Blaming competition from smartphones and a shrinking consumer photography market, Olympus has announced that it will exit the camera business this year. The company, which in recent decades has made most of its money (80%) from the sale of medical imaging equipment, will sell its consumer imaging division to a Japanese private equity firm.
A new company will be established to continue development and production of Olympus-made technology. Whether or not this new company will produce cameras and lenses for consumer markets is unsure. But it seems that after 84 years of creating excellent cameras and lenses for photographers all over the world, Olympus as we know it is no more.
For Olympus fans, and we have plenty of those on the CP staff and amongst CP readers, this is bitter news. Since the 1950s, Olympus has been synonymous with beautiful, masterfully-engineered compact cameras.
In the film era, incredible advancements were made by Olympus’ designers. The most famous of all, engineering genius Yoshihisa Maitani, was responsible for not only excellent camera designs in the ultra compact half-frame Pen series and the impossibly small OM SLRs, but indeed he and Olympus can be cited as a driving force within the industry at large. Maitani’s and Olympus’ innovative designs continually pushed the industry forward toward a future that offered greater technological capability in ever-smaller cameras.
Olympus’ ethos of compact capability can’t be matched by any other brand. The original Pen; the revolutionary Pen F, a half-frame SLR; the OM series; the smallest 35mm rangefinder ever made, the XA; the high-selling Mju and Mju II. The list is nearly endless, in fact.
Olympus’ history is marked by outstanding achievements. Let’s take a moment and revisit our favorite Olympus innovators, cameras, and lenses through the prism of the articles we’ve written over the last six years.
We start our list in the logical place – our retrospective on Yoshihisa Maitani. With information sourced directly from contacts within Olympus, I was able to put together a history of “the man who made Olympus” that aptly shows Maitani’s importance and impact on the company, and on the world of photography. His lasting influence spanned fifty years. Read the article here.
High Design Compacts – the Olympus O Product and Olympus Ecru
Designed by Naoki Sakai, the Olympus O Product and Olympus Ecru were stunningly beautiful compact cameras dripping with personality and eccentric style. With a retro-future aesthetic, the O Product looked like no other camera on the market when it was made, and today it’s just as arresting. The Ecru follows a different aesthetic, though it’s no less surprising and whimsical. They even made pretty good photos when I shot them back in 2018. Our articles on each delves into the “why” and “what” of these high design machines, machines that only Olympus would dare to make. Read about the O Product here, and the Ecru here.
Olympus OM Series Camera Reviews
Olympus’ most impressive SLR series, the OM, needs little introduction. In a time when 35mm SLR cameras were large, heavy, and complicated, Maitani and his design team at Olympus created an impossibly small SLR to revolutionize the industry. Large controls, an impressively massive viewfinder, a full suite of exemplary lenses, and simplicity of design marked Olympus’ entry to the world of highly capable SLRs. Up until yesterday, in fact, Olympus’ premier digital cameras were known as OMs. Read about the OM-1 here, the OM-2 here, and the OM-4 here.
In the mid-1970s, Olympus wanted to create the perfect camera. And by Maitani’s definition, the perfect camera was one that anybody could take anywhere, one that was easy to use, one that could take excellent photos and allow a high degree of creative control (sounds like the smartphones which have now killed Olympus, eh?). To that end, Maitani and his team developed the Olympus XA, the smallest 35mm film rangefinder camera ever made. What’s most stunning about the XA isn’t its size, which is amazing, but the fact that within that tiny body is packed an aperture-priority auto-exposure system, a true rangefinder manual focusing mechanism, and a legendary lens. Josh loved it in his balanced, hype-free review, and I can’t find anything to disagree with myself. Read it here.
A wide-angle variant of the Olympus XA, the XA4 Macro is a camera worthy of its own spot on any film photographer’s must-have list. It retains the amazingly compact form factor of its predecessor, but adds a wider angle lens (28mm opposed to 35mm) and a useful macro focusing mode. Charlotte’s excellent review has all the details.
I reviewed the Olympus Mju II, the quintessential “hipster camera” (whatever that means). I’m not the biggest point and shoot fan, but I came away impressed by this little pocket camera. It once again adheres closely to Maitani’s and Olympus’ design ethos, that a camera should be tiny, easy to use, and fitted with an excellent lens. The Mju II is all of that, even at the slightly elevated prices that they’re selling for today. Read all about it here.
Josh spent some time shooting the predecessor to the famed Mju II, the original Mju. He describes the camera in that text – “it’s not hard to see why this camera and its siblings became the darlings of point-and-shoot camera culture. For one, it’s simple – no more than three buttons populate its top. Its front face features naught but Olympus’ signature sliding door, which pulls double-duty as a lens cover and an on-off switch, a feature pioneered by the Olympus XA, a camera that shares the Mju’s legendary reputation. That’s about it for complications. And just like the XA series, it’s incredibly small.” Read the full review here.
What makes the Olympus 35 SP so great? Opening the manual, Olympus congratulates us on owning “the finest rangefinder 35mm camera available today” and promises that if we read the instruction manual thoroughly and carefully, our efforts “will be amply rewarded.” Marketing hype aside, the 35 SP was (and remains even fifty years later) the only 35mm rangefinder with the combination of spot-metering, center-weighted metering, and spot metering in automatic exposure mode. How useful is this feature? In his review, Cory makes the case.
In the 1970s, 40mm fixed lens rangefinders were all the rage. Every company made one. But Olympus may have made the best of them all. And in his review of the Olympus 35 RD, Dustin examines the final model in the lineup and the last and rarest 40mm fixed lens rangefinder that Olympus ever made. Read about it here.
In the early 1980s, traditional SLR camera sales began to decline as more advanced electronic SLRs, point and shoots, and the like began to whet consumers’ appetites. In order to ensure buyers remained interested in their OM line, Maitani made a push to develop ever smaller and better lenses. The smallest and best, was the Olympus Zuiko 40mm F/2.
Designed to fit his exacting standards and personal photographic taste, after years of effort the smallest Zuiko became a reality in 1984. Sadly, the market didn’t respond well and production on the lens is rumored to be limited to just 10,000 units. It was discontinued in 1994, and today it’s a legendary rare lens. Read all about it here.
As we’ve done for many brands in photographic history, the writers and I sat down one day and hashed out our favorite Olympus cameras. We picked the essentials in SLRs, compacts, rangefinders, lenses, and more. I even made sure to mention the ultra rare Pen W, a camera made for just months. See the whole Olympus Essentials article here.
Got a story about your love for Olympus? A favorite Olympus camera? Let us hear it in the comments below.
Want an Olympus camera that we didn’t mention?
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