Kazuto Yamaki, CEO of Sigma, pictured in 2018 at the Photokina trade show in Cologne, Germany.
After a long, eventful year since we last spoke, we connected with Sigma CEO Kazuto Yamaki recently, over a video call from his headquarters in northern Japan. In a wide-ranging interview he spoke about his vision for the future of his company as both a lens manufacturer and camera manufacturer, what he learned from Covid, and what the future holds for Sigma.
The last time we spoke was March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID crisis worldwide. You mentioned to me that sales of the fp had started well, but dropped. How have sales of the fp and fp L changed over time?
The situation hasn’t changed much. Sales in Japan are OK, and sales are picking up in China, but for the rest of the world, our sales of the fp are still not great. But the fp L has only recently been released so we’ll have to see.
Do you have a sense of how many stills photographers are buying your fp cameras, versus videographers?
Here in Japan, most of the sales have been to stills photographers, I believe, but some of them have started shooting video with it. It’s a very handy camera, and very enjoyable to use. It’s not heavy, it’s easy to carry around for any purpose. It’s fun to use.
When the fp was launched in the US, the video features were very central to the marketing. Did that reflect a deliberate attempt to cater to the filmmaking market, in the US?
That’s not exactly what I intended. We never intended to promote the fp as a video camera rather than a stills camera. But except in Japan, I recognize that the fp is seen more as a video camera. I think that was a communication problem.
“In future, most cameras will not have a mechanical shutter, and they’ll have a similar structure to the fp”
We never defined a customer for the fp cameras. Customers can decide how to use it however they want. I believe that this is the future for cameras. Right now there are some issues for stills photography, because the sensor readout is quite slow, but for the past two years I’ve only been using the fp. I’ve had no problems using it for my style of shooting. In future, most cameras will not have a mechanical shutter, and they’ll have a similar structure to the fp. This is the future of cameras, I believe, and people will decide for themselves how to use cameras like this.
Secondly, if I consider our business, I see more stills photographers out there as potential customers than videographers. It’s just a matter of market size.
The original Sigma fp offered several features that appeared to suggest it was aimed at a more video-focused audience, but Mr. Yamaki tells us that it wasn’t intended to be marketed so narrowly.
Has your experience of making the fp and fp L given you a headstart when it comes to planning future cameras, when faster sensors become available?
I hope so, but history doesn’t necessarily suggest so! I expect that bigger companies will produce similar cameras in future, and will take a big market share.
Now that the fp range is getting established, how important is it for you that Sigma is seen as a camera manufacturer, as well as a lens manufacturer?
It’s important. We have a significant number of engineers inside Sigma who work on the cameras. We invest a lot in our camera business, so it’s important for us that we’re recognized as a camera manufacturer. Also, while I believe that lenses are the most important piece of gear for photography, people are generally more interested in cameras.
The new fp L brings higher resolution and provision for an external EVF to the basic body shape established by the original fp. Mr. Yamaki tells us that this form factor, with a fully electronic shutter, represents the future of cameras.
What do you think are Sigma’s unique selling points right now as a camera manufacturer?
I hope that customers try the fp and fp L and discover how much fun they are to use. They’re really small, really easy to take anywhere, and easy and intuitive to use. A small camera makes a big difference when it comes to real photographic experience. I’ve personally learned that using the fp for two years, and it’s what our fp customers are experiencing.
Can you give us an update on the progress of your planned full-frame Foveon camera? You were hoping that the camera would be released in 2021.
We’re still at the research and development stage for the sensor. It’s mainly being worked on by Sigma engineers here. It will take some time to have a prototype of the new 3-layer X3 sensor and then we’ll see if we can move to the next stage, which will be a product. I don’t think we’ll have a product to show in 2021. Maybe 2022 or even 2023. We don’t know what kind of technical issues or challenges we’ll have to solve with the sensor yet.
Can we expect faster autofocus technologies such as linear motors in future Sigma lenses?
Yes. That’s probably one of the most challenging technical issues facing all manufacturers. In general, if the motor has higher torque, and more power, it’s slower. Motors with less torque can move faster. So it’s a trade off between power and speed. We already use linear motors in some lenses, but finding the ideal motor for the mirrorless camera lenses are still challenging.
“The challenge facing all manufacturers is how to make the focusing unit in lenses smaller and lighter”
And it’s not only the motor, the optical design also makes a difference. In general, bigger, heavier focus motors deliver better optical quality, but usually in this case you’ll see slower autofocus, especially continuous autofocus. If we’re going to achieve both [fast autofocus and maximum image quality], the motor gets bigger, which does not fit in the lens body. So the challenge facing all manufacturers is how to make the focusing unit in lenses smaller and lighter.
When you were designing lenses exclusively for DSLR mounts, you were making them primarily for stills photography. Obviously that has changed, now that mirrorless lenses must be designed for video users as well. How does that affect your designs?
It’s a huge change of design philosophy. Even when making lenses for mirrorless, if we only focused on the needs of stills photographers, we could design lenses similar to those we made for DSLRs. But that’s not a great idea from the point of view of either continuous autofocus performance or video. So we need to achieve a balance between the requirements of stills and video.
Focus speed, focus accuracy and optical quality – especially at close focusing distances – are all affected [by these decisions]. Normally, optical designs start by aiming to achieve the best optical quality at infinity. Optical quality usually degrades as the focus distance gets closer.
“There’s still that trade off between focus speed and accuracy, and optical performance”
If we use a big focus unit, containing many elements, which is typical of lenses designed for DSLRs, we can maintain very good optical performance right down to close focus distances. But if we use one or two lens elements as focusing units, optical performance might degrade as the focus distance gets closer. So there’s still that trade off between focus speed and accuracy, and optical performance, but I think we’re in a transitional period right now.
When we only had DSLRs, we didn’t really care about these things. Almost all manufacturers used big focus units to achieve the best optical performance. Now, all manufacturers have to balance focus speed, accuracy and optical performance. Right now we’re transitioning from DSLRs to mirrorless, and many technologies will [emerge] to improve performance, and solve these issues in future, by avoiding those trade offs. The focus motor is one of the most important technical factors in overcoming such issues.
The 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS | Contemporary is a popular telephoto zoom lens, designed from the outset for the mirrorless L and Sony E-Mounts. Mr. Yamaki tells us that he wants to release more lenses of this type.
In a DSLR lens design, would you use a ring-type motor, typically?
Yes, because those motors have the highest torque. But these motors are not ideal for video capture for example, because they’re like traditional gasoline cars. They start slow, then move quickly to a very high maximum speed, and then you have to slow the motor down again gradually to a stop. When it comes to linear or stepping motors, they’re like Tesla cars! They can start and stop very quickly.
Does that make linear and stepping motors better for accuracy? Are they more precise?
Yes, that’s true.
Do you think the era of the DSLR is over?
I personally like DSLRs, but I haven’t used one for probably around two years. I hope they stay in the market for a while longer because a lot of customers love optical viewfinders. But I expect they will be largely replaced in the near future.
We are still selling a lot of telephoto lenses for DSLR mounts, though. We need to develop more super telephoto zoom lenses for mirrorless in the future. We already have the 100-400mm F5-6.3 DG DN OS | Contemporary. There are relatively few lenses of this type in the market for mirrorless, so we’d like to introduce such lenses soon.
Do you expect that as video features get more advanced in consumer cameras, you’ll see more beginner videographers buying your regular lenses, in preference to your more specialized Cine primes?
Many customers use our regular lenses for video shooting, but they’re not perfect for that purpose. The rotation of the focus rings tends to be short, for example, and there’s some ‘play’ in the focus rings so the manual focus experience isn’t ideal for video shooting. But the lenses are very usable, and I know for example that our 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM | Art is widely used for video. That’s still a very popular lens, especially in North America. I would guess that there are more video shooters in America and Canada, using entry-class video cameras.
Another ‘DN’ (Digital Native) lens that has impressed us recently is the new 35mm F1.4 DN Art. A lot of Canon RF and Z-mount shooters will no doubt be hoping for a native mount version of this lens (and others in the same range) for their chosen cameras.
What are the biggest distinctions in terms of the kinds of products you sell in different countries around the world?
There’s actually not that much difference, these days. Maybe because of the influence of the Internet. We used to see differences from country to country and region to region, but it’s smaller these days. People’s preferences worldwide are fairly similar compared to the past.
Can you update our readers on Sigma support for Canon RF mount and Nikon Z mount support?
I am aware that there’s a very strong demand from customers for Canon RF and Nikon Z. We believe, too, as a lens manufacturer, that it’s our mission to support as many mounts as possible. We would like to support those mounts, and we’re discussing and researching.
What are the challenges of developing lenses for such new mounts? Are they mostly technical, or your capacity, or are they related to IP?
Technically of course there are challenges. But we can always overcome such problems if we assign engineers. With mounts that have smaller market shares, it’s hard for us to keep supply going to all markets. For example we had to give up making lenses for the Pentax mount, because we can’t make them every month, only from time to time. That creates supply shortages quite often, which generates customer complaints. It’s difficult to maintain production for lenses with such a small market share.
“It was my great disappointment that we had to give up Pentax mount and feel deeply sorry for those who wanted us to continue the production”
We do that a lot, though. Let’s say for lens A, we make 500 pieces per month. Lens B, 1000 pieces per month and lens C, 3000 pieces per month. But lens D, for example Pentax, might be just 50 pieces per month. That increases production costs enormously, so we can’t do that. So we need to increase production up to – say – 500. But then we end up with a lot of stock, which takes time to distribute to the market, and unsold inventory is very costly. Then [after the inventory is sold] we have a supply shortage again, and customer complaints. It was my great disappointment that we had to give up Pentax mount and feel deeply sorry for those who wanted us to continue the production, but we had to make [that] decision.
From your point of view, for Sigma as a business, what is the most important lens-mount for you to support right now?
From a business perspective, Canon EF mount and Sony E-Mount. In terms of revenue and volume. However, the sales of DSLR lenses are declining sharply in many countries, because not many new DSLRs are being released. So, I think mirrorless camera mounts will be more and more important in the near future.
Some lenses rely more on digital corrections factored into their design than others – how do you make that decision?
It all comes down to the concept of the product. At the very beginning of the process we decide what this product is for, and for whom, and what is the customer problem it should solve. And then we decide the specification and the performance. And during this process we decide whether or not we should use digital corrections.
What lens correction parameters do you typically include in lens firmware? Does it vary from lens to lens?
Distortion and vignetting, because they’re well corrected digitally. We believe the impact on the image quality [from these corrections] is minimal.
Lens elements await coating, in Sigma’s factory in Aizu in 2015. According to Mr. Yamaki, increasingly quality-conscious consumers are driving standards up, requiring more stringent manufacturing processes and quality control.
There’s a general perception on the part of a lot of photographers that lenses are getting more expensive. Is that true, and if so, what’s the reason?
Yes. It is true, and there are two reasons. First, customer demand is gradually shifting away from affordable, low-price, lower-performing lenses to the higher-end, higher-performing lenses. So in recent years that has pushed the average selling price up.
Products at the lower end currently, their reputation isn’t great, so they don’t sell in large quantities.
The second reason is that because customers’ demands are getting more stringent, in terms of performance and quality, they check every detail of the lens. This increases production cost, because we have to take more time polishing each lens element, and checking all aspects of the lens’s performance during assembly.
We are now investing hugely in polishing lens elements. In order to implement consistent quality we need to polish everything very precisely. In the past, some key elements were more important, like aspherical elements or other special glass, but these days we need to pay attention to every element. We used to work with some Japanese suppliers to polish certain elements for us, but we had to reduce our business with them because their quality level wasn’t as high as what we can achieve in-house.
Last time I visited your factory was 2015 – if I visited today, what would be different?
We already added a magnesium processing facility, and two or three new buildings, to increase capacity. Last year we built a new assembly line inside our factory, and we also built another building outside the factory for technical service and logistics. You’d definitely see a difference!
A year has passed since we talked at the beginning of the pandemic – do you feel that your business had to evolve in any way, as a consequence of the events of the last year?
First of all, the market recovered back to normal within a few months, in most of the biggest territories – the US, the UK and Japan. That was a big relief to me, because it proved that photography is still really important to our customers. Some cities were in lockdown, and people couldn’t go out due to quarantine, but they still shot a lot of photographs. During that period we sold a lot of macro lenses. That was a great relief, and confirmed to me that photography will never go away.
“Some cities were in lockdown, and people couldn’t go out due to quarantine, but they still shot a lot of photographs”
Customers’ behavior was a bit different though, compared to before the pandemic. Customers were getting more information from the Internet, because they couldn’t go to stores. So communication between manufacturers and customers changed a lot. On the internet we can communicate directly with our customers, and that’s a huge difference.
Is that a positive change?
I think so, yes. From a customers’ point of view it’s better if they can get information from a wider range of sources.
The cafeteria in Sigma’s Aizu factory. Mr. Yamaki tells us that during the Covid pandemic, he has taken steps to keep workers safe, including staggered breaks to avoid overcrowding in shared spaces like this.
Did the day to day running of Sigma have to change during the pandemic?
Yes, a lot. But obviously at the factory, we had to make sure the workers could work every day – they can’t work from home! But we paid careful attention to things like how many people could be together in small areas at the same time, things like that. We also introduced staggered break times, so fewer employees would be in the cafeteria at the same time. So the pandemic definitely influenced some small details of the day to day running of the factory, but the important things stayed the same.
Once the crisis is passed, I’d like to let all of our other employees back to the office, so that they can communicate face to face. In order to really learn from each other, I think it’s important to be able to share experiences and opinions face to face.
When you think about the future, is there anything that you worry about?
There are many risks for us, including natural disasters. We have a lot of earthquakes in Japan, and there’s a big volcano near the factory! But the biggest risk is internal conflict. If the employees are in conflict, we can’t make good products. But if we maintain a good corporate culture, and respect each other and work together in harmony, we’ll be OK.
What are you doing now to ensure that Sigma can continue to grow and succeed?
As the company owner, I have a huge responsibility to protect the company, the business and my employees. So I always feel uneasy! I never feel comfortable about the future. My priority always is to work hard, and do the best possible things we can. I believe that we have to make the best quality, best performing, best-looking and most unique products. If we do that, we’ll be a brand that is respected by our customers and our business partners, and we’ll be able to survive. That’s what I always tell our employees.
There are three company missions – the first is to make the best quality, most beautiful and most unique products, the second is to be respected by our customers and partners, and also people in our region [Aizu, Japan]. The third thing is that all employees have to respect each other, educate each other, and encourage each other to become better people, and part of a better team. If we can do all three of those things, we’ll survive.
Editors’ note: Barnaby Britton
It feels like a lifetime ago that I last spoke to Mr. Yamaki, but in reality it was spring last year. And while much has changed in that time, much has stayed the same. For fans of Sigma and of Mr. Yamaki’s business philosophy (and I count myself among them), his continued focus on sustainability and good corporate culture will be reassuring. For fans of Sigma as a manufacturer of high-quality lenses, he also had plenty of encouraging news. More ‘DN’ telephoto lenses are coming for mirrorless, and faster (and ideally smaller) focus motors all round.
The matter of adding Canon RF and Nikon Z support is a vexed question (suffice to say it’s not as easy as simply wanting to do it). Mr. Yamaki was understandably reticent to say too much publicly, but there are plenty of Canon EF and Nikon F shooters out there that love Sigma glass, and I’m sure he’d like nothing more than to help them with the transition to mirrorless. Here’s hoping.
Pentax loyalists (and DSLR fans in general) will find less to be excited about in this interview, but the reality of the camera market in 2021 is that fewer DSLRs are being released, and like any third-party lens manufacturer, Mr. Yamaki must allocate his resources accordingly. It was interesting, although not surprising, to learn that Canon EF is still the most valuable DSLR mount to his business, and Sony E-Mount the most valuable of the mirrorless platforms.
Unfortunately, Mr. Yamaki confirms that Sigma’s much-anticipated full-frame Foveon camera has been delayed further
Of course Sigma is not only a lens manufacturer – the fp and fp L cameras are an important part of both the company’s business, and its identity. Mr. Yamaki has long wanted Sigma to be recognized as a camera maker, and while he tells us sales of the fp haven’t been spectacular, it has found an audience with a certain proportion of the camera-buying public, especially (in the US at least) with filmmakers. It was slightly surprising to learn that Mr. Yamaki didn’t intend the fp to be seen as such a video-focused product (the big STILLS/CINE switch on top and the inclusion of features like waveforms and CinemaDNG output would seem to tell their own story) but it does help put the newer, higher-resolution fp L in context. And as Mr. Yamaki says, ‘customers can decide how to use it however they want’.
Sigma’s unique Foveon sensor cameras have long been praised (and prized) by a certain type of stills photographer, but unfortunately, Mr. Yamaki confirms that Sigma’s much-anticipated full-frame Foveon camera has been delayed further. It was hoped that we might see a final product this year, but with the sensor still in development, 2022 or even 2023 now look more likely.
The conventional Bayer-sensor fp L is still very new in the market, but it’ll be interesting to see whether the higher resolution and provision for an EVF give it any more traction among traditional photographers in the meantime.
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