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.
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.
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?