Since its foundation in 1961, SIGMA has exclusively produced photographic and cinema related products and today is one of the world's foremost manufacturers of digital cameras, interchangeable lenses and photographic accessories.
Japanese monozukuri (manufacturing) is known for being detail oriented and for having developed a series of production concepts, including kaizen, the philosophy of constant improvement. How do you define SIGMA’s monozukuri philosophy?
Let me first share with you our company's conceptualization of Japanese monozukuri. At SIGMA, we seek to create an optimal production environment in order to manufacture products of the utmost quality. In the realm of photographic equipment, achieving greater accuracy and precision are paramount to success, and as such, we continuously seek to push the boundaries of what is possible. We believe that this spirit of “making the best product possible” will not only contribute to the happiness of our customers, but will also contribute to our own happiness. This dedication to quality is a source of motivation for our valued employees. To a large extent, the joy that our products provide to our users and our employees can be utilized as a management tool in itself.
Since 2012, the total size of the camera market has been shrinking and has become more focused on the specialized needs of hobbyists and of professional users. The market has shifted to require higher performance and higher quality, so in order for us to meet those demands, we have adopted this strategy.
It is interesting that your company keeps all of its manufacturing centralized in the Aizu region of Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. In recent times, the COVID-19 pandemic has created all sorts of supply chain problems, and thus we see some pushback from companies asking for more regionalization from suppliers. What are some of the advantages of keeping your manufacturing centralized in your Aizu factory?
First of all, let me talk about interchangeable lenses. At our factory, we employ unique technology to achieve optimal precision. Interestingly, utilizing unique technology not only requires high accuracy and precision, but it also demands to employ engineers with a deep manufacturing knowledge. Generally, finding people with such expertise is rare, but we employ various engineers at our Aizu factory.
In comparison to digital products, ours are incredibly more sophisticated and complex from a manufacturing standpoint. As such, transferring one’s knowledge is much harder for physical or analogue products than it is for digital ones.
Say for example you wanted to produce lenses to the specifications and quality that we produce in Aizu, but you wanted to reduce labor costs by moving that production to an emerging economy. In all honesty, that move would not be possible. Reaching the level of craftsmanship achieved at our factory is impossible without decades of cultivation and nurturing of skills. It takes a long time for people to learn how to do what our experts do. To a large extent human resources are one of SIGMA’s core advantages.
Photographer: Hiroshi Iwasaki
Aizu, Japan Chapter I
Director : Yu Yamanaka
Production : BLUE DOCUMENTARY
At SIGMA's one and only manufacturing base, the Aizu factory. In the pursuit of high-level production quality for every single model, SIGMA manufactures all products in Japan, which is rare for a company nowadays. SIGMA products are created with dedicated craftsmanship in the Aizu area, blessed with clean air and water.
Furthermore, I believe that we have a moral duty to keep production in Japan. Oftentimes, our competitors will compensate for the cost of their product by reducing the quality of their output. SIGMA is different. We are not a public-listed company and we really want to protect our employees in Japan. When relocating abroad, companies sometimes do not have to pay taxes to local governments or may be given tax incentives to localize production. With these incentives in mind, it is probable that if we were to move production to foreign countries, we might benefit from a better fiscal environment in comparison to Japan. However, SIGMA has not forgotten its roots. One of our missions is to protect employment in our factory as well as our subcontractors in Aizu and surrounding regions, and to continue to secure and nurture our competitive advantage.
Since 2012, the total size of the photography equipment market has been shrinking. One of the main reasons behind this trend is the emergence of smartphones with powerful cameras. How do you envision the future of photographic equipment?
Photography has existed for about 180 years now. So far, throughout the history of the market, people have continuously tried to capture beauty. The role of cameras is to capture memories and to record scenes of beauty and joy that people want to look back upon. I believe that cameras continue to tend to that mindset. We believe that this kind of demand from users is unchanged and will remain in the future as well. Smartphones have been a revelation to society thanks to their portability and potent software. While they have changed the way that we live, I do not think smartphones have changed the reason why we enjoy photography.
We often use the term “computational photography” to refer to the convergence of computer graphics, computer vision, optics, and imaging. Its role is to overcome the limitations of traditional cameras by combining imaging and computation to enable new and enhanced ways of capturing, representing, and interacting with the physical world. I believe this kind of computational photography can be incorporated into our business and our products, in addition to providing good support systems to customers.
After WWII, there were over 100 different optical companies here in Japan, and they were all focused on military use. During the period of fast economic expansion Post WWII, only a few companies remained, including Olympus, Nikon, and Canon. Your company treaded a different path by starting in 1961, much later in comparison to these other makers, and by remaining a private enterprise. How has your company managed to be a leading camera company despite this late start in comparison to the aforementioned competitors?
We established our company in 1961. As you mentioned, there have been many different companies that have dealt with camera and lens manufacturing throughout history. I think it is safe to say that today, we are one of the leading companies in the field. That isn’t to say it was easy, however, and my father concentrated on three things to help us survive against advanced competition. The first point was a continual investment in technology, and in fact, our company goes by the motto: “Small office, Big factory.” This motto addresses our desire to continuously focus on our investment in R&D. The second point he put an emphasis on was our differentiation from other companies. My father tried to develop and provide unique products, and this ethos is embedded into the DNA of the company. The third point was to develop our international business, and during my father’s time as president, there were many Japanese companies in our field that only focused on the domestic market. Incredibly, my father just put some samples in his bag, booked a plane ticket and off he went visiting overseas countries to try and make connections and establish direct business with foreign companies.
I would also like to briefly touch upon Japan’s monozukuri again. The building we are sitting in today was completed in March this year, and we moved into the premises in May. Sometimes during the construction, I visited the site and observed the construction workers. I was often very curious as to what they were doing. It was fascinating to me how the workers would obsess over details, and this was glaringly obvious to me when you compare this attention to detail with that of works done in other industrially advanced countries. It is clear that Japanese people have a passion for creation and often will meticulously complete something right down to the smallest and most precise of details. I find myself often wondering why Japanese people stick to the ideas of monozukuri so strictly, and the conclusion I came to was that Japanese people tend to value the act of handing over skills from one generation to another. I think it is through the act of achievement that Japanese people can reach their ultimate happiness. People in other countries have a good vision too and they are able to achieve similar levels of high quality, however, once they are successful at something they tend to move their focus onto the next challenge. This is where the differences lie, with Japanese people specializing in one skill or thing. There is a local grilled eel shop located not far away from here. That shop has been running now for almost 400 years, and they are still selling that same exact product. The cooking skills have been passed down from generation to generation.
©SS Nozomu Shimao
SIGMA’s new headquarters building in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, where the interview took place.
Etymologically speaking, the French word travail (“work” in English) carries connotations of a job that is described as painful or laborious. I’m not sure if it is true, but I think the word came from how tough it is for women to give birth. While in France, the word for work means something tough, in Japan, people tend to generate some sort of poetic meaning from the word. Perhaps the cultural differences are hidden inside the word as well. To relate to my company, I like to think that the engineers and the people working in the factory all seek to develop something excellent, and it is why I provide strong support for them as a result. An argument can be made that Japanese monozukuri has come about due to the stubbornness and cultural particularities of Japanese people.
Of course, there are many companies around the world that still have masters or craftsmen, however at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Western countries started to modernize their factories, and that in turn led to the division of work. In the UK, each master established its own union, and as a result, we saw serious conflict between the worker's unions and management. In the US, they established unions by industry, instead of the category of work. In Western countries, they have a history of conflict between management and unions, but in Japan, we basically have in-house unions, and these unions tend to work together with management to achieve something together.
We saw that your company launched a new lens in June 2022, SIGMA 16-28mm F2.8 DG DN | Contemporary, which has 5 FLD glass elements (whose characteristics mirror that of fluorite) as well as 4 aspherical lenses. Can you tell us more about the product and the benefits that end users can expect from this Contemporary lens?
SIGMA 16-28mm F2.8 DG DN | Contemporary on the SIGMA fp, the pocketable full-frame mirrorless camera.
This product is a wide-angle lens, is very compact, and has an f/2.8 aperture. Higher f-stops are going to result in less light hitting the sensor and therefore a darker image. A lower f-stop like this model will produce a brighter image by letting more light through. However, when you open up the aperture, you are going to get a much shallower depth of field. In the past, the performance of our wide-angle lenses have been excellent, but with the emergence of mirrorless cameras, our customers' needs have been diversifying. You could argue that lens diversification can be limitless in terms of different specifications, sizes, and customer needs. In order to attempt to meet those needs, we have diversified our product lineup.
In 2008, your company acquired Foveon, Inc. and began developing its own proprietary image sensors. We saw recently that you began developing a full-frame three-layer image sensor, which would divide all three colors with their own gradient. Could you give us an update on the development of this sensor, and why do you think it is important for your company to not only manufacture the equipment, but also the sensors?
There are three development phases before releasing this product commercially. We are currently at the second phase. The first phase focused on the pixels, and that phase has gone to plan. The second development phase focuses on the full-frame sensor. We have plans to finish this phase by the end of the year. The third phase will focus on the peripheral circuitry that we need to incorporate. After the completion of all three phases, we will move forward with production.
While our company hasn’t been significantly successful in the camera business yet, my father’s dream was to become a camera manufacturer, so I want to continue down this path in the camera industry and achieve success as a camera manufacturer. As you mentioned, it is a very tough business and we have many competitors, many of which are large companies. In order to compete with those leading companies, we need to differentiate ourselves, and realistically that is the biggest issue we are facing right now. Right now, a lot of camera makers use similar sensors, so the final products that come out can often feel standardized.
I believe that Foveon’s technology is really special and by fully utilizing their unique approach we can finally push ourselves ahead of the pack and really differentiate ourselves from other companies. I have been using cameras with Foveon technology for a while now and enjoy taking photos of my children. I have grown a strong attachment to the technology and the brand.
How are you planning to develop products for the cinema lens market that are more accessible to the average consumer?
First, I would like to reiterate what I said earlier about securing employment in the Aizu region and the factory we have there. That is a big challenge for us, and right now the interchangeable lens business has been shrinking. If this trend continues in the future, we might have to consider reducing the number of employees we have working in the Aizu plant, however, this is something that I really want to avoid. Cinema lenses have a high cost, and the price per unit is also high, but it feels like a sustainable business and that motivated the decision to move into the business. Cinematography is the same as photography in that it is sustained by the passion of users. It is a really nice business to operate in and being someone who has a passion for photography it felt like the right thing to do.
Because camera sensors often give a similar feeling and texture to the image, directors might resort to tricks and hacks to change the feeling of a camera. Quentin Tarantino recently used vintage lenses to shoot the entirety of his recent film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” This is a trend we are seeing more and more in Hollywood, especially with biopics and movies that depict the past. How compatible are your products with these tricks and hacks that directors and amateurs alike are utilizing?
When it comes to old and vintage lenses, their performance, from a technical point of view, is limited. The other day I visited a cinematography university in Spain, and they said that if they combine the latest digital camera with vintage lenses it gives them a really good performance. They also said that SIGMA lenses were so good that they have tried utilizing the newer lenses with older cameras, and that has resulted in good results too. While vintage lenses do not offer the same performance as recent products, filmmakers employ vintage lenses for the unique look and aesthetics that they render. That being said, we do not intend to reduce the performance of our products just to cater to that market. It's the equivalent of asking an athlete to run slower in a race.
With current and future lineups we would like to continue to create high-performance lenses, however, we do have a classic range. With SIGMA FF Classic Prime Line lenses, we have managed to degrade the coating and have incorporated classic features such as ghosting and flaring, which creates that retro feel that filmmakers are looking for. With all this being said, who knows whether perhaps in the distant future, SIGMA lenses will be presented and regarded as classic vintage lenses.
When the first quartz watches were introduced, people said that mechanical watches will no longer be used as a quartz watch is clearly superior, but of course today mechanical watches are still beloved the world over. Do you see such a future for analog photography with it still being beloved and favored by photographic enthusiasts?
I agree, and there are some stark similarities between watches and cameras. People tend to not only like achievements, but rather, they like the process of achievement. The late tennis player Arthur Ashe is famous for saying “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.” When it comes to digital, people enjoy the final result, often because they turn out well, but especially with enthusiasts, they enjoy the entire process: adjusting the focus and the exposure, then waiting for the perfect moment. As a result of this process, those people will have so much more of a special attachment and feeling towards the result. I think the enjoyment of the process will remain and that feeling could be something very valuable in the future too.
Since 1979, you’ve expanded overseas where you started in Germany and since have opened subsidiaries in Hong Kong, USA, Benelux, France, UK, China, and Nordic with 70 different distribution networks worldwide. Moving forward, which countries or regions are you looking to expand in and continue to grow, and furthermore, how would you do that?
In our company, we have operated on the idea that local people are best at running local business. We do not send Japanese people to our overseas subsidiaries. Looking ahead, the main operations of sales, marketing, and customer services will continue to be operated by local people from the region. The plan is to continue to create 100% SIGMA-owned subsidiaries in foreign countries, however, we do have relationships with independent distributors. That is something we are really looking to continue and strengthen.
As SIGMA is a family business, your father will always be known as the creator and founder of the company. What would you like to be known for? What would you like your legacy as the CEO of SIGMA to be once you pass on the company to the next generation?
My father always reminded me about the fact that I needed to inherit the business from him. It was a huge amount of pressure, and to be frank, I suffered. As a child, my mind was set on not doing that, and I did not want to follow in the footsteps of my father. The biggest challenge I face right now is fostering the company so that there is something substantial to pass on to whoever takes over the next generation of SIGMA. To do that, my first objective is to nurture our manufacturing expertise so that we keep on making the highest performing most beautiful products in the industry. The second is to establish a brand that is loved by users and customers. The third is to create a work environment that fosters the best from our employees and gives them opportunities to grow as human beings. These objectives are not ones that can be achieved in a lifetime, and you could argue that they are rather endless objectives with the goal posts always being moved and changed.
Short Film "blur"
Director : Yu Yamanaka
Production : BLUE DOCUMENTARY
The SIGMA’s short film, “blur” brings the message that SIGMA has held as important since its foundation: when people are moved, people are inspired to take photographs, and every photograph, just like every life, is amazing.