to exclusively embrace the micro four thirds format. To be certain Panasonic was exclusively MFT for years. Until the development of the full frame LUMIX S1 and entry into the “L-mount Alliance” with Leica and Sigma, and even before the S1, LUMIX, while offering incredibly competent photo cameras were widely known and embraced for their video capabilities. Olympus never cracked that market. They were known primarily as the MFT option for the stills photographer. Ironically Pentax has never been a real contender in the video arena either. The difference, if it makes a difference, is they offer both APS-C and full frame sensors.
So why then does one fail and the other continue? Both are divisions of larger companies that maintain a significant presence in other areas of imaging, specifically medical and industrial applications.
Perhaps Olympus could not recover from their past financial issues? That may be playing a part. I don’t think that it is their relentless insistence in supporting the MFT format exclusively. Real photographers know better – MFT is perfectly usable at every level – yes even for professionals. It is, in fact, the preferred format for photographing birds, wildlife, and some action sports due to the crop factor.
Perhaps in retrospect, they had too diverse a product line? Currently Olympus offers at least six different camera models aimed at everyone from the casual user to the serious working photographer. Some models are currently offered in two iterations like the OM-D E-M1 which is currently for sale in both the Mkll and Mklll versions at the same time. The MK lll being almost prohibitively priced at some $1700.00 (ish) USD. Pentax offers their Full Frame K1-ll at the same price point. While in MFT LUMIX offers their comparative G9 for $700.00 less and Olympus, competes against themselves offering their OM-D E-M1 Mkll at the same G9 price point. For the person entering the Olympus ecosystem, this is confusing at best.
Pentax, however, in a much simpler marketing scheme offers but four bodies all DSLR, three APS-C and one Full Frame. A much more streamlined product line that offers two sensor size options while also offering enough variations and options to suit just about any photographer that is inclined to buy into the Pentax system. This appears to be a much more sensible marketing approach in an uncertain industry.
Olympus and Pentax, two historically similar companies that for decades followed the same basic path, then diverged. On survives (at least for now) and one doesn’t.
– stay safe, see the world through your own eyes, and thanks for reading.