OM Digital Has Its First Camera, But Does it Have a Future?

It is the beginning of a new era at OM Digital Solutions, Olympus. A new camera with the new name and last Olympus logo will mark the start of a new era. Is this the dawn of a new era for Micro Four Thirds, or the end of both OMDS (MFT)?

From film to DSLRs to mirrorless

It is no secret that the market for cameras has been in turmoil since over a decade. There have been slumping sales and Canon and Nikon are the two main proponents. They have tried to milk the DSLR format while trying to steer the industry away towards its mirrorless future.

The truth is that the digital revolution caused more disruption than the arrival of the smartphone. In fact, digital camera shipments rose to an astonishing 120 million units in 2010, but these numbers were concentrated around the manufacturers with the capacity and capability to produce them.

Minolta, or rather off-loaded by Sony, Casio Kodak Bronica Samsung Konica and Contax were all part of the process. It is interesting to note that those who survived were either part or owned by larger corporations (Fuji Olympus Sony Panasonic Panasonic and Pentax), and had significant market shares (Canon and Nikon). This also indicated that the customer base had moved from mass-market back into its pre-1990s niche.

These customers were now part of the smartphone, and manufacturers had to figure out their market. It wasn’t the DSLR.

Ironically, Olympus, at the height of the market, built on its Four Thirds heritage to create the mirrorless future with Micro Four Thirds. Although the DSLR is the direct descendant, and Olympus took it from there, the shooting style is closer to the step-brother the rangefinder. Leica has always plowed this furrow.

This approach was so simple that all the manufacturers followed suit and released their own mirrorless systems, each with their own twist. Olympus and Panasonic, Sony and Fuji all recognized that new systems were needed to replace the old, while Pentax, Nikon, Canon, and Pentax invested most in DSLRs. They wanted mirrorless systems to complement their existing offerings. This approach was a failure. Pentax and Nikon both discontinued their 1 Series and K mount offerings, with Canon likely following suit with its EOS M line.

Olympus Created Its Digital Future From Scratch

Olympus has been singularly focused on its camera development for almost 20 years, since 2003’s release of the E-1 DSLR. Poor premium products, including the OM-707’s disastrous auto-focus, preceded the E-1. This meant that the 35mm OM range was never digitalized.

Olympus began from scratch and built the foundations of a new future with Kodak. Olympus made this a bold move in a time where Pentax, Nikon, Canon and Canon were all digitalizing their 35mm systems.

Four Thirds offers a 2.0x crop factor (30% more area than APS–C), which gives it distinct advantages over larger sensor bearing cameras. These include reach and readout speeds; the smaller sensor can often mean lower costs and a lighter body.

Olympus was targeting the professional news/sports shooter market. The E-1 was built to a high standard with weather sealing and dust protection, along with the first ever dust removal system (Supersonic wave filter).

In 2008, the Micro Four Thirds format was launched. It took this format but removed the mirror box.

The Future of Micro Four Thirds?

So why don’t we all shoot Micro Four Thirds? Olympus probably has been asking this question repeatedly, especially considering the success of Sony’s mirrorless models. The E-1 had a problem with its slow continuous shooting speeds and poor auto-focus. However, things had improved by June 2009 when they released the Pen E-P1 MFT. Panasonic’s Lumix G1 (November 2008) was arguably their best MFT.

Olympus was not able to get off the ground due to the accounting scandal. It revealed $1.5 billion in investments losses, kickbacks and bribes. Three-quarters of Olympus’s value was destroyed and the United States was fined a staggering $650million. The collapse of the camera industry, and in particular compact cameras, which Olympus was heavily invested in, further complicated the situation.

Olympus was still able produce groundbreaking cameras. The OM-D E-M5 was a highlight that showed that mirrorless could replace the DSLR. Although the OM-D E-M1 series is a great example of what MFT can do, the OM-D E-M1X represents a difficult foray into pro shooting which is dominated by Canon and Nikon. Although it might have received praises for its engineering, I suspect that it was very rarely sold.

The new OM Digital OM-1 is now available. It’s time to ask whether OMDS can draw on a rich heritage of great cameras and lure photographers into the MFT fold.

OM Digital OM-1

The easiest way to answer this question is by starting with the camera. OMDS has produced an excellent camera, and another product that could be considered a class-leading product. They have gotten rid of the confusingly acronym-laden and verbose model numbers of the past; the OM-D E-M1 Mark IV has been replaced by the OM-1. It is refreshingly simple and a throwback to the original OM-1, which was released 50 years back.

OMDS deserves to be commended for showcasing the Sony quad-pixel AF stacked sensor. It also eschewed resolution gains for AF performance downstream processing those 20-megapixel images. This allows it to shoot at 120 fps raw and blackout-free at fifty fps. The body has been redesigned, the image stabilization has been increased to 8 stops, and there is an IP53 rating. Also, the menus have been updated.

Olympus/OMDS is a leader in computational photography. They have developed features that make other photographers jealous: what about handheld high-res, ND and composite?

Is that enough?

It all comes down to market share

A great camera is one thing, but it’s another to have a complete product range that you sell in large quantities (just ask Nikon). Olympus is doing well in terms of sales.

It is not easy to find market share data. However, we can look at the BCN Awards which only covers Japan and scale it up to the global market. Olympus enjoyed a happy bounce at 20%-30% market share since 2011, when the mirrorless category was added. However, this fell to 12.7% by 2021.

Sony and Canon both increased their share by 9.1%. Olympus fell by 10.7%, which suggests that it is losing share to Nikon and/or Fuji. Olympus could also be losing marketshare, which would suggest a significant downturn.

Canon and Nikon are predicting a growth in mirrorless in 2022. It is possible that OMDS has been affected by the instability caused by the move to OMDS and the limited product range. It is important to remember that it is not the market share but the total units shipped that are most important. OMDS must continue its production. It held a 27.7% market share in BCN in 2018, which could have represented shipments of around 1.15 million units worldwide; this number could have dropped to 390,000.

The pivot from mirrorless to the global market — and the relentless assault by Nikon, Sony, and Canon — suggests that those days are over. However, there is still a future. If it can fulfill a niche for photographers, and provide what they need, Fuji will be a great example of this. Although the OM-1 is a great start to that journey, it is possible that this was in development long before the Imaging Division was sold.

The OMDS product roadmap and release schedule is something to be closely viewed. Can the company deliver? The OM-1 is encouraging me to believe that this can be achieved.