Kazuto Yamaki, CEO of Sigma, pictured at the 2018 CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan.

Recently we visited the 2018 CP+ show in Yokohama, Japan and as usual, we booked interviews with senior executives from several major manufacturers, including Sigma. Among the topics covered were Sigma's determination to make more native Sony E-Mount lenses for mirrorless cameras, and the story behind why wide-angles are such a Sigma specialty.

The following interview has been edited slightly for clarity and flow.

The new Sony E-mount full-frame lenses – did you basically just build-in the MC-11 adapter, or is it more complicated than that?

The MC-11 adapter can be thought of as kind of a translator. Let’s say the camera speaks English, and the lens speaks Japanese. The MC-11 recognizes which lens is attached, and allows the camera and lens to talk to one another. That’s a complicated task. And even with the best translator, conversation isn’t as smooth as it would be between native speakers. It takes time to fine-tune the communication.

What we did was to optimize the communication, for Sony. It’s faster, smoother, and we were able to utilize Sony [communication] protocols in the lenses.

Will you release a USB dock for the new Sony-mount lenses?

We don’t have a USB dock available for these lenses right now, but we’re considering this as an option for the future.

Sigma's MC-11 adapter can be used to convert Canon and Sigma-mount lenses to work on Sony's full-frame mirrorless cameras.

The new 14-24mm F2.8 joins the 14mm F1.8 at the wide end of Sigma’s lineup – how do these two lenses compare, optically?

In terms of performance, the two lenses are equivalent. When it comes to zoom lenses, a standard zoom lens [like a 24-70mm] is quite challenging to design. We have to make compromises. However, the performance of wide and telephoto zoom lenses is very good, and [can be] equivalent to prime lenses. But of course we can’t implement such fast maximum apertures [in zooms]. Implementing a maximum aperture of F1.8 in the 14mm was very difficult.

We want to create lenses that don’t exist in the industry today

We’ve spoken in the past about your ambition to create more wide-angle zoom lenses – it seems like they’re a Sigma speciality.

In the past, one of our employees who had been with the company since the very beginning was a mountain climber. He was very passionate about wide-angle lenses. That’s one of the reasons Sigma has always specialized in wide-angle lenses. And it’s also quite interesting to challenge ourselves. We still maintain this mentality – we want to create lenses that don’t exist in the industry today.

If you have a choice between designing a lens that will be large, heavy, but optically amazing, or designing one that might be optically less impressive but smaller and lighter, how do you make that decision?

I personally want to develop excellent lenses, at the cost of size and weight. My personal ambition is for Sigma to be a company that is supported by professionals. But that doesn’t mean that we’d always choose to make lenses like this.

Sigma's new 70mm F2.8 macro prime lens is small, compact and lightweight, thanks to its front-focus mechanism and lack of an image stabilization system.

For example we just released a 70mm F2.8 macro lens. We had the option of including image stabilization, but it would have become much bulkier – probably equivalent in size to our 105mm macro. Because with a macro lens, the focusing group has to move a big distance. If we had added stabilization we would have had to use an inner focusing system, which would have made the lens long, and bulky.

Is that the same reason there’s no stabilization system in the new 105mm, too?

Partly, yes. Also we didn’t want to compromise performance in terms of vignetting, longitudinal aberrations or coma. That’s why the lens is already quite big. If we had been willing to compromise in any one of these areas, the lens could have been more compact. You don’t see lenses of this kind very often, so we wanted to give it as long a life [in the market] as possible.

Sigma's 105mm F1.4 is a beast of a lens, thanks to the company's 'no compromise' approach to optical performance in the Art-series. Mr. Yamaki is hoping that this fast telephoto prime will become a benchmark lens for astrophotography, among other applications.

There’s another reason for our approach to that lens, too. One of the chief designers is very keen on astrophotography, and he wanted to make a lens that was perfect for this kind of photography. Among this community, the Zeiss 135mm F2 is regarded as a benchmark, but it’s relatively slow. Our target was to make a lens with equivalent performance but at F1.4. That’s very difficult.

If you had designed the recently-announced E-mount primes from the ground up for Sony’s full-frame cameras, would they be smaller?

The wide-angle lenses would be, yes. We just announced E-mount versions of the 14mm, 20mm, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 85mm and 135mm. Probably, the 14mm, 20mm and 24mm lenses could have been smaller [if they were designed for Sony full-frame from the beginning]. But any lens longer than 35mm, they’d be about the same size. Our 35mm F1.4, for example, is about the same size as the Sony 35mm F1.4. But for wider lenses, because of the short flange-back distance of the E-mount, we could make them smaller.

This is one of the reasons we decided on our approach with these lenses. Because the size difference would have been minimal with most of the focal lengths, we focused on making the performance better and smoother, using our existing optical designs.

Some time ago we were skeptical about lens corrections, but the algorithms have been improved so much

So wide-angle lenses benefit most from being designed for short flange-back distances?

Yes. For example the Sony 12-24mm zoom. Sony achieved very good performance with a small size. They rely on distortion correction in the camera body, but it’s an amazing performance. I don’t think we could achieve that kind of performance in a lens of that size for DSLRs.

We already have two Sony-native lenses for Sony - our 16mm and 30mm F1.4 lenses for APS-C. And we already take advantage of distortion correction in those lenses. It’s beneficial for customers. Some time ago we were skeptical about lens corrections, but today the algorithms have been improved so much.

Sigma recently released a range of native Sony E-mount prime lenses, which we're told will give better performance than lenses attached using the MC-11 adapter.

Do you think Sigma has an opportunity to create more lenses for Sony’s APS-C cameras?

We’re going to release another APS-C lens for Sony E-mount this year, probably around Photokina. We need to see what the response from customers is like. If it’s good, we’ll continue development.

We are working on lenses designed from scratch for Sony E-Mount. This is just the beginning

Are you committing to fully supporting Sony full-frame cameras in the future, alongside Canon and Nikon?

Yes. We are also working on [full-frame] lenses designed just for Sony E-Mount, from scratch. These lenses will take advantage of [aspects of] the Sony system. This is just the beginning.

But the [Sony E-mount versions of the Art-series primes] we’ve just released also offer some advantages for customers. For example if you own a Canon EF mount version of any of them, we can convert your lens to a Sony E-mount version, for a charge. And if that user decides to go back to Canon EF in the future, we can even re-convert the lens back again.

Customer support is just as important as the products themselves

In order to do that practically, you’ll need good, fast service facilities. Is improving this kind of service a priority for you?

Recently, in our internal sales meetings, the first thing we’ve been discussing is not actually sales, it’s customer support. Our lenses are intended for high-end users and professionals, and customer support is [therefore] just as important as the products themselves.

Will you create some kind of version of a pro support system outside of Japan?

We’ve been discussing this with our global subsidiaries, and we’re preparing to roll something out. We’ve made great improvements already in terms of customer support, and it’s very important [that we continue to do so].

Which lenses have most impressed you recently from other manufacturers?

The Sony 12-24mm, and the 16-35mm F2.8 GM. They’re very good lenses for mirrorless cameras. The Canon 35mm F1.4 II is also a great lens. Our 35mm F1.4mm is very good but the Canon 35mm is also great. I think these days Canon does a great job. They put so much effort into developing good optics. Every time they amaze us.

I’m also very interested in the new Tamron 28-75mm F2.8. It’s very compact and lightweight. Of course we haven’t yet seen how it performs, but if the performance is good it should be a great lens, and will be a benchmark for us.

Tamron's new 28-75mm F2.8 zoom for Sony E-mount is a lens that Mr Yamaki hopes could become a benchmark for his own company, as Sigma works on filling out its lens options for full-frame Sony cameras.

Is there a lens that does not exist right now, which you think should exist?

We successfully developed F1.8 zoom lenses for APS-C. This kind of lens did not exist before. Similarly our F2 zoom for full-frame. That kind of lens did not exist before, either. I can’t give you specific details but we would like to explore that path [further].

Some of our products are planned from a business perspective. But every year we have one or two special projects, where we don’t care too much about sales, but we aim to create unique products. That’s a big motivation for our engineers, and also for me personally. Old manufacturers, like Carl Zeiss, invented many great lenses in the past – and they continue to do so. We would like to do that for the 21st Century.

Our mission is unchanged – we want to provide unique lenses that other manufacturers don’t have. We’ll continue on that path.

A lot of our readers are looking forward to a Sigma 70-200mm F2.8 Art…

I know! And it will come – not too far in the future.

Editor's note:

We always look forward to speaking to Mr. Yamaki, who stands out as one of the best-liked figures in the entire photography industry in Japan. While many manufacturers seem to prefer to speak about their products as if they existed in a vacuum, Mr. Yamaki is unfailingly candid and open, even when talking about his competitors.

Partly I suspect this reflects the nature of his company – Sigma is primarily a third-party lens manufacturer and as such, of course, it relies on the success of companies like Canon, Nikon and Sony in order to stay in business. Keeping a close eye on the lenses that these manufacturers make is only sensible if Sigma wants to create alternatives that can compete in price and quality.

For the head of a major manufacturer to openly praise specific products made by his main competitors is almost unheard of

But partly, too, it's the nature of the man. For the head of a major manufacturer to openly praise specific products made by his main competitors is almost unheard of, but over the years we've come to expect (and appreciate) such candor from Mr. Yamaki. It's one of the reasons I always look forward to interviewing him, and why our interviews with him often contain some of the most useful and interesting insights of all the conversations that we have with executives at shows like CP+.

Among the nuggets of information contained in this interview were Sigma's commitment to develop native Sony E-mount lenses for full-frame cameras in the future, and some interesting information about what kinds of lenses benefit most from being designed for short flange-back mirrorless systems. It's clear too that Sigma is very focused on improving its post-purchase support, and is actively working to extend its professional service network beyond Japan in the near future. Hopefully this should give more professionals the confidence they need to buy and use Sigma lenses without fear of losing their gear for long periods of time if it ever needs servicing.

Sigma is very focused on improving its post-purchase support, and is actively working to extend its professional service network

I was interested to learn about the background behind Sigma's new 105mm F1.4 telephoto prime, too. Opportunities for astrophotography are pretty few and far between in a Seattle spring, but after hearing the story behind its inception, I'm keen to see how it performs. And I'm sure I'm not alone in waiting anxiously for a 70-200mm F2.8 in the Art series. Mr. Yamaki specifically mentioned that Sigma is now able to make very high-quality wide and tele zooms, which gives me hope that this lens – whenever it makes it appearance on the market – will be worth the wait.

Previous interviews with Kazuto Yamaki of Sigma:

CP+ 2017: 'some customers require exceptional lens performance'

CP+ 2015: 'small office, big factory'

Making 'Art': We go inside Sigma's lens factory (2015)

CP+ 2014: 'we have survived because we make unique products'

CES 2012: 'More high-end cameras will be mirrorless in the future'