In Conversation with Kazuto Yamaki, CEO, SIGMA


Just over 60 years old, the SIGMA Corporation is well known among photographers across the globe. Founded by Michihiro Yamaki in 1961, SIGMA offers the highest quality lenses and accessories. It is also the world’s largest  independent lens manufacturer, with all its processes carried out exclusively in Japan. On a recent visit to Mumbai, Kazuto Yamaki, CEO, SIGMA Corporation, opened up about the unusual circumstances behind the founding of SIGMA, the family’s passion for photography and how the new wave of young creative photographers can change the future of photography. He speaks to
K Madhavan Pillai, Chief Editor, Better Photography, in an exclusive interview.

Q. K Madhavan Pillai (KMP): SIGMA has completed 60 years in September this year. The company has an extremely vibrant history, especially the story of its beginnings – please tell us about the origin of SIGMA.

A. Mr. Kazuto Yamaki (KY): My father, Michihiro Yamaki, founded SIGMA in 1961 when he was 27 years old. He was from a relatively poor family and used to work at a small-scale optics company while studying at university. He realised that he could earn quite well because, at that time, the optics industry was booming in Japan.

After he graduated, he decided to continue working at the small optics company as one of the corporate executives. However, one day, the company owner took all the money from the company and ran away with his mistress. My father, had to clean up everything and that is when the company’s suppliers asked him to start his own optics company. That is how my father, who had no intention of becoming an entrepreneur or the CEO, decided to start his own company, SIGMA.

Q. KMP: Your sole manufacturing base is set up in Aizu and “Made in Aizu” is a very strong sentiment for SIGMA. Please tell us how Aizu happened.

A. KY: SIGMA started its business in Tokyo, where we would manufacture lenses and optical equipment simply by assembling the parts. We mostly relied on the suppliers.
At some point, my father decided to make all the parts ourselves. He was looking for the right place to produce the machine parts for polishing glass. At the time, one of the employees suggested his hometown, Aizu, a city in north Japan, about 300 kilometres from Tokyo.

Initially, my father visited Aizu with the intention of recruiting young people to work at our factory in Tokyo. While there, he had a party with the local business owners and he drank a lot of Japanese sake. During the party, many of the local business owners suggested that he should open the factory in Aizu, as it did not have many job opportunities.
My father, who was drunk at the time said, “Yes, I will start the factory here.” But he was not very serious.

After he returned to Tokyo, he got many calls from Aizu and was unable to reject their requests. Finally, he decided to build a very small factory there. During his subsequent factory visits, he found the people to be very hard-working and diligent. Within a year or two, he decided to build a bigger production site in Aizu. SIGMA has been in Aizu ever since and all our products are manufactured there.

A large part of SIGMA lenses are handmade. Every step of the process requires precision and unwavering attention
to detail.

Q. KMP: SIGMA has a principle, which is ‘big factory, small office’. Could you elaborate on that?

A. KY: My father had set up the philosophy of ‘big factory, small office’ that we follow to date. It means that we try to make the organisation smaller to provide the best quality products at a reasonable and affordable price and invest more in technology and manufacturing.

Our teams for administration, finance, human resource, and accounting are relatively small. The investment in marketing and sales team is also small.
The larger R&D and engineering teams that form the factory are the ‘big factory’ and we invest a lot there.

Q. KMP: SIGMA lenses are mostly handmade. Please tell us something about the process behind handcrafting a lens.

A. KY: Every time we have a business visit, especially from foreign countries, they expect that the factory will have many robots and not so many workers. But that is not true for us. We have many experienced workers in the factory. Our equipment for manufacturing optics use analogue technology rather than digital technology. Digital technology may sound very advanced, but in reality, it makes use of certain logistics that can be easily reverse-engineered. They are easy to copy, unlike analogue technology.

After developing new lenses, the polishing process is also manual and we experiment with different processes and techniques at this stage as well.

Q. KMP: It has been ten years since you announced SIGMA Global Vision. Since then, you launched three lineup of lenses – Art, Sports and Contemporary. Please take us through the journey so far.

A. KY: I had an idea to become an even higher-end brand or to become a company which provides even higher quality products five to six years before SIGMA Global Vision was announced in 2012 at photokina. I had been following the development of DSLR cameras during that period. The pixel count increased every year and old optics could not resolve the higher-resolution sensors. The very serious photographers needed higher-quality optics at the time and I realised that there was a market demand for such optics, not only from SIGMA, but from all optics companies.

The turning point came in 2011 as it was an emotional period for us. I can never forget June 2011; my father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. The doctor told us that he only had six months to live. It was very shocking and I cried that night. I had to start thinking about the steps to take after he passed away. Until then, I had my ideas, but I still relied on him. He made all the decisions. But on that day, I had to start thinking about SIGMA after him. Around the same time, production and labour costs had been steadily increasing in Japan. All the other manufacturers and major brands had started to offshore the manufacturing of their products, including the higher-end cameras and lenses, to countries outside Japan. Yet, we decided to manufacture exclusively within Japan. It was my responsibility to protect the interests of our employees. What could I do to survive in this industry while maintaining the existing factory? What could I do to make SIGMA a premium brand that provides the best products? This is when I started to devise more specific plans for our Art, Sports, and Contemporary lineup of lenses.

Each SIGMA lens undergoes a thorough inspection at every step of production to ensure premium quality products.

Q. KMP: How did the employees take to your new vision?

A. KY: Our employees are our family. Over the years, my father had created a very good corporate culture within SIGMA. I think that our employees are the greatest heritage of my father. He was kind, charismatic and a very strong leader. Employees respected him very much and worked very hard to follow my father’s vision and direction every step of the way. After my father passed away, I pitched my idea for SIGMA Global Vision and asked for their understanding. They had some doubts about the new direction, but they agreed to try it out. They understood and worked diligently to support my vision. The ideation is easy, but implementing the idea is much more challenging. I truly appreciate my employees for their support.

Q. KMP: SIGMA has released 54 lenses for still cameras and around 26 cine lenses since 2012. All of them are still available in the market and have not been phased out. Some lenses were reintroduced and some newer versions were announced. What was the thought process behind launching the lenses so close in focal length to each other?

A. KY: Every time we launch a new product, we have even better technology than before, using newer materials and glasses. The difference may not be huge or immediately apparent, but we have to move forward to make even better products than before to contribute to the development of photo equipment and the culture of photography. We realise the risk of bringing out new products so close to each other. However, we are doing it for serious photographers and people who support the photographic industry. We are also doing it because we have a passion to excel.

Q. KMP: The cine lineup of lenses came as a bit of a surprise! Previously, SIGMA was always about still photography. How did you think of moving into this segment?

A. KY: There are two main reasons. As I said before, we decided to stay in Japan for our manufacturing where the labour cost is quite high compared to the other countries. At the same time, since 2012-13, the market for camera lenses had begun to shrink and we could not rely on it. I did not plan to make SIGMA a bigger company but we had to survive, and had to find new business to support the growth of SIGMA. It did not have to be a huge business, but it required the most advanced technology and skills. It also needed to be something that we could sell at a good margin. I found the cine lens to be ideal for SIGMA under such circumstances. Another reason is our passion. We like photography and we like films. It is a great pleasure to work for professionals who make great movies, films, or short videos. We are doing business not just for money but for our passion, and all our engineers share this sentiment.

All lenses go through an elaborate coating process. They are mounted on a carousel (as shown here) and placed in vacuum evaporation machines, and coated with over a dozen micron-thin layers on each side.

Q. KMP: India is one of the few countries with the highest number of films released within a calendar year, including regional cinema. That makes India a very good market for cine-gear lineup. What is your prediction about the markets, especially for cinematography and SIGMA?

A. KY: I think it is quite promising. In the past, there was some distance between still photography and video or film. Cinematographers and still photographers specialised in distinct segments. But now the technology is getting closer — still photographers are taking video or film, and some cinematographers are taking still photographs. Especially now, in terms of the number of photographers, there are more still photographers than cinematographers. But they find that the movie or the video is a great tool to make new content or create a new wave of expressions. I think it is quite interesting and promising.

Q. KMP: There is a new crop of creative young photographers today who are seamlessly using technology to express themselves. They use new methods to make photos, films and videos and are always on the lookout for higher quality products. What is your opinion about this?

A. KY: I am very happy to see that the younger generation is focused on making films and videos. As long as we have such young enthusiastic customers, we can have a very bright vision of the photography and optic industries. I am impressed by how fast they develop their own skills. They start shooting photographs but they learn how to make high-quality movies or videos in a short time in their own unique, creative style. This diversity means a wider market and a wider demand from the customer.This pushes us to be more innovative. It can be challenging for us, the manufacturers, but it is a good challenge.

Q. KMP: In a previous interview, you had mentioned that you have plans for a full frame Foveon sensor. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

A. KY: Yes, we are in the second stage. The sensor is smaller than the full frame, but we are testing it. Just before I came to India, I saw how it worked and it worked well, with a very clean, nice image. For the final stage, we have to make a prototype for a physical full-frame sensor. If we find it works well, we may be able to go into mass production. But the semiconductor industry is very busy at the moment. While we can manufacture camera lenses, we cannot manufacture the sensors and must rely on vendors. So, the process to make the test chips may take longer than what we initially intended, but we would like to continue in this direction.

Q. KMP: What is the future like for the SIGMA fp series?

A. KY: I think the concept of SIGMA fp will be very strong even in the future. The technology for still photography and video is very close to each other. It makes sense to have the two features in one body, and I believe that many cameras will have a similar thought process in the future.

Q. KMP: Is there any timeline for it?

A. KY: I cannot share the timeline for the product, but we have lots of engineers who are working very hard. You can look forward to something new from SIGMA.

A meet with photographers and artists. From L to R: Raj Lalwani, Nayan Khanolkar, Jagdish Agarwal, K Madhavan Pillai, Chirodeep Chaudhuri, Kazuto Yamaki, Hari Katragadda, Sudharak Olwe, Soumitra Pendse, Ananthasainan Seshan, Shridhar Kunte and Nitin Kunjir.

Tags: Sigma, Kazuto Yamaki, sigma India