The Best Is Yet to Come for OM System

OM System logo on sunrise backgorund

The OM-1 Mark II has landed with more of a whimper than a bang. It’s a great camera but there’s not much new about it. However, the rush to pass judgment on what the lack of novel features means for the future of OM System and Micro Four Thirds at large is premature.

When Olympus announced its intention to sell its imaging business to Japan Industrial Partners (JIP) in 2020, it set off a series of domino effects that are still felt today.

OM Digital Solutions has done an admirable job rescuing Olympus from imminent death, but the immense challenge OMDS faces when forging a path forward is felt throughout the OM System, including in the new OM-1 Mark II.

OM System the best is yet to come
Olympus has a rich history of digital cameras for OM System to build upon. However, it takes time to create something new.

Camera and Lens Development Takes Many Years

One could be forgiven for thinking that since OM Digital Solutions officially completed its purchase of the Olympus camera business in 2021, there should be no lasting effects of the transition. After all, that was over three years ago. However, that’s a short period for camera and lens development.

While every company operates differently, nearly all camera makers have explained that work on a new camera takes at least three years and sometimes as many as five. So yes, when you buy a new camera, there are foundational aspects of that camera that were decided years ago.

So, OM System’s first flagship camera, the OM-1, released in 2022, was built heavily upon the work of Olympus before it bowed out of the photo industry. While OM opted to put the “Olympus” name on the OM-1 as an homage, the camera reflected a lot of Olympus’s influence and was not just a marketing choice.

OM System OM-1 camera in hand
The OM-1 launched with the “Olympus” name in 2022. | Credit: OM System

Yes, many Olympus employees moved under the OM Digital Solutions umbrella. Although knowing precisely how the transition affected every employee is impossible, it appears that OM Digital Solutions did a good job keeping people employed.

Despite what appears from the outside to have been a relatively smooth transition, it is imperative to understand that any disruption to research and development or engineering time has a cascading effect.

Production and manufacturing tasks, even if they’re only briefly stopped, cannot be instantly restarted. A disturbance to camera and lens development has repercussions that last years.

It is easy to imagine that a company spiraling toward its demise and then being sold would create disruptions. It is not like Olympus executives came into the office one day, suddenly didn’t like the look of a spreadsheet, and then issued a press release about selling its photo business. Olympus has a rich history in photography that goes back many decades, so there were undoubtedly attempts to cut costs, increase profit, and stay afloat.

Development cycles are an essential concept to consider, too. Camera and lens development is not linear by any stretch of the imagination. Not every workday makes the same progress toward a goal as the prior day, and not every week is spent working on one thing before moving to the next. A camera is the sum of work across many teams at different times and rates. Depending on when a development cycle is disturbed, the consequence concerning a release plan can shift dramatically.

All of this is to say that just because OM Digital Solutions has not released many new products lately does not necessarily mean that there is doom and gloom within the OM System.

But one does not need to be a cynic to believe that Olympus selling its failing image business and the new owner, OM Digital Solutions, not releasing particularly innovative products, is concerning.

However, I remain optimistic, perhaps na├»ve, that photographers have not seen much of OM Digital Solutions’ meaningful work. We’re approaching the time frame when OM Digital Solutions’ product teams will be wrapping up work they began when Olympus completed the sale of its photo business, and that assumes that the transitional period was as smooth inside OMDS as it appeared from the outside.

The OM-1 Mark II Is a Very Minor Upgrade

This brings us to the OM System OM-1 Mark II. As good as the OM-1 Mark II has proven during initial hands-on testing, there’s no doubt that it stretches the “Mark II” moniker to its limits. Some of the new features are not possible on the original OM-1, thanks to the OM-1 II’s expanded memory, but other features don’t feel like much more than a firmware upgrade.

For most existing OM-1 owners, the incentive to upgrade is minimal, at best. A select few will feel compelled by the desire for a larger buffer depth and improved autofocus. Others may want Live GND so much that they go through the hassle and expense of upgrading. However, for many, the OM-1 Mark II is not a camera they need.

OM-1 Mark II camera product shot
The OM-1 Mark II says “OM System” but not much else has changed. | Credit: OM System

OM Digital Solutions admitted as much during our pre-release meeting, describing the OM-1 II as a “refinement.” So yes, the OM-1 Mark II is better than its predecessor in many ways, but not significantly so in any particular way and not improved at all in others.

A theory floating around is that OM System’s licensing agreement for the Olympus brand is expiring imminently, forcing the company’s hand concerning an OM-branded OM-1 camera. And while changing the branding, might as well throw in some new features, right? Not a bad theory by any stretch. It’s plausible, given that the OM-1 is coming up on its second anniversary in March.

The fact that the OM-1 Mark II will not exist alongside the OM-1 but will outright replace it, which is very unusual in the camera space, lends credence to this idea. OM System doing very minor — basically entirely cosmetic — upgrades to some existing lenses is also notable. While these upgrades have included different coatings, the most prominent change is slapping the OM System name on the product.

In any case, the primary point remains the same. The OM-1 Mark II is not an exciting upgrade, and perhaps giving it the “Mark II” name was even a mistake, but it should not spell the death of OM System or Micro Four Thirds. That’s utter nonsense for now.

OM System 150-600mm Lens Is a Disappointing Stop-Gap Measure

What of the OM System M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-600mm f/5-6.3 IS? This is a complicated one.

On the one hand, new OM System lenses are great news. On the other hand, the new telephoto zoom lens undercuts the biggest reason I love using Micro Four Thirds cameras: getting outstanding performance in a lightweight kit. The 150-600mm is not light. It weighs a back-breaking 4.5 pounds (2,065 grams).

There’s good reason for that, too. It has the same guts as the Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Sports lens for full-frame mirrorless cameras. A Micro Four Thirds sensor cannot utilize anywhere near the full-frame image circle of the lens, so people are stuck carrying a bunch of extra, thoroughly useless glass.

OM System 150-600mm
The OM System 150-600mm telephoto zoom is big, and that’s because it was designed for full-frame mirrorless cameras. | Credit: OM System

This is disappointing. Add in the fact that the OM System 150-600mm lens is $2,700; that’s $1,500 more than the Sigma 150-600mm for E-mount. That is a significant premium for OM System branding, the Micro Four Thirds mount at the end, and — I expect — fine-tuned autofocus and image stabilization algorithms.

To contextualize the sheer weight of the lens a bit, consider the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm f/4.5 TC 1.25x IS PRO lens. It is a professional telephoto zoom lens with a faster aperture and a built-in teleconverter. Yes, it’s $7,500 — a discussion for a different day — but it weighs 4.1 pounds (1.87 kilograms).

That’s what’s possible with a purpose-built, natively engineered lens design.

This time, OM System opted instead to fill a bit of a gap with a cribbed lens. That’s fine, but why did it have to be a full-frame telephoto zoom?

The Innovation is (Hopefully) Coming

That said, even as so-called “experts” like me complain, proper pro photographers are out there using the overly heavy, excessively-priced, and thoroughly uninspired new OM 150-600mm lens to create beautiful and meaningful art. The OM-1 Mark II, likewise, even though it offers little by way of new and impressive major features, will capture many great photos in 2024 and beyond.

OM System OM-1 Mark II
Credit: Matt Horspool

But I want more.

Olympus did many amazing things for decades, and that creative spirit and some of the people who have driven it forward are at OM Digital Solutions right now, working hard. We are approaching the window where OM System’s wholly original and novel innovations should be released. I hope that photographers will stay patient for just a bit longer. The wait may very well be worth it.

Discussion