SIGMA – An Introduction

In 1961, at the young age of twenty-seven, Mr. Michihiro Yamaki set out to build a photographic lens company in the middle of Japan’s optical industry boom. With just a few years of experience under his belt, he risked his entire savings to design and manufacture the very first rear-attached lens converter and with it, the SIGMA Corporation was born. Backed by his incredible forward-thinking product design, his optical ingenuity and an incredible amount of determination, Michihiro set into motion one of the most celebrated careers in the photographic manufacturing industry.

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Fast-forward fifty-two years. Sigma Corporation is today the largest independently owned SLR lens manufacturer in the world, with offices in seven countries and distribution centers on every continent. Not only do they employ over two thousand people worldwide, the company remains family owned and operated. Even though the entire industry felt the impact of Michihiro’s passing in 2012, his legacy continues in the hands of his son, Mr. Kazuto Yamaki. Working closely together before the elder Yamaki’s passing, father and son outlined a plan to take Sigma from what some used to refer to as a producer of inexpensive third-party lenses to a world-class manufacturer of optics and photographic tools that meet the high demands of today’s most discerning image makers, no matter their budget or experience. Based on the number of high-quality, innovative products released by the company in the last twelve months, Kazuto is well on his way to continuing the long-standing tradition of providing Sigma customers with world-class photographic tools.

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The Sigma Model T Tele-up 2.5x rear attached lens converter designed by Michihiro Yamaki. Circa. 1955Considered one of the most innovative photographic tools in the history of the industry, the rear-mounted lens converter has long been a staple in photographers’ camera bags, with millions of units sold worldwide. 

 

 

SIGMA – The Company

Founded in 1961, Sigma was located in Tokyo, right alongside dozens of other popular optical and photographic companies such as Nikon, Canon and Asahi Pentax. In an effort to build a skilled and competitive workforce, Michihiro started looking outside of Tokyo’s already-tapped talent pool. A worker told him that people from Aizu, the region where he was from, were known for their tenacious work ethic and capacity for detailed craftsmanship. Michihiro’s trip there proved fruitful—everything he had been told about the Aizu people was accurate and the locals eagerly tried to convince him to open a factory in the region. Although the details of these negotiations are cloudy at best, in a sake-fueled discussion Michihiro agreed to build a factory. Waking up the next day, he realized that the locals had not been kidding and that he would have to stay true to his word. He rented a single room in a local home and employed a single person to operate a metal lathe he purchased. These were the humble beginnings of Sigma’s Aizu factory.

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It didn’t take Michihiro long to realize that the locals had an inherent understanding of and gift for detail-oriented tasks, an observation that led to the eventual 1973 construction of the official manufacturing site. Now known as the “intelligent factory,” the plant is an incredibly advanced 50,000-square-foot facility, complete with centralized information control and a vertically integrated product system that allows for different production lines to be set up in parallel, streamlining the entire manufacturing process. All of Sigma’s products are manufactured in Japan and, apart from a handful of processes everything is designed and manufactured in-house. The efficient workflow means on-site decision making, the sharing of ideas that encourage innovative product design, production efficiency, increased productivity and most of all, incredible quality control. The quality control is actually monitored by a state-of-the-art proprietary testing system known as the A1. The revolutionary system uses Sigma’s own Foveon sensor and can pick up previously undetectable high-frequency details during the lens testing process. Every Global Vision lens that leaves the factory undergoes these rigorous tests and is meticulously scrutinized, down to the most minute detail, ensuring the highest possible quality level.

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SIGMA – The Founder

Born in 1934, Michihiro Yamaki did not come from a wealthy background. Even before graduating from university in 1956, he worked at several optics companies in order to help support his family. This experience eventually helped him climb the corporate ladder quickly at the small optics company he worked for right out of school. After only a few years, the company went bankrupt and Michihiro found himself in the role of consultant for some of his former suppliers. Upon introducing several innovations in the manufacturing process, Michihiro’s clients urged him to open his own company—thus leading to the 1961 birth of Sigma Research Inc.

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Sigma’s early days saw Michihiro introduce innovative ideas that were unlike anything the optical industry had seen. One design in particular would launch his new company into the international spotlight. In a move that turned the entire optical industry on its head, Michihiro invested his entire life savings in to producing the very first rear-attached tele-converter lens, a design he had originally come up with six years earlier while working for another optical company. Up until that point, tele-converters could only be front-mounted and photographers needed a different one for each lens in their kits. The rear-attached converter sat between the camera and lens, and could be used on any lens in a photographers’ bag, regardless of the size of the thread on the front of the lens. To this day, the original concept—though more advanced in design—is still used to produce tele-converter lenses for photographers around the world.

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Michihiro’s contributions to the photography industry didn’t stop there. Over the years, he would be credited with revolutionary innovations such as the “YS,” or Yamaki System: the first interchangeable lens mount system that allowed photographers to use a single lens on different camera bodies. He continued by developing the first built-in macro zoom lens, the internal focus telephoto lens and the continuous macro focus zoom lens. Michihiro was a photographic pioneer and a great businessman, and his lifetime contributions to the photo industry did not go unnoticed. Before his passing, he received the PMA Hall of Fame Award in 1994, the IPC Leadership Award in 1998, the United Nations International Photographic Council Hall of Fame Award in 2008 and the Golden Photokina Needle in 2011. Just this year, the PMDA posthumously honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, an accolade graciously accepted by his son, Kazuto. “I was lucky enough to witness my father’s passion for photography and I’m inspired every day by his efforts and accomplishments,” said Kazuto. “He would have been very honored by this award. I plan to continue my father’s vision of enhancing the world of photography with our brand of cameras, lenses and accessories.”

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SIGMA – The Future Of Innovation

Recently, I had the honor and unique opportunity to sit down with Kazuto, the company’s new CEO, and talk about what it means to him to follow in his father’s footsteps and what his plans are to continue developing the Sigma brand. Growing up on the top floor of their Japan headquarters, Kazuto recalled, “The company was always a part of our lives. Naturally, my father had been telling me to take over the business. I felt the pressure—a lot of pressure—but I realized it was what I needed to do.” So, at the age of twenty-five, after completing graduate school at Sophia University in Tokyo, Kazuto did just that, taking his post at a desk beside his father’s in the center of the engineering floor. Kazuto noted that his father’s desk remained intact, left as it was on his last day in the building. “For some reason, I feel more comfortable keeping it as-is,” Kazuto said. “He was my father and my mentor. I was lucky enough to witness his passion, both personally and professionally. I have learned well, and I am inspired by his efforts and accomplishments.”

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Now forty-five, Kazuto’s days of playing hide-and-seek in the Aizu factory are long gone. Today, he is focused on the future. “Innovation is the driving force behind product development,” he stated. “We aim to provide our customers with great products, with something special, and we are heavily committed to the quality of those products.” And indeed, in the last year, we have seen a slew of new products hit the shelves. Each one exemplifies the kind of craftsmanship and innovative design that Kazuto describes as the backbone of the Sigma name and the key to the company’s future success. Moving forward, he wants to continue building trust with his customers and provide them with the kind of innovation for which Sigma is known. With the announcement of the Global Vision line last year at Photokina, he hopes he will accomplish just that. “We’re moving in a new direction that simplifies the lens selection process for photographers and helps them realize the full potential of their DSLR system,” said Kazuto. “In addition to making it easier for photographers to find the right lens, we’re empowering them with more control over their equipment, while furthering our commitment to them by establishing a higher expectation for the quality of the lenses we produce.”

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The Global Vision line consists of three categories: Art, Sport and Contemporary—each category reflects specific SIGMA lenses, the genres for which they are used and the type of photographers who use them. Highlights thus far include the first-ever 18-35mm F1.8 constant aperture zoom lens, a redesign of their high-end 120-300mm F2.8 constant aperture telephoto zoom, and a 35mm F1.4 that has outperformed similar lenses from the likes of Canon, Nikon and Sony. The release of a USB dock and Sigma’s own Optimization Pro software, which gives users the ability to connect their lenses to their computer to calibrate and make fine-tuned adjustments, was an impressive initiative. Not to mention the announcement of a service that gives customers the ability to change the mount on their Global Vision lenses, so no matter what camera system you go with, you can now keep your cherished glass! Also, in an effort to diversify their product line, the company released several additions to their new Digital Neo (DN) line of Global Vision lenses for micro 4/3 systems. The icing on the cake you ask? Every new Global Vision lens comes complete with a four-year warranty—a clear sign that Sigma is standing strongly behind every new product they produce.

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Sigma’s newly designed 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM “ART” Lens.Part of Sigma’s new Global Vision Line, the 18-35mm was designed for APS-C sensor cameras. It is the first zoom lens to feature a constant aperture of F1.8 and has been praised by critics worldwide as one of the best lenses ever made. 

 

At the end of our conversation, I sat feeling slightly overwhelmed by the massive amount of information I had just consumed. However, I couldn’t help but think that there was one more question still unanswered. With all the talk about the recent product announcements and innovations, we had not touched on the cinematography industry. How could one of the greatest innovators of lens technology in the world not be producing lenses for high-end digital video and motion picture cameras? With such high standards, cinematographers seem like a natural market for Sigma. When I asked Kazuto about this, he simply smiled and said the two words that make every tech writer crave more: “No comment.” It looks like Sigma may still has a few more tricks up their sleeve…

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SIGMA – The Never-Ending Story

Since beginning its journey over fifty years ago, Sigma has grown from being one of the smallest lens manufacturers in Japan to one of the largest producers of high-quality photographic lenses in the world, producing lenses compatible with Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Canon and Pentax cameras. With the 2008 acquisition of Foveon, developer of the patented X3 three-layer image capture sensor, Sigma has also started producing very impressive cameras, like the SD1 Merrill—their flagship DSLR—as well as the DP Merrill series of fixed-lens premium compacts. By placing a stack of RGB pixels in each pixel location, the X3 sensor can detect all three primary colors in every pixel location, resulting in sharper images and impressive color saturation that give photos an almost three-dimensional quality. It’s a technology that goes far beyond that of traditional CCD and CMOS sensors used by the majority of today’s camera manufacturers.

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For all its growth and market share, Sigma remains a family owned and operated company. Originally started to help his business partners, Michihiro didn’t see it as something he was building for himself, and at the time he couldn’t have imagined that it would become the thriving and successful multi-national company that it is today. It’s sometimes difficult to reconcile the humble beginnings of Sigma Research Inc. with the massive industry revolutions the company caused. However, when you look back, it’s obvious that Sigma’s dedication to providing their customers with innovative, affordable, high-quality photographic tools has been their top priority since day one. Upon meeting CEO Kazuto, I realized that his father’s legacy of beautiful craftsmanship and ingenuity was in the right hands. Sigma isn’t just a business for Kazuto; it’s a deeply rooted passion. As we parted, I asked him how he thought the photography industry might change in the next ten years. His answer was simple. “People’s love of photography won’t change much. Technology might be changing, but the photography culture won’t be changed, as it has continued this way for nearly two hundred years. We just commit to it. If we love what we do and enjoy it, I believe we can continue the innovation.”

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SIGMA Photo – Kicking Ass, Taking Names And Family Owned Since 1961