Sigma DP2 Merrill: Camera Review

The Sigma DP2M is a niche-market camera built with the sole purpose of capturing the best quality image per pixel using its Foveon X3 sensor which I have shared in my previous blog post. It is a rather highly-acclaimed camera, and several photographic websites have made extensive comparisons against competitive cameras.

The Sigma-Foveon History

Foveon X3 sensor was first released in 2002 on the Sigma SD9, a DSLR camera. In 2006, Sigma announced the compact camera, DP1, which was finally launched in 2008, followed by DP2, making them the first compact cameras with large sensors.

The model names signifies different fixed focal length lenses. In 2010, Sigma announced the improvement models DP1X and DP2X. In 2012, Sigma updated the models with DP1M, where M stands for "Merrill", to honour the co-creator of Foveon sensor who died in 2008.

DP1 Merrill: 19mm (28mm equivalent) F2.8 15.4MP Foveon APS-C CMOS sensor
DP2 Merrill: 30mm (45mm equivalent) F2.8 15.4MP Foveon APS-C CMOS sensor

DP2M detailed specs link

Design and Appearance
The DP2M has an understated boxy design with protruding lens. I like the generous button layouts and its solid build. Even though there is no grip, the camera is easy to hold and does not feel too heavy (355g without battery).

The build quality is excellent and feels like a premium product, but I do find a few occasions when I accidentally unlock the battery compartment. Fortunately, there is a battery catch and the camera continues to function.

Photo not shot with DP2M - obviously. I was holding it!

User Interface and Features
Without referring to the manual, I find it easy to understand and operate the camera. I like the generous wheel dial and large shutter release button, I like the ease of adjusting EV with the left-right keys. The "QS" quick select button is customisable, and by pressing it, the screen shows the shortcuts corresponding to the directional keys. The interface is responsive without lag, allowing me to adjust exposure values swiftly.

The DP2M only comes with the standard PASM shooting modes plus movie mode at VGA resolution that does not autofocus nor suppor manual focus during recording. It also comes with 3 custom modes, several preset colour modes (Standard, Vivid, Sepia, etc.) and 9 fixed AF points. While it doesn't have built-in flash, the standard hot-shoe allows one to use external flash. I like the ability to do AF+MF using the fly-by-wire focusing ring. Toggling from AF to full MF is just a button away.

The DP2M starts up rather fast. AF is responsive with adequate lighting, but takes a beating when shooting indoors. The 920K LCD monitor displays rather sharp images, but I notice display lag and encounters "rolling shutter" syndrome during live view. It is not a camera for shooting active scenes.

After taking a shot, it takes a long time to save the images, and while the images are saved, it is not possible to playback the images, though it is possible to continue shooting.

The DP2M is not built for speed, for sure.

Image Characteristics
With the Foveon X3 sensor, the DP2M is expected to perform better than cameras with Bayer sensor of similar size. Here are the side-by-side image results when comparing with the Samsung NX20 (20.3MP APS-C CMOS Bayer sensor):

Reference photo with EXIF.
Sigma DP2M

Samsung NX20

Zoom in at 100%, NX20 (left) and DP2M (right). Shot at the same exposure, the DP2M is brigher because the Foveon X3 sensor captures more light per pixel.

Zoom in at 400%. Notice, despite NX20 higher pixel count, the DP2M is clearly sharper and more details.

The Foveon X3 sensor delivers the most efficient image quality per pixel, simply because each pixel can capture all colours. There is no need for processing or demosaicing or interpolation: each pixel holds its own colour information. The result is much sharper and more detailed image performance, with some independent reviews claiming it surpasses the Nikon D800. And because each pixel captures all colours of the light, the exposure speed is shorter than using Bayer sensors. Colours appear more accurate and vibrant. Pixel-peepers will be tremendously pleased.

Here's some full-resolution images. Download and pixel-peep at your pleasure. Images are not processed except to apply watermark using Picasa.

High ISO performance is poor. I find the chroma noise level unacceptable after ISO800. The proprietary RAW file, X3F, is not supported by latest Adobe software like Lightroom.

The DP2M does not last long. You can only get about 80 shots in a single charge. The short battery life is attributed to the power-hungry sensor.

Summary Thoughts
The Sigma DP2 Merrill excels in the ease of use and the image quality, arguably the best when comparing at pixel level. But for everything else, the DP2M is a modern imaging device trapped in the past. This product performs like an early 21st century digicam. Laggy live-view display, short battery life, slow image writing and playback, limited shooting modes. It is best suited for photographers who want to achieve the best per-pixel image quality in a compact form factor. Capturing inanimate and detailed scenes like landscape or architecture would give you amazingly-detailed results, while shooting active subjects (like my daughter) might require good timing and accuracy (it takes too long to review images for a reshoot).

It is a pity that such an excellent camera is flawed by the demands of modern photography. Imagine the potential if the Sigma DP series are improved to match the modern camera's competitive specifications - faster image capture and processing, longer battery life, more shooting modes.

Sigma Foveon X3 sensor has been in existence for a decade. It is proven to be a superior sensor over the Bayer sensor used in every other digital cameras in the market. But quality alone does not win the market share. Until Sigma successfully mass-markets this technological marvel, we will only see the Foveon X3 sensors used by the image connoisseurs who appreciate and value image quality over other shooting aspects.

This article is also published on XINMSN.

Labels: , ,