One of the most anticipated cameras of 2008, the ground-breaking Sigma DP1 has a DSLR-sized, APS-C sensor in a compact body, allowing it to produce image files of a quality never before seen in a camera this small. The DP1 also features a 28mm fixed-length lens, the ability to shoot JPEG and RAW files, a 2.5-inch LCD and an optional optical viewfinder.
Photographers have long dreamed of shrinking DSLR quality into a pocketable camera. Has Sigma fulfilled our dreams with the DP1? The answer is a qualified “yes.”
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Originally announced in September 2006, the Sigma DP1 was delayed several times before finally being released in mid-2008. The camera’s initial reception has been mixed – its image quality praised, its usability panned. The DP1 is simultaneously a technological step forward and a throwback to old-school photography. It’s a champion of image quality above all else, married to a compact camera body that behaves a bit like an old rangefinder.
But what is it like to live with a DP1? Does it function well in a wide variety of situations? Who will be happiest with this camera? Based on my testing, I think it must be someone flexible enough to adapt him or herself to the DP1′s style.
The DP1′s major claim to fame is the digital SLR-sized Foveon X3 imaging sensor. Briefly, the Foveon is different from and theoretically superior to the Bayer filter sensors found in most other digital cameras. For starters, it’s much larger than the sensors found in other compact digital cameras. All else being equal, bigger sensors generally result in better image quality.
Bayer-filter sensors use a single layer of light detectors (called “photosites”) that are actually monochromatic. The individual photosites across the layer are filtered to capture only one color (red, green, or blue) and the filters are alternated across the sensor. So instead of an even grid pattern, Bayer sensors detect light in more of a checkerboard pattern. And because of the resulting gap in between each colors’ photosites, Bayer designs must interpolate (a process called “demosaicing”) the data to create the final image.
Foveon takes a different approach. Foveon sensors are like three sensors in one. There are three layers of photosites, each sensitive to an individual color – red, green, or blue. The data returned from each layer is then combined to create an image. Since each layer is fully dedicated to one color, no demosaicing is necessary.
While Foveon’s approach appears to be superior to Bayer designs, one only has to remember the Betamax versus VHS video format war to know that second best is often good enough. In fact engineers have done a respectably good job improving the quality of images from Bayer-filter sensors. Obviously there is much more to the two technologies and you can read more about them at Wikipedia [link] and elsewhere. And in the end, we the consumers have to live with the actual output, not the theoretical quality.
The DP1 is marketed as a 14-megapixel camera. But in practice, the file size produced by the camera is more like 4.6 megapixels. When converting RAW files using Sigma’s Photo Pro software, you have the option of small, medium or large output. I found the Sigma software’s “large” output to be over-sharpened. The recommended optimal size is medium, which produces 2640 x 1760 pixels at 180 dpi – or a 14.667 x 9.778-inch print. Converting the file to 240 dpi translates into a native 11 x 7.333-inch print. While not exactly up to the specs of a 14-megapixel DSLR like the Pentax K20D, it is adequate for most prints and I think the files “up-res” or size up nicely in Adobe Photoshop for larger prints.
Sigma says the DP1 is “exactly like an SLR. Just in a smaller body.” But once you get past the “DSLR-in-your-pocket” hype, the DP1 is a no-frills machine — minimalist design and minimalist functionality, and a far cry from the responsiveness of a DSLR. The DP1 has limited controls, and of course there is no image stabilization, face recognition or smile-manipulation technology here.
The other major feature of the DP1 is its 28mm (35mm equivalent) fixed focal length or “prime” lens. In a world of zooms, why would you want a prime lens? Conventional wisdom — and the laws of physics — says that primes are sharper and have less distortion than zoom lenses, which must trade image quality for the convenience of zooming.
A fixed wide-angle lens has also traditionally appealed to a certain kind of photographic vision — it’s just how some people like to take pictures. By limiting yourself to one focal length, you are forced to learn and explore the ins and outs of what that focal length can and cannot do. Working close to a subject, you can use a 28mm lens to capture foreground and background relationships or communicate a sense of place. As Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” A 28mm lens makes you zoom with your feet.
|Sigma DP1 Mode dial and Controls|
The DP1 offers just the standard shooting modes — Program, Shutter, Aperture and Manual — along with movie and audio recording. The camera controls are basic with no dedicated buttons. To change important settings like ISO or white balance you have to dig down through the menu tree to find them. (Maybe Sigma can eventually fix this in a firmware update.)
The DP1 has a built-in, pop-up flash as well as a hot shoe, into which can be fitted an optional optical viewfinder or external flash.
Sigma DP1 during capture
Sigma DP1 Playback mode
Sigma DP1 Playback w. info & histogram
Sigma DP1 Shooting menu
The other major feature of the DP1 is its 28mm (35mm equivalent) fixed focal length or “prime” lens. In a world of zooms, why would you want a prime lens? Again, conventional wisdom — and the laws of physics — says that primes are sharper and potentially more distortion-free than zoom designs, which must trade off some absolutes for the convenience of zooming.
|Sigma DP1 28mm Lens / Pop-up Flash & Controls|
A fixed wide-angle lens has also traditionally appealed to a certain kind of photographic vision — it’s just how some people want to take pictures. By limiting yourself to one focal length, you are forced to learn and explore the ins and outs of what that focal length can and cannot do. Working close to a subject, you can use a 28mm lens to capture foreground and background relationships or communicate a sense of place. You don’t use a 28mm to photograph sweeping vistas in the distance. As Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
The DP1′s design is handsome if plain. It’s a rectangular brick of a case with no significant curves or textures to grip. I never really felt comfortable using the camera one-handed, and I often spent time correcting some setting or menu that I had inadvertently bumped. It would be nice if the case had a contour for the right-hand fingers to grip, such as those found on the Nikon P5100, P60, etc.
A manual focus dial is mounted on the top rear where your thumb naturally falls, but I wanted some kind of physical indication of where the focus is set. A thumb notch or tab (like those found on Leica M-lenses) would help you know approximately where the focus is set without having to take your eye off the subject and look at the dial.
If you try to use the DP1 like any other modern compact digicam, it will likely disappoint. But if you shift your thinking and use it like a rangefinder camera, the DP1 can be surprisingly fun. This means learning to think ahead photographically: Set it to manual focus and learn how to judge distance. Then experiment to find out how much depth-of-field you get with say, f/5.6 and focus set to three meters. It will take some trial-and-error, but in my opinion it’s the best way to work around the camera’s slow auto focus.
Exposure is consistent, so working in aperture priority with exposure compensation is similar to other cameras. Or shoot in manual exposure and use the playback histogram to fine-tune your exposures.
It turns out that the DP1′s three-frame burst mode (Sigma doesn’t list the spec on their site it feels to be around 3 frames-per-second) does a respectable job of capturing action, especially if you’re pre-focused (shutter half-pressed) or in manual focus mode. Burst mode even works with RAW files. However, once the camera has captured the burst, it takes five or six seconds to write the data — during which time you’re dead in the water.
As it turned out it was fun to slow down and be more deliberate about the kinds of images I looked for. Knowing I couldn’t zoom in made me keep my compositions simple. The DP1′s workflow and 28mm lens force you to pay attention to background details, quality of light and “decisive moments.” The downside is that if you’re not a person who already photographs this way, you may find learning to use the DP1 an exercise in frustration. But I trust some people will stick with it and appreciate how the camera expands their way of seeing and anticipating photographic moments.
While manual focus works at most distances, you may need to return to auto focus if your subject is within 5 feet (2 meters) of the camera where it’s more difficult to focus accurately using the DP1′s manual dial. Obviously, you can’t make critical focus decisions based on what you see on the LCD. And close focusing requires more precision than focusing on something 10 or more feet away.
I was initially excited about the optional optical viewfinder accessory, which mounts in the flash hot shoe. It’s well made and bright. However, my initial excitement wore off, as I grew annoyed by the viewfinder sliding out of the hot shoe; it has no lock latch. And too often I found myself shooting from some angle where keeping my eye to the viewfinder was difficult, uncomfortable or just impossible (e.g., a low angle from the ground looking up). It wasn’t long before the viewfinder went back into its box for good.
The 2.5-inch LCD is of reasonable resolution, but reflections make it difficult to see outdoors. It doesn’t display colors accurately, either – particularly reds. I was photographing some red neon signs and when I replayed them on the camera, they were blown out to white. Naturally, this was disturbing. But when the RAW files were downloaded to the computer, the reds were there. The LCD’s color blindness had an effect on my shooting; I learned to emotionally disassociate the bland image I saw on-camera with the scene before me, knowing that rich color and quality of light would be available in post-processing. It was like stepping back from the scene and concentrating on form and framing only — sort of like shooting black and white film.
Using the DP1 felt reminiscent of the early days when I first discovered wide-angle lenses and shot everything with a 24mm prime lens. Yes, there are issues when trying to grab a fast snapshot — you must anticipate and have your focus zone prepared. And yes, you find that you can’t shoot everything with wide-angle glass — body shapes and architecture can be distorted. But on the whole, I found myself adapting to the limitations of the 28mm field-of-view and expanding the way I think about framing and composition.
The DP1′s image quality is first rate – although only 4.6 megapixels of first-rate quality. Nonetheless, it’s the best available image quality in a compact digital camera for now, and has a distinctive look. The subjective value of the DP1′s distinctive image character should not be underestimated. Some have likened the DP1′s look to film; others observe its smooth tonal gradations or the way it depicts light. I feel the colors are natural and well-balanced, and when saturated they retain a rich, natural smoothness that doesn’t seem overdone. As with most digital captures, the usual slight, gray digital patina accompanies any underexposure, but this is easily corrected in post-processing. I find the DP1′s saturation and contrast are both rendered on the low side (conservative).
From a workflow standpoint, the DP1′s RAW files are very flexible. I can open up shadows and change color temperature easily without unattractively distorting the overall color balance. RAW captures are adjusted with the supplied Sigma Photo Pro software, and exported to 8 or 16-bit TIFFs or JPEGs. When I opened the files in Photoshop, I was impressed by their outstanding smoothness and yes – film-like quality. Shooting at ISO 100, the DP1′s RAW files can be underexposed and corrected in post-processing, which in my testing yielded a very film-like noise texture. At higher ISOs, chroma noise began to appear, but noise reduction software should handle this issue.
Although Sigma’s software doesn’t provide the most polished workflow ever, it is functional and straightforward. After using super-powered post-production software (read: complicated) for so long, it was a bit refreshing to find the exposure and color adjustment sliders simple and effective. Thanks to the DP1′s great initial captures, most images only required some compensation here and there to spruce them up. Sigma’s Photo Pro software is not Lightroom, but it will get you close enough that further adjustments are only minor tweaks.
In good light at low ISO settings, the Foveon X3 sensor technology shines. Colors from a RAW file are rendered with a very natural palette. Saturation and contrast are easily increased or decreased to taste. The lens delivers very sharp, detailed lines, while offering real, selective-focus background-blur or “bokeh,” something we’ve largely lost with small digital cameras and their miniature image sensors. The DP1 brings back more bokeh than you might expect from an f/4 lens.
As I mentioned, chroma noise did appear at times. The degree of noise depends on the subject matter, original exposure, ISO setting and post-processing. The cloudy seascape above, for example, has very slight magenta blotchiness in the clouds’ tonal texture, but this is only visible at 1:1 on-screen and not worth bothering about.
The DP1′s image quality begins to become noticeably coarse at ISO 800. Lines and contrasting edges in ISO 800 images take on a grainy character that feels a bit like film, but with a sharper, more jagged edge than film’s classic texture. I wouldn’t use ISO 800 or higher unless I had no other choice. I also underexposed ISO 400 and compensated the exposure in RAW format post-processing. If you don’t mind doing a little clean up with noise reduction software, it seems to me that the DP1′s files are more forgiving of exposure adjustments than Bayer filter camera files.
Since the DP1 uses an APS-C size sensor, I compared its images with DSLR images in my library. Although I did not do a controlled comparison, I found DP1 images generally more appealing than captures from older DSLRs. Then again, there are some instances where the DP1 falls pretty short relative to other cameras — such as shooting into the sun or other bright light, where ugly flaring occurs. So the DP1 is not a DSLR-killer. But there’s no question that the DP1 produces images of distinctive quality.
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.
Sigma has to be respected for being the first to answer the marketplace’s cry for a pocket-sized DSLR. The challenge of marrying an APS-C sensor with a compact camera clearly has not been easy. While the resulting camera largely meets image-quality expectations, the DP1 suffers from a kind of mandatory retro-photographic technique that modern digital camera owners — the wider marketplace and gadget-freaks alike — are unlikely to appreciate. I’m glad Sigma persevered and brought the DP1 to market; the world is a better place for it. But I believe they only got it half-right.
If you’re a rangefinder kind of shooter or enjoy the slower, more deliberate photographic thinking that the DP1 requires, it won’t be too much of a stranger in your hands. I doubt I would have been so patient had I not had experience shooting with manual rangefinder cameras. And while I enjoyed slowing down and adapting to the DP1, this is 2008 and any serious digital camera should incorporate the years of solid functional design demonstrated by almost any compact digital camera introduced since 2006. I’m talking about basic usability here, not fluff like face recognition, because the best image quality in the world is meaningless if you don’t get the shot. Potential DP1 buyers accustomed to modern digicam handling should be prepared to “shoot different.”
The Sigma DP1 is best suited to wide-angle photographers who value image quality and aesthetics as the primary photographic attributes. Whether these are landscape photographers or street photographers may not really be the question. The DP1 forces you to adapt to its wide angle, rangefinder-like shooting style, and people able to work within these limitations will be rewarded with a rich image quality never before seen in a compact camera.
Who Should Buy It
The Sigma DP1 is an ideal choice for:
- Advanced or professional photographers who value the highest image quality possible in a pocket-sized camera.
- Beginner or intermediate photographers who want to learn to shoot slowly and deliberately with a fixed wide-angle focal length.
- Any fine-art photographer who enjoys taking their time and getting up-close and personal.
- Photographers comfortable with rangefinder-style shooting.
The DP1 is probably not the best choice for photographers who require fast shooting, zoom or interchangeable lenses, and modern features like image stabilization, face recognition and scene modes.
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Contents of the Sigma DP1 Box
About Laurence Chen
Laurence Chen is a freelance editorial, commercial, and wedding photographer based in Seattle, Wash. His clients have included Fortune Magazine, Sunset Magazine, and America 24/7. Visit his portfolio at www.lchenphoto.com and buy his e-book, “Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera”, at http://www.takecontrolbooks.com/buying-digicam.html.
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