First Impressions Review: Sigma DP3 Merrill

March 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I’m calling this a “First Impressions Review” because I’ve learned over the last several years of using new pieces of photography gear that it takes months of regular use to really get a definitive sense of all the strengths and weaknesses of a camera or a lens. One week – which is what I had with the Sigma DP3 – is not sufficient. It is enough time, however, to get a feel for it, even in the less-than-ideal weather we’ve been having (overcast, rainy, windy).

I can basically sum up what follows with one sentence: great image quality at low ISOs, good build quality, good interface, terrible battery/processing/high ISO performance.

 

Pros:

  • At low ISOs (100 to 400) the image quality at a per-pixel level is spectacular, rivaling the D800E with the best Nikon or Zeiss ZF.2 lenses
  • Very good integrated 75mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens
  • Sensible, easily understood menu system
  • Good build quality, small form factor, light weight and easy to carry around for extended periods
  • Nearly silent leaf shutter

Cons:

  • Boxy, unattractive shape (per my wife: definitely not cute) – if that’s important to you (it isn’t for me)
  • Image quality declines rapidly after ISO 800 (ISO 1600 is usable in black and white in a pinch), especially with regard to color
  • Ponderous operation – RAW files take 7+ seconds to write to the SD card and allow playback, though you can continue to take additional shots during that time
  • RAW files can only be edited in the slow and operationally deficient Sigma Photo Pro (on Windows – Mac users also have the option of Iridient)
  • Horrible battery life – 50 to 70 images per charge

I’ve been curious about the Sigma Merrill line for some time. I’m always fascinated by new and different sensor technologies. One case in point is Fuji’s X-Trans sensor, which changes the traditional filter layout to more closely approximate silver halide film’s random grain. That fascination led me to buy a Fuji X-E1, which is in many ways a great little camera with some truly fantastic prime lenses hampered by, at the time, awful “watercolor” RAW file processing by Adobe Lightroom (since improved, I’ve heard, and now quite good in Capture One Pro 7, from what I can tell by processing some of my old shots).

The Merrill line uses an even more unique sensor technology called Foveon. I don’t want to go into too many technical details – other sites like DPReview and Imaging Resource, not to mention Cambridge Colour, have done a much better job than I could here – but the basic concept revolves around the fact that different wavelengths of light can penetrate silicon to varying levels. This allows a single pixel in the sensor to capture all color and luminance data, without a Bayer-style filter over the sensor to only allow certain wavelengths to reach the pixel below.

Sigma’s marketing department wants us to believe this triples the effective megapixel count, from 15.3 million “physical” pixels to 46 megapixels of Bayer-equivalent image quality. It doesn’t, really; more like 24-30 megapixels. And the image size in terms of actual resolution on your computer screen is still 15.3 megapixels – just in case you needed that clarified (the marketing info certainly doesn’t make that clear).

But, the image quality at low ISOs is really spectacular for such a tiny camera. It’s almost D800E-level quality, particularly with the excellent Sigma 50mm (75mm in full frame equivalent terms) f/2.8 lens. It resolves extremely well, with high acutance and accuracy – closer to a “window to the world” than most Bayer-sensor cameras can ever seem to get.

The tradeoff, at least with Foveon sensor technology right now, is performance at higher ISOs that struggles – a lot – especially in comparison to the latest Bayer-sensor cameras or Fuji’s X-Trans sensors. Blue, in particular, suffers the most because it is the wavelength that has to penetrate the deepest into the silicon, and is therefore the most attenuated and has to be digitally enhanced (producing noise).

I found the images very strong at ISO 100 at all apertures with this little camera (even f/2.8). By ISO 400 you can notice a fair bit of granular noise, though it isn’t objectionable. ISO 800 starts to suffer, particularly with regard to color accuracy, and by 1600 or 3200 it gets messy. You could get away with ISO 1600 for black and white images, where the color accuracy is less important than the luminance information. But, really, for the best results this is a low ISO camera, meant for lots of available light or use on a tripod.

Also as a result of the unique sensor, the RAW files are very large – upwards of 60 megabytes – and the camera takes its sweet time processing and saving them to the SD card. Seven or more seconds of sweet time per shot. Now, you can keep shooting during this period – though doing so of course extends that processing period further – but you can’t review the shot on the rear LCD until it has finished. This is a far cry from the near-instant feedback most modern digital cameras are capable of, including cameras that have to move a lot of info (like the D800E, which is a positive speed demon compared to the DP3).

And, the unique RAW files produced by the camera can only currently be processed (in Windows) by Sigma Photo Pro, Sigma’s free, proprietary, and rather slow and cumbersome RAW processing software. Mac owners have the option of Iridient as well – I don’t have a Mac so I can’t comment on how well it does. SPP is…fine. Workman-like. I used it to do bare-bones processing and then exported a TIFF (for my favorite photos) or JPEG (for all the others) to then process in Photoshop with the Nik plugins. Capture One Pro 7 or Lightroom 5 it most definitely is not. I think Sigma would do very well to share the algorithms behind the Foveon RAW files with Adobe and Phase One and let them handle the RAW processing going forward – but that may be pie-in-the-sky thinking.

In terms of handling, the DP3 does okay. It’s a boxy little thing with a metal finish that gets cool to the touch. I didn’t find it likely to slip out of my hands the way the RX1R did (before I added the grip to the RX1R), but it also didn’t ever really feel good in my hands. Just okay. A little box that shoots great photos when you have sufficient light. The menus are well done, at least, friendly and obvious, with all the major settings clearly laid out and easy to get to. The contrast-detect autofocus tends to hunt even in decent light, slowing the operation down even further, but when it locks it locks-in quite accurately.

I did notice the bokeh produced by the 75mm-equivalent lens is good but not spectacular, with a tendency to be a bit “busy” in some scenes. Bokeh – and what you like in your out-of-focus areas – is a very personal thing, harder to objectively measure than many other areas of image quality, so you may feel differently, and that’s fine; but I generally prefer a smoother feel to my bokeh than this lens produces.

Sigma has recently announced the new version of the DP2 Merrill, with a new Foveon-style sensor with new tweaks (kind of making it a hybrid between Foveon and Bayer) to improve performance, and with an entirely new and very original looking body style that may or may not actually be comfortable to hold. It will be very interesting to see if the new DP versions can keep the image quality of the originals but improve the high ISO, battery life, and computational performance. If they do, they could be pretty special little cameras, indeed.

At the present, though, I have to admit I was ready to send the DP3 back to the rental company when my week was up. My curiosity was satisfied and I was ready to return to the speedy comfort of the D800E and RX1R. I know some people love the DP Merrill cameras to death, despite their quirky and slow nature. And the image quality really is great at low ISOs. But I never felt like the DP3 grabbed me; the sluggish performance and the constant need to keep the ISO low felt constricting to me after the comparative freedom offered by the RX1R. Of course, the RX1R is in an entirely different ballpark in terms of price, so it should feel and perform that much better…

As always, your mileage may vary. If you treat this camera like an ultra-portable miniature medium format camera – with the same level of shot discipline – and have the patience for the extra steps in post processing required by the Foveon sensor output, then you may very well completely love the DP3 and its brothers, the DP1 and DP2. For the rest of us, spoiled by speedy operation and high ISO competence of other contemporary cameras, well…it probably won’t be love. And I definitely would not recommend this camera for taking snaps of fast-moving kids or pets or birds or, well, basically anything moving at all.


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