Shigemi Sugimoto, Head of Olympus's imaging business unit. Pictured at the CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan.

At last month's CP+ show in Yokohama, we met up with Shigemi Sugimoto, Head of Olympus's imaging business unit. During our interview, Mr. Sugimoto explained where he sees the most opportunity for Olympus, and how his company will continue to differentiate itself from the competition.

This interview (which was conducted through an interpreter) has been edited for clarity and flow.

You’re relatively new in your role as head of the imaging business unit. How will your leadership change the company?

We’ve gone through a painful period, in the past. We had to shrink the size of the business, and that was reflected in our product lineup - especially the compact cameras. But now it’s time to enhance [and grow] the imaging business and catch up in terms of market share. Part of this will be enhancing our lineup.

How long have you been with Olympus?

I joined Olympus 32 years ago, initially in the accounting department. I’ve been with the imaging division for ten years. In 1997-2002 I worked in Hong Kong, where I established our factory in China.

What was your first Olympus camera?

A compact, at first but I replaced it with a PEN E-P1.

Our first priority is what we call system mobility - not just the size of our camera bodies, but the entire system

What are your ambitions for Olympus' range of photography products going forward?

We’re focused on the mirrorless ILC category, because we’re concentrating on portability and reliability. This is our value in the market. Our first priority is what we call system mobility – not just the size of our camera bodies, but the entire system, such as our telephoto lenses. Because of the benefit of the 2X crop factor we can provide a dramatically different solution [compared to other manufacturers].

We see the OM-D system truly as a system, including accessories and other equipment. We need to expand the capability of the entire system – not only bodies and lenses.

The 300mm F4 PRO behaves like a 600mm on full-frame, giving Olympus shooters a powerful and sharp telephoto option at a fraction of the size and weight of a 'true' 600mm lens.

Are you still aiming primarily at a still photography-oriented audience, when you develop new products?

Our position hasn’t changed. We’re focused on stills photography – this is our basic stance. But if we see that our customers want to take more video with our equipment, we’ll [include] video features. But our main focus is stills. Video technology is not our first priority. On the other hand, we can also provide the benefits of the OM-D system’s mobility to video users, for example our high-performance 5-axis image stabilization.

Considering the film-making audience, we’re not going to be going in the direction of large [dedicated] video cameras. Rather, [hybrid cameras], for handheld use, which can shoot high-quality video just with a single operator. That’s a benefit that [I think will be] appreciated by videographers.

We don’t have a strong line of communication with the video audience

Do you have a sense of how many of your OM-D E-M1 Mark II customers use the camera to shoot video as well as stills?

We don’t have a strong line of communication with the video audience, so we don’t have many people using that feature in our cameras. We know our cameras and lenses are capable of capturing high-quality video, and we’d like to get this message across. Olympus makes nice, multi-operation handheld cameras that can shoot good video.

Would you like to increase the number of people who use your cameras for video creation?

Yes, of course.

Advanced amateurs and professionals tend to want more robustness, and improved operability

A number of enthusiasts and some professionals have adopted the OM-D E-M1 Mark II. What are they asking for?

The demands are different depending on their level. Advanced amateurs and professionals tend to want more robustness, and improved operability. For entry-level users, they want new technology, which they can’t find in DSLRs. Olympus is a pioneer in digital photography in the camera field, and our users expect that.

The OM-D E-M1 Mark II is an uncommonly tough camera, which can take a lot of punishment. From the jungles of Thailand to the snowy mountains of British Columbia, we've soaked it, frozen it, and dropped it in the mud but it keeps on shooting.

Is there an engineering limit to the effectiveness of image stabilization systems?

When we introduced the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, the IBIS system in that camera represented the limit at the time. But of course the technology is still developing. After the OM-D E-M1 Mark II was announced, our engineers have tried to [push the barriers] of performance and recently they’ve come up with some solutions. So there is still room for improvement in terms of stabilization.

The next generation may be even more effective?

Yes, you can expect so.

Going forward, is there any value left for Olympus in the compact camera segment?

We are focused on the TG tough range of compact cameras, and mirrorless cameras. From a profitability point of view we’re focused on these high value products, even though the volume [of sales] is lower.

The Tough TG-5 is a class-leading waterproof camera, in a market segment that remains profitable for Olympus.

Can you tell us anything about how the Tough camera range might evolve over time?

At this point, we’re not looking to [develop] this range too aggressively. That’s based on the current situation. Of course, the market is always changing, and flexibility is really important to meet customer demands.

Editors' note:

Mr. Sugimoto has been with Olympus for a long time, but he was only recently promoted to his current position as head of the imaging business. It's a tough job, especially in such a competitive landscape, but during our conversation he seemed confident that Olympus can bring a unique value to the marketplace. By his own account, Olympus has gone though some difficult years, but now the time has come to invest and grow its market share.

That's not to say that we're expecting Olympus to suddenly start churning out cameras like they used to – it's very clear that Mr. Sugimoto sees most value in the mirrorless ILC segment, and the high-profit Tough line of compacts. He is hoping that what he calls 'system mobility' will continue to attract enthusiast photographers to the OM-D and PEN lines, and all but confirmed his engineers are working on even more effective 5+ EV IBIS. DSLR and full-frame mirrorless photographers can only dream of this kind of stabilization, which is equally useful for video, as well as stills.

It's extremely unlikely that we'll see Olympus creating a Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5S competitor any time soon

Speaking of video, Mr. Sugimoto confirmed that it still isn't the main priority for Olympus, but he did frame the issue partly in terms of communication. Unlike competitors like Panasonic, Olympus has never really dealt with video creators in the past. Clearly, Mr. Sugimoto believes that his company makes products that will have value to this constituency, but is concerned that up to now, Olympus hasn't found a way of effectively communicating with them.

Products like the OM-D E-M1 Mark II with its spookily effective IBIS, and high-quality 4K video are impressively capable when it comes to video, but it's extremely unlikely that we'll see Olympus creating a Panasonic Lumix DC-GH5S competitor any time soon. Instead, after talking to Mr. Sugimoto we're predicting a consolidation of Olympus's mid-range and high-end ILC lineup and more high-end lenses. In a landscape increasingly dominated by chunky APS-C and full-frame cameras and lenses, Olympus will need to start selling the 'system mobility' message aggressively. New products will help, but communication is definitely part of the challenge.