Note: I wrote this article in Junuary 2021 but I didn’t publish it until now. It is virtually unchanged apart from some minor edits reflecting recent events. It started as an opinion piece about Olympus and in the end it touched the whole m43 system. I removed a very long analysis of sensors tech, which could maybe go into its own post. The form could be better and I tend to digress too much, but here it is.
I started shooting Olympus with a film OM-10 and a Mju-2 and I then kept shooting with their digital cameras, namely the E-M10 first and the PEN-F then. I owned many Olympus lenses and as you can understand from my previous PEN-F post (and from some of the upcoming posts), my experience with this brand has been highly favourable. I like their cameras and lenses and I enjoy using them.
For this reason it was saddening to read Olympus sold their imaging division to another company called JIP (Japan Industrial Partners), a fund that invests in companies with issues, trying to stop the bleeding and eventually keeping them afloat or disassembling them and selling the spare parts.
What will the future bring for Olympus and for the m43 system? Which are the mistakes I think Olympus did? This post will try to cover all that.
JIP is the same company that bought VAIO from Sony in 2014 and turned it from a world-wide popular line of expensive and stylish computers (I had a one) into a lower profile line being mostly sold in Japan. I don’t know if VAIO is selling good in Japan, what I know is that it basically disappeared in Italy and Russia.
It’s tempting to arrogantly presume we know what is going on right now at Olympus, and predict the future. No matter the topic, we tend to think we know the truth, even if what we think we know is just our prejudice fueled by the abundance of simplified knowledge being easily acquired on Internet — it is also part of human nature in general, think of all the experts of football tactics, telling their friends at the pub how they would have won the match. We can all win the match if we are not playing it.
The truth is that we can’t really know what will happen, what kind of deals are being made — no matter how many graphs we analyze and what we think we read between the lines of offical statements. JIP may turn Olympus into a cheap camera company that uses a popular brand for selling low-end products — or they could sell the patents and terminate the activities. I confess I don’t expect a relatively small company to succeed where Olympus (with 100 years of experience and backed by their successful medical business) failed. That seems delusional. We will see, future will tell. What we can do is to take a look at some of Olympus’ choices and mistakes.
Olympus recent story brings to my memory something from the past. Blackberry was a very popular smartphones company. At some point they were THE smartphone. Even for the first years after the arrival of iPhone, no one could compete with their infrastructure, privacy features, reliability. The newer operating systems they developed (QNX and then OS10) were light years ahead of everything else and their messaging service was unique, reliable, secure. They had devoted fans. They seemingly had it all. And yet they failed to adapt to the market and make the best of what they had. I was for many years a happy user of their phones and I even bought their tablet, the infamous Playbook.
When rumors about their financial problems became frequent, their management sweared they were going on strong and they would update their tablet to the last operating system version, going then on the market with new products etc. It turned out they lied for inducing users to buy as many tablets and phones as possible, before the inevitable end of their smartphone business. Of course they never updated the Playbook to OS10, even if many (me and my family included) bought the tablet only because reassured by this false promise. BlackBerry finally decided to cease designing their own phones in favour of licensing tech to low profile partners, and that lead to some uninspiring Android phones that could never fight Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi and the others.
Why did this happen? It doesn’t take an expert to understand: BlackBerry never had a strong App Store, so it failed to attract developers, and while the iPhone (which had many shortcomings in its first versions) became more and more versatile, Blackberry kept being the same as it was, with its very cool features still working great but no projection toward the future. People wanted and expected apps for all kind of tasks and a great touch interface, and BlackBerry didn’t provide that. They did hang to what they had and kept repackaging it and selling again and again.
I think it’s clear why I mentioned this story. Olympus introduced so many new amazing features and it definitely was among the greatest innovators in digital photography — arguably the greatest innovator — but at some point they stopped evolving in the direction the market expected. For a while the other companies were doing the same mistakes but they were not having some of Olympus specific problems, which are mostly connected to the sensor size.
Another reason why I told you that little BlackBerry story is because I was definitely disappointed by Olympus’ managers also lying and saying that they believed in m43’s future, that they were committed to the system, that the rumors of them closing down or selling the company were false, etc. They only wanted people to keep buying as much as possible. And buy what? Cameras like the EPL10 (that is basically a repackaged EPL9, which is a minor incremental update over the EP8) or the E-M5 III and E-M1 III (basically repackaged or slightly updated E-M1 II tech). They wanted to empty their warehouses.
This was clear and evident, and yet many refused to see — especially the “Olympus Visionaries”, praising these products and ignoring their latent issues: the cameras were not bad at all, on the contrary, they were high quality products, but they provided minor changes and mostly selling for more money than what they replaced. That was quite a sign for the events to come. The E-M5 and E-M5 II were once innovative and amazingly well built cameras: the E-M5 III was turned into an all plastic and smaller version of the E-M1 II. The eagerly awaited E-M1 III was just an E-M1 II with some added gimmicks. And Visionaries just tried to see the glass half full. Or two thirds full, even.
Some of them seem genuinely great and passionate guys — while others are arrogant and delusional salesmen who delete all critical comments from under their YouTube videos. And most of them are now leaving the sinking ship, for one reason or another.
I think the whole “Ambassador” thing is wrong, no matter the brand. The moment I see someone is an Ambassador / Visionary / X-Photographer or whatever they are called, I usually close the video. I don’t want to listen to someone that is not free — and you can’t be free if you are being an Ambassador of sort. You can’t say “this sucks!” or “I think the company did something wrong” etc. You can’t talk of other brands and do useful comparisons, especially if such comparisons highlight problems in the brand you are in a relationship with. So, where is the value in watching such videos? Was Olympus helped or rather hurt by that lack of strong criticisim?
At some point Olympus accused the popularity of smartphones as the main cause for all their problems, which is very convenient. I don’t agree with that.
You see, m43 cameras can be quite small — think of the Panasonic GM5 or Olympus Pen, for instance — and the same goes for m43 lenses, which can be quite compact while providing excellent quality. Some features of the system are brilliant because they leverage on the small sensor — one above the others, the image stabilisation. At the moment Full Frame and APS-C can’t be stabilised as effectively, but for how long will that be true? Each new iteration of Full Frame flagships comes closer to m43 stabilization.
But where are all the super compact cameras and lenses? It seems over the years Olympus mostly forgot about them and invested lots of resources trying to play a passive aggressive game against Full Frame systems, focusing on big cameras, big prime lenses, big zooms.
As you may know if you are a reader of my blog, I am camera agnostic: I shoot with everything, from Full Frame (Nikon) to APS-C (Canon, Ricoh) to m43 (Olympus, Panasonic) to 35mm and 120mm film cameras to the iPhone and smaller sensors like the Pentax Q line. I am not a blind fan of any brand. No matter how much I love my Ricoh GR II — maybe may favorite camera ever — I had no issues being critical with Ricoh for the mess they did with the GR III.
Look at the following image. It shows a size comparison between the top of the line mirrorless from Olympus, Nikon and Sony. They all feature a bright 50mm — on the Olympus I chose a 25mm f1.2 because you need the wider aperture if you want to bring the ISO down one stop and help the image quality, which will anyway not be on par with what the Z7 and A7 IV offer.
What I am trying to say is that Olympus wanted to establish itself as a professional system in a world where better alternatives are available for similar size/weight/price.
I chose the top of line Nikon and Sony for the sake of an extreme comparison, but keep in mind that Nikon Z6 and Sony A7 III are the same size of their more expensive sisters.
The Z6 and A7 III cost kinda the same as the E-M1 III but the image quality is visibly higher (especially at high ISO) — and while many lenses on Full Frame are necessarily much bigger than their m43 equivalents, it is also true that (especially for Sony) there are some good and compact lenses.
The Olympus E-M1 tried to compensate the worse image quality with lots of tech — something interesting, something gimmicky — but in the end we are photographers and the final step will always be an image, and its quality is — most of the times, not always — a deciding factor.
At this point some devoted fans of m43 will say that m43 size/weight advantage is more evident in zooms, and that’s true. But how many need zooms and super zooms? The market popularity of a system is greatly depending on the basics, and the basics are the primes between 24 and 85 (FF equivalent), plus maybe “standard zooms” like the 24-70 or something similar. Everything else is important but niche.
If we look at the total weight of a decent system configuration (two camera bodies, a couple of primes and zooms) then the m43 is lighter, but this fact, as crucial as it may be for some, it definitely is not enough for making the average user pick m43 as a system over Full Frame or even APS-C.
I am not suggesting m43 is necessarily and absolutely worse than other systems. It is not! What I want to do is to highlight a huge mistake Olympus did — and that mistake was to try to stretch its system out of its core values.
The major strength of m43 is also its biggest problem: the sensor size. A smaller sensor allows for better stabilisation and smaller cameras and lenses, but it also means there is a limit to the image quality you can reach, if compared to bigger sensors. Especially with current old m43 sensors.
And please, please, please let’s not say m43 image quality is just as good as bigger formats or even better — we all saw the reality bending acrobatics some m43 fans do. I love m43 and use it whenever practical but the image quality differences when compared to Full Frame are evident. Do they always matter? No, they don’t. Do they exist? Yes they do. I think it is time to move past inferiority complexes and embrace reality, focusing on what matters in photography and accepting that different systems have different characteristics and very often different uses.
Modern and bigger sensors do offer an advantage in terms of dynamic range and ISO performance. This advantage is real but it can be either unnecessary, useful, important or necessary — it all depends on what you shoot and why.
The key word is situation.
There are times when the advantages of m43 are more important than Full Frame ones — when you need an extremely light and compact camera for instance, so that you can be more agile and interact better with the scenes you are documenting. Again, it is the situation that matters. I think Olympus had to focus on this range of applications and excel at them — instead of chasing professional Full Frame systems.
My opinion is that Olympus stopped believing in m43 long ago, and tried to use their last planned budget for making the existing userbase believe m43 could compete with the rising compact Full Frame mirrorless offer by Sony and others.
Olympus didn’t fail because of smartphones, they failed because they ignored the core values of their products. The m43 system has a huge potential and the chance of being very small and affordable, of having small lenses, of having excellent technology, of producing image quality that is good enough for many situations.
It was crazy having multiple lines of cameras with the same two old 16 and 20 megapixels sensors since years. What’s the point of having E-M10, E-M5, E-M1, PENs, all offering kinda the same image quality and mostly the same features, and at prices which often are quite close? The last 4 years of Olympus show nothing but stagnation and lack of vision.
The E-M10 line has no reason for existing anymore. E-M5 and E-M1 could have been joined in a single model: the image quality of current m43 sensors is not allowing anymore to have a “pro” and a “semi pro” line, especially since they share most of the features and tech. Olympus could have kept only two lines of cameras, streamlining the business: a very compact, stylish and feature rich camera (let’s call it PEN), a slightly bigger one with more professional features (let’s call it OMD). Sometimes diversification is not a good idea. And the “more professional” camera had to forget going after high-end Full Frame, focusing instead strictly on the strengths of m43. The huge and expensive train wreck that was the E-M1X is enough to show the route Olympus went after instead.
The same goes for lenses: Olympus focused on PRO lenses, which are exquisite optics but also big, heavy and expensive. If I want to invest in a professional ad expensive high quality system, I invest in something that is giving me the most for the price, and that’s not m43 anymore. And what about the Zuiko 12-45 f4 PRO? A 600 euros f4 lens for a system stuck with old sensors and mediocre ISO performance, when that system already has a 12-40 f2.8, and with the two lenses being very close in terms of size. Who thought that was a brilliant idea?
PEN cameras and smaller lenses are the only Olympus products that still managed to sell good. Users have been asking for compact f1.4 weather sealed lenses since years.
m43 users were attracted by the core values of the system (small size, lower prices, high quality build, good image quality) and instead were pushed toward a bigger, heavier and more expensive system that could never compete with the new Full Frame wave brought to reality by Sony A7 line.
And this was a definite choice by Olympus: creating smaller and cheaper lenses is possible, just look at Sigma’s 33mm and 56mm f1.4 lenses. I don’t care if they are APS-C lenses with a m43 mount. They prove that it is possible to put a high quality and yet compact autofocus lens on m43, with stellar optics and low price. The Sigma 56mm f1.4 is my lens of choice for portraits with the PEN-F: it has amazing quality, it is much lighter than the Zuiko 45mm 1.2 or the Nocticron and it costed me (new) less than one third of the price of these.
I keep and love my PEN-F because in my opinion that’s a real m43 camera: small, light, with good stabilisation (and so beautiful!). But I don’t forget it’s a camera from 2016, with many limits.
It may seem to you that I focus a lot on sensor size, and it is true. The image forms on the sensor. A bigger and more modern sensor offers higher image quality. I sell images to my clients and they deserve the best I can offer. When I was shooting film I was buying quality one, I wasn’t always sticking to cheap Kodak Gold because it was “good enough”. Now we can choose the sensors. I can’t understand how can such a practical matter become a matter of ideology.
The lack of modern m43 sensors is one of the obstacles that is killing the system. At first I thought of some shady plan where Sony refused to develop m43 sensors as a way for damaging m43 and get rid of some competition for its compact APS-C offer. But then I thought: Leica managed to get the medium format sensor of the S3 cut down to Full Frame and did put it into the Leica M10-R and M10-M. If a company wants to get a new m43 sensor, there are ways. Companies plan most of their business 5, 10, 15 year ahead, they don’t take every choice year after year. Panasonic and Olympus didn’t want to invest, because they didn’t believe in the system — so they kept selling the same sensors and tech for 6 years or so. This is not acceptable. They can tell the evil smartphone fable to someone else.
I would like to close this article with a thought about current Olympus cameras. Many are behaving as if the failure of Olympus means that their cameras will stop working or become useless relics from a distant photographic past. The PEN-F is almost 5 years old and it still shoots great photos. The lenses I mount on it are also from years ago. I use that camera for personal and professional shootings and I plan on keep using it whenever it fits the situation. The failure of Olympus will mean nothing in this sense.
What remains is the sadness about what could have been. It is surely sad to see a brand like Olympus fade away, and the m43 system with them. It is now apparent Panasonic is showing few intentions of keeping the system alive. The fabled GH6 will probably never happen and instead they are releasing an updated GH5 — kinda doing what Olympus did, repackaging tech and trying to empty their warehouses. The Full Frame offer by Panasonic was also underwhelming, so I don’t know how will they restructure their imaging division.
It is my opinion that m43 as a system is probably destined to oblivion, crushed under the weight of the new Full Frame and APS-C offers, but especially victim of the inertia and lack of commitment from Olympus and Panasonic. The virus pandemic and the overall decreasing sales of cameras and lenses are making it very unlikely for Panasonic and JIP to ever invest now in innovative sensors, cameras and lens designs.
And yet it’s nice to dream and imagine what could be done with such a mature system as m43. What about a real digital rangefinder (not a Fuji pseudo-rangefinder), some kind of successor to the Epson R-D1 maybe? It could attract a huge following. A proper follow up to the Pen-F would also be well received, if done according to what the fans of that camera asked for years. These and more ideas could work, but only with investments in new sensors, and JIP and Panasonic are not willing to do so.
Luckily, no matter the camera we decide to use, we can still study composition and technique, improve our photography, and help our knowledge and our instinct converge. All the content of this article is not really connected to photography, it is just some rambling about a brand. Photography is much more than that.
It feels ridiculous having to write this, but this post was not meant at hurting the sensibilty of anyone. If you feel attacked by the opinions I expressed, I then kindly suggest you are reading the wrong blog.
Camera makers come and go. Technology evolves. But what really makes good photography is the same, and we can learn it and apply it regardless of camera brands or tech — as long as we enjoy capturing the light. So, as I often say, let’s spend more in photography books than in camera gear — it’s far more useful. And then let’s pick the camera that works best for us — and shoot.