In this episode Olympus calls it quits after 84 years in camera business, hopes to sell off camera division after 3 years of losses.
So many of my listeners might not be aware, but on Monday of this week Olympus announced that they will cease making cameras after 84 years. This is really sad news but not all that shocking as I predicted two years ago that I felt they were one of the camera makers who would not survive the current market.
Olympus was established in 1919 as a Japanese maker of optics and imaging products, initially specializing in microscopes and thermometers. Today Olympus holds around 70% of the global endoscope market, which is estimated to be worth around $2.5 billion US dollars, with it’s global headquarters located in Tokoyo, Japan.
In 2011 Olympus gained worldwide media scrutiny when it fired its CEO and the issue turned into a corporate corruption investigation which resulted in multiple arrests and Olympus ended up paying $646 million in kickback fines, but I don’t want to dwell on the negative.
In 1936 Olympus introduced its first camera called the Semi-Olympus I, which was fitted with the first Zuiko-branded lens. The Olympus Chrome Six were a series of folding cameras made by Takachiho and later Olympus from 1948 to 1956 in both 6×4.5cm and 6x6cm exposures on 120 film.
The first truly innovative camera to come from Olympus was the Pen in 1959, which used a half-frame format sensor taking 72 18x24mm photographs on standard 36 exposure 35 mm film cassette, resulting in a camera that was compact and portable for the time. The Pen camera team, led by Yoshihisa Maitani would later create the OM system camera, which was a full frame professional build 35mm full frame SLR camera system designed to compete with Canon and Nikon. This OM system started a trend toward more compact cameras and lenses with design features such as off-the-film metering and OTF flash automation. Over time this line expanded to 14 different camera bodies and around 60 Zuiko-branded lenses and various camera accessories.
In 1983 Olympus, along with Canon, branded a range of video recording equipment made by JVC and Olympus called theirs Olympus Video Photography, and even hired renowned photographer Terance Donovan to promote the line. A second edition system was released the following year but this would be the last entry into the world of consumer video until digital cameras became popular.
Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, who would later become President of Olympus, foresaw the spike in demand for DSLR cameras, and is credited with the company’s strategy into the digital photography market. He fought hard for commitments from Olympus to enter the market of high-resolution photographic products. As a result, Olympus released an 810,000 pixel digital camera for the mass market in 1996 at a time when its rivals were offering less than half that resolution. In 1997 Olympus released a 1.41 million pixel camera and by 2001 the company’s turnover to digital cameras was in excess of 100 billion yen.
In addition to making compact digital cameras, Olympus is the designer of the Four-Thirds system standard for digital single lens reflex cameras. Their Four-Thirds flagship camera is the E-5, which was released in 2010. Olympus is also the largest maker of Four-Thirds lenses under the Zuiko Digital brand.
Originally the Olympus cameras only used the proprietary xD-Picture cards for storage media, but it was less popular than more common types of storage such as SD and Compact Flash, so Olympus switched to these formats going forward. The most recent development is Olympus’ focus on the Micro Four-Thirds format.
Unfortunately, with the latest decrease in camera sales over the last 10 years, Olympus said that despite its best efforts, the “extremely severe digital camera market” was no longer profitable. The arrival of smartphones, which had shrunk the market for separate cameras, was one major factor, it said, and Olympus had recorded losses for the last three years.
“There’s a huge amount of affection for Olympus, going right back,” says Nigel Atherton, editor of Amateur Photographer magazine.
The 1970s was a high point, with their cameras advertised on television by celebrity photographers such as David Bailey and Lord Lichfield.
“Those cameras were revolutionary – they were very small, very light, they were beautifully designed, had really nice quality lenses,” adds Atherton.
A cult following stayed with the firm, despite teething issues with new technologies such as autofocus, Atherton says. But the firm had a second wave with digital cameras, where they were early adopters.
But they targeted their later range of mirrorless cameras at a middle market – “people who weren’t serious photographers – they wanted something better than a point-and-shoot camera, but they didn’t want a DSLR camera”.
“That market very very quickly got swallowed up by smartphones, and turned out not to exist.”
The market for standalone cameras has fallen dramatically – by one estimate, it dropped by 84% between 2010 and 2018. “Olympus I find a very frustrating company,” Atherton says. “Continually over the last few years, they’ve constantly got it wrong, made wrong decisions, taken wrong turns, and gone down cul-de-sacs.”
One example he cited was the lack of progress in video performance, where rivals have made strides.
Olympus is now seeking to strike a deal to carve off the camera part of its business so that its brands – such as Zuiko lenses – can be used in new products by another firm, Japan Industrial Partners.
In a statement, the Japanese company said that it was business as usual until then.
“We believe this is the right step to preserve the legacy of the brand,” the statement said.
On social media, however, its UK team accepted that fans “may have many questions”.
“We ask for your patience… Olympus sees this potential transfer as an opportunity to enable our imaging business to grow and delight both long-time and new photography enthusiasts,” it said.
Olympus Corporation, however, will continue.
The company never stopped making microscopes, and has turned its optical technology to other scientific and medical equipment such as endoscopes.
Still surprises in store for Canon EOS R5 announcement
New firmware coming soon for the EOS R
More Canon EOS R6 specs
More info on what Canon will announce on July 9, 2020
New Venus Optics Laowa 9mm F/5.6 for Nikon Z mount
Nikon AF-S Nikkkor 500mm F/5.6E PF ED VR lens now in stock at Adorama (US) and Park Cameras (UK)
Rokinon 85mm F/1.4 and 14mm F/2.8 MK2 now available for Fuji X-Mount
Viltrox 85mm F/1.8 MKII for X-Mount released and 56mm F/1.4 Coming Soon
Fujifilm Firmware version 2.0 for GFX50R
Fujifilm firmware version 4.0 for GFX50S
Fujifilm firmware version 4.0 for GFX100
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Join us the Week of July 9th for my interview with Brent Bergherm from the Master Photography Podcast and the Latitude Photography Podcast. We will be talking about Travel Photography.