Olympus Has Fallen

Not the dreadful film, but the camera company. On the 24th June 2020 Olympus announced that they were in talks with Japan Industrial Partners to divest themselves of their camera business after three continuous years of losses despite numerous restructuring attempts. I’ve got no idea what all this means from a practical point of view, but from an emotional point of view it is quite a sad day. I’ve always considered myself to brand agnostic and have used over the years Praktika, Pentax, Minolta, Canon, Leica, Voigtländer, Sony, Panasonic and of course Olympus. But I’ve got to say that over the last 38 years I’ve always had at least one Olympus camera. More than just a few key moments in my life have been documented by an Olympus camera.

 

My first Olympus camera was an XA2. This is the XA4 I bought later to replace it, they look very similar, the major difference being that XA2 had a 35mm lens while the XA4 had a 28mm macro lens.

 

 

Portrait of me in Majorca taken in March 1986 by my father in law, Brooke Spencer. Probably taken with a Leica R4 with a Leica 135/2.8 Elmarit-R on Kodak colour negative film. I’m holding my OM1n with 35-105 lens.

 

I bought my first Olympus camera in 1982 after returning back home from an extended stay in Israel where I got into taking photos. Previously I had a Kodak 110 cartridge camera and when I got the films back from the processors I was dismayed with how crap they looked. I was determined that on the next trip I would take a much better camera. So after a trip to the newly opened Whibys camera shopping Chichester and a long and informative chat with the owner Derek Whitby I left with an Olympus XA2 – a unique 35mm clam shell compact camera. I kept going to Whitby’s until 1988 which was when I migrated to Australia. In that time Derek went on to sell me an OM20, OM1n, OM2n, OM4 and my partner an OM40. Along with those cameras was wheelbarrow load of lenses, some very specie flashguns for the time and a shed load of film. I’m glad their business is still going although Derek and his wife Jacqui no longer run it. The cameras kept marching on and were perfect for my travels being small, durable and highly featured for their time. The lenses were also compact and gave great image quality. I’ve still got most of the lenses and still use them, and I’ve written about them on this blog ( 21mm f3.5, 24mm f2.8, 35mm f2, 50mm f1.4,135mm f2.8, and 35-105mm f3.5-4.5).

 

Believe it or not that’s me in Red Square, Moscow in January 1987. The temperatures were -40ºC. You can just about see my camera bag slung over my shoulder. In it is an OM1n, an OM2n, a 35-105mm, a 50mm f1.4, a 200mm f4 lens a T32 flash and a T20 flash. We went to document the plight of Russians in Moscow and Leningrad (now St Petersberg for a human rights campaign that was to be launched later that year at the House of Commons in London). The cameras worked flawlessly in the cold. The photo was taken by my wife on an Olympus AF1.

 

 

My earliest selfie – taken in September 1987 while I was staying with my in-laws just prior to departing for India and Nepal. The camera is an Olympus OM4 with an Olympus OM Zuiko 35-105mm lens. Originally shot on Ektachrome 200 but converted to black and white because of fading.

 

Yours truly on a house boat on Lake Dal in Srinagar, Kashmir, India. I’m wearing a Camera Care Systems pouch with my Olympus OM4 in it. Taken by my partner with her OM40 and 35-105 lens.

 

In 2003 I shot a couple of weddings and my OM4s developed problems, one the shutter failed and the other the film advance jammed. I took them to the local camera whisperer but he broke the bad news to me – there were no new spare parts. He said I could by up some old models and use them as donor cameras but there was no guarantee as to the condition of the parts and how long they would last. To say I was gutted would be an understatement. This came a a particularly bad time for me, I was recovering after a bad accident and was pretty broke. I had enrolled at college to study photography as a form of therapy and now I was pretty well camera less. My late father-in-law (Brooke Spencer) in an act of supreme kindness stepped into the breach. He had just bought a Canon EOS D60 digital SLR and he sent me his old EOS3 film SLR and a couple of lenses. I now had a camera to complete college with and had inadvertently changed system. I went digital with Canon but I wasn’t really happy with it. I found the Canon EOS system to be large, heavy and cumbersome. About this time I fell into writing about and photographing outdoor activities and then was commissioned to write a walking guide. Well after a year lugging a Canon 5d and three lenses on over 1000Km of walks I knew I needed something lighter.

The Canon EOS system full monty. Three bodies, seven lenses, two flashes, flash meter, filters, cables, flash triggers, and reflectors. It is a hernia inducing load.

 

This is the camera kit I used on my first walking guide book. Less hernia inducing than the Full Monty, but still coming in at 7Kg including filters and batteries.

 

When I saw the Olympus Pen EP1 in 2009 I was smitten, but it didn’t have a viewfinder so I held off buying one. Less than a year later Olympus introduced the EP2 and I got one. The next guide book was done with an outfit based around that camera and a a few lenses and I was much happier.

 

Coming in at under 2Kg complete with batteries, filters, microphone and assorted cables for video. This kit still gives me coverage from 24emm to 300emm with 1:1 macro and a smallish prime. All that’s missing is flash.

 

Here I am pausing to take a photo with EP2 while walking up Frenchman Peak in Cape Le Grand National Park, Western Australia.

 

Over the last ten years I’ve heard a lot reasons from keyboard warriors on various photographic forums why the micro four thirds format that Olympus and Panasonic used was inferior to full frame sensors and that you couldn’t get work published if you used it. Well after three books, two exhibitions and loads of print sales no one has ever said the image quality was not up to snuff. Unfortunately photography is an activity dominated by very conservative men who see a small camera, no matter how capable, as being an affront to their masculinity. So Olympus was sandwiched by the small minded conservatives that wanted big cameras and at the other end the onslaught of the do anything mobile phones which now have very good photo and video capabilities.

 

The Canon EOS6d with Sigma 150-600mm lens compared to the Panasonic G85, which uses the same sensor format and lens mount as Olympus, with the Panasonic Leica 100-400mm lens. The Panasonic has great reach, better video, the same number of megapixels, weighs less and costs less.

 

The Canon EOS 6d camera with 100mm f2.8 macro lens that I used to use for photographing orchids alongside the Olympus EM 1 mk ii with 60mm f2.8 macro lens that I use now. Both produce amazing images, but the Olympus is a lot nicer to carry through the bush all day.

 

 

As I said at the beginning of this piece I have no way of knowing what will happen. Maybe JIP will turn the company around and make it it profitable and innovative. Maybe they’ll just asset strip and close it down. The company does both. I hope it is the former, but if it is the later I guess that this a eulogy for Olympus. But whatever may happen my current Olympus cameras have plenty of mileage left in them and if I can get another 10 years out of them, and at this stage I don’t see why not, then I’ll be very happy.

 

Familiarity

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. Olympus OM2n with Sigma 28mm f2.8 lens with Cokin Pink Graduated filter. Fujichrome 100. 1986.

I lived in Chichester, West Sussex, for 16 years and the cathedral was an ever-present presence. It has dominated the town and much of the surrounding countryside for nearly a thousand years and from the moment I took up photography I tried unsuccessfully to capture its likeness. Each time I tried I felt I got nowhere near what I felt it meant to me. I left England in 1988 and moved to Australia, but I continue to visit as I have friends and family there. Each time I visit Chichester I have another crack at the Cathedral

 

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral viewed from the behind the gates of the Deanery. Chichester, West Sussex, England. Olympus OM4 with Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm lens. Fujichrome 100. Scanned and converted to black and white using SilverEfx. 1991.

 

The pictures here represent several attempts over the years from the mid 1980’s Cokin filter phase to the start of the digital revolution in 2007.  I have more, older and more recent (I figured there’s a limit to many I can post!) but none of them capture what I think is the essence of the building.

 

England 2007
Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. 2007 Canon EOS 300D DIGITAL with Sigma 18.0-50.0 mm f2.8 EX lens with circular polarizing filter.

 

The problem is that I am too familiar with it. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of what I think it should look like and that preconceived idea prevents me from exploring the possibilities. Next time I visit I’m going to have to put aside my preconceptions and actually work on getting the shot.

 

Nepal Earthquake

I have very fond memories of Nepal. I went there in November to December 1987, and although the people are among the poorest in the world I found them to be some of the most cheerful and hospitable people I have ever met. One of my fondest memories is of a night when we stayed at a remote farmhouse while trekking. I had been ill with dysentery for a couple of months and had lost a lot of weight and looked pretty awful. We arranged for a bed for the night and a meal of dhal baht (the local staple of lentils, rice, and potato and cauliflower curry, sometimes topped with a fried egg if you were lucky). The older man of the household was very concerned about me – he literally tucked me in bed and soothed my forehead while making clucking sounds.  It was one of many wonderful and hospitable moments from people who had not much more than nothing.

 

Elephant In The Mist
Working elephant heading off to work in the early morning mist in Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

On the 25th April Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake which has killed over 6000 people and has an expected death toll of 10,000. Worse than tat it is estimated that twice that number will have been injured and tens of thousands of people have been made homeless. As photographers we take a great deal of pleasure from the world around us and those that live in it. Perhaps it is time to give a little something to those in need – maybe you already have and if so thank you. Many aid agencies, retail chains, iTunes and banks are taking collections for the people of Nepal. I’ll list some of the Australian ones but you can use those in your own country if you’d rather.

 

Chitwan National Park
Sam, Ewan, and Mark the local guide on our illicit elephant safari in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens. Illfochrome 200.

 UNHCR

Oxfam

World Vision Australia

Red Cross

Hanuman Dhoka
Hanuman Dhoka is a complex of structures with the Royal Palace of the Malla kings and also of the Shah dynasty in the Durbar Square of central Kathmandu, Nepal. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens, Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Waiting
A cycle rickshaw operator waiting for a fare. Kathmandu, Nepal. Olumpus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Stuppa
One of the many stupas in Kathmandu. Olympus OM40 with Zuiko 35-105 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

On the steps
Watching the world go by from from the temple steps in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Hopscotch
Nepali children playing on hopscotch on the temple steps in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Smoko
A Nepali man sitting on the temple steps in Durbar Square, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 Sigma 75-210 Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

The Flute Seller
Flute seller, Freak Street, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Swayambhunath
The Swayambhunath Stuppa, Kathmandu. Olympus OM4 with Sigma 75-210 lens Kodak Ektachrome 100.

 

Just as an aside – all these photos were taken in 1987 on E6 slide film, mostly Kodak Ektachrome 100 and some on Ilford Ilfochrome 200. The slides have been stored in archival binders ever since. When I got them out to scan them for this post all had started to fade, and some the dyes had perished badly leaving just a magenta cast – hence that is why some are black and white. So if you have any valuable slides scan them now before they disappear for ever.