As we celebrate our 200th issue, we take a moment to reflect on Sigma’s remarkable story, from its 1961 founding to its current position as one of the world’s most respected lens manufacturers. Above Left The early days, circa 1961, in front of SIGMA Research Institute Co., Ltd. in Setagaya Ward. The supporting members gather for a group photo. Above right: Michihiro Yamaki exhibiting SIGMA products at the Germany Photo Fest in 1979.

ANY GO-AHEAD company always needs to be looking forward and planning its next development, but there are certain times when it’s pertinent to pause just for a moment to reflect on what’s gone before and the achievements that are responsible for bringing the business to its present state.

For Sigma that moment arose last year, when it celebrated a significant milestone, namely the sixtieth anniversary of its founding. Now firmly established as one of the most respected independent lens manufacturers in both the worlds of stills and motion, it was a time for a quiet and trademark understated celebration, and for an assessment of the landmark moments that have contributed to the ongoing history and heritage of a great company.

The story began on September 9 1961, when Michihiro Yamaki opened the Sigma Research Institute Co. Ltd. in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Although a small outfit at the time, he and his team started creating a range of optics for interchangeable lens cameras, and Sigma even developed its own camera mount, the YS fit (Yamaki System). During the 60s, a range of optics were produced, headline products including a 500mm mirror lens, a 12mm fisheye and even the industry’s first ever teleconverter.

By the early 1970s the Sigma Corporation was in full swing. A new headquarters had been opened in Komae in Tokyo, and a factory was under construction in Aizu in the mountainous Fukushima prefecture, where it’s still located today.

Despite being a four-to-five-hour drive north of Tokyo, Aizu was initially chosen as the best location for the factory because of its plentiful supply of very clean water, which is essential for polishing glass.

In 1976 Sigma released its first 35mm SLR camera, the Mark I, and three years later pioneered the 21-35mm f/3.5-4, the world’s first wide-angle zoom. Three years later the company spread its wings and opened its first overseas office in Germany, helping it sell its products to the European market. This was followed up with an office in Hong Kong in 1983 and the USA the following year, making Sigma a truly global company.

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Offices in France, the Netherlands and the UK were to follow in due course. The next major milestone came in 1986, when Sigma unveiled its first AF lens, the ZOOM-βⅡ 60-200mm f/4-5.6, and by 1993, it had added an AF DSLR, the AF300. A new range of lenses – the EX range – was created in the late 90s, which had a totally different look and feel to previous lens models, and some EX optics were actually still on sale until very recently

Digital Revolution

Like pretty much every company with its roots in photography, Sigma was very much influenced by the move towards digital technology that was growing strongly from the early 2000s onwards. The company duly responded with its first DG lens, the 20mm f/1.8 EX DG ASPHERICAL RF and, over the next few years, developed the Foveon chip, a triple-layered sensor that produced astounding colour depth and a medium-format-like look. Foveon technology still has a cult following today, especially with landscape photographers using the DP Quattro and SD Quattro range of cameras.

Fundamental change was coming as, in 2012, sadly chairman Michihiro Yamaki passed away, to be succeeded by his son Kazuto Yamaki. He quickly unveiled his Global Vision range of lenses, which have become one of the most fundamental steps forward in the company’s history.

The concept saw the Sigma range of lenses broken down into the Art, Sports and Contemporary lines, which offered spectacular image quality, wide apertures, robust build quality and sleek styling. Designed for industry camera mount systems including Canon, Nikon, Olympus, Pentax, Sony and Sigma, each lens is handcrafted and tested in Japan to ensure a high-performance, premium product that’s purpose-built to last for years.

The first Global Vision lens was the 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art and, since then, there have been well over 50 more Global Vision lenses released, creating a vast family of high-quality optics, specifically tailored to the requirements of different sectors of the photographic business. It was all part of the transformation of Sigma lenses, from being perceived as high value alternatives for photographers who might not be able to afford the extra cost of markers’ own products, to a brand that, while remaining highly affordable, could still match, or often surpass, the quality of makers’ own products, making them a primary choice in any case.

ABOVE: The Aizu factory started operation of a facility exclusive for cutting-edge magnesium processing in 2018.

Another massive step forward in the story of the Sigma brand came in 2016, design as Global Vision stills lenses but with different outer barrels, while a re-coated Classic line was later added to deliver lower contrast results with more flare.

Up against some highly established names, Sigma is now an active player in this fast-growing new arena, and it added to its hybrid credentials with the introduction of the fp camera in 2019, its first model with a Bayer sensor, and the smallest and lightest full-frame mirrorless camera ever built.

ABOVE: Chairman Michihiro Yamaki (left) and CEO Kazuto Yamaki (right) in 2010.

The fp utilised Leica’s L-Mount, with Sigma joining the L-Mount alliance with Leica and Panasonic. This move was followed up in 2021 with the brilliant 61MP fp L, which a year on is still the joint-highest resolution full-frame camera on the market.

The imaging industry has been through huge changes since 1961, but Sigma’s will to innovate and push new boundaries remains constant. Still very much a family-run business, CEO Mr Yamaki holds true to the ethos his father set in motion, to pursue accuracy and perfection in everything Sigma does. It’s a philosophy that bodes well, as the company consolidates its position and continues to grow its close  with the world’s professional imaging community.

More information: ❚ sigma-imaging-uk.com

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