Did Olympus throw in the towel too early?

Posted Aug. 18th, 2020 by Daniel J. Cox

Leaders in the mirrorless world

When Olympus announced they were quitting the photography business, many were taken by surprise. Especially me. I had just heard that in Japan,  Olympus and Sony were tied at 39% of the market share in the mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras category. It gave me tremendous hope that photographers were finally understanding the benefits of the smaller micro 4/3 system. Within weeks of that news, Olympus throws in the towel.

Mount Olympus/Lumix moves the Industry

The disappointment of losing Olympus is bad enough. But it’s even worse when taken into context with the recent announcements from Canon, Tamron, and others. Olympus and Panasonic have fundamentally changed the world of photography.

Comparing the new 600mm F/11 to the tried and true Canon 600mm F/4

Take for example, Canon’s recent announcement of their 600mm and 800mm F/11 fixed lenses. Who in their right mind, even a year ago, would imagine that lenses with such a small fixed maximum aperture would be built? The only reason? Olympus and Panasonic. The announcement of these two lenses is absolute proof that Olympus and Panasonic are onto something.

Comparison of the Olympus 300mm F/4 (600mm equivalent) and the typical Nikon, Canon, or Sony 600mm F/4

Olympus has something quite similar. The benefit to the Olympus version is that it has greater light-gathering capabilities as an F4 lens. Admittedly, Canon has an advantage with a larger sensor which somewhat negates the F/11 aperture. However, the point is, Canon is doing everything they can to try and offer lenses that are smaller, lighter, and more portable. Does that ring any bells?

Mark Newton, from The School of Photography, released a video recently that detailed things he felt Olympus did wrong. And I have to say it made a lot of sense. He feels photographers new to the craft would often buy cameras based on very little knowledge other than knowing full-frame sensors were bigger, and therefore must be better. I’ve been told that argument is a big part of what made Panasonic decide to develop full-frame cameras. More knowledgeable photographers understand that sensor size is not the only thing to consider. The downside to this line of thinking is that Olympus had nowhere for new photographers to go since they didn’t have a full-frame camera. New photographers didn’t know any better until they did, and then it was too late. They already bought into a full-frame system.

Lumix paves the way for super telephoto reach

Before the Lumix released the Leica 100-400mm, there were no lenses that gave serious wildlife and nature photographers the reach they needed. However, Panasonic’s release of the Leica 100-400mm changed all that. Unfortunately, as successful as that lens seems to be, it’s been hampered from the start by a less than stellar fit and finish. The zoom mechanism is just too stiff for most people.

The Leica/Lumix 100-400mm F/4-6.3 super zoom. Full frame 200-800mm lens

Olympus may have taken the 100-400mm to the next level. Based on reviews I’ve read the Olympus version of this is not only sharper than the Lumix but has the buttery smooth zoom mechanism we’ve all been wishing for in the Leica. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to test this lens myself, so my description here is based solely on reviews I’ve read.

This is the Olympus version of the 100-400mm. If it’s as good as their other optics it should be an impressive lens.

Trying to go smaller with full-frame bodies

Along with the two new Canon lenses mentioned above, there’s also rumor of a patent for a 200-800mm lens Canon is working on. Sound familiar? For those who know micro 4/3, it’s an awfully similar range to the Leica 100-400mm and the new Olympus 100 to 400mm, which are both 200-800mm equivalents. Thanks to 43Rumors for this info.

Nikon’s even trying to downsize

Anyone hear of the Nikkor 500mm and 300mm Phase Fresnel lenses? It’s a new type of glass that allows them to make smaller versions of these two lenses. Why? Because people are tired of carrying the big heavy gear.

Nikkor 500mm F/5.6 PF lens

Tamron announces patent for 200-800mm

Finally, Tamron recently patented a 200-800 mm F5.6 telephoto zoom. For those that don’t know, Tamron has recently been specializing in much smaller, lighter lenses for full-frame cameras than those built by the camera manufacturers themselves. I’m guessing this lens will follow the same path.

So you see, Olympus truly has moved mountains, changing the photography industry along the way. Unfortunately, it seems to have done so at their own expense. But what’s truly disappointing is that they may have thrown in the towel too early. Yes they were losing money for a couple of years prior to the pandemic, but why they made this decision DURING the pandemic seems poorly planned. And that’s a shame. Because once new photographers understand the huge benefits of the micro 4/3 system, they’re going to be disappointed that it may no longer be available.

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There are 12 comments on this post…
  1. Claes NordholmOn Nov. 5th, 2020

    Oh what a great article. I head happily using the Olympus OM2SP in the 1980’s+. And Olympus, a company that has always stood out to me as a company, as Apple says “Think different”. This has always appealed to me. Now I use Panasonic GH2 and just acquired the G9 in a belief that this a true extension of Olympus’ “To boldly go where no man has gone before!”. As an amateur, that’s where I want to be.

  2. DanielaOn Sep. 16th, 2020

    As a long, really long canon user, I am thinking of buying the Oly OM D E mark III, why? Cause I am almost 60 yrs old, and my back is not the same. I am a macro, and wildlife photographer. The only concern I do have is with printings, that I sell… I hope the photo quality is not really affected. After looking into lots and lots of reviews, I must say that I would prefer Oly to Pana, it is better acquiring focus, for all what I read. The new 150-400, looks very tempting, but I am afraid it will be very heavy to make long walks. Today I use a canon 5Dsr paired with the tamron 150-600, and yet the reach is not as I would many times need. And the weight coupled with my tripod? OH my, it’s sooo huge. As a woman with smaller hands I don’t have problems in nandling most of the mirrorless cameras at all. Regarding the tittle of your article, yes, I think Oly hurried up, but looking at their financial statements from the last 7 years, they have been loosing money each and every year. I am afraid, that it might have been a lack of good advertisement and reach to more people in other latitudes. Long subject to discuss, which is now futile, as it has already been sold. Unfortunately it seems JIP will go more towards survailance cameras.
    If only Panasonic could have bought their focusing system LOL….
    Very interesting article and lovely posts by users as well.
    Cheers and good days.
    Daniela, from Uruguay.

  3. Shiv NaimpallyOn Sep. 5th, 2020

    Excellent and on point article! Olympus was a pioneer in so many things. I remember as a teenager buying an Olympus OM1 because the photo magazines were amazed at how small the bodies and lenses were compared to Canon and Nikon. When everyone was doing lens-based image stabilization, Olympus pioneered and perfected 5-axis in-body image stabilization (IBIS), allowing the use of cheaper, un-stabilized lenses and legacy lenses. Sony, Panasonic, and others have now copied this feature. Olympus also came up with the brilliant high-res composite picture mode, achieved by incrementally moving the sensor. This feature has now also been copied by several camera manufacturers. I don’t know why they didn’t try to assert their patents against competitors who copied these innovative features. (I suspect that the Japanese camera companies had a “gentlemen’s agreement” to not sue each other.)

    I think some of the problems with Olympus were self-inflicted – they had too many product lines (EM10, EM5, EM1, EM1x) chasing an ever shrinking market. I think they would have been better served focusing on just two lines – EM5 and EM1.

  4. Paul Edward PattersonOn Sep. 5th, 2020

    Long time Olympus user and really enjoy using the smaller format due to weigh , image quality and portability of the entire system. Learn to use and how to execute the camera’s unique features and you will quickly adopt the advantages of the system to your personal photo style.
    As photographers age this system offers even more advantages and promotes regular use. let’s trust JIP also sees the benefits and continues to develop the system for more photographers to discover the joy of photography..

  5. HaotianOn Sep. 5th, 2020

    I still feel M43 has a bright future, as the key categories at which the sensor format shines – – wildlife, sports, field macro, video – – are those most unlikely to be cannibalised by phones.

    Indeed, if phones can cannibalise cameras, then it seems plausible that the future still does involve smaller sensors like M43 cannibalising FF ones in many domains. What’s frustrating is that simply by using a Dual Native ISO sensor arguably the chief argument against M43, low-light performance, could have been massively weakened.

    Panasonic spoke of “energising the M43 ecosystem” as much as possible; it’s very possible that that means they will buy Olympus once JIP has slimmed it down, in which case Olympus Corp’s divestment may prove to be a blessing in disguise. It could be a sub-brand for those who seek mobility and retro-style, in the same way that Mini is a sub-brand for BMW.

  6. Kim GinnerupOn Sep. 5th, 2020

    I’ve been using Olympus since 1980’ties. Have Olympus thrown in the towel to early. Who knows, we do not know and we do not know what will happen. The problem is that it has been all about sensor size and noise levels. Full frame manufacturers have learned know that size matters and taken it all the way, thats is a battle they cannot win.
    Olympus is so much more than smaller sensor. An OM-D camera has a lot of features that combined is not found in any other camera.
    For me Olympus is a camera that brings the fun back in photography. If Olympus disappears I have no clue what to buy. So I will stay with Olympus as long as possible. I will probably buy the m1 III, when I have found the money.

  7. Portrait of Linda Henry

    Steve HenryOn Aug. 25th, 2020

    So have I repeated my Father’s error? Genetics works, you know. He had a major 8-track collection, and was really up the musical creek when his player broke. Here I am owner of Olympus/Panasonic cameras and lenses that I like a lot not just for the size, but also for the image quality. Was looking forward to seeing the new Olympus telephoto lenses, but now not so sure what with the recent sale of the camera division. Also after spending a lot of time in my backyard with birds, I’ve found a pretty sweet combination of settings for my Olympus OMD-M1x and the Leica 100-400, so I may not actually “need” something new for quite a while.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Aug. 27th, 2020

      Thanks for your input, Steve. I too was looking forward to the new 150-400mm zoom. It’s still on my radar but I know many Olympus shooters who have no idea what to do next. I guess only time will tell if we’re all stuck on a dead-end road. I sure hope not. Was thinking of you yesterday when we found this old rusty boat on our brown bear trip in Alaska.

  8. Mircea BlanaruOn Aug. 19th, 2020

    I am a photographer from Romania who uses Olympus (and Panasonic) cameras from 2008. I never had the financial power to buy the latest gear from these companies but this thing doesn’t discouraged me to win international prizes or mentions nor to photograph just for my own and not only pleasure (which I think is also very important). I remember when I talked to my parents to buy a real DSLR and I had to chose (due to the limited budged) between a Nikon D40 (body only) and an Olympus E410 with two objectives (the 14-42mm ED F/3.5-5.6 and the 40-150mm F/4-5.6) both having the same price and the emotions I felt when I’ve downloaded the first image from this camera and I have visually inspected it on my computer’s screen feeling it was perfect!!! Now, after I read these news I can say I am very sad. Perhaps these were some bigger moves to keep alive other brands in the industry…but I really don’t know. For me it will not be a big deal to switch to another system as I own some manual glasses which I think I will can adapt to the next (SH old generation FF) camera. The problem is that I am in love with the colors of Olympus and Panasonic which, in my vision, cannot be matched in any way by the competition except the medium format cameras which are totally out of my reach, even SH. The conclusion from my side is that I will remain an Micro 4/3 till the standard will clearly die (I still hope it wouldn’t do it)!! Thank you, and I salute you as a Micro 4/3 user!!!! (The portability and keeping a low profile with a small photographic kit are also very important to me!)

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Aug. 19th, 2020

      Thank you Mircea for your input. Let’s hope for the best.

  9. GerbenOn Aug. 18th, 2020

    Still we have to see who is going to buy that 600mm f11 Canon lens. It feels like a one-trick pony to me, a single-purpose lens.

    • Portrait of Daniel J. Cox

      Daniel J. CoxOn Aug. 19th, 2020

      I agree Gergen. I think it will be a great lens for birders but not much else.

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