Interview: Aki Murata of Olympus – ‘Full-frame isn’t for everybody’

06 Dec

We attended the Photo Plus Expo show in October in New York, where we spoke to Aki Murata, Olympus America’s VP of sales and marketing. Among the topics of discussion were the new E-M5 III and his company’s strategy to attract professional photographers.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

How is your professional strategy evolving now that the E-M1X exists?

The E-M1X has completely changed our position in the professional market. We see a lot of changes. The E-M1X is designed for wildlife, birding and sports. After we announced the 150-400mm we had a lot of enquiries and questions from those people, and we’ve had a lot of requests for pre-orders even though we haven’t yet revealed pricing information.

The reason is the size and weight, and also the other characteristics of our system. Very strong stabilization, and now the ability to capture very fast-moving subjects.

How many E-M1X buyers were already invested in your system, versus completely new users?

That’s hard to say. At the very beginning it was mostly Olympus users, but recently we had a ‘trade in, trade up’ promotion, and it’s about half and half, people trading from our own system versus new users coming in from other [brands]. A lot of people from the wildlife and sports fields are coming into our system.

The Olympus OM-D E-M1X is one of the toughest cameras on the market. Aimed at professional and enthusiast wildlife and sports photographers, the E-M1X features a 121-point autofocus system and high-speed continuous shooting.

Do you have a target in terms of market share?

We don’t have specific numbers, but in terms of birding and wildlife we have targets for the number of users. But we don’t know how big the market is.

When you talk to E-M1X users, do you find that they use that camera for one kind of photography, and another camera or another brand for a different kind of photography?

We are seeing a trend with people coming from full-frame, where they need a small camera for travel, they use Olympus. We call those people ‘switchers’. But after we introduced the E-M1X, we have seen people working in the birding and wildlife field, they’re starting to switch. They don’t even test the gear sometimes, they just switch completely.

As the OM-D lineup evolves, do you think the professional and semi-pro market will become more important to you?

Definitely. If you look at the market today in the US, in 2019, the market is down by 10%. Above $ 500, there’s some increase in the full-frame segment, but in-between, there’s been a decrease of 20-25%. How we see the market right now is there are many entry-level offerings, since last year, but this market isn’t very big anymore. All the manufacturers are trying to achieve volume by discounting.

For people interested in travel, wildlife and sports, we can serve up products that can take photos which aren’t possible with a smartphone. So our professional range is important not only for professionals but also for enthusiasts that want better, sharper images.

We tend to hear that buyers of entry-level cameras don’t buy additional lenses. Is that one reason why you see professionals and enthusiasts as a more valuable demographic?

The short answer is yes, but their interest in purchases is not the only reason. Those people who really want to enjoy photography do need additional accessories. We want to give these people more opportunities – it’s not just about selling more lenses. And there are some products in the pipeline that should fit those customers very well.

Despite its Four Thirds sensor, the E-M1X (L) is a large camera, with a generous handgrip and built-in vertical grip with duplicate controls.

Can you describe your product strategy for enthusiast and professional customers in the medium-term?

For those people who shoot fast-moving subjects, we are going to introduce more super telephoto lenses. This is one area where you will see a big difference between full-frame and Micro Four Thirds. We are going to produce small but very high quality lenses. Not just small, but lightweight. You will immediately see the difference. It’s symbolic of the system.

For landscape photographers we want to produce small professional lenses.

The two big players in the pro sports market are Canon and Nikon, and a big reason for that is they’ve been around for a long time, and picture agencies have a huge investment in those systems. Do you have any ambition in the future to really compete against them in the agency space?

We’re not differentiating like that for the time being. Professionals are important to us for a couple of reasons. A product has to be really good to serve professionals, and we work with professionals to get feedback. That’s a really important cycle when it comes to improving the quality of our products. Also it’s important to work with professionals in order to convey messages to the market.

A product has to be really good to serve professionals, and we work with professionals to get feedback

For people who work for those big agencies, we see them as part of the general pro / enthusiast users. And we’re really interested in improving the quality of our products for those users. As long as we can keep on producing the right products for those people, I don’t think we need to differentiate between the different groups.

The EM1X is such a powerful camera, but it’s a big change from the initial concept of OM-D…

It’s tough, you know. It’s a big camera [by comparison with earlier models]. But when you look at the features, it’s still pretty small. And a lot of photographers we’ve spoken to end up saying ‘oh this is smaller than I thought’. But the size and weight benefit is also in the lenses. I truly believe that the 150-400mm lens will change the world. It is really good, and I can’t wait to show it to you. Handheld shooting at 2000mm equivalent – it’s amazing.

How does a camera like the E-M5 III fit into that overall strategy?

This camera is intended to appeal to people we call ‘wanderers’. We have a couple of very important target groups, especially in the US. One is bird photography, wildlife photography. That kind of field. The other is wanderers – people who want to explore the world. And this is a great camera for exploring the world. Which doesn’t mean you have to go to extreme places, even just around the city. These two different target groups are our main target users.

Unlike the E-M1X, the OM-D E-M5 III is a small, compact camera in the traditional OM-D mold. Containing a lot of technology from the E-M1 II, the E-M5 III is aimed at what Olympus calls ‘wanderers’.

Does the E-M5 III have a role to play in your professional strategy? Do you want people to buy it and step up to an E-M1-series camera, or buy it alongside a professional body?

We don’t really think like that, to be honest. In terms of the number of purchasers of the E-M5 III, we expect step-up customers, or people who are replacing an earlier model will make up the biggest portion. But of course there are professionals who will use this as a second camera.

A lot of our readers have reacted to the price being maybe a little high for a Four Thirds camera. What would you say to those people?

I think one big thing with Micro Four Thirds is that we’re using one single format. So if you buy a new lens in the future, or replace your camera, you don’t need to switch formats. This is a great benefit, The second thing is that there is a very strong mindset in the US that bigger is better. Full-frame is better. But the size of the sensor does not determine the the cost of the product, or the quality of the picture.

Full-frame isn’t for everybody. It’s important for all photographers to think about what matters to them

If someone really needs a bigger sensor because they’re shooting in really dark conditions, or they need to make really big prints, then full-frame is a better choice. But if someone finds value in a smaller package, not just the camera but also lenses, then [our OM-D cameras] will be better.

Because of this recent full-frame trend, there’s always this discussion. In the US, full-frame is 18% of the market, by volume. This time last year people were saying it would be 30%, or 50% but I don’t think it will happen. Full-frame isn’t for everybody. It’s important for all photographers to think about what matters to them. If what’s really important is portability, we’re confident that they’ll pick [the E-M5 III or E-M1 II] as their first option.

You mentioned photographers shooting in very low light or who need really big prints might still opt for full-frame. Do you have an ambition in future to attract those kinds of users to Four Thirds?

In short, yes. Technology will develop. If you look back three or five years ago, or even back to the first Micro Four Thirds cameras, the noise made images unusable sometimes. Development will continue. It will not stop. One day, I don’t know when, technology will catch up and some of the disadvantages we have today will not be disadvantages any longer. And when those disadvantages are gone, what is left are smaller physical size and weight, and the quality of our lenses. And image stabilization. Today there are some people that really need bigger sensors, but this will not always be the case in the future.

When you imagine this future, you’re still talking about a single format – Four Thirds?

Yes, and that won’t change. That format will be evolved, but we don’t need to change it. There are no plans.

Editors’ note: Barnaby Britton

We last spoke to Mr. Murata in October 2018. This was shortly before the official launch of the E-M1X, while the forthcoming camera was being shown to select journalists and photographers but before it was released out into the wild. Since then, the E-M1X has been put into the hands of professional and enthusiast photographers all over the world, and has been joined by the E-M5 III, offering some of the same capabilities but in a smaller, considerably less bulky package.

This interview was conducted a year after our last conversation, in late October 2019. That was before the rumors (and that is all they appear to be) started to swirl about the future of Olympus’s camera division. Those rumors have been addressed (if not outright denied) by Olympus recently, and in our conversation in October, Mr. Murata gave no hint of trouble ahead.

In fact, it seems to be full steam ahead for him and his team, with the E-M1X now out in the world, the E-M5 III joining it, and hints at more to come. And the basic message from Mr. Murata hasn’t changed between October 2019 and now. Olympus has no plans to introduce a new sensor format into its lineup, it’s committed to Micro Four Thirds and the company is confident that ‘technology will develop’ such that the current advantage of full-frame in some situations will eventually vanish.

Mr. Murata is hoping that the forthcoming M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC 1.25x IS PRO will be the lens that really gets professionals’ attention

After almost a year on the market, Olympus isn’t saying how many E-M1Xs have been sold, and we wouldn’t expect them to. According to Mr. Murata, many of the first people to pick it up were already invested in the Micro Four Thirds system. This isn’t surprising, given the investment required for someone to completely switch systems. But such people (Olympus calls them ‘switchers’) do exist, and Mr. Murata is hoping that the forthcoming M.Zuiko Digital ED 150-400mm F4.5 TC 1.25x IS PRO will be the lens that really gets professionals’ attention. I certainly can’t wait to try one on the E-M1X when they become available – hopefully soon.

I hesitated to broach the question of cost with Mr. Murata for fear of appearing rude, but he’s well aware of the general impression from some photographers (and some DPReview readers) that the E-M5 III is rather expensive for a M43 camera, at $ 1,200 body only. That ignores the fact that it incorporates a lot of technology from the E-M1X and E-M1 II of course, and as Mr. Murata says, “the size of the sensor does not determine the cost of the product, or the quality of the picture”.

There’s no arguing with that.

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