PMA 2009 Interview: Olympus

Back at PMA we sat down with a handful of senior Olympus executives from Europe, the USA and Japan for our usual show briefing and, as promised, we dedicated a section of the meeting to an 'on the record' interview for publication here. Unfortunately, much of what we discussed can't be talked about just yet, and perhaps inevitably we failed to get through the huge list of questions generated by our active Olympus users community - we're working on getting written answers to all of them. For now here's a transcript of the parts of the conversation we can report on!

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Olympus people in the interview:

  • Akira Wantanabe, SLR Business division, Product Planning department, Manager
    Olympus Imaging Corp.
  • Miquel Angel Garcia, Managing Director European Marketing, Olympus Imaging Europa GmbH
  • Heino Hilbig, Head of Corporate Communications & Marketing Services, Olympus Imaging Europa GmbH
  • John Knaur, Senior Marketing Manager DSLR, Olympus Imaging America Inc.
  • Sally Smith Clemens, Product Manager, Olympus Imaging America Inc.

We're obviously not going to get through all these questions here, but I think that the willingness of Olympus to listen to them - and to answer them where possible - is hugely appreciated by the community, and is in stark contrast with some of the other manufacturers we deal with.
SSC: We're glad to be able to do it because we are interested to know what the forum members are thinking and also to share what’s going on at Olympus.

When you look at the scores of questions we've got and the hundreds of daily posts on the forums there are a few themes that turn up again and again, and one of the biggest is the need for reassurance about your commitment to Four Thirds since the arrival of MFT, which we spoke about at Photokina. I think there's still some concern about resources being diverted to MFT and away from the main system. I mean there's little evidence for it; you're bringing out new FT cameras all the time, but there's still and undercurrent of concern that their investment in this system will at some point be wasted.

MAG: I think that there is a basic understanding which we have to set, which is that there are not two separate worlds for investing in Micro Four Thirds and then investing in Four Thirds, actually it is all Four Thirds to us. Therefore, part of our investment in the Four Thirds system itself, is the Micro Four Thirds development. There is a good reason for the order of our development roadmap. We announced the Micro Four Thirds extension in August 2008, then we launched the E-30 and now the E-620 FT cameras.

A benefit of the development for both Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds can be seen in the new image stabilization system that we are using in the E-620 which is 20% smaller. We will surely also see a similar type of mechanism in the Micro Four Thirds product. I think that any fear from our loyal customers will disappear because for us, it’s not ‘here’ or ‘there’ – we are utilizing resources from the development of both of our systems. This is similar to the way many of the innovative technologies from the E-3 found their way back into other E-series cameras. This will also happen between both Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds: it’s not one of the other.

AW: Many of the components used in FT models can be also used in MFT bodies. The sensor - and getting the image from the sensor is a big use of resources - and also the image stabilizer can be used for both, so we don't think it's 'split'. Of course some modification is needed for MFT bodies and FT bodies, we're confident we can develop both at the same rate as before.

And in terms of optics; are there technologies developed in the design of lenses for MFT that are applicable to FT or is that completely separate?
AW: Of course the biggest difference when it comes to interchangeable lenses is the back focus distance, so especially for wide-angle lenses the design has to be different. But for telephoto lenses, as you know - for example the 300mm lens - there is no lens element at the back, so the back focus distance doesn't matter. But yes, for some of the lenses we need to separate the designs.

So I would presume that the form factor you've chosen for your Micro Four Thirds camera lends itself to a particular type of lens, so you may not have a situation where you have competing FT and MFT versions of many lenses?
AW: In general terms in the design of a lens the size of the lens can be minimized when the focal length and back focus distance are roughly equal. In essence the thickness of the MFT body is the best focal length for the lens to make it the minimum size. But for longer focal lengths there would be virtually no difference in size.

In terms of the differentiation between the two lines, one of the questions that we see quite regularly is whether there will be ruggedized or weather sealed or otherwise 'pro grade' MFT bodies, or are you going to keep the two lines completely separate?
HH: The important point is that for us, in our understanding, there is no difference between MFT and FT. From our perspective we have to be very much aware that the only difference is that there is no mirror inside, and because of that we can make the camera body smaller. And I would like to get rid of this fear that we are no longer developing components for 'the' Four Thirds products because of MFT, because this implies an incorrect idea of how we develop a product. We don't develop a product in isolation; what takes time to develop are the components inside, which means that - as we talked about earlier - the image stabilizer used in the E-620 was developed for the MFT camera and introduced in a FT product.

So actually the development of MFT will benefit FT users.
HH: Yes, that's the way to see it. If Four Thirds is the 'master-class', the MFT development is, in R&D terms, one step higher. To make it smaller is more difficult, but this means that FT will benefit from MFT.

So can we talk about the FT lens roadmap. The one that has been published doesn't go beyond 2009,
HH: That's the one that's been published, yes.

So when are we likely to see a new lens roadmap, and what can you tell us about the general direction of current development?
AW: The way we set the roadmap is always like this; We get requests from the market, from your website and so on, and we put them together and make a list and put them in an order and simply develop from the top one down. I cannot tell you which lens is in the first place or second place but I can tell you we do have a long queue.

So how long does it take to get from the top of the list to actually being available to buy?
AW: When we revealed the system and the roadmap for the first time I think there were almost twenty lenses and we've now shown all of them. That took about four years.

JK: Which is kind of phenomenal when you think about it; 20 lenses in four years.

AW: The first lenses we produced were the very basic lenses, which is inevitable for a new system. so we needed to quickly fill the range. The situation now is a little bit different. One year we may focus on the bodies, the next we may focus a bit more on lenses, so we will not launch lenses constantly but we have been listening to the voices of our customers.

How about updates to existing lenses such as the 50mm macro; would they come quite low on the priority list?
AW: That's correct.

So what about the process of moving to contrast detect AF; is there a separate program to upgrade existing designs or is that just something you'll be concentrating on for new lenses? Are you likely to go back and update some of the more popular lenses so they're more compatible with CD-AF systems?
AW: This is something we'll need to clarify by the time we launch the MFT system, so please wait until the summer.

Now that professional cameras are increasingly moving towards full frame is the pro market an area you're still actively looking to participate in?
HH: Can I just make a 'marketing' comment on that first before the business and technical guys answer. Where does the term full frame come from? Full frame is 35mm which is half of the cinema film used in Kodak projectors. The question is 'where is the quality satisfied?' From our perspective, it's a subject of a market-orientated quality which has to be delivered; whether this is quality of the picture in general, or its pixels inside, which I don't think is a mark of quality. So this is an issue of talking about the format, which fulfills the market standard rather than 'full frame'.

OK. That's fair, because obviously the format shouldn't make any difference, but for a 'pro' camera to compete against the kind of camera professionals are buying it has a lot of work to do, and our only question is whether that will be an area where you'll be actively competing?
JK: From our side, and I'll speak because I work with a lot of professional photographers in the states - not all professional photographers are looking for 'full frame'. There's a lot more to the quality of the image than the size of the sensor and the number of pixels involved, which I know you guys are well aware of. Cameras like the E-3 have been used very successfully by many professionals. In fact, right now one of our professionals is traveling around the globe with (National) Geographic, and all he's using are E-3s. He can use whatever he wants but he's choosing to use E-3 because the lens quality he feels is better, he can shoot wide open and get good sharpness at the edges, the color quality is there, the image quality is there. So to characterize any camera - whether it's an Olympus or anything else - and say 'this is a professional camera' based on one feature is an injustice to any camera. In fact we’ve got one Magnum guy out there who still uses C5050's because he thinks its the best camera ever made - for what he's doing. So I think it's the quality of the image we can deliver that's more important than the size of the sensor.

Sure, but I don't think that you'd argue that any of the full frame cameras that have been released don't also offer excellent image quality.
JK: No, I think that across the board a lot of the cameras out there today - compared to five years ago - are very good and very high quality, but I don't think you'd argue that those manufacturers' with APS-C cameras aren't any good simply because they're not full frame.

But the point is they have the advantage that they can offer both full frame and smaller sensor bodies, and whether you can persuade enough professionals that you can offer a viable alternative to the full frame systems offered by other manufacturers to justify the continuing development of your professional system. To us the E-620 is represents exactly what FT is 'about' and the sensor format gives it genuine benefits over the competition. It's easy to understand its position in the market and its easy to see its appeal.
MAG: If we were targeting to really lead the professional market this would be a key issue. So the question is, are we targeting to lead the professional market in the short term? Today that's not in our plan. If we really wanted to succeed we would have to look at all the alternatives, which would most probably break all the work we've done on Four Thirds. But I don't think Olympus is trying to lead the professional market. We are, on the other hand, leading by way of technical innovations that many Pro’s and consumers now recognize as very useful; built-in dust reduction, digital specific lenses, etc.

I think part of the problem is that you launched the FT system with a professional camera and so the perception was initially that this was a system aimed at professionals. I guess the main question is whether you're working on an E-3 successor or whether you are now concentrating on cameras like this (the E-620)?
MAG: The reason we launched with the E-1 all those years ago was a decision taken in Japan. There are many ways to enter - or re-enter - a market, as we did in 2003 after 15 years out of it, and still I believe that this was the best way for us to get back into the market. And again there will always be professionals - and not in small numbers - who apply common sense. There is a lot of common sense and rational decisions being made amongst the professional photographers and many can come up with a good reason why an Olympus professional camera is the right choice. Moreover, for the FT system, for Olympus, the E-3 as a professional camera has a lot of meaning. You're right that this camera (the E-620) is what FT is all about, but most probably without the E-3 we wouldn't have this. I think this is very important for your readers to understand.

Of course your pro system does offer some unique benefits over others that will be really important for some users, just as full frame offers other, different advantages over FT. There will always be some systems better suited to some kinds of photography and some kinds of user.
JK: Sure, and it's always been that way. When I got into photography all my peers were using medium format and I was one of the first to jump into 35mm because of the size and weight - everything that FT brings to the table in the digital era. There is no one camera that suits everybody or every need, I had medium formats when I was out in the field as a professional and I had 35mm when I was out in the field as a professional. I see no reason why, in the future, you won't see people who have multiple types of cameras out there based on the need, based on what the job/application is today.

Well Micro Four Thirds has certainly led a lot of people to consider investing in a second system. Moving on, you currently get all your SLR sensors from your partner, Panasonic. How much involvement do you have in the development of sensors and how much R&D does Olympus itself do in this area?
AW: We're doing research, though we're sticking to the Four Thirds format of course, nothing else. We're now developing a new sensor and new image processing engine, and improvements are always being done to get higher sensitivity or higher dynamic range. We’re not very keen on increasing the pixel count because if you want over a 20 million pixel sensor, there are many models on the market to choose from.

Is there an optimum pixel count for Four Thirds sensors with current technology?
AW: Theoretically there is no limit, but we have no intention to compete with other manufacturers in terms of pixel count alone. I think the current 12 megapixel point is a very good one, covering most applications, so we're not placing a priority on pixel count at the moment. We'd rather concentrate on other features.

So how do you compete at a retail level when everyone else is offering, say 15 or 20 million pixels next year? What are you going to be offering - and will it be enough - to make people choose Olympus given that most consumers don't understand that they don't actually need the extra pixels? Are features like the Art Filters and small form factor going to be the Olympus differentiators?
JK: I think not only features but the image quality is becoming more apparent. A few years ago people buying computers only looked at megahertz, or how many gigahertz, and so on. Today, even though that perception is still there to some degree, it's no longer the main selling or purchasing feature for that type of product. It’s becoming apparent at both the retail counter and for the customer, that with digital cameras, more megapixels doesn’t necessarily mean better image quality.

Do do you think that consumers at this level - E-420, E-520, E-620 etc - understand that?
JK: I think they're getting to that point. At retail you're not hearing so much 'how many pixels does it have' from the people coming into stores. You're beginning to hear 'what's the picture quality like?'. And even at the dealer level the guy behind the counter is beginning to ask 'what are you using the camera for?' and 'how are you using it?' and telling people 'you really don't need more pixels than this unless you're going to print really big prints'. The purchaser understands this, today, they are most interested in products that satisfy their specific needs/ applications.

MAG: We have to understand the maturity of the DSLR market, and at Olympus we're starting to try to forecast who the consumer of 2010, 2011 will be; trying to figure out what those new people will be getting into - I don't even want to call it an SLR, really, or getting into the SLR world. I mean MFT won't be an SLR, but in terms of quality and features it is going to be an SLR, exactly the same, so how is the consumer changing? What are they going to be looking for? Maybe we're fooling ourselves, but we ask ourselves are people coming to high quality cameras in 2,3,5 years time, are they really going to be talking about reflex cameras? I don't know. Anyway for buyers interested in that level of high quality camera with high picture quality and high performance - not only in the still images but also video more and more, are they really going to be megapixel orientated? We really don't believe they will. We started with Art Filters and in the beginning it looked like a compact camera feature, but we are witnessing internally, the potential of this functionality from the positive reaction of the people using them.

I think they're (Art Filters) a great idea, but I was concerned as to whether they would be enough to swing anybody to buying one camera over another, whether they would be given any value.
MAG It's a nightmare for marketing when you really believe in something and you wonder how long will it take you to get people to really understand the pleasure of this different kind of photography. But things are easier when it's something that your consumers are, in some way, looking for. I don't mean they're looking specifically for Art Filters in an SLR camera, they're looking for something that consumers in the past were not requesting in an SLR, something different. So are we visionaries? I don't know. But we're working on the principle that in 2010, 2011, the game is going to be different and if you look at Micro Four Thirds or you look at FT we are changing, we are moving. I don't think that in the future the consumer for an SLR or interchangeable lens-type camera - a high image quality camera - is going to be looking for the same things they were at the start of the market a few years ago.

Of course the problem is that it's quite easy for any other manufacturer to watch what you're doing and just say 'oh right, that works, I'll put that on my camera', so your window of opportunity may not be that big.
MAG Of course; art filters, multi aspect, multi exposure, wireless flash; there are many things that you can do with our cameras and they could be copied by other manufacturers. As in the past, features like built-in dust reduction, digital specific lenses and full live view have been copied by other manufacturers after first being introduced by Olympus, What is important is that a manufacturer leads as opposed to follows.

HH: The FT system is the only system that allows for a MFT system . There is no other system that does it, and I think the combination of an SLR with the technology and features possible with MFT - which they may want later; to combine these two things will make a unique proposal to users; for FT as well as MFT.

How has the E System market share fared in the last year or so?
JK: In the United States last year up until October we were doing very well; when the economy tanked things changed, but we're still getting a lot of encouragement from our dealers on the new products such as the E-30 and the E-620.

The E-30 is a great camera, it's just too expensive.
MAG: We absolutely feel that it is important for us to be aligned with the market. That's a good point you bring up regarding the E-30, and I thought you were going to ask me. We have received some similar feedback from other sources, and we're seriously looking at ways to address this response. I'm sure your readers will be pleased with the outcome.

Interview by Simon Joinson and Phil Askey, report written by Simon Joinson.