Michael Rammell

What to do about the Olympus Problem

Musings, PhotographyMichael Rammell13 Comments

“Micro Four Thirds is Dead” proclaimed Tony Northrup. Truth be told I haven’t watched the video and I probably won’t, because I’m done with talking about cameras. But I just had to say something on this subject. Never-the-less, for those that haven’t seen the video causing all this uproar in the Olympus communities, here it is:

My take? Micro Four Thirds is not dead. But it certainly is in a critical condition, no thanks to Olympus.

Hear me out…

In all of the Olympus Facebook groups, forums and communities that I am a part of I hear nothing but positivity when it comes to OM-D’s. Olympus photographers absolutely adore their cameras and so they should! Lightweight and compact with brilliant image quality. So why then, does someone like Tony Northrup declare Micro Four Thirds as a dead format? Why is it that everyone else in the photography industry seems to look at Micro Four Thirds as the red-headed stepchild or the wannabe digital camera brand? I loved my OM-D and defended Micro Four Third on a regular basis.

The Micro Four Thirds technology and sensor standard is actually pretty good! Sure, it has its limitations, as do all sensors, but if you ask me the issue lies with Olympus as a company - not the actual technology itself. Now, typically when we speak about Micro Four Thirds as a standard, we should be taking Panasonic along for the discussion too, but in all honesty ‘despite’ their Lumix range also utilising MFT, they’ve built an amazing reputation in the world of digital video which is still looked upon incredibly positively. They differentiated their primary use of the MFT Format and weren’t really ever playing the same game as Olympus. I think they get a pass here. Olympus however, do not.

Allow me to be pragmatic for a second…

From the outside looking in, that is; through the eyes of non-Olympus, Panasonic and Micro FourThirds users, it’s hard to see the attraction and lure of Micro Four Thirds for stills photography. Really, it is! Sure, its a small and lightweight system, but so is the Sony a7 series*. (Cue Uproar and arguments about how that isn’t true). *I agree - The Sony Alpha system isn’t as small, or as lightweight as what an OM-D offers and yes, I fully acknowledge that the lenses are massive and often and heavier than traditional DSLR lenses, but the thing is, Sony says the advantage of their system is lightweight and portability and so many people believe it. That’s a fact. Like it or not. Any camera brand can shout about lightweight enough and make it appear true. Consumers will believe what they hear and see in ads!

In this day and age; that being the age of fake news and tribes gathering themselves around their favoured brands and vehemently denying facts that don’t suit their belief (Olympus users are guilty of this too), if someone like Sony use these things as strap-lines in their marketing and enough people believe it, then the perception becomes the reality. (You could say the same for German cars and their apparent reputation for being reliable).

So, what we end up with is a market where people look at Sony, look at Olympus and see two systems; both small and lightweight (apparently), but one packing a Full Frame sensor. Combine that with the even more common perception that “Full Frame is for Pro’s” and we’re left with the common belief that the Sony surely, must be ‘the better camera to go for?’. Hence the reason Sony is currently killing it in the camera market and almost single-handedly set in motion arguably the largest disruption in the camera market since demise of film.

Why blame Olympus?

I work in IT and recently took on a new job. I moved from a monster of a Corporate to an Agile company. I don’t foresee the Corporate even existing in 10 years time, whereas my new company have recognised that disruptors can come from anywhere at any time and so they are seeking to be the disruptor. As David S Rose said; “Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in the 21st”. Loosely, David is talking about how a company can become inflexible and how their product-to-market lifecycle often becomes so long that in the middle of their next big development cycle, some other company comes in and smashes it out of the park with something else that makes their efforts totally obsolete. Like my previous corporate monster company.

Well, I see a lot of this same behaviour in Olympus. Not only in their awfully slow R&D cycles which are akin to companies pre-2000’s, but also the fact that even when they do release a new camera, it’s merely iterative and often in response to something from a year ago, meaning they play catchup.

You could argue that the iterative improvements and firmware updates massively improve the OM-D’s…but even on paper, do they really, even then, stack up against the competition in terms of performance? No. Olympus identified a need for a high performance yet compact camera and delivered it via Micro Four Thirds, but now the market has swung back toward wanting larger sensors again, as it always did. Whether this is driven by consumers or by manufacturers doesn’t really matter. Olympus are catering for their market, not the camera market in its entirety. This may well explain the partisan view of Micro Four Thirds and why those ‘in the circle’ love Olympus and those outside it scoff at the format.

Olympus is playing catchup again and all that most of us Olympus owners can legitimately argue is that our cameras are ‘Lightweight and portable’ or we resort to talking about how “it’s really all about preference at the end of the day” or, as I’ve seen so many times, we dismiss the fact that anyone may ever print larger than A4 and say that anything bigger than Micro Four Thirds is a waste.

Really? These are the best arguments we have to offer on behalf of Micro Four Thirds?

Us Micro Four Thirds owners are dismissive and have little in our arsenal to argue with. Sure, there are flaws in those other systems, but it often does help those fans of other cameras that their cameras can often track focus better, have a higher resolution or have better low light performance. Let’s be honest.

One camera to rule them all? Not any more.

That’s not the only issue though, whilst other camera manufacturers, much like manufacturers of cars, golf clubs, bicycles, computers, hell, even mobile network providers, have learnt to differentiate their products by purpose and have expanded their product range to play in as wide a market as possible, Olympus continues to confuse consumers by differentiating the OM-D range on price alone and appear to be pigeon-holing themselves as ‘That Micro Four Thirds Camera company’, rather than ‘that awesome camera company’.

Olympus has done nothing to encourage photographers to choose an OM-D over anything else on the market. They’ve not really even done anything to encourage existing Olympus owners to opt for an E-M5 over an E-M1? Is the E-M5 really just a poor man’s E-M1? If that’s the case, their effectively telling us that they really want us to buy the E-M1 and that the E-M5 is the compromising mid-range model that merely exists to occupy a set price-point.

Why not give the E-M5 a purpose and value proposition all of its own? (I'll come to this again, shortly)

At no point have Olympus put out an advert that speaks specifically and directly to a wedding photographer and said: “Hey, this OM-D E-M1ii can solve this problem”. Their best effort so far in this sense was to gun for the sports market, with much of the hype around the OM-D E-M1ii being about speed, accuracy and focusing. But even then, that was largely about playing catchup. Not many people really sat up and took notice. Again, to illustrate my point about disruptors and Olympus’ own slow R&D cycle, it was only months later that Sony released the A9 and all gazes were once again diverted towards the Full Frame Mirrorless market.

The right tools for the job

It used to be, in the days of Canon and Nikon’s utter dominance, that their camera ranges were linear. Both in terms of features, performance and price. Do you want the best camera for any job? Well, that would have been the range-topping Canon 1Dx or the Nikon D5 then, right?

This is absolutely no longer the case. However, Olympus continues to operate this model: As the feature-set increases, so does the price.

In the last few years or so the mainstream camera manufacturers have moved towards a focussed model approach. That being that you opt for a specific camera for a specific purpose.

Do you want Resolution? Then take a look at a Canon 5Dsr, a Nikon D850, a Sony A7Riii or the Fuji GFX then (I know, Fuji, right?!). Simple. Can Olympus compete here in this space? No! Market lost, Instantly. What does Olympus offer? A high res mode that can only be used in specific scenarios. That’s just not going to cut it.

Do you want low light? Great! Take a look a the Sony A7s, Canon try their best with the 5Div and Nikon offer us the D750. Can Olympus compete in the low-light game? No. Again, market opportunity lost!

What about the speed and accuracy of focusing? This is where it gets interesting, as this is an area that Olympus has tried to leverage for the EM-1. The problem is though, as good as it is, it still doesn’t stack up to the Sony A9, Canon 7Dii or 1Dx or the Nikon D5 or D500. Can Olympus compete in the speed game? At best, they can try, but they’re not genuine contenders right now. Argue all you like, but how many Olympus’s do we see pitch-side at The Olympics or top-end sports?

Olympus have become like a certain red and white, North London Football club - consistently aiming for ‘above average’ and ‘aspiring’ to 4th place, but never truly looking to be number 1. As Ricky Bobby said in Talladega Nights: “if you ain’t first, you’re last”.

So, where is it exactly that Olympus do win vs their competitors?

What’s the stand out factor, feature, on-paper spec or Unique Selling Point that makes would-be owners say “Man, I need that Olympus over camera x, y, z”? Which of those cameras from the lists above will an Olympus OM-D E-M1ii genuinely cause a photographer to choose the Micro Four Thirds option instead?

None.

Never has the old adage ‘Jack of all trades’ been more appropriate. That leads us back that argument about how the OM-D is small and lightweight. And that’s not terribly exciting, is it? Is that really all Olympus has to offer?

What’s the solution?

The Austin Mini. Originally produced in 1959. The aim was to be small and light. Remind you of a certain camera company? Regardless of whether you like Mini or not, today you can buy about 6 different variants of the mini; the ‘standard’ mini, the coupe, a soft-top, the club man and even a bloody 4x version! (This analogy is actually scarily appropriate!) The point is, the original Mini that was unleashed to the world is/was a totally different Mini from what we see today.

When modern Mini, as a company, saw found that 2 in every 5 cars sold in the UK was an SUV (or at least a larger vehicle, higher off the ground, akin to a 4x4), they got in on the game and made a model to take a slice of that pie. They leveraged the brand they had. The market went in one direction, Mini followed. They’re doing very well for themselves! If Mini had stubbornly stuck to their original ethos and refused to expand their range, I’m sure they’d still be a tidy little car company today. But ‘aspiring’ and ‘tidy little car company’ are oxymoron’s.

So why is Olympus not doing the same? Why are they so slow to react? Panasonic have just done it to great acclaim and they haven’t even officially released the S-Series yet. Sony saw that Canon and Nikon had a strangle hold on the camera market with their DSLR’s. All they really did was remove a mirror and launch the world’s first Full Frame Mirrorless Camera. It was heralded as revolutionary, when really, all they actually did was step to one side and use a different lane. They didn’t innovate! But they changed the game. Why? Because it omitted a mirror! Laugh all you want; but the big two have finally reacted as well and have launched their rather pitiful full frame mirrorless offerings.

Again, laugh all you want, but we all know that Canon and Nikon die-hards will sooner opt for something from their favoured brand than ‘step down’ to Olympus.

Olympus, without focus and by refusing to react quickly, are shrinking and missing their opportunities to pounce on a market that is in choppy water for the first time in decades. People don’t change camera systems often, but when they do, they usually go big. Olympus are missing a trick by not expanding their range or at least compelling people to look at the OM-D for a specific purpose.

An OM-D for this, an OM-D for that.

Here’s what I think Olympus really need to do; they need to at least start by looking at their cameras as tools that each have a different target market, rather than simply making a camera platform and then adding and removing parts to meet certain price points.

The fact is that with the smaller size sensor, you can’t make a single camera to rule them all. If you could, it would have been done far more successfully with a larger sensor already. The fact is we’re still in a time where the number of pixels vs the size of pixels requires some compromise. So heres what Olympus need to do (for starters):

The PEN-F

Make it the consumer camera that is customisable. Different coloured grips, accessories, cases and all that jazz. Make it the fun camera. The one that can be made so unique that you’ll find it hard to come by another photographer with the same-looking PEN-F as you! With it’s lack of dials (vs an OM-D) It’s optimised for full and semi-auto modes. So this camera, ultimately, is your point and shoot. It’s your street photography camera. It’s the camera that slots into your bag and takes up the smallest amount of space.

Price-wise? Depends on your level of customisation at the point of ordering.

The OM-D E-M10 range

This is your basic interchangeable OM-D. Naturally, it would remain the cheapest of the bunch, but why else would you buy it instead of an E-M5? Well, how about this camera has a songle card slot and is aimed at ametuers? Why not put a 35mm f/1.8 on it as part of the package Ideal as a cheap and cheerful point and shoot to compete in the Canon G7 and Sony A6000 space. Give it 4k if you like, a fully articulating touch screen, WiFi and make it an awesome Vlogging camera.

It’s ability to track subjects for stills photography needn’t be amazing, but that’s the job of the other cameras in the range;

The OM-D EM-5 range

The video camera of the OM-D’s. Give it the perfect number of pixels optimised for 4k video. Design a battery grip that connects to a range of external recorders. Give it a fully articulating screen for pieces-to-camera. Allow it to shoot fully ungraded, S-Log video. Hire the guys at Panasonic that made their Lumix’s so darn good and make the E-M5 better!

Sure, it needs to be a capable still camera, but let’s be sure people know that still’s are it’s secondary function, as is often acknowledged with many of the Lumix cameras.

The OM-D E-M1 range

3 variants: low light version, resolution version and then a model designed specifically for and totally optimised for sports, wildlife and action (optimise resolution for best buffer speeds and focus tracking). In all three of these models lets forget about video. Much the opposite to the E-M5, let’s make no bones about it; videographers; this camera is not for you.

These E-M1’s will then have appeal to those that have a specific need. Landscape and Portrait photographers will have their OM-D’s with massive resolutions. Wedding photographers and those needing low-light will have their OM-D with great high-ISO capabilities and those needing an E-M1 for sports and action will get a system that can track as good as any Full Frame DSLR.

Let’s make it clear what each camera is for. You never know, you may well start sellng more cameras!

Summary

So, after Joe Edelman recently interviewed Aki Murata and discussed the current state of play, we received a commitment to Micro Four Thirds Development and an acknowledgement that Full Frame is wanted by the market, but that Olympus “[…]use our resources only on micro four-thirds, instead of developing a new system”.

Seems to me that Olympus were setup for success in the 20th century…

If Olympus aren’t shouting about their intention to develop, innovate and expand their systems, then chances are, much like most inflexible corporations, it’s because it’s either a) not already in their plans, b) because the company are moving in a different direction to the market or c) because it will simply take them so long to get there that when they arrive, they’ll be right where they are now: behind again and not relevant to what the market is asking for.

So, whilst those of you that celebrated and were happy to hear of the commitment to MFT in favour of the development of another system, I would posit this; your joy in Olympus' commitment to Micro Four Thirds serves only your own short term, selfish need for the format to be vindicated and validated. It serves your own need perfectly as it helps you to warrant your own purchasing decision in Micro Four Thirds.

As someone who genuinely loved my OM-D cameras, but found they simply were not as capable of delivering on the job as others available on the market, I tell you now that It is simply not in the interest of photography, the camera industry and certainly not in Olympus’ own interest to paint themselves into a corner. Which is what this commitment signals

The continued self-congratulatory high fives are simply celebrations of stagnation. Whether this is Olympus’ own choice as a company or because they are simply not setup for further innovation remains to be seen.

But right now, the writing is starting to appear on the wall, long-time fellow evangelists for Micro Four Thirds - Panasonic - have listened to the market and are reacting. Canon and Nikon (arguably more gigantic ships that are harder to steer in a new direction) have jumped into Full Frame mirrorless, and Sony continue to raise the on-paper specs of their cameras at such a rate that even the most dynamic of competitors are struggling. Where does that leave Olympus?

I’ll tell you: they have an old-fashioned business model and structure, a rapidly decreasing value proposition in a camera market that has clearly signalled that the new benchmark, standard sensor size is going to be 35mm digital / Full Frame.

Tony Northrup says “Micro Four Thirds is dead”. That’s clearly a headline to grab attention and get views. That I think we can all agree on. However, I think the discussion about turning off the life support machine is being had right now.

Closing question for debate:

So I would flip the debate and ask all those that were so pleased to hear that Olympus have no near-to-midterm plan to launch a Full Frame camera a single question: Why would Olympus committing to Full Frame be a bad thing?




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