Kazuto Yamaki, Sigma's Chief Operating Officer

Sigma had a small stand at this year's CES, but the Japanese lens manufacturer still had plenty to show off, including three new lenses - a 19mm f/2.8 and 30mm f/2.8 designed for the Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX E-mounts, and a 180mm macro which should appeal to DSLR users.

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We spoke to Kazuto Yamaki, Sigma's Chief Operating Officer about the company's new lenses, and the challenges that lie ahead as Japanese manufactures recover from last year's Tsunami and the ongoing global economic turmoil. We began by asking Yamaki about the recently-announced 'Digital Neo' 19mm and 30mm lenses, which are designed exclusively for mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. 

The Sigma 19mm F2.8 EX DN is a wide angle lens with the equivalent angle of view of a 38mm (35mm equivalent focal length) on the Micro Four Thirds system and 28.5mm (35mm equivalent focal length) on the E-mount system.  The Sigma 30mm F2.8 EX DN has the equivalent angle of view of a 60mm lens (35mm equivalent focal length) on the Micro Four Thirds system and 45mm (35mm equivalent focal length) on the E-mount system.

Commenting on their relatively large size compared to existing optics for these systems, he told us 'we didn't make a pancake or faster-aperture lens by choice'. He explained 'we used the most advanced technology possible in these lenses and I want customers to choose them for the image quality'. One of the things that Sigma is very proud of, too, is the newly developed linear AF motor of the 30mm, which Yamaki told us, greatly reduces the sound of AF when recording video - something that is very important to casual videographers that rely on their cameras' built-in microphones.

Although he would not be drawn on pricing details, Yamaki promised us that this quality will not come with a prohibitive price-tag. Both lenses will be 'reasonably and competitively priced'.

'More high-end cameras will be mirrorless in the future'

Yamaki explained that 'mirrorless users [represent] two types of customer - enthusiasts and novices. Novice mirrorless photographers might not buy additional lenses […] so we will make lenses for enthusiasts'. And it seems that Sigma believes that the enthusiast mirrorless market is only going to grow in the future: 'DSLRs will always stay at the top' Yamaki told us - 'the benefit of a DSLR is of course the optical viewfinder, but in my opinion more high-end cameras will become mirrorless in the future'.

Partly, Yamaki believes, this is due to the relative accuracy of contrast-detection AF systems compared to phase-detection: 'it's really difficult to achieve accurate AF [with a phase-detection system] and the more pixels the camera has the more difficult this becomes'.

SD1: 'Our forthcoming products will be more exciting'

Speaking of DSLRs, we asked Mr Yamaki about Sigma’s current flagship model, the SD1. Acknowledging the lukewarm reaction of the market, Yamaki explained 'the SD1 was our first product since we acquired Foveon and we haven’t stopped working [since]'.

Sigma's current flagship camera, the SD1, features a 15.3MPx3 1.5x crop Foveon X3 sensor (4800 x 3200 x 3 layers). The SD1 has a weatherproof magnesium alloy body, 3" 460k dot LCD, and new 11-point twin-cross AF system.

Here's the SD1's APS-C format X3 image sensor - at 15.3MP, the images that it creates are significantly larger than previous SD-series DSLRs. 

'We make cameras for specific type of customers. We understand that our cameras may not be [for the mainstream]. We decided to use the Foveon sensor to differentiate our camera [but that meant] we needed to do everything by ourselves from scratch'. 'We had to carefully focus our attention' Yamaki explained – 'we don't have countless engineers so we can't do everything'.

'Our forthcoming products will be more exciting [and] we will do everything we can to reduce manufacturing costs in future models. We have been working very hard in that direction, and I personally feel bad that some of our loyal customers couldn't [afford] the SD1 so we have to prepare a camera for them. We must'.

'Our challenge now is economic'

2011 was a tough year for the camera industry, and for Japanese manufacturers in particular. We asked Mr Yamaki what the biggest challenges were for Sigma in 2012. 

'We have only one factory in Japan, in the north' Yamaki told us. 'The factory is close to the earthquake’s epicenter, but fortunately we were not affected too heavily, and now we're operating normally'. He went on – 'our challenge now is economic. The Yen is very strong. 100% of our manufacturing is in Japan, but 80% of our turnover comes from Europe, the UK and the USA'. He went on – 'the European economic situation is very bad. If the exchange rate gets much worse no-one knows what will happen'. 

'Our strategy is to introduce more products'

We asked Mr Yamaki how Sigma planned to weather the storm, and his answer was simple – 'our strategy is to introduce more products. Better quality products'. 

'I have a long wish-list of lenses that I want to make' Yamaki told us, 'some [manufacturers] think that people will be satisfied by 'traditional' lenses but I don't think this is enough. Sigma has the opportunity to create new categories in the lens lineup, and we like to create new categories. As DSLRs get more pixels there is a need for higher quality lenses so there are many opportunities for us - it is an endless process.