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Olympus has fallen: The camera maker chose its fate years ago

After recording an operating loss for the third straight year, Olympus has decided that its time selling cameras and lenses should come to an end. Looking at its last and final product offering presented to us in February, there were telltale signs that something was amiss.

While sitting in a riverboat in the Costa Rican rainforest searching for wildlife to photograph back in February, I looked down into my lap at the Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III with a mix of affection and confusion. The camera was undoubtedly well made, felt good to use, and took good photos.

But it wasn’t exciting.

Olympus OMD E M1
Hillary K. Grigonis / Digital Trends

Walking away from that press excursion, I was happy with the experience and doubly so with many of the images I captured. But I kept asking myself: Were those images possible because of something specifically special about this camera? I couldn’t say yes. In some cases, I could recall times where I didn’t get a photo because of some shortcoming of the camera, but I couldn’t think of any image that was improved because of it.

That’s been Olympus’ struggle over the past few years. It made good products, but it didn’t offer something that would compel a photographer of any level to switch other than “their cameras and lenses are small.” I have never believed that was as important as image quality, and the purchasing decisions of consumers reinforce that I am not alone.

Not just a smartphone problem

There were a lot of factors leading to Olympus’ financial woes, and the company only mentioned one specifically in its press release about their exit from the industry: Smartphones. The rise of smartphone photography is the most popular scapegoat among any camera manufacturer. And sure, smartphone cameras have certainly led to the rapid erosion of the camera market, but it’s not the only factor. While smartphones carved away at the bottom rung of the photo market, the high end was getting pressure from bigger, better, and cheaper sensors.

Namely, Sony’s very impressive sensor technology — a segment it spent years building and funding — paid dividends by erupting in success and becoming impossible to ignore.

Olympus’ steadfast refusal to at least experiment away from Micro Four Thirds — the name of the specific size senor and mount used on Olympus cameras — caused them significantly more harm than good. It was admirable that Olympus stuck to its guns, but at the same time, that attitude sealed its fate.

Jaron Schneider / Digital Trends

Imperceptible Evolution

Olympus took the stance that it wasn’t the sensor, but how you used it. That came down to software and optics, and unfortunately, this strategy is painfully difficult to jazz up to the average photographer. On one side, you have cell phones working on incredible computational photography technology from Apple and Google that Olympus just never was able to match up with, and on the other side, you had eye-catching color, resolution, detail, and low-light performance from larger full-frame sensors that left Olympus in the dust.

Olympus was stuck between two rapidly advancing technologies that not only were outpacing Olympus’ own research and development, but anything the company managed to do really well was too hard to explain to the average consumer.

Let’s face it, the typical camera buyer understands only a few things: Megapixels, detail, and low-light performance. If a company isn’t absolutely killing it in these categories, they aren’t grabbing headlines. And Olympus wasn’t killing it in any of them.

The OM-D EM-1 Mark III was still using the painfully small 20.1-megapixel sensor, still performed poorly in low light, and because Olympus hadn’t updated that sensor in years, it still couldn’t offer detail that competed with cameras in the same price range. The Sony A7 III for example offers a 24.2-megapixel full-frame sensor that is physically nearly four times bigger than the Olympus micro four thirds (which means more space for larger, more sensitive pixels), for close to the same price.

I don’t want to sell Olympus short: The technology it was adding ancillary to its sensors was legitimately exciting, but only if you looked for it. The problem was, few were willing to look for it over the glitter and glamour of Sony’s technology.

Jaron Schneider / Digital Trends

Seeing the signs

Looking back at the E-M1 Mark III, the things that made that camera great did not feel exclusive, nor did they feel new. It was as if it were an amalgamation of old parts mashed together into a camera that they could sell as new with the lowest imaginable overhead. In a word, it felt desperate.

Olympus dug in its heels and covered its ears. I can’t help but think that Olympus became so set on doing things its own way that wasn’t able to create a product that people actually wanted to buy.

In my review of the OM-D EM-1 Mark III, I mentioned the dated rear LCD, the very old, dim, and low-resolution electronic viewfinder, and the extremely long in the tooth sensor. In Digital Trends’ review, the same concerns were raised, and we even came to the conclusion that the upgrades might not even make a compelling enough reason to go from the Mark II to the Mark III. The rest of the package Olympus stacked around those aging parts was great, but knowing now how bad their financials were looking at the time, the E-M1 Mark III truly was that last gasp that I feared back in February. It was one final attempt, a penultimate plea, to try and sway the masses to what Olympus had been preaching for years.

But yet again, those words simply did not resonate.

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