Setsuya Kataoka, VP of Global Strategy, Olympus Imaging Division, pictured holding the forthcoming M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO.

These are difficult times for the photo industry, and even before the COVID-19 pandemic, economic stresses and falling sales had been presenting headwinds to camera and lens manufacturers. Following the recent announcement that Olympus is planning to sell its Imaging Division, we caught up with Setsuya Kataoka, 29-year veteran of the company and current VP of Global Strategy. In this interview, Mr. Kataoka gave us his thoughts on the sale, what it means for fans of the brand, and what's next for Olympus-branded cameras and lenses.

This interview was conducted through and interpreter and has been edited for clarity and flow.

What immediate impact will there be from the sale of the Imaging Division?

First, I would like to stress that the sale of the Imaging Division does not mean that we will withdraw from the imaging business. We will continue to offer unique and exciting products. Of course there will be some changes in management, and transformation of the organizational structure after the transfer, but these changes are to stabilize the business and strengthen the organization and our operations. We think the transfer of the Imaging Division will have a positive effect on our imaging business.

Based on our current timeline, if everything goes smoothly, we’ll have a Definitive Agreement in place in September, and the new company will be established in January 2021.

Was the sale of the Imaging Division being discussed before the COVID-19 pandemic, or did it come about as a result of the challenging market conditions this year?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the imaging business, but it is not directly related to this decision.

The OM-D E-M5 Mark III is a genuinely small, lightweight ILC. It's aimed at enthusiasts and designed to appeal to travel and everyday photographers who don't want to be weighed down by a DSLR or full-frame alternative.

After the establishment of the new company, will camera and lens production continue at the same pace and in the same factories?

The production system is still under consideration, so I can’t provide any details right now, but please be reassured that there will be no problem with production, whatever happens. Production of existing models will continue.

How long have you worked at the Imaging Division inside Olympus?

Since 1991, so 29 years.

Was the announcement of the sale of the Imaging Division a sad day for you, or are you optimistic about the future?

I don’t think that this is a sad day for us, at all. This transfer means that the Imaging Division will be carved out from Olympus but I see this as an opportunity for our imaging business to grow further in future. This may not be well-known, but JIP – Japan Industrial Partners – is a business investment fund, and their vision is to revitalize and grow businesses by supporting long-term business management. This is why we believe JIP is an optimal partner.

We believe that this transfer is the best step to preserve our technologies, our products, our services and the legacy of the Olympus brand. We are very confident that we’ll be able to continue to offer products that will satisfy our customers under the new arrangement. I don’t expect that anything will happen that will not be good for our users. In all of our conversations about the transfer, ‘user first’ has been the bottom line.

Do you think that your product lineup will get smaller?

We will focus on the high-end market more than ever. High-end cameras and lenses in the ILC lineup. There may be some changes in the product lineup for strategic reasons, but we don’t plan simply to reduce the number of products.

Could an increased focus on high-end products spell the end for the entry-level PEN E-PL models?

How will the sale of the Imaging Division affect warranty and service support for existing Olympus customers?

Please be reassured that there will be no effect. I want our customers to be confident that their products will continue to be supported in future.

Do you think there will be a time when cameras will no longer be made under the ‘Olympus’ brand?

The question of Olympus branding is still under consideration, but there’s no plan to stop using the Olympus brand immediately after the transfer. Camera naming, such as OM-D, PEN and Zuiko will continue to be used.

We will continue to develop the Micro Four Thirds system [and focus on] areas where we can leverage the uniqueness of our products

Do you think that the OM-D lineup will evolve to be a more high-end system?

We believe that our OM-D lineup offers unique benefits that other camera manufacturers cannot. Not only the compactness and light weight of the system, but many technologies that competitors cannot match, such as high-resolution lenses, strong stabilization and outstanding dust-proofing and weather-sealing. I can’t say for sure how these technologies will evolve, but we will continue to develop the Micro Four Thirds system [and focus on] areas where we can leverage the uniqueness of our products, for example in the fields of nature and outdoor photography.

The last time I spoke to Aki Murata, in late 2019, he expressed a hope that the E-M1X would attract photographers who were ‘switching’ from DSLRs. Has that happened?

The E-M1X was developed for professional photographers, in order to withstand use in harsh environments. The development of this product was very important for us. We wanted to meet the demands of professional photographers, and also to accumulate know-how around improved reliability, which we could then apply to other models.

Although the E-M1X does not sell in the same volume as the E-M1 and E-M5 series, it has been accepted by many professional photographers. We are currently developing an intelligent subject detection autofocus update for bird photography for the E-M1X. That firmware is scheduled to be released this winter. Together with the M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC1.25X IS PRO lens, we’re confident that we can make many professional photographers very satisfied.

Olympus' flagship ILC (the OM-D E-M1X, left) is far from small or light, but Mr. Kataoka believes that when professionals and enthusiast bird and wildlife photographers see what it can do in combination with the upcoming 150-500mm lens, some of them will want to make the switch away from their current cameras.

How important is that particular lens to your professional strategy?

We believe that this lens will be a very special option, not only for wildlife and sports photographers but for all kinds of customers who need a telephoto zoom. This lens symbolizes the superiority of our system, and we might even call it a flagship. You can shoot handheld at 1000mm [equiv.], and it’s packed with innovative technology. This will be a significant lens, and [representative] of a new chapter in our imaging business.

Do you think that Olympus-branded cameras will ever compete against full-frame professional options, for sports and photojournalism?

We believe that our camera system has the potential to be accepted in the professional marketplace. In fact, many professional photographers are using our system, especially sports and wildlife photographers, following the launch of the E-M1 Mark II. We will continue to gather feedback from these photographers, particularly when it comes to the benefits which full-frame cameras cannot offer.

Given the challenging market situation, where do you see the biggest opportunities for Olympus-branded cameras and lenses?

We are proud to offer unique products that other brands cannot. Especially when it comes to the compactness and light weight of our system. This provides clear benefits to our customers when it comes to mobility. Although the market has contracted recently due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, once people are able to start traveling again, and get outdoors, we’re confident that our products will satisfy users, and allow them to enjoy their photography.

Do you anticipate any job losses after the sale?

As a result of the transfer process, the reformulation of the organizational structure is obviously something that will be discussed. But I cannot give any detail at this point.

Do you think that Olympus as a photographic brand will be in a stronger position in one year’s time than it is today?

I really believe so. I think our position will be stronger in a year. Our manufacturing team, our R&D team, as well as sales and marketing - all of our teams are working hard to make that happen.

We are extremely grateful to all of our customers for their loyalty and support

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you, for the many supportive messages and comments that we have received since the news of the transfer. We are extremely grateful to all of our customers for their loyalty and support. To demonstrate our continued commitment to our customers, we recently disclosed our lens roadmap, and the development of our 150-400mm PRO lens is well underway. There are no plans to change any product launches coming in 2020. We remain focused on the release of new products, so please stay tuned for news about more exciting future developments.

While the transfer may bring changes to some operations, one thing that will not change is that everyone on the imaging team will continue to work hard on innovative initiatives for our customers.

Editor's note: Barnaby Britton

The last time we spoke to Mr. Kataoka was in 2015, following the launch of the OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Back then, he was extolling the virtues of that camera's high-res shot mode, and predicting improved – handheld – iterations of the technology coming in future models. This prediction came true in the E-M1X and E-M1 Mark III, but neither we nor Mr. Kataoka could have predicted that in 2020 – almost a decade after the financial scandal which rocked the company in 2011 – we'd be discussing (again) the future of the entire Olympus Imaging business. But these are strange times.

In the short term, we're told, nothing will change. The product roadmap (at least through 2020) is fixed, products will continue to be released – and sold – and warrantee service and post-sale support for existing customers will continue as before. While the future of the 'Olympus' brand is unclear, OM-D, PEN and Zuiko-branded products will continue to be manufactured and sold.

According to Mr. Kataoka, we'll see more of a focus on high-end gear going forward, of the kind that he hopes will appeal to professionals. That's where products like the long-anticipated 150-400mm come in: 'a significant lens, and [representative] of a new chapter in our imaging business'.

The basic strategy behind Olympus's development of high-end imaging products seems to be unchanged

Of course, this lens on its own is unlikely to persuade a significant number of professionals to pick up an E-M1 Mark III or E-M1X, but that was never the point. It seems as if the strategy behind Olympus's development of high-end imaging products is the same now as it has been the last several times I've spoken to senior executives: aim high, focus on the differentiators, (i.e., the professed benefits of M43 such as lower size and weight, excellent in-body stabilization, and relatively small telephoto lenses), and court professionals with high-end tele optics, rugged build quality and excellent weather-sealing.

The challenge is that few of these things are (or need to be, or in some cases ever have been) unique to Micro Four Thirds. That said, Olympus has a good track record when it comes to maximizing the advantages of a smaller sensor, and trying to minimize the performance gap using technology.

The handheld high-res shot mode in the E-M1 Mark III and E-1MX is one good example of a technological solution to the small sensor 'problem', which provides the option of increased resolution, and somewhat improved high-ISO image quality compared to conventional single-exposure capture from a small 20MP sensor.

We know that new products are coming, and Mr. Kataoka tells us that his team remains focused on delivering high-quality, 'innovative' solutions. If things go to plan, according to Mr. Kataoka, a final agreement with presumptive new owners Japan Industrial Partners (JIP) will be in place in September, and a new company will be formed in early 2021. Longer-term, things are less clear, but it's safe to assume that JIP has done its homework, and believes that Olympus cameras and lenses have a future. As for exactly what that future looks like, we'll just have to wait and see.

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