Mr. Hirofumi Imano, Division manager of Product Strategy at Olympus, photographed at the company's Hachioji facility.

[photo: Barnaby Britton]

After the CP+ show in Yokohama closed last week, editor Barnaby Britton journeyed out to Olympus's design facility in Hachioji to speak to executives and engineers. Among the people he spoke to was Hirofumi Imano, Division Manager of Product Strategy. In a broad-ranging interview, Mr. Imano explained the company's strategies for competing in a tough market, the genesis of the OM-D line, opportunities in video, and why he thinks Canon and Nikon might not be making high-end mirrorless cameras. 

Note: This interview was conducted through a translator, and edits have been made for clarity and structure.

Can you describe to me the current state of the consumer digital imaging market, as you see it?

Well, obviously shipments from manufacturers are down, compact cameras especially but also interchangeable lens cameras are declining. This is a fact. At the same time though, there is still growth in the mirrorless market and more and more people are taking and sharing photos. So in terms of the imaging business overall, we have a great opportunity.

What is your strategy for taking advantage of this increase in photo-taking?

Our key interest lies in mirrorless cameras, represented by the OM line and the PEN line, but although we know that the market for compact cameras is shrinking,there's still demand for niche products like our TOUGH lineup. 

The Olympus Stylus SP-100 is a 50X super-zoom camera with a built-in dot sight for accurately tracking moving subjects at the long end of the camera's zoom. 

There are many things that a camera can offer which a smartphone can't. For example bright, large aperture lenses such as that employed in our Stylus 1 and our SP-100 that offers a 40X optical zoom and dot sight, which is more user-friendly than competitive cameras at long focal lengths. So there are some segments of the market which are not being eroded by smartphones. This is why our focus is on mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras and high-end and special purpose compacts.

People’s basic desire to record their lives and express their personalities through creative expression won’t change. It’s a human instinct. More photos are taken on a daily basis now than ever before, as we’ve discussed.

The camera is and will remain the most credible device for self-expression through photography and we will keep on striving to include the latest optical and digital technology to realize this. We need to make our cameras reliable and responsive. 

In the medium-term future, is it more important for Olympus to attract an entry-level customer base or an enthusiast audience?

It’s definitely important for us, and in fact for the entire industry to expand the number of people out there who are interested in taking photos with cameras. Whether that’s young people, women, men - expanding that community is very important. At the same time it’s very important for Olympus to attract enthusiasts. These two areas are equally important and we have been successful at attracting entry-level customers with the PEN lineup, and we’ll provide more enhancements to this lineup, both in terms of technology and features.

OM-D has been very well-received by photo enthusiasts, and has been praised for image quality as well as customization and build-quality. With the lineup that we have now, of PEN and OM-D products we’re capable of cultivating both low and high-end customers.

When you were planning the OM-D series, what did you want to achieve?

We had a sense that as SLRs became DSLRs and sensors replaced film that the cameras were getting chunkier and chunkier. What we really wanted to achieve with the OM-D series was to use the optical heritage that we have, and combine that with the digital technology that we’ve been working on such as 5-axis image stabilization to achieve the maximum possible image quality while maintaining portability. 

Hirofumi Imano pictured with (l-r) the OM-D E-M10, E-M5, special edition E-M5 with crinkle finish and the flagship OM-D E-M1

[photo: Barnaby Britton]

We now have a 3-camera OM-D lineup, and we’ve been getting a lot of praise for the reliability of the cameras, and also for the image quality which people are saying is equal and in some cases better than DSLRs. We’re seeing this kind of feedback from our customers and we want more and more people to join the system and enjoy shooting with these cameras.

Do you see these cameras as an evolution of the film OM-series? If so, how?

The OM-D series definitely inherits things from the OM-line, most importantly maintaining portability without compromising image quality. One of the slogans of the original OM was 'from photomicrography to astrophotography’ - meaning that you could use the cameras to shoot subjects varying from bacteria to the cosmos. We’re still working on developing the OM-D system but definitely yes - a lot is inherited. 

Can you describe your career path within Olympus?

I started out as an R&D engineer working on our voice-recorders, back in the days of tape. After my experience with recorders for the past ten-fifteen years I’ve been involved in product planning for our cameras, also industrial design and user interface, before moving into product strategy. The first cameras I worked on were one of our first weatherproof compacts, the Stylus 710, and the Stylus Verve, which was a stylish, unique compact shaped like a raindrop.

How important is video for your customers now, and how important do you think it will become in the future?

It’s hard to predict the future but more and more, especially in the US and Europe we’re hearing requests for more improvements in our cameras’ video capabilities, both at the enthusiast and consumer level. The design of our lenses, and systems like image stabilization are impacted by the need for our cameras to shoot video as well as stills. We wouldn’t say that we’re 100% there yet, but we’re actively working to optimize video performance in our lineup of both cameras and lenses. 

We stepped into the Micro Four Thirds format with this in our minds - it’s a format optimized for still as well as video. Some things are still on the horizon, but we’re already considering video in the design of our lenses, for example the MSC focusing system.

Panasonic, one of your Micro Four Thirds partners has a history of producing dedicated video cameras, is there an opportunity in that market for Olympus?

There is definitely very big business opportunity. There’s increasing demand, and the technology is improving. There’s equipment out there for professionals, and also for a consumer audience such as the various sports-cam style cameras which is really gaining traction in a lot of markets. But whether you’re shooting stills or video, the image comes through a lens, and as an optics manufacturer we’re setting very high standards. Perhaps this is an area that we can cultivate in our business - lenses for professional video gear.

Would you describe Olympus as an optics manufacturer that also makes cameras?


Something I’ve been told by other manufacturers is that consumers in different countries around the world want different things from cameras. Have you found this to be true?

In terms of ergonomics, we tend to find that at the enthusiast level, our customers have a more or less uniform idea of what they’re comfortable with, regardless of where they are in the world. 

When it comes to the functionality that people want there are slight differences in the feedback depending on territory, but honestly it largely remains the same. Especially when it comes to our interchangeable lens products. That said, more of our customers in the US and Europe are vocal about wanting more advanced video functionality than in Japan and Asia, and our Asian customers are more vocal about ergonomics - things like how the dials feel. They’re very picky.

Why do you think mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras are not more popular in the USA and Europe compared to Asia?

One reason is maybe the perception, on behalf of customers and maybe even sales associates in stores that cameras from the bigger brands are better. The other thing is sensor size - DSLRs have APS-C and full-frame sensors inside them, but the mirrorless market is mainly APS-C and smaller, and for a long time it was mainly just Micro Four Thirds. Maybe there’s a perception that bigger sensors equals bigger image quality, which has hindered growth in the mirrorless market in the USA and Europe.

I think our reason to exist in this industry is to push the envelope with a system that maintains a good balance between image quality and portability. By pushing the envelope we firmly believe we can expand our customer base and also capture enthusiast photographers who might not be having fun with their bigger, bulkier DSLRs. 

The OM-D E-M1 is Olympus's flagship mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, and was voted best of its type of 2013, and best product of 2013 overall by dpreview readers.

As an optics manufacturer, we know that it isn’t as simple as saying 'a bigger sensor always delivers better image quality than a smaller sensor'. It's more complicated than that. It’s a combination of multiple factors including lens resolution, sensor and image processing. We have to keep on communicating to our customers, and to retailers, that things aren’t as simple as they might have heard. 

In Japan, currently 50% of the market is mirrorless, but a few years ago it was the same situation here as we’re currently seeing in the USA and Europe. But we just stuck firmly to our position, and kept on communicating to customers that there’s another option, which is small and light and takes beautiful images. 

I spoke to Fujifilm recently, and I was told by a senior marketing executive that if Canon and Nikon made serious mirrorless cameras, this would help the format to gain traction. Do you agree?

Well that’s his view! We’ll keep on communicating the benefits of mirrorless but Canon and Nikon dominate the interchangeable lens camera market and if they did come out with serious, reliable mirrorless cameras, I agree that yes - it might stimulate the market and boost sales of our cameras. Maybe it’s intentional that they haven’t launched enthusiast-focused mirrorless cameras, because they’re dominant. They’ve been maturing their systems for years. Maybe it’s strategic that they’re staying away. 

The future is very challenging, but it’s exciting too. We’ll have to work hard.