Dear Japan Industrial Partners Inc, Olympus Cameras Can Still Be Great, so Don't Melt Them Down for Parts

Dear Japan Industrial Partners Inc, Olympus Cameras Can Still Be Great, so Don't Melt Them Down for Parts

The shock news landed this morning that Olympus has sold their camera division to Japan Industrial Partners Inc. (JIP), and while they have confirmed to Olympus that both OM-D and Zuiko will be utilized, fears are growing that the camera division will be metaphorically melted down for parts.

The news this morning was both shocking and not so shocking. It was shocking insofar as despite the $157 million losses its imaging division reported last November, Olympus denied rumors that they were looking to sell that part of their business in the coming months. As many suspected, however, the scythe was hovering, and this morning, it was swung.

I'm saddened by this news. I truly am. Their imaging division has been a staple of the industry for the best part of a century, their rich history plays an important role in the history of photography, and the employees are some of the most talented, innovative, and passionate people I've met. Perhaps it's a feature of Japanese companies, as I felt similarly about Fujifilm when I visited them in Tokyo, but they just seem to care. It isn't a large (or possibly necessary) perk of a company to care about, but it resonated with me. But sentimentality aside, now comes a bigger worry for the industry: what will JIP do with the Olympus camera division?

No one outside of JIP is likely to know the answer to that. As we have seen with Olympus' denial of sale last year, their words may just be fundamentally to steady the ship and secure a smooth sale, so their soothing message of much of the department's work and sub-brands staying intact is of little comfort. What I worry is that the numbers in conjunction with the difficult period that the camera industry is struggling through will seal the fate of Olympus cameras. A company making serious losses and struggling to maintain any sort of foothold in the market looks to be the death rattle, and JIP appears ready to harvest. I spoke to a representative at OIympus America, and they confirmed that a blend of industry decline and COVID-19 (among other things, I'm sure) resulted in this outcome, with President of Olympus America, Akihiko Murata, adding the following:

During these discussions, Olympus Imaging will operate business as usual and will continue to deliver innovations to our customers, launching new products as planned. Olympus and JIP are committed to providing our stakeholders full transparency about our intentions as plans solidify.

Taken using the OM-D E-M1 Mark III using their Live Composite and Starry AF modes. The camera automatically detects and focuses on the stars, then you can watch on the LCD screen as the image builds up, frame by frame. With a stronger sensor, astrophotographers would be frothing at the mouth.

I am left with the same concerns. The president's words sound positive, but it's hard to get past "during these discussions" and not fear for the imaging division's future in JIP's hands. The ticking clock appears to be only lightly shrouded. While I appreciate the numbers may not make sense to act in any other way, I truly believe that Olympus cameras can be great with a little direction. My time spent with them at the pre-launch of the OM-D E-M1 Mark III earlier this year left me with a lot of thoughts on the company's future. There was — and is — so much to like about Olympus and their cameras, which you can read in my review. But if I could talk to JIP and convince them to give the division a chance to continue, I would say the below.

Olympus cameras are close to great at what they strive to do. Their in-camera technology with the likes of Live Composite, Starry AF, and Live ND are the best around. That isn't hyperbole. I've used many cameras, and I've seen nothing quite like it. Their body ergonomics, as well as size and weight are superb, their battery life is great, their IBIS is excellent, and they now have a lot of necessary features like dual card slots. I believe their shortcomings are simply sensor and price. The sensor issue isn't what you might think. I am not suggesting it needs to be changed from the micro four thirds to something larger per se, but rather, it is in desperate need of a more modern and powerful version. If there was a way to pair that with slightly more competitive pricing (I appreciate those two points do not go hand-in-hand from a business perspective!), you would have cameras that many of Olympus' target demographic could seldom avoid, wildlife photographers in particular.

Image taken in Costa Rica with the OM-D E-M1 III using the Live ND to drag the shutter, without the use of filters, despite it being the middle of a very bright day.

I am impartial when it comes to Olympus and have no affiliation to them in any paid capacity. My desire to see Olympus Imaging not butchered is a blend of my appreciation for their service and the history of photography they're rooted in, as well as how close they are to owning the corner of the market they've always wanted. My article earlier this month mulled over a concern I had that Olympus was under threat by Canon's rumored super-telephoto lenses. But any work that could be done to widen the price disparity between the two systems would nullify that concern, and any improvement on the now veteran MFT sensor would be a cherry on top.

I don't doubt that the in-camera tech being utilized by rival companies might benefit myself and many others in the industry more directly, but it would be such a shame to let Olympus's good work be a victim of the times. Olympus cameras have a place, and it would be a significant loss to the industry if they were to be broken down. I truly hope that does not prove to be the case.

What do you think? Is this the end for Olympus Cameras? Is it really the end of another chapter in the history books of photography?

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22 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

I had really hoped a company like Sony would pick up their imaging division and implement all their novel tech into their own cameras. Same with Pentax. A sad day for sure.

Sony will not buy a company like Olympus of Pentax. The only camera company that would be a big asset for Sony is Nikon. Sony has a stated goal to become the number maker of ICL cameras. Adding Sony and Nikon together would accomplish that goal immediately. Much faster and easier than organic growth. But first Nikon's share price has to drop a bit more in comparison to its book value. With Sony stock setting new highs, and Nikon's setting lows it is getting more feasible.

And then Sony can rebrand the cameras to Nikon given Sony stands for consumer stuff like TV’s and VHF recorders ;)

Hahaha that's true. But don't forget that tge term Handycam is coming from Sony.

JIP's job it to shield Olympus from the onerous Japanese labour and pension laws that would come into force if they just shut down the camera division. JIP is a very small company without the financial resources to take the camera division to a sustainable and profitable business. It will reduce and sell assets until there is nothing left. That is the history of the company.

With regard to the sensor issue, who makes the sensors for Olympus? A 20 Mpixel MFT sensor is rather dense already so it's going to take some work to add more pixels. My understanding was that the sensor otherwise was very good in terms of color rendition, sensitivity, low-light (for MFT), etc.

Would JIP want to make sensors? I think not.

Spy Black's picture

Sony makes the M4/3 sensors, but M4/3 sensors have not evolved as every other format from cellphones to MF have, which I find rather odd. Pixel density is almost identical to the AR 4 sensor, so I don't think that's really an issue.

Not surprising after that PR “debacle” a year ago. It appears it wasn’t that much of a debacle but a typical PR approach to “floating the idea” on the market to see if anyone comes knocking on the door. “Leaks” are a common approach ... the public perceive them as “mistakes”... but often they’re just trial runs to see what happens...

They could be making the best cameras in the world, the simple fact is that it cost them $157MM more to make them than they brought in selling them.One could argue that Covid-19 had an effect, but the bleeding has had to be going on for years. Either they were spending too much on the gee-wiz features and/or selling them too cheap... only governments can run with those kind of deficits.

I had a bad feeling with the latest releases from Olympus . The same old sensor, LCD, and EVF. No dedicated battery grip for either E-M1 or E-M5. E-M1 Mark III users can use the one from Mark II without the joy-stick. Obviously Olympus had a very tight R&D budget. I salut the improvements in firmware which was possible with a faster CPU, but I'm missing the hardware parts that is not on par with most of the competitors. With shrinking camera sales, more budget friendly full frame cameras, and a continuous pressure from smart phones it's just a matter of who's next.
Even so, I'm sure my Olympus gear will continue to serve me well for many years to come. After all, it's just a tool.

Spy Black's picture

I suspect a Chinese operation like Li, Yongnuo, or DJI could pick up Olympus. Their M4/3 tech may be useful in drones, for instance. The Chinese have already proven themselves as competent lens makers, I don't doubt they'll be up to the task of building bodies to match, and everything can be less expensive than built in Japan.

Sony moved their imaging works into a stand alone division recently. That often can be corporate world's step one for following the Olympus path.

In business, this sort of activity happens all the time. JIP have a good track record of taking failing businesses and turning them around. They are an investment company, they invest to make their businesses make a profit and their mission statement is about improving Japanese industries, not destroying them, This can only be good news for the brand.

There will undoubtedly be some changes but this is something that should be celebrated. JIP see potential in the imaging branch of Olympus.

I'm less worried about they selling it off since the software can be used by any other camera company and Panasonic and Black Magic Pocket look like they are sticking with M43. So hopefully they start licensing Star AF and Live ND function like apple does with ProRes so we all can have them

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

They were stories for almost a year that Olympus is closing the camera division. But there was an executive from the company denying that but now it looks like this was always in the books. Will the 150-400 mm Lens be released? I guess that would the last of their great lenses.

Ben Coyte's picture

The first camera I bought at 17 was an OM10. I have stuck with Olympus through film, 4/3 and Micro 4/3. I also went with Betamax and Laser Disc. Perhaps I am cursed.

Haha. What are you thinking of buying next, Ben? I think I might want to avoid it. :-)

I've been with them since the OM1.

So all JIP has to do is bring the m43 sensor up-to-date, lower prices, and find $157 million in fat to cut in order to...break even. So long, Olympus. I will genuinely miss you and your spirit of innovation.

Most likely it will be bought up by a Chinese company, if government in Japan will allow it. Bad for Japan but from a consumer perspective maybe not. Japanese government had Fujifilm assist Nikon to avoid Nikon being bought up a few years ago.

Big Name's picture

Just my theory, but I think the reason they sold to JIP is so JIP can shut the company down and sell the assets. Japan doesn't like the idea of foreign companies owning Japanese companies. And if a foreign interest gets ahold of Olympus they could become fierce competitors with existing Japanese businesses. Rather than risk Olympus threatening other major Japanese camera brands they're shutting Olympus Camera down.

Joe Malone's picture

What's with the two shockingly bad images, allegedly highlighting the cameras technical prowess???