Sigma Musings (Long) - Where Goeth Thou?

Started 11 months ago | Discussions thread
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rick decker
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Sigma Musings (Long) - Where Goeth Thou?
11 months ago

The predictions of Sigma’s demise in the camera market have been around for a long time. And, thankfully, all have been wrong to date. I don’t laugh at those who make this prediction or who hold this belief as it is one that is based upon logic. That is, if a company can't make money on a product, eventually they will give up that product or sell that product line. It is hard to argue with logic. We should be thankful that Spock doesn't run the company. The problem with this prediction is just that; it is based upon logic. In reality, emotions rule a lot more than logic in this world.

Although it is not widely known, it meant more to Michihiro Yamaki-san, the founder of Sigma, to be a camera manufacturer, than anything else, and to be able to compete with the likes of Nikon and Canon. Just as he started with low-cost lenses, he went into the SLR market with low cost cameras. He was a true visionary in that he foresaw the growth of the SLR market and the need for his products.

The digital revolution changed the game. The digital camera became much more important in the system than was the film camera. And, it was more costly, complex, and time consuming to develop and/or enhance. Furthermore, lens quality came under the microscope almost universally. It is easier to evolve a product if you are making money (with lenses). It is a lot harder to justify the effort and money if you are not making money (with cameras).

The combination of Sigma's early digital camera models and their sensor quirks condemned them from the start to being a niche camera. Performance was poor - battery life, autofocus, and color inaccuracy being the most notable issues. The chip was noisy and had blotching issues. Digital required better lenses. The camera became a lot more expensive and more complex to produce. Enhancements needed to make inroads into the digital camera market were too limited and too late. The quicker evolution of Bayer cameras, and their associated improvements in a wide variety of areas, sealed Sigma's fate. In a sense, Yamaki-san's time had come and gone. Concurrently age and health were taking their toll.

The new company leader, Michihiro’s son Kazuto, is from a different generation. A very good listener, and open to constructive criticism, he seems able to soak up ideas and evaluate their pros and cons. In his short time as CEO, he has shown he understands the industry and appears to be making good choices. He is a visionary just as his dad was. He was (and is) the driving force behind the DP series, the larger sensor, and the need to upgrade the quality of the lenses.

We know very little, if anything, about Sigma's financial numbers. So any assessments are very much just pure speculation. Does the camera business mean as much to Yamaki-san as it did to his dad? Are they losing money on the cameras and if so, how much. What role does the status of being a camera manufacturer and the sense of accomplishment play in holding onto the camera line? What impact has being a camera manufacturer and the associated publicity had on lens sales. The purchase of Foveon was not made without making a long-term commitment to cameras. No doubt they realized that any growth in the camera market would take time, innovation and money.

So what is Sigma wrestling with now with respect to the future? With respect to lenses it seems clear. A better quality of lens across the board. A commitment to being an innovator, as opposed to just a follower. With respect to the camera product line, it is not as clear. There is more money to be made in a camera that has interchangeable lenses than one that does not. Of the three camera types available to Sigma, DSLR, compact, and mirror-less, it would seem that compacts are the most vulnerable - one camera/one lens. DP camera sales in 2012 were not as strong as was expected. The DP3 may have been the final bell for the DP series. DSLRs, at the moment, are the safest. Mirror-less is probably the most risky. As of 2012, it is doing well in Japan and not so well in Europe and the US. However, if you look at the trend in consumer electronics, it is all ‘smaller and lighter’ so mirror-less should have a bright future. On the plus side for mirror-less, Sigma already has a line of lenses that can be adapted to a Sigma/Foveon platform. In addition, the DP series will have served as a ground-breaker and as proof for what a Sigma mirror-less platform has to offer. On the other hand, if Sigma does not move into the mirror-less, a DP camera either with zoom or with a wider prime would be a strong possibility. The zoom would have to be on a par with the 18-35.

Time will tell, and I suspect the role of mirror-less and the DP line will be clarified by Photokina next year. And a new DSLR will be shown. But I have to admit that this is well... pure speculation!!!

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