Olympus is Selling Camera Division, So What About Micro Four Thirds?

The same company that bought VAIO from Sony now wants Olympus OMD and Zuiko.

The first thing I woke up to this morning was a story about Olympus selling its camera division. And it’s sort of a surprising one to me. I knew for a while that Olympus wasn’t doing that well. But internal reps conveyed the company that their audience is shifting and that sales had been going up. But the Micro Four Thirds world hasn’t really been able to catch up to the other camera manufacturers when it comes to tech in many ways despite some impressive innovations and features. The reason why I’m saying Four Thirds and not Olympus is because there’s the bigger system than Olympus in this. Olympus created the Four Thirds and then Micro Four Thirds coalition. With Olympus’ camera and imaging division being sold off, I’m not too sure about the new owners and how they may potentially steer the Four Thirds world. I’m also just not confident about the future of Four Thirds itself.

Some of you out there may say, “Well Chris, what do you expect. It’s not full frame!” And I’ll remind folks that don’t center around just the tech that full frame isn’t everything. In fact, let’s be honest, no one needs a camera except for professional photographers. You buy them because they’re a hobbyist product. These days, a dedicated camera is either a work tool or a mid-tier luxury product. And that’s what I think that Micro Four Thirds needs to embrace. I’ve been saying for a while that the camera is going to go the way of the watch. Even Canon, Nikon, Fujifilm, and Sony can’t really keep pace with the smartphone innovation world. And sooner rather than later, I think that they’ll need to do exactly what the watch industry did: embrace the fact that they can be defunct and become a piece of jewelry. The signs have been coming for years. Hipster culture was all about using film cameras because they were different. And so those beautiful pieces were adorned almost like a piece of jewelry. And there aren’t very many digital cameras that can give the same appeal off. Fujifilm, Leica, and to a certain point, Olympus can. But Olympus could only do it with the older OMD series and the Pen F. It otherwise leaned very heavily into the hobbyist that wants to be serious about their imagery.

But now I think that the camera industry as a whole needs to lean into catering more and more to a luxury product market. Sure, there are professional photographers. But we have to think about the camera market these days, not as professional vs. semi-professional vs. enthusiast vs. hobbyist–but instead to focus on the passionate photographer. Many cameras these days are leaning more into video features because they see a growing market. But that’s only going to last so long. Photographers themselves don’t care so much about video features–and there’s a ton of them out there. Panasonic has geared itself for that in the Micro Four Thirds world and does a fantastic job.

As much as some of you folks may scoff at what I’m about to say, the truth is a hard pill to swallow. Leica did the right thing. They embraced the luxury market a long time ago and kept things pretty sustainable. They charge a lot, and even with prices of everything in the camera world going up, I think that their prices are fair relatively speaking. Sure, they lag behind in a few features, but Leica cameras are still great at documenting everyday life in a totally different way than other camera manufacturers produce. They’re also, in a way, a badge of honor. You don’t have to be rich to own a Leica, you have to be dedicated to putting away the funds to afford one. And the camera industry can embrace this. The camera is a craftsman’s tool made for the passionate photographer.

It’s disturbing that when I write things like this that no one ever really comments on it. They instead just hyperfocus on the tech specs and such. But those folks are also just the ones who are most vocal. All in all, though, I believe that the company that takes over Olympus needs to do a few things. If they’re to upgrade the tech then:

  • Olympus could go full-frame or APS-C
  • Possibly use another mount.
  • Keep improving on the tech that’s there by using software enhancements, driving the prices down, and catering to the smartphone audience.

Or, they could go the way of the luxury product. In that case:

  • All metal products. Just imagine an OMD with a brass top plate that wore away after time and gave you a beautiful patina. Pentax did this a while ago, but it sadly never caught on.
  • A Four Thirds Monochrome sensor. The Grainy Black and White filter are still my favorite. And it would embrace the high ISO noise problems that Olympus has currently.
  • A sensor that genuinely goes down to lower ISOs. Something like the older Kodak sensor that doesn’t start at ISO 200. Instead, it will do better for landscapes and such. The colors will be more vibrant. It will be like a slide film.
  • A new Pen F style camera that appeals to a world where there aren’t many rangefinder cameras out there.
  • A return of the Olympus Trip but digital?

I’m spitballing ideas, but if you’re a camera enthusiast, you can’t tell me with full honesty that you couldn’t see a market for these products. And I hope that the company that bought VAIO doesn’t do the same thing they did to VAIO in that, well, they’re not even in the hands of creators.

Via The Verge