Sigma Q&A: Lots of L-mount lenses coming, as CEO Yamaki-san predicts mirrorless will take over soon

by Dave Etchells

posted Monday, April 29, 2019 at 3:59 PM EDT


Recently, I had the chance to speak with Sigma's CEO, Kazuto Yamaki, alongside the CP+ tradeshow in Tokyo. Yamaki-san is always a favorite interview subject of mine, because as the head of a family-owned company, its his hand on the tiller, and so his decisions that dictate the company's future products and strategies. That allows his answers to be uncommonly candid, and so particularly interesting.

For this interview, I focused in particular on the recently-launched L-mount Alliance, of which Sigma is a founding member, and its plans not just for L-mount optics, but also for full-frame cameras based around its unusual, full-color Foveon image sensors. We further discussed the company's famous "Bigma" lenses old and new, and how they've been received in different markets around the world. We also learned Yamaki-san's thoughts on the rise of mirrorless cameras, and how the photo market today reminds him of the arrival of autofocus technologies on the scene several decades ago.

Without any further ado, let's get right down to the interview. (And when you're done, be sure to join the conversation in the comments at the end of this article!)


Dave Etchells/Imaging Resource: So you're best-known for your lenses these days of course, but there are many fans of Sigma cameras, and with the L-mount Alliance, you announced that you would be developing a full-frame Foveon.

Kazuto Yamaki
Chief Executive Officer
Sigma Corp.

Kazuto Yamaki/Sigma: Right, yeah.

Dave Etchells: Do you have any more information about that? Can you tell us anything?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah, actually I made a presentation this morning to the Japanese audience and we updated our product development situation.

Dave Etchells: Ah!

Kazuto Yamaki: Unfortunately, we are behind schedule. Originally, we had a plan to release the product within this year, but due to the delay of the project, we had to announce that the camera will be available in 2020.

Dave Etchells: In 2020, ah, that's too bad.

Kazuto Yamaki: And also I announced some very basic information. The spec about the sensor: It has about 20 megapixels times three layers. So with our Quattro sensor, we had a so-called 1-1-4 [pixel] structure.

Dave Etchells: Yes. One red, one green, four blue pixels aligned with each other?

Kazuto Yamaki: Right. But with this full-frame sensor, we go back to the conventional 1-1-1 structure.

Dave Etchells: Ah, hai. It would be lower-noise that way, I guess, neh? Or is it more readout speed, or...

Sigma has long used its Foveon X3 sensor technology to differentiate itself from rivals. Unlike the traditional Bayer color filter array used in most cameras (shown at center above), which can capture only one color channel at any given pixel location, Foveon X3 sensors (seen at left) can gather full color data at every pixel location. Recent models have used the newer X3 Quattro sensor design (seen at right), which quadruples resolution in the blue channel, as compared to the red and green channels. For its first full-frame Foveon camera, Sigma is planning to return to the original Foveon X3 structure, instead, where all three color channels have the same pixel count.

Kazuto Yamaki: The Quattro sensor is an ideal structure to increase the pixel count. Because if we have very tiny pixel for all three layers, the pixel structure becomes very complicated. So while keeping the pixel structure simple, we needed to increase the resolution. So we decided to divide the one top layer into four pixels [for Quattro]. In this case, though, we have bigger die area [for full-frame]. So we don't need to increase the pixel count more than necessary. So we keep the pixel pitch relatively big.

Dave Etchells: Mmm.

Kazuto Yamaki: Here, we just maintain the 20-megapixel [resolution], then times three layers at each pixel location.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, yeah. Hai. So these will be fairly large pixels.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes.

Sigma has stopped developing SA-mount cameras like the SD Quattro H (shown) in favor of full-frame models with a firmware-upgraded Leica L-mount.

Dave Etchells: On lenses again, also about the L-mount Alliance, have you published a lens roadmap for what Sigma will do for L-mount?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. At this CP+, we announced 11 lenses for L-mount that will be available by the end of this year. These are the same prime lenses that we deliver for Canon EF, Nikon F and Sony E-mount. We will use the same optics for L-mount lenses. This is a new announcement. And also we will release APS-C sized lenses for L-mount in 2020.

Dave Etchells: Oh, APS-C, really?

William Brawley/Imaging Resource: Oh, wow.

Kazuto Yamaki: Because the Leica TL and Leica CL have an APS-C sized sensor with the same mount.

Dave Etchells: Ah, yeah, interesting. Are those also adaptations of existing lenses, just a different mount on an existing lens? Or would they be new designs?

Kazuto Yamaki: They'll be existing lenses. But we also are working on another project: Another brand-new lens designed for the short flange-back system that should be available some time this year.

Dave Etchells: Ah. Really? Oh, interesting! And the 11 that you've announced, those are basically your Art primes?

Kazuto Yamaki: Right. Right.

Sigma kicked off its L-mount lens lineup in late February, announcing no less than 11 new lenses which will be coming to the L-mount. All of these are existing optical designs which we've already seen on other mounts. Yamaki-san tells us that a 12th, as-yet unannounced optic is also slated to arrive this year, and that  it will be a brand-new design, making it the first Sigma lens to be crafted specifically for use with the L-mount.

Dave Etchells: Interesting. That would be very good for the platform, because you'll very quickly have a good assortment of lenses.

Kazuto Yamaki: The problem for the early L-mount camera users is the variety of the lenses available. Even if they buy a new camera, if they don't have enough lenses to support the system, they can't enjoy the photography.

Dave Etchells: Yeah. And the Leica lenses are very expensive.

William Brawley: Yeah, there's a number of them available, which is good from a system standpoint, but the price is very high, so the entry's challenging.

Kazuto Yamaki: We believe our mission is to prepare as many lenses as possible for early users of the L-mount. That's why we decided to prioritize development of the mount adapters. We announced the MC-21 Mount Converter. This allows customers to use Canon EF-mount to L-mount, and Sigma SA-mount to L-mount. And also, we decided to make the L-mount lenses using existing optics.

Dave Etchells: Yeah.

As well as its upcoming L-mount lenses, Sigma is also planning to offer two mount adapters which will allow for lenses from other systems to be used with L-mount cameras, just as it does with its MC-11 adapters for Sony E-mount. For the L-mount specifically, there will be two adapters: The MC-21 SA-L (shown) will convert Sigma's own SA-mount lenses to L-mount, while the similar MC-21 EF-L will be used to adapt Canon EF-mount lenses, instead.

Kazuto Yamaki: That's 11 lenses that we announced at CP+. But at the same time we are learning the similar project just for the short flange-back lens system. So these lenses should be available some time in this year.

Dave Etchells: Ah, that's very interesting. And are the L-mount adapters shipping currently?

Kazuto Yamaki: Not yet. But we will start shipping this spring.

Dave Etchells: In the spring. So coming very soon, then.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah. Not too much delay from the launch of the Panasonic S1 and S1R cameras.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, it sounds like the platform is going to develop very quickly. There is a lot of interest in the L-mount. We were remarking down in the Panasonic booth, people waiting to try the S1...

William Brawley: The line was very long. <chuckles>

Dave Etchells: was like the line zig-zagged back and forth.

Kazuto Yamaki: Really?! Wow!

In terms of hardware, the L-mount Sigma will be using is identical to that used by the Leica SL. Before that, the Leica T (Typ 701) used the same design, branded as the Leica T-mount. Here, the body (left) and lens (right) portions of the mount are show.

Dave Etchells: Yeah. It seems like a lot of interest, that was good to see. On another front, one of our reviewers has been using your new 60-600mm. It's the new version of the Bigma.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah. Yes. Sure.

Dave Etchells: We haven't tested it in the lab yet, but he was very impressed with it in the field. Can you discuss any of the engineering challenges about what it took to create that lens?

Kazuto Yamaki: I think that two things contributed to build that unique lens. First of all, we have the experience from making the 50-500mm. [A zoom lens with the same 10x zoom range]

Dave Etchells: Right, yeah.

Kazuto Yamaki: We had two 50-500mm [lenses] in the past.

Dave Etchells: Two different versions?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. First without optical stabilization [in 2009, then with OS added the following year.] So this experience contributed a lot to being able to build a good lens. Also, during this period we developed a new technology, we input more modern technology to build very modern optics.

Dave Etchells: Oh, really?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, like a better processing machine or some techniques in the assembly line. This was quite helpful.

Dave Etchells: Ah, so different manufacturing techniques, essentially.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, right. We put more performance checking in the assembly line, and sometimes we adjust the optical element to the optical axis, so we do lots of adjustment...

Dave Etchells: you check the individual groups optically, and then you could tweak them as you assemble them.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah. But still, we try to minimize the amount of adjustment to maximize the precision. But in the end, we do some adjustment.

Sigma's 60-600mm lens is the spiritual successor of the Bigma, the company's famed 50-500mm optic which was first released in 2001 for film cameras, was updated for digital in 2006, and gained optical stabilization in 2010.

Dave Etchells: That's interesting. It must be tricky for the engineers to balance image quality across such a wide range of focal lengths, neh? To have it be good at 50mm, and at 200mm, and then also at 500mm must be very challenging, I think.

Kazuto Yamaki: But I don't think we have any low-performing focal lengths. From 60-600mm, this lens has a very consistent performance, as far as I remember. The optical designer joined Sigma I think maybe about ten to fifteen years ago? He actually joined Sigma because he loved the 50-500mm.

Dave Etchells: Really?!

Kazuto Yamaki: And he wanted to design the lens like that.

Dave Etchells: No kidding? He wanted to do the next one.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. He is also crazy about taking aviation photos. So 50-500mm is the perfect lens for him. He wanted to design that kind of lens. I think his passion makes the lens great.

Dave Etchells: Oh, really? Yeah, that's a cool story, that that was why he came to Sigma in the first place.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah.

Dave Etchells: I would imagine the optical formula is very different between the 60-600mm and the 50-500mm, in terms of the arrangement of elements, and the design of it optically.

Kazuto Yamaki: Mmm-hmm.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, it's been many years since the last 50-500mm was designed, so a lot of advances, then.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. I think higher-resolution cameras require high-performance lenses, yes.

The optical formula of the most recent version of Sigma's 50-500mm lens (top) compared to that of the new 60-600mm lens (bottom). Blue elements indicate use of Sigma's Special Low Dispersion glass, while yellow elements use Sigma's 'F' Low Dispersion glass. Both lens diagrams are shown approximately to scale.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, very true. I was surprised and very impressed that you built an entirely new building in Aizu for magnesium casting. [Ed. Note: It's actually for machining, not casting, as we'll learn momentarily.] You just did that recently; it was just opened in the fall, I think? That must have been a huge investment. What led to your decision to take that step, and had you been using magnesium castings in your lenses previously?

Kazuto Yamaki: It opened last year, yes. And yes, we did [use magnesium castings previously]. But we couldn't use as many as [we wanted to]. First of all, there are few magnesium suppliers in Japan for camera or lens products.

Dave Etchells: Oh, really? Ah, that's interesting.

Kazuto Yamaki: Most of the magnesium suppliers work for the automobile industry. So [they make] huge [parts, but with] lower tolerances. Only a few companies can supply very fine-precision magnesium parts to us. So we couldn't use as many magnesium parts as we wanted. But we needed to reduce the weight of the lenses, because modern lenses use more and more glass, so the lenses get bulkier and heavier. So we really wanted to use more magnesium. But the capacity of the supplier is limited, and also very expensive. So we believe that if we make it by ourselves, it should be cheaper and we can expand the capacity by ourselves. That's why we decided to do it.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, huh. Interesting!

William Brawley: Wow.

Dave Etchells: And magnesium itself is lighter, but it is also much stiffer than aluminum, so you don't need as much of it for similar mechanical stiffness. So you get a significant weight reduction over using aluminum.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, that's right. Very much [lighter to use magnesium].

Dave Etchells: And you already had a lot of experience injection-molding plastic parts.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes.

As well as its widespread use in higher-end camera bodies, magnesium alloy is also common in the automotive industry, where the level of precision required is lower. This image, courtesy of the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, shows die-cast motorcycle engine blocks awaiting cleanup. Camera parts like those used by Sigma require a higher level of precision which ca be supplied by fewer companies.

Image courtesy of CSIRO Science Image / Mark Fergus, was cropped and globally edited for color / contrast, and is used under a CC BY 3.0 license.

Dave Etchells: How much different is the magnesium injection molding, other than obviously you have molten metal instead of plastic. Is the process itself much different?

Kazuto Yamaki: We do only machining magnesium. Casting is still done by the other supplier.

Dave Etchells: Oh, really?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes.

Dave Etchells: Oh, I see. I thought that the new building was a foundry where you were casting the parts.

Kazuto Yamaki: No, no. We just do machining. I think casting is also challenging. We don't do casting even for aluminum. We buy rough castings from the supplier, and we do the machining.

Dave Etchells: Ah, I see.

Kazuto Yamaki: But still, [there are] not so many machining suppliers for magnesium.

Dave Etchells: Yeah. Magnesium's very difficult to machine, right?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, it's risky [because it can ignite].

William Brawley: Ohhh! That's not what I would have guessed. I was thinking like it cracked, or...

Dave Etchells: I was thinking it was very hard [to machine], yeah!

Kazuto Yamaki: It's not hard. Actually, I think it's almost the same as aluminum, or easier to cut.

Dave Etchells: Really?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. But if we cut the cast magnesium parts...

Dave Etchells: ...the shavings can catch fire, yeah.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, they can catch fire very easily. It's very risky. So we need to take care of those things very carefully.

Dave Etchells: Do you have to have it in an inert atmosphere? Do you machine it in nitrogen, or is it more that you have to be very careful with coolant?

Kazuto Yamaki: [The latter.] Each machine has a temperature monitor, and if the temperature goes up to a  certain level, it automatically stops machining. And if the temperature still goes up after the machine stops, the fire extinguisher will start working.

Dave Etchells: It'll blast it.

The Magnesium Building at Sigma's Aizu factory is a ~21,500-square foot, three-story facility for processing rough magnesium-alloy die castings from an outside supplier. Construction was completed in January 2018, and operations began the following month. The first product to benefit from this new in-house capability was the 60-600mm Sports lens, the spiritual successor to the famed 50-500mm Bigma lens.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah. Each machine has it. But still, it's risky, so we built the magnesium factory outside our location, one street next to the main building.

Dave Etchells: Oh, it's across the street, wow.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. And magnesium reacts to moisture, right? So the building has a special structure to avoid any condensation. Aizu is in a very cold area, so in winter it tends to have condensation on the walls. So we wrap the [whole] building, so that we don't have any condensation inside of [it].

Dave Etchells: Huh! How interesting. Yeah, I know in machining, usually you want the chips to carry away the heat to protect the cutting tool. And so when you're machining steel -- especially high-alloy steel, and especially with tungsten cutters -- the chips will get very, very hot. They turn blue from the oxidation. But magnesium, you have to do the opposite and make sure the chips stay cold.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah.

Dave Etchells: Huh. How interesting! Wow. Yeah, when I thought you were molding the magnesium, I thought "That is so different". I imagined furnaces and... <chuckles> But many people can mold it, it's just the machining precisely [that's challenging]. Hmm.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah.

Dave Etchells: You make your own molds for plastic casting. Do you make the molds for the parts you have molded in magnesium too, or is that something the foundry does, you just give the CAD file to them and they make it?

Kazuto Yamaki: They make the dies for die-casting. I don't know much in detail, but I think we provide the CAD file, and they then create a die.

Dave Etchells: I don't know if this is information you can share or not, but we're curious because you make lenses that fit a number of manufacturers: Can you share any information about the sales of different mounts? Do you sell a lot more Canon than Nikon, or vice versa, or...?

Kazuto Yamaki: I can't tell you the exact numbers, but the most popular right now is Canon, and next is Nikon. Sony E-mount is growing.

Dave Etchells: Hmm. That makes sense. And are there any of your own lens models that really surprised you with their popularity?

As a third-party lens manufacturer catering to a wide variety of lens mounts, Sigma is well-placed to be able to independently judge the popularity of competing mounts in the marketplace. Yamaki-san still sees Canon and Nikon as the dominant ILC manufacturers, but tells us that the Sony E-mount is growing in popularity too.

Kazuto Yamaki: I have several such products, but if I [limit myself just to recent products], the 60-600mm is very popular. Actually, because I didn't expect such high demand, I only prepared a very limited capacity for that product. But after we [released it], we had so much demand...

Dave Etchells: Ohhh!

William Brawley: I'd think that's a very good problem to have. <chuckles>

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. But if we receive a new order [now, ie. early March 2019, there] will be a June or July timeframe for delivery.

Dave Etchells: Wow!

Kazuto Yamaki: So now we're increasing the capacity. It's totally my error.

Dave Etchells: <chuckles> Yeah. But that's interesting, because that is such a specialized lens, it's very large and very heavy, and very unusual. So yeah, I am also surprised. Because the 50-500mm was never sold in high volume, I don't think?

Kazuto Yamaki: It was quite popular in Japan, [but not so popular] outside Japan. That's one of the reasons why I didn't expect [the 60-600mm to be so popular]. But this time, the 60-600mm is quite popular almost all over the world.

Dave Etchells: Hmm, interesting. Yeah, in Japan I know like that people like train photography, and maybe the 50-500mm was also good for that. And then aviation, like you said, is also big in Japan.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah. And almost all elementary and junior high schools have sports events.

Dave Etchells: Ah, yeah!

William Brawley: That's a great outdoor sports lens.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, and normally the students learn on the track and the parents want to take pictures of their kids learning, so covering from 50 to 500mm is an ideal lens.

Dave Etchells: Well that would be very popular in the US too, I would think, because you'd think that sports would be a big [market here too].

Sigma's 50-500mm lenses -- collectively known best by the unofficial moniker 'Bigma' -- were much more popular in Japan than in the US market, but the newer 60-600mm spiritual successor to the 'Bigma' is apparently seeing much broader appeal.

William Brawley: Yeah, and for wildlife photographers, it's like it was made [for them]... Especially with 600mm now, it's great for birds.

Kazuto Yamaki: Oh, yes.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, nature and wildlife photography is a very, very big category. We see it in our Photo of the Day submissions: I mean we get *so* many bird pictures.

William Brawley: Yeah, so many user submissions for our contest are some sort of animal. Lots of birds; almost every month we have hundreds to choose from.

Kazuto Yamaki: Maybe because animals will not sue you.

Dave Etchells: Yeah! <chuckles>


William Brawley: I have another question: Have there been any plans to make lenses in Canon RF or the Nikon Z-mount?

Kazuto Yamaki: We are still checking their systems, and it's a bit too early to make comment. But right now, we're checking the compatibility between our lenses and their mount adapter. We already know that it works almost perfectly, but in some specific settings and [for some] operations, our lens does not work perfectly [with their adapter yet], like continuous burst mode...

Dave Etchells: ...and some particular focus settings, or whatever.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yeah, yeah. So our software engineer is now checking all the details, and if he finds some minor issues, we'll solve it.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, you solve it and you do a firmware update on the lens to fix that.

Kazuto Yamaki: Right. But at the same time, we are looking at their system.

Dave Etchells: Mmm. I would think in any case, they're such new systems that for you as an independent lens manufacturer, you need to have a volume of them out there.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes.

William Brawley: Right. A new mount shows up, you can't just say "Oh, let's make another one." It's an evaluation.

Dave Etchells: Yeah. So Sony has become a very large player in mirrorless.

Kazuto Yamaki: Very, yes.


Dave Etchells: Last year, you started releasing Art lenses in native FE-mount. Those were the same story [as for the upcoming L-mount lenses], just a different mount on existing designs. How has the interest been in those so far?

Kazuto Yamaki: Surprisingly good. They like the optical performance of those lenses. It's better than I expected. But there also are some people waiting for the lens design for the short flange-back, so we are also working on it.

Dave Etchells: Hmm. And I would think that the same way you can take the same existing Art lens and adapt it to different mounts, that if you design for short flange-back, you could probably put it on L-mount or FE-mount fairly easily? I mean there's some difference, but if you don't go all the way to the very closest [possible flange-back distance], if you leave yourself a millimeter or whatever...

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, yes.

Dave Etchells: So yeah, that could be good. I think the Sony FE-mount is shorter flange-back than L-mount?

Kazuto Yamaki: Sony E-mount is 18mm, and the L-mount is 20mm. Nikon Z-mount is 16mm.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, Z-mount is the shortest. So if you design lenses for L-mount, then they could work on FE, or on Z, or whatever.

Kazuto Yamaki: Right, correct.

The shorter flange-back distance of mirrorless cameras is one of their key advantages over DSLRs, but precisely how short it is varies from mount to mount. With the L-mount a slightly longer flange-back distance than rivals, it will be easier for Sigma to adapt L-mount lens designs to rival mirrorless platforms as well.

Dave Etchells: Well, that would be very good for you, because you have this L-mount Alliance with a market there, and then you can take that same development and just put it out on different mounts. That makes a lot of sense. I was concerned for you, because I saw the mount landscape fragmenting. All of a sudden, there are all these different mounts. But now, if you make L-mount then you can put it on the others easily. So this is a question we've been asking everybody. Canon Inc.'s chairman, Mitarai-san, was on record recently saying he expected the ILC camera business to shrink by half, which seemed very pessimistic to me. What are your projections for how the lens part of the ILC business is going to evolve for the next two to five years?

Kazuto Yamaki: I hope I know. <chuckles> I personally think first of all that the market will shrink a little bit more. But it wouldn't be half of the current size. Maybe [down] 20 to 25% from now, that's my guess.

Dave Etchells: Yeah. And then you think that it will maybe be stable, at that point?

Kazuto Yamaki: I hope so, yeah.

Dave Etchells: We all hope. And actually, my last question we already discussed. With so many different lens mounts and with smaller market share for each one, I was going to ask what you do about that? But it seems like the answer is that once you design short flange-back lenses for L-mount, that then you're covering other mounts easily?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, but still, it's challenging. It's an opportunity for us, but challenging for manufacturing. The glass is the same, but the mechanical parts are different. We need to change the setting of the machines very frequently.

Dave Etchells: Oh, yeah. It's not like you just have a lens and you bolt on the different flange, but there are other mechanical changes.

Kazuto Yamaki: Also, we will probably not discontinue our existing products for DSLRs. We'll maintain lenses for DSLRs, and also lenses for mirrorless. So again, we have to make more and more types of lens models. Then we lose efficiency and productivity in manufacturing. This is very challenging for manufacturing.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, I can imagine. Once upon a time, you just had Canon and Nikon mainly; that was only two mounts. Easy to do. But now, even though you can use the same optical design, it's still different manufacturing for each one. That's challenging. Yeah, it's a very, very exciting time in the industry. All of a sudden, there are so many new products, and I'm feeling a lot of excitement from the end-users. I think it's a good time to be a photographer.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes. I think so.

Dave Etchells: A hard time to be a manufacturer, but a good time to be a photographer, I think.

Minolta's Maxxum 7000 -- also known as the Alpha 7000 in Japan, and the 7000 AF in Europe -- was the first interchangeable-lens camera to feature phase-detection autofocus capability. Sigma CEO Yamaki-san sees a parallel between the quicker-than-expected adoption of autofocus technology several decades ago, and that of mirrorless camera systems today.

Image courtesy of Shaocaholica / Wikimedia Commons, was cropped and globally edited for color / contrast, and is used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Kazuto Yamaki: We had a similar time about 30 years ago, when cameras changed from manual focus to autofocus. Many companies were going to [create] autofocus systems. It also happened suddenly, and the change from manual focus to autofocus was much quicker than we thought. At the time I was a student, but I know the market at the time. We thought it would take a while to change, but actually it was quick. And at that time, Minolta become the number one [brand]. But right after that, Canon and Nikon took back share from them, and they become number one [again].

Dave Etchells: Oh, Minolta, because they had the very first AF.

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes, the Alpha 7000.

[Ed. Note: This was its name in the Japanese market. It was called the Maxxum 7000 in the US market, and the 7000 AF in Europe. And to head off a potential flamewar in the comments, we should quickly note that we're talking solely about interchangeable-lens cameras here, as several fixed-lens cameras with AF capabilities also arrived on the market in the late 70s and early 80s. 

Also, depending upon how you define autofocus, several other manufacturers technically shipped AF-capable interchangeable-lens cameras before Minolta, and so one of these could claim the title of first AF-capable SLR. But whilst Canon, Nikon and Pentax all had autofocus-capable SLRs of some sort before Minolta's first such offering in 1985, none of these used the phase-detection AF systems we'd associate with DSLRs today.

In 1981, Pentax debuted the ME-F, the first 35mm SLR with autofocus, but its AF system was based on contrast-detection. Canon and Nikon followed in 1982 with the Canon AL-1 and Nikon F3AF, but these were also using CDAF-based systems. (And Canon's was technically a guided manual-focus system too, rather than full autofocus. They wouldn't ship an AF-capable SLR until 1985's Canon T80, again with a CDAF-based system.)

It was Minolta that was the first to use a phase-detection AF like those of modern DSLRs, with the launch of the Minolta 7000 in 1985. The company paid a heavy price of US$127.6 million for that achievement, though, as some six years later they were ruled to have infringed on Honeywell's patents in creating the camera's AF system. ]

Dave Etchells: Yeah, interesting. Boy, so they came from behind and they captured the most market share, wow.

Kazuto Yamaki: Correct. And so I see the similarity. Right now, the market is changing from DSLR to mirrorless much quicker than I thought.

Dave Etchells: Yeah. Where do you think we'll end up, or how far will that switch go, I wonder? I mean, of course mirrorless makers like Sony say "DSLRs are obsolete. They're gone; they're history." Canon and Nikon say "Well, they each have their role, and some are good for this, and some are good for that." But what do you think about the direction we're really going in, and where we will end up?

Kazuto Yamaki: I agree with Canon and Nikon. There are pros and cons, but eventually, I think the majority of interchangeable-lens cameras will be mirrorless. Probably 80% will be mirrorless?

Dave Etchells: Yeah, and it's really just a question of how fast we get there, whether it's a couple of years or five years or longer, then?

Kazuto Yamaki: Yes.

Dave Etchells: Yeah, I think I tend to agree that the majority will end up being mirrorless. I don't know in my own mind whether DSLRs would really completely go away, or if it would stay at 20% or 10%. It's hard to say. But these interesting times. I think those are all of my questions. Thank you so much as always.

Kazuto Yamaki: Thank you.

Dave Etchells: These are always very interesting interviews. Our readers really enjoy them very much.

Kazuto Yamaki: I also enjoy talking with you.




My main takeaway from this discussion was that Sigma is deeply committed both to mirrorless in general, and to the L-mount Alliance in particular. While Yamaki-san has had to make the difficult decision to delay the first full-frame Foveon sensor-based camera until 2020, there are around a dozen Sigma lenses coming to the L-mount this year, including one which is an entirely new design, rather than one ported from another existing lens mount.

And interestingly, while the L-mount Alliance's focus is clearly on full-frame, Sigma is also planning to release some APS-C optics for L-mount in 2020. That suggests that the company still sees sufficient interest from owners of sub-frame L-mount cameras to merit firing up the APS-C production lines for new L-mount glass.

As for the now-delayed full-frame Sigma mirrorless camera, Yamaki-san tells us to expect a traditional Foveon X3 image sensor layout with 20-million pixel sites and a three layer structure at every pixel location, rather than the unusual 1-1-4 structure used by Foveon X3 Quattro sensors. (These used one larger green and red pixel apiece beneath each quartet of blue pixels, yielding higher resolution in the blue channel than for the other two channels.)

Yamaki-san also clearly recognizes the challenges faced by the relatively new L-mount Alliance, given the lack of existing optics (and especially, of affordably-priced ones). Sigma's immediate answer to this concern is two new MC-21 mount converters that will allow use of both Canon EF and Sigma SA lenses on L-mount, plus 12 new full-frame lenses coming for L-mount this year, including the whole Art prime lens lineup and one newly-designed model.

We also learned a cool piece of trivia about the company's famed "Bigma" lenses, which for many years now have offered spectacular telephoto reach in a single optic, first with a 50-500mm zoom range and nowadays with a 60-600mm range. It turns out that the refreshed 60-600mm Bigma came to us from the drawing board (or, less romantically speaking, the CAD station) of a designer who originally came to Sigma specifically because he was a fan of the original 50-500mm Bigma, and wanted to design similar optics himself. If ever someone poured their heart and soul into a lens design, it sounds like this was likely the one!

And finally, Yamaki-san shared with us an important parallel that he sees between the growth of mirrorless cameras today, and the arrival on the market of autofocus-capable cameras in the late 70s and early 80s. The change from manual to autofocus happened quicker than most expected, Yamaki-san tells us, and he believes the same will be true of mirrorless cameras, with DSLRs remaining only as a relatively small portion of the overall ILC market.

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So what do you think? Join the conversation in the comments below; as usual, I'll try to monitor the discussion thread over the next few days, so I can respond to any questions you have that I might be able to answer.