Sigma DP1 Merrill

Son of DP2

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Sigma DP1 Merrill

The Sigma DP1 Merrill has all of the same virtues and flaws as the DP2 Merrill that I blogged about back at the beginning of October (http://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/sigma-dp2-merrill-camera/). Like the DP2M, the DP1M is a relatively primitive (in function) p&s camera with a fixed lens. Like the DP2M, it has an APS-C-sized Foveon sensor (the selfsame sensor that is found in Sigma’s “flagship” interchangeable-lens SLR, the SD1). Like the DP2M, it is capable of extraordinary images that are breathtakingly sharp, three-dimensional, and unusually subtle and true-to-life in color. Like the DP2M, it is $999.

The only significant difference between these two cameras is their lenses, with the DP2M’s 30mm (roughly equivalent to a 45mm “normal” lens on a full-frame 35mm camera) being slightly higher in resolution edge-to-edge at wider apertures (from about f2.8 to f5.0) than the DP1M’s 19mm (roughly equivalent to a “wide-angle” 28mm lens on a full-frame 35mm camera). At f-stops of f5.6 and above, the difference in edge-to-edge resolution is negligible. Like the DP2M’s normal lens, he DP1M’s wide-angle lens is remarkably free of chromatic aberration (and the tiny few instances of this that I’ve seen—always involving a strongly backlit subject near the top or edge of the frame—are easily corrected in Lightroom or Sigma Photo Pro), although the 19mm is more prone to flare from directly sunlight than the 30mm lens, even when used (as it should be) with a lens hood. Both lens have very mild barrel distortion, which, once again, is easily eliminated in Lightroom 4 (a +3 or +4 setting on the Distortion slider of the Manual Lens Correction panel does the trick).

I won’t go through the advantages and disadvantages of Sigma’s Foveon sensor yet again (if you are interested in this read my Sigma DP2 Merrill blog), save to note that because it doesn’t use a mosaic pattern to reproduce color the Foveon sensor requires no anti-aliasing filter (giving it an inherent advantage in sharpness) and because it records RGB color data for every pixel (rather than interpolating color values via the intensities of R, G, or B light recorded by adjacent pixels) its color fidelity is, IMO, remarkably true-to-life (provided that exposure is correct). However, I do want to say something more about the DP2M/DP1M’s “primitive” functionality.

In my DP2M blog, I complained (as have most reviewers) about the slowness of the camera’s auto-focus, the lack of an electronics viewfinder (and the “swimminess” of its 920k LCD screen), and the general absence of certain convenience features. In a thoughtful review of the DP2M, Sean Reid (of Reid Reviews—a pay-for-play site) had a different take on this. Rather than lamenting the DP Merrills’ “stripped down” feature set, he celebrated it, pointing out that what it offers in the way of features (which in addition to the usual PSAM includes three fully customizable memories, accessible via the “Mode” button on top of the camera) is precisely what a professional or experienced amateur photographer needs to use this camera in the way it was designed to be used—as a high-quality picture-maker in adequate available light and not a snapshot camera for kids and family, an ideal street camera (more on this in a moment), a night-time or low-light camera, or a sports/action camera.

I have to say that, after several months of using both of these Sigma cameras, I’ve come to think of them more like Reid does. The DP1M, like the DP2M, is efficiently and thoughtfully designed to accommodate a workflow that prioritizes quality image-making. Once you get the hang of it, using its “stripped-down” feature set (essentially “stripped” of bells, whistles, and doo-dads that most serious photographers will never use anyway) becomes second nature. Almost everything important to making a good picture is logically placed, near-to-hand, and easy-to-access.

As long as I’m engaging in a bit of revisionist history, let me also point out that auto-focus speed in decent light has been improved in the two firmware updates that Sigma has released since I first bought the Merrill. Both cameras still hunt, peck, and eventually tire out in very low light, but then you aren’t going to be using a DP1M in very low light, as its upper ISO limit is about the same as that of the DP2M—with what we call in audio “useable” response to around 1000-1250 ISO (with judicious noise reduction and some acceptable concomitant loses in resolution and color fidelity), for which see below.

I guess I should also point out that while most of the Sigma firmware updates have been genuine improvements, one of them is not. The “Foveon Blue” color balance setting is, frankly, ridiculous, increasing the saturation and purity of blue skies (as intended) but also blowing the roof off the saturation of virtually all other colors. I stick with the “Neutral” color setting on both the Sigma DP2M and Sigma DP1M. I would also recommend using the “Center-Weighted Average” exposure setting (if you’re shooting RAW via auto-focus rather than manual focus), as the subsequent RAW files don’t seem to get blocked up as much in the shadow areas or overall EV values reduced as drastically as they are when Sigma Photo Pro struggles to tame highlights during RAW processing. Alas, the Merrills’ RAW files must still be imported and processed by Sigma Photo Pro, since Sigma’s X3F RAW files aren’t being supported by any third-party photo-processing program as of this post.

Although my increasing familiarity with Sigma Photo Pro has made me a little less critical of its interface and capabilities—and certain updates have marginally improved its usability—it is still a quirky program, and it still crashes on occasions (though not as regularly as it used to). My workflow remains pretty much the same as it was when I blogged about the DP2M: Import RAW files in SPP (and, nowadays, make a few adjustments to color balance—via the eye-dropper tool—turn chroma, luminance, and banding noise reduction to their lowest setting, add default chromatic aberration and fringe correction, and import the high-res image in that program), save the X3f files as 16-bit TIFFs via SPP, and do my usual regimen of tonal and contrast adjustment in Lightroom 4.

Before I talk about image quality, let me also highly recommend Sigma’s excellent optical viewfinder, the VF-11 ($140-$160 additional), for use with the DP1 Merrill, especially if you’re interested in street shooting. As was and is the case with the DP2 Merrill, using the DP1 Merrill with its viewfinder adds a little physical support to a camera that has no image stabilization in its body or in the lenses themselves. Plus, the VF-11 is a somewhat more reliable tool than the VF-21 when it comes to framing. It’s not exactly WYSIWYG, but it’s closer—and you quickly get used to its quirks and adjust for them. I also recommend turning off the LCD screen (i.e., switching to “Viewfinder” mode) when using the VF-11 to conserve battery life, which, alas, is no better with the DP1M than it is with the DP2M. However, you do get two batteries and a charger with the DP1M kit, which, if you already own the DP2M, gives you a total of four. That should be nearly enough for a busy morning or afternoon of shooting, although I did buy a couple of extras as supplements.

Though the DP1 Merrill is not really any more of an ideal “street camera” than the DP2 Merrill, it can be successfully used as same in decent light, when the viewfinder is mounted in the hot shoe and you’re shooting via auto-focus (or zone focus). Though the DP1M will benefit from tripod-mounting (as will any camera), hand-holding the camera is perfectly do-able, and you can get excellent results at shutter speeds as low as one 30th of a second (provided you have a steady hand). Some folks would like to see a grip built into the Merrills (and there are now several aftermarket ones that have been recommended by Luminous Landscape and others). Personally, I don’t feel the need. The camera is light, solid, and easy to handle as is, and it does come with embossed areas on front and back to improve your grip. What I’d really like to see are dedicated cases (or half-cases) for the DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill, but so far I haven’t found any on the market (even Sigma isn’t offering one at the moment).

As long as I’m talking about what I’d like to see (beyond Adobe support of X3F files), let me put in a bid for a Sigma DP3 Merrill, with a 50-55mm dedicated lens for portrait photography. Sigma has proven to my satisfaction that it came make a dedicated camera/sensor combo that is more than a very worthy alternative to lugging around a heavy high-res DSLR or medium-format camera and a bag full of lenses. You’re not going to better images from traditional interchangeable lens alternatives—that’s for certain.

Let’s talk about those images (you’ll find sample shots taken with the Sigma DP1 Merrill at http://jlvalin.zenfolio.com/p506723855 and more are being added daily). Below is the same photo I started off with in my DP2M blog, albeit framed vertically rather than horizontally.

You may recall that I posted a 200% crop of the DP2 Merrill picture (a 2:1 magnification in Lightroom 4). Here is the same crop of the same area in the image taken with the DP1 Merrill:

The flowers in the flower box have died but I think you’ll still be able to see that the resolution of the DP1M is pretty damn close to that of the phenomenal DP2M. Which is to say, that this is one very very sharp camera. And although you won't see this nearly as clearly as you can at the DP1 Merrill gallery on my Zenfolio site (for which see the link above), the true green of the coffee house door and the deep candy red of the Iris door simply can't be had--or, at least, I haven't had them--with Bayer sensor digital cameras. To repeat, what I said in my DP2M blog, I haven't seen colors like these outside of medium/large format cameras with film or a high-res 16-bit digital backs. 

Here is another image, at ISO 200, of a street scene taken at a local market.

And here is a 200% crop of a portion of that scene from the right side of the frame:

Once again this is impressive resolution and pretty good color and texture (especially under artificial light), and remember, these folks weren’t holding still for a photo—they were doing business. (Once again, you may not be able to see this at the smaller magnification of these Web images, but at the Zenfolio site you can easily see the knit of the woman-with-the-cross' sweater.)

To reinforce these points, take a look at the following image, also snapped at the market, which was taken at ISO 1000.

Now look at a 200% crop from this relatively low-light/high ISO photograph.

Yes, it has more noise and somewhat lower resolution than the first and second photos (although the peculiar thing about the Merrills’ noise is that—up to a point—it looks a lot like film grain, which may be because the Foveon sensor works a lot like film). Be this as it may, this is still pretty damn good resolution.

None of the foregoing subjects have particularly saturated colors, but just for the record--and to show that the DP1M can do colors that "pop"--here is an image that does:

In sum, the Sigma DP1 Merrill is a worthy companion to the DP2 Merrill. As I’ve already noted, it isn’t quite as sharp at the edges as the DP2M at wider apertures, but it’s no slouch. At center frame it’s phenomenal at all apertures and, stopped-down, it’s phenomenal everywhere in the frame. To get image quality like this in a wide-angle lens would cost you a literal fortune on a Leica M9 or a Nikon 800E—and neither of these cameras would be any sharper at the edges at wider apertures. If you’re willing to put up with the Merrill series foibles and the quirks of Sigma Photo Pro, the DP1M is very nearly as much of a no-brainer as the DP2M. Now, come on Sigma and give us that DP3 Merrill!