It's good to know that the photo industry is living its early years' excitment again. Like in mid 19th century, when a photographer also had to be an engineer and a chemist in the meantime, and a wealth of bases -copper, pewter, paper, glass-, and chemicals -silver chloride and iodide, collodium, albumin- were tested in the quest for the ultimate light-sensitive medium, digital era photography tries alternative technologies in order to create the perfect capturing device. Thus alongside traditional Bayer-matrix sensors we now have Fuji X-trans CMOS, Leica and Phase One monochrome and Sigma Foveon X3. The latter, when first introduced by Sigma in 2002, ignited more curiosity than excitement.
PhotoGraphia regulars know that I don't think photography is about sharpness. I'm perfectly happy with small-sensor pocketable cameras if they can make the job done and, generally speaking, pixel-peeping gets me bored. On the other hand I don't think photography is about unsharpness either, and the growing fibrillation about ultra-fast primes delivering huge amounts of bokeh -i.e. unsharp image areas-, most of the times at the cost of the overall picture quality, leaves me cold. Of course there are situations where a properly tuned unsharpness adds value to the image, like in classic portraiture. And situations where an improved sharpness can turn a good photograph into a great one.
Enter the Sigma DP2 Merrill.
To quote a Jethro Tull's song title, the unit is thick as a brick: a black parallelepiped with a lens, a 3" screen, 13 buttons and a wheel. Compact, yet not small, it looks as if it was designed by some Bauhaus architect in the Thirties. If "less is more" is your mantra -as it's mine- then the DP2M perfectly suits your taste. As soon as you hold it, the camera just feels right in your hands, and reassuringly well built. Body is all metal, as well as the big wheel surrounding the wide and smooth shutter release, a wheel that can be custom set to several different functions (my choice is exposure compensation). No rubber nor leatherette wraps the camera. Buttons' response is firm and positive, while their layout is the best I have ever seen. The connector and battery/card doors are unusually well built as well.
Compact yet not pocketable, with the optional VF-21 optical viewfinder (we'll discuss about it later) the camera becomes a little less compact, but unannoingly. I like carrying it with an Optech USA neoprene wrist strap. This was the base of my kit this summer, along with a B+W circular polarizer, the original LH2-01 lens hood (not small but very effective, especially for a non-selfcapping lens), the essential spare battery and my inseparable and versatile Canon G15 with its optional (and rarely used) 1,40x tele extender. All this was comfortably yet unobtrusively packed in a black Billingham Hadley Digital bag.
I confess I'm a lazy writer lately. And since I found a brilliant and clever review of the DP2M on a blog called "The Absolute Sound", I suggest you to click through to that article for comments about all the camera and software details. It's amazing how music gear geeks can be matter-of-fact and unprejudiced when testing and evaluating an imaging product. I definitely share every word in their review, so writing an identical one would simply be nonsense. I prefer focusing on the most relevant (to me) aspects of the camera though. And I'll do it in an unorganic order.
Sigma DP2 Merrill - Fixed Sigma 30mm (45mm eq.) prime
1/80" f8 ISO 200
Converted into monochrome with Silver Efex Pro 2
- The Sigma DP2 Merrill is a no-frills tool that could seduce many users who are fed up with all the bells and whistles of more feature-rich cameras on the market. Borrowing a typical Ken Rockwell's definition, I'd say it's "a man's camera" (no offense intended, ladies). Somehow it's like driving a black Land Rover Defender, if you see what I mean. Or writing with a fountain pen instead of a ballpoint.
- Notwithstanding its 920,000 pixel definition the 3" LCD behaves very poorly under bright daylight, which makes the optional optical viewfinder an essential accessory. Too bad the VF-21 unit sold by Sigma is crappier than one can expect. Small, plasticky and, most of all, too narrow: for glass wearers, seeing the entire frame is simply impossible. I'll look for an alternative -perhaps a vintage one- although being aware that 45mm is an unusual focal length.
- Image quality is jawdropping. Color accuracy and per-pixel resolution are spectacular. So much so that during my first weeks with the DP2M I often found myself taking trivial shots only for the pleasure of seeing how details and texture were rendered in the file: awesomely. Imagine having in your hands a medium format camera with the bulk and weight of a large mirrorless for the price of a Micro Four Thirds prime lens. Foveon sensor's three-layer architecture overcomes the moiré artifacts issue once and for all. No low-pass filter is needed here, and it shows: images delivered by this camera are insanely sharp.
- Monochrome conversion is amazing. I noticed that some pro reviewers now rate how effectively a camera's output can be transformed into a black&white image, and I think this should be considered as one of the standard main benchmarks when the overall quality of a camera is to be evaluated. DP2M's files flawlessly convert into a sumptuous, creamy black&white, rich in smooth transitions and devoid of artifacts, that will surely push every user to go back to the roots of modern photography.
- Battery life is simply non-existent. I have read about people getting to reach even 60 to 70 shots out of one full charge. I never managed to go over 40. This is why Sigma supplies two batteries out-of-the-box. If they were honest, they'd supply four at least. If they were clever enough, they'd have cloned the fat power unit from Canon Powershot, for instance, instead of Ricoh GR's, as they actually did. The DP2M body is large enough to house at least 2.5 times of battery volume, which could lead to 100 shots out of one full charge. Sigma engineers shamefully forgot that a three-layer sensor needs a lot of power, and delivers huge files that need more power to be written on the SD card. On the other hand nostalgic photographers maybe will find the 40 shots limit as a romantic souvenir of the 36-frame film era. I don't.
- No matter the SD card speed, writing time has something to do with eternity. Image review is unavailable before 18 to 20". During this time previous shots' playback is not available either. The only way to quickly check an image is by activating the 5" after-shot review, which of course causes more power drain.
- DP2M's histogram is definitely the worst histogram I have ever tried. It's totally unreliable. If you buy this camera, PLEASE DO NOT TRUST THE HISTOGRAM! Moreover it refers to jpg format only, which is, by the way, of the lousiest quality -Leica M8 and M9 users know more than anybody else how lousy a jpg can be-. The DP2M is a raw-oriented device. Period. You'll need jpgs for browsing purposes only, as most browsers don't visualize .x3f files.
- On the other hand the DP2M raw files can manage highlights and shadows in a way I have never seen before. With bright subjects a +1/3 exposure compensation will be enough, whereas a -1/3 to -2/3 will do in any shadowy situation. Like we used to do in the film era, more or less. Good ol' habits.
- The menu system is clean and straightforward: 47 items spread into 10 pages. Furthermore, a clever and customizable quick menu is made available by pressing the dedicated QS button on the back panel.
- As far as user interface and stability are concerned, Sigma Photo Pro -the raw developing software delivered with the DP2M- is one of the worst applications I have ever had experience of. Miniatures rendering takes close to eternity to be performed and easily causes your computer to crash. If a crash is luckily avoided, the curve of getting familiar with buttons and sliders is a steep one. But SPP does a marvelous job on your .x3f files: the color picker finely tunes an already almost perfect white and color balance, while the "X3 fill light" slider is very handy when an image is affected by poor or dull lighting. IMHO this feature is far better than the "luminosity" slider found in Adobe ACR. Sigma Photo Pro has a competitor though. Iridient, as far as I know, is the only alternative to SPP at present, and a very interesting one. Smooth, steady, fairly fast and reasonably priced, Iridient can perfectly demosaic a long list of raw files. Compared to Sigma Photo Pro, an .x3f file developed in Iridient has an elegant and understated filmish look which could please some nostalgic of the analog era. I'd be in trouble if I had to pick "the best". They are different in their approach to the final image and I suggest everybody to run some test. It's free and instructive.
Lloyd Chambers, the editor of the autorithative Diglloyd blog, suggests that, for the price of a cheap Leica lens, one could buy the whole Sigma DP trinity -DP1M, DP2M and DP3M, respectively 28, 45 and 70mm eq.- and be happy. I confess that it's a tempting option, except that my favorite focal lengths range between 50mm and 150mm equivalent. I'd gladly buy a 100mm eq. DP4M equipped with the same sensor, if it only existed. But then I'd also want an electronic viewfinder (even an add-on one), a better LCD, better battery life, better writing speed, better developing software, better whatever... And bang goes the zenish simplicity of this oddball, yet awesome, not-so-compact compact camera.
FEATURED COMMENT by Massimo Zirilli
The only thing that scares me about the Merrills is the need to carry another camera in the bag, since results from IS0 400 are not acceptable. Anyway, I love the way this camera is "affecting" your recent works, and I know that is an amazing device. But I would like to read something about the NECESSARY superb post production that this sensor needs for showing how beyond any other sensor can be in terms of resolution. It's definitely a camera for clean and technical developers, don't you think?
you are perfectly right. I forgot to mention that the DP2M should not be used above ISO 200. Of course it could, but then I don't see the point in using it, given its unacceptable picture noise at ISO 400 already.
Like Ducati motorcycles in the bikers world, the Merrills are surely to be seen as second cameras that can deliver amazing results if shot slowly under bright lighting. Otherwise the marketplace is full of cameras delivering good to very good quality with smooth and fast operation and virtually no noise even at higher ISOs. But we are talking about AMAZING image quality here.
As I tried to explain in my post, the Sigma DP2 Merrill is not a camera for everyone.
Regarding for the post-production process, apart from the severe quirks affecting Sigma Photo Pro, it's not more complicated than developing Bayer-matrix raw files in Adobe ACR. Being a jpg fan I'd gladly skip that part of the job, but one advantage of developing .x3f files in SPP is that parameters MUST be let at the default value most of the time.