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OM System’s focus on the outdoor leaves door open for PEN

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Kazuhiro Togashi, OM System’s VP for Brand Strategy and Product Planning, wearing a hoodie with the company’s ‘Outdoor Monster’ branding.

Photo: Richard Butler

OM System says it’s focusing on outdoor photographers but hinted that the PEN series could yet return to the North American market. We spoke to Kazuhiro Togashi, the Vice President for Brand Strategy and Product Planning.

“Currently we are focusing on outdoor use photography,” he says: “Based on our research findings, the number of outdoor photographers is expected to increase, or at least to stay stable.”

This makes sense for a company committed to a small system that’s build-up a strong reputation for its weather sealing.

“First of all we have specifically targeted adventure and wildlife photographers because we believe our camera system is the best choice for this group of users,” Togashi says: “In outdoor environments, having equipment that offers high performance while being small and lightweight is crucial. For outdoor photographers, capturing the decisive moment of a living creature or an awe-inspiring landscape photograph is paramount.”

It’s easy to assume that this just refers to the OM-1 and OM-5 models the company has updated since taking on the former Olympus camera business, but Togashi suggests this isn’t the case: “our definition of outdoor use extends beyond just the adventurous; it encompasses outdoor activities in everyday life as well. Our system is ideal for individuals who enjoy capturing snapshots, macro shots while traveling, or shoot astrophotography.”

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It may be seen as a step down from the PEN F, and it isn’t currently sold in North America, but OM System does still make and sell PEN-series cameras.

Image: OM System

Could this mean a revival of the PEN line, we asked. “In Japan and Asia we continue to sell PEN E-P7,” he reminded us: “The E-P7 is small, with compact bright lenses, making it highly advantageous for travel photography. Therefore, we’ll reinforce such products in our lineup in the future.”

Togashi didn’t explicitly say that this means a return of the PEN line to North America, but says: “We’d like to try to expand the scope of people enjoying cameras for travels or for everyday use to capture scenery.”

“The E-P7 is … highly advantageous for travel photography … we’ll reinforce such products in our lineup in the future.”

For now, at least, the company’s focus seems to be on higher-end products: “We anticipate that photography enthusiasts will remain central to driving growth in our industry,” says Togashi. But, he added, it’s important to attract new audiences to photography, identifying those “who currently lack an interest in cameras,” as an opportunity for the industry.

“We firmly believe that maintaining a stable business scale has broader benefits for all customers,” he reasons: “Conversely, a shrinking market causes challenges for manufacturers in innovating and developing new technologies. Therefore, it’s crucial to explore new potential customer segments. In the world of photography, acknowledging the diverse needs is paramount. By recognizing various perspectives on photography, camera equipment and the art of capturing images, we anticipate the entry of new customers into the fold more effectively.”

Trends and the role of AI

We asked Togashi about the significant trends OM System has seen in the past year.I think the most significant trend in imaging has been the advancement of image processing applications and AI-drive noise reduction techniques. These innovations have greatly progressed the industry.”

We asked whether he thought AI has a different role to play in cameras than in smartphones. “I believe the role will vary,” he says. “In terms of computational photography for cameras, we see its potential to revolutionize art creation and broaden photographers’ expressive capabilities.”

As an example, he highlights a feature from the company’s latest model: “photographers who may have shied away from using Graduated Neutral Density [GND] filters due to their perceived complexity could find these features invaluable. Additionally, for photographers accustomed to employing GND filters and post-processing their images, we believe that integrating Live GND during shooting to capture high-quality Raw images, followed by fine-tuning detail in editing software can give artwork that exceeds expectations. For smartphones their role is to record everyday life, beautifully. This is totally different: between artwork and recording something.”

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Togashi highlights the virtual GND filter feature of the OM-1 Mark II, but suggests it would be very difficult to offer a comparable feature in the original model, as the memory handling of the camera has been re-written.

Photo: Shaminder Dulai

“As technology advances in the future, personally I think it will be possible to integrate such an AI noise reduction function into the camera body. But maybe it will be challenging to realize this.”

We wondered whether collaboration between cameras companies might be an effective way to compete with the R&D budgets of the biggest smartphone makers.

“If our company had an opportunity to collaborate with other companies, maybe we would collaborate with an image processing software company, maybe.” But there are areas in which Togashi thinks the industry should co-operate: “As a camera industry, we may have to consider technology to judge: is this picture a real one or a fake? For such kinds of things, maybe we should collaborate with all kinds of companies to develop such technology through using AI technology.”

The future for video

As the conversation continued, the topic turned to video, who’s using it and what’s required to make it useful to a wider audience.

“We are aware of the usage of our video features through our customer research data,” Togashi says: “Encouraging more people to use a dedicated camera to shoot video, instead of using a smartphone, is less about technical specifications and more about creating opportunities for users to engage with video. Just as with photography for those who want to start photography.”

“Our user research findings show that people who don’t have high knowledge or long experience of video shooting have some concerns about how to enjoy and how to edit video. Therefore I think such user-friendly functions are very important to expand more fans to use video functions.”

“We believe it’s important to have functions and services that allow people to enjoy shooting video more easily, without specialized knowledge or expensive editing equipment.”

OM-1 firmware

Finally, we asked about the OM-1 and the launch of the Mark II and whether Mark I owners can expect further updates. “OM-1 users can expect some additional functionalities as a result of firmware updates we announced on Feb. 21, 2024.” says Togashi. But he also says it’s not possible to simply duplicate all the OM-1 Mark II’s features in the older model. “The OM-1 Mark II has increased internal memory and new optimized memory controls compared to the OM-1, so providing all the new features to the mark one is not possible.”

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