Kazuto Yamaki, CEO of Sigma, pictured at the CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan this week with the company's new dp2 Quattro

[picture: Barnaby Britton]

We're at the CP+ show in Japan this week and one of the busiest stands belongs to Sigma. Best known for manufacturing lenses, Sigma is showing off its latest camera, the dp2 Quattro. Editor Barnaby Britton sat down with Kazuto Yamaki, CEO of Sigma, for a chat about the Quattro, as well as the challenges of the modern photography industry and what it's like being the head of a family business.

What was the motivation behind the design changes in the dp2 Quattro?

This camera has a super-high resolution, equivalent to 39 million pixels so we assumed that users will hold the camera like a DSLR, not like a compact camera so with the left hand gripping the lens and the right hand on the shutter. That’s where we got the idea.

But there’s no built-in viewfinder...

No, but there is an optional optical finder.

The older DP2 Merrill had relatively poor battery life - you put a bigger battery in this new camera - does that make a difference?

Yes, the Merrill could capture roughly 100 images per battery charge, and the Quattro can capture around 200 based on CIPA standard.

That’s still relatively low - does the Foveon sensor draw a lot of power?

The back-end system inside this camera is huge. It’s like a real high-end DSLR. We’ve made the circuitry very small using advanced technology but the system requires a lot of power. We use a very high-power processor, lots of buffer memory to deal with the large files.

How big are the Raw files from this new sensor?

It depends on the subject but the average size is around 55MB. Compared to around 45MB from the previous generation.

How long have you been working on the new sensor design in the dp2 Quattro?

Several years - since around 2005, there’s actually a patent from around that time. But really we’ve been working on this mostly since the Merrill generation was released. 

Sigma's new dp2 Quattro offers an unusual body style and resolution equivalent to around ~39MP from a newly developed Foveon sensoe. Read more about the Sigma dp2 Quattro.

If someone is using a DP2 Merrill now, what advantages will they see from using a dp2 Quattro?

I think they’ll see the classic Foveon look - very high detail and consistent detail. Low contrast, low contrast, low frequency, high frequency, everything is in its place. It’s a look we’re very proud of. But tonality is improved, both because of the higher resolution and also the 14-bit quantization. Those are key things and we’ve also made improvements to image processing too. We’ve tried to address everything important.

Has high ISO performance been improved?

It has been, yes. By around one stop. But at low ISO nothing can beat this camera. With a DSLR it would be different to get this kind of image. For one thing, the big mirror produces shake, the focal-plane shutter can also create blur and it's hard to get accurate focusing with phase-detection. Even the optical finder isn't perfect and it's difficult to align the three optical paths perfectly - the path to the image sensor, the path to the viewfinder, and the path to the autofocus sensor. 

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Also, an interchangeable lens system relies on the mechanical accuracy of the mount between the camera and lens, and the alignment can never be perfect. But in a camera like the dp2 Quattro we can perfectly align the image plane with the optical axis so you can expect the highest resolution from center to corner. 

Is there a future for your SD-series DSLRs? 

Yes, we have to support our SD users. 

How much of your business is comprised of camera sales now, as distinct from lenses?

It’s very small. Less than 10% in terms of value. 

Sigma creates lenses for DSLR and mirrorless systems now - is mirrorless an important segment for you now?

Not yet. According to industry data, camera to lens ratio [attachment rate] is still something like 1:1.3 in the case of mirrorless cameras, and 1:1.7 for DSLRs. So conventional DSLR users buy more lenses. Mirrorless camera users are more likely to purchase the camera with a kit lens and not many people purchase any additional lenses. Some high-end mirrorless users with Sony NEX-7 or Olympus OM-D buy more but the majority of mirrorless users are the entry-class users. Our main target is a bit higher.

Are you interested in creating lenses for Sony’s new Alpha 7 and 7R?

As a major lens manufacturer we believe it’s our mission to support as many systems as possible but we have limited resources so we have to prioritize. But we’d like to. 

How much do you talk to camera manufacturers like Sony, Canon and Nikon in your day-to-day business?

Not at all. Of course I have friends in other companies who I talk to frequently but we don’t discuss business.

From a technical point of view is it easier or more difficult to make lenses for mirrorless cameras versus DSLRs?

There is no difference in terms of difficulty per se, but mirrorless and DSLR are different. In terms of mirrorless lenses, the cameras use sensor-based autofocus, and also support movie recording with full-time AF which means that the focusing element must be small and lightweight.

So if we needed to make a very fast, large-aperture lens for mirrorless, that might be more difficult  than for DSLR. But generally speaking, although the design approach is different there’s no real difference in difficulty. 

You mention video - how much does the need for video influence your decision-making now, when you’re designing new lenses?

In the case of DSLRs. we haven’t changed the way we design. Because autofocus is still performed using phase-detection so we use the same design approach. For video with DSLRs I think most users focus manually. For mirrorless we have to support full-time autofocus as I’ve said so we must design the lenses differently, with smaller and lighter focusing elements.

When making lenses for multiple DSLR brands, are there technical differences between the different mounts?

There aren’t many significant differences but Nikon is a little difficult because the aperture is narrow, so when we’re designing very fast lenses accommodating the Nikon mount makes things a bit difficult. But we always make lenses for Canon, Nikon and Sigma at least, and if possible also for Sony A mount and Pentax. 

Two years ago Sigma introduced a new USB dock for customizing certain lenses - how has that been received?

Our customers think it’s interesting, but the dock is only compatible with newer ‘Global Vision’ lenses so the user base is not yet very big. 

The Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM | Art as one of our favorite lenses from 2013, and one of yours too, winning our readers' choice award for best lens in our end-of-year poll. Read more about the Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM | Art

How are the new lenses doing for you?

Very well - especially the 35mm F1.4 and 18-35mm F1.8. They’ve been very popular. 

You’re designing lenses now that will be used on higher and higher resolution sensors - 24MP, 36MP and inevitably even greater. Does that change the way you design?

Yes - the customers need better optics. In order to create high-resolution images, lenses are of almost equal importance as the sensor. We have been improving our quality control over the years, and we developed our own MTF measurement tool which uses our Foveon sensor. The sensor has very high resolution so it can measure our lens performance at a very high frequency. We now use that system in the production of all new lenses.

Is this more time consuming?

No, it’s basically the same. 

If someone came to you who was deciding between a Nikon or a Canon lens and a Sigma lens, what would you tell them to persuade them to buy Sigma?

Well it depends on the product, but essentially we aim to achieve better optical performance for a more affordable price.

How do you achieve that?

Well, firstly we’re a very small, lean company. We always invest only in our factories and in our engineering team. We have very few administrative staff and sales and marketing staff. Also our budget for advertising is very small. We really try to minimize our costs and deliver our products as affordably as possible.

Sigma is a family company - how long do your employees typically stay working at Sigma, on average?

I don’t know. But most people who work in our factory and offices work there until they retire. Ladies leave the company if they have children, but these days most of them come back. Very few people leave the company. In our head office 160-170 people work there and maybe one person per year might leave the company. 

Are you proud of this family?

Yes. I appreciate that they stay at the company. In Japan, in the past, it was common for people to graduate from school and join a company and work until they retire. But these days publicly listed companies have to restructure themselves to maximize profit. These days even if you want to stay with a company you might have to leave. So it’s unusual.

There aren’t that many large family companies left…

No, and for me it’s a lot of pressure - a lot of weight on my shoulders. But I think it’s an advantage. If a worker in my factory works with us for 15-20 years they know everything, so they’re good at making high-quality products. Japanese aren’t inherently better than people from other nations, but in other countries someone might work in a factory for 2-3 years and then move on, but in our factory, someone might work on a different product every day, so we have to rely on the knowledge and experience of our staff.

Where do you want Sigma to be, in five years time?

My first priority is to make sure that the business continues to develop as a going concern, to protect our employees. We don’t need to grow enormously, we just need a slight growth to continue the business. Assuming we're doing OK, I’d like to do something amazing. Something to make customers say ‘wow’. That’s my real motivation. I’d rather do that than make our company bigger. 

What do you think that next big opportunity will be? If you could do anything?

Cameras. Our current market share is below 1% but I don’t really think about it in those terms. I don’t have a specific target, I just want to make our camera business stable. 

The camera market is pretty tough at the moment, what’s your strategy for growth in the current climate?

Differentiation is the most important factor. That has been Sigma’s strategy since the beginning. When Sigma was founded there were over 50 lens manufacturers in Japan. Now there are only really three major ones - Tamron, Cosina and Sigma. We have survived because we make unique products.