SIGMA DP1 MERRILL & DP2 MERRILL REVIEW
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SIGMA DP1 MERRILL & SIGMA DP2 MERRILL REVIEW, TAKING THEM OUT FOR A SPIN IN VENICE!
Recently, new developments in compact camera technology made me wonder if we got to the point where it is now possible to have exceptionally high image quality in a very small, light & portable package. In this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review, I’ll try and find out if this turned out to be right.
We all know that sensor size plays a huge role in image quality. Usually, the larger, the better. We also know that quality lenses take up lot of space and weight as well. When Sigma announced the first DP compact cameras a few years ago, it seemed like a move in the right direction. However, their resolution was too low to be taken even mildly seriously for large print, despite the Foveon sensor. More, they were too slow and quirky to operate. In the end, despite my curiosity, I decided to sit that one out.
Flash-forward a few years now. Sigma kept working and improving on the DP camera concept, just releasing the new Sigma DP1 Merrill and Sigma DP2 Merrill. These two new compact cameras, named in homage to Dick Merrill, the developer of the Foveon sensor, now sport APS-C sized sensors with resolution increased to 46 Foveon-Mp (or 15.36 Regular-Mp x 3 levels of colour). They feature new, custom-developed lenses, respectively a 19mm (28mm equivalent) and a 30mm (45mm equivalent). Finally, they promise to have improved on speed and got rid of the operational quirks plaguing the first generation of DP cameras.
In November 2012, I went for a couple of days to Venice to do some shooting for my VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART PRINTS collection. I normally don’t use new gear on a serious working trip, nor would suggest anyone to do so. However, since this was an easily repeatable trip for me in case things went wrong, rather than carrying around my Nikon D800E or my medium forma rig, I choose to save some ten pounds weight and some cubic inches in my bag and give my newly purchased Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill duo a try instead. This Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review will not show photos of resolution boards, nor controlled tests and such. This is a real-world review of two cameras put to the test the only way I know of: by using them in the field and decide whether they worked for me accordingly.
All images presented in this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review have been shot either in Milan or in Venice and processed according to my aesthetic vision as I normally do for my own work. I shot all images below in RAW, developed them in Sigma Photo Pro and finished them in Photoshop CS6.
So, were my hopes and dreams for high image quality in a small package fulfilled? Read on to find out!
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with Sigma in any way. I am a professional photographer looking for the best equipment for my work, I buy all my gear with my hard-earned cash and I don’t get paid by anyone to write articles for my blog.
SIGMA DP1 MERRILL & SIGMA DP2 MERRILL: COMMON FINDINGS, VALID FOR BOTH CAMERAS
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Sigma ships both cameras in a standard white box including, beside the usual stuff, a second battery. Good news, right? On the contrary, this is the first, and most serious, bad news. Battery life with both the Sigma DP Merrill cameras is incredibly low. The two included batteries, sadly, don’t last almost enough to seriously start working.
Even worse, spare Sigma BP-41 batteries are just not available today, so you couldn’t buy extras even if you wanted to. Luckily, Ricoh DB-65 batteries are exactly one and the same with the Sigma BP-41, and what’s more important, they can readily be found.
So, how bad is battery life? Truly bad, unfortunately. One battery isn’t even good for 100 images, and it can last much less than that. How many images per charge you’ll get, will mostly depend on your use of the LCD screen and on how long you leave the camera in stand-by.
Incredibly, I got as low as 50 images on one charge. The only positive thing is that after going through a few charging cycles, as usual, battery life improved a bit. Plus, once the cameras are set-up, one doesn’t need to fiddle with the menus as much. Still, 70-100 images per charge is a ridiculously poor performance in this day and age, especially for a serious camera aimed at serious photographers.
Such a low battery life is probably due both to the high-energy requirements of Foveon sensors and to Sigma wanting to keep the battery small to keep bulk under control. Still, with the 3.6V 1250mAh 4.5Wh Sigma BP-41 batteries you’ll need at least 4-5 battery per camera to go through a normal day shooting.
The second bad news concerns RAW shooters, and you’d definitely want to shoot RAW with these cameras to make the most out of them. Sigma Photo Pro, the software you have to use to be able to develop the Sigma DP Merrills’ RAWs, is not the user-friendliest, nor the most stable, nor the most powerful RAW processor on the block. Not even close. In fact, I think it’s one of the worse RAW converters I have ever used.
While it doesn’t take long to get used to, compared to the best RAW processors on the market there is only so much it can do. More, it works in such a quirky way that, once more, one wonders why, oh why, do camera companies think they must be software developers as well. I seriously wish Sigma gave their RAW sauce to Adobe and Phase One, supporting them to implement Foveon cameras’ RAW conversions, concentrating on how to make their cameras even better instead.
Once you got to grips with the bad news above, though, things start looking much better. Camera menus are well organised and short, without the usual hundreds of tabs and options, and the cameras themselves are very easy to setup.
Ergonomically there isn’t much to say: both Sigma DP Merrills’ bodies tantamount to a couple of small, slippery bricks. While the small bumps that Sigma added both on the front and on the back of the camera help a bit with holding, the slippery finish and the absolute lack of any protuberances or grips of sorts makes it necessary to always use either a neck strap or a hand strap (my preferred solution) for security.
As far as controls go, between the top wheel and the 4-way controller on the back you can do pretty much all you need in a very intelligent way. Manual focus is well implemented and easy to use, once you get over the horrible focus-by-wire feel of the lenses’ focus rings. In short, a wonderful simplicity permeates the cameras, from hardware to software setup. This is a very welcome breath of fresh photographic air among today’s overcomplicated, over-featured cameras. The Sigma DP Merrill cameras’ controls work perfectly well in the field, too, which is what counts. No frills, just photos.
The Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill’s LCD works well and is very visible in all but the brightest light. However, when composing and focussing in low light, the LCD image is very desaturated, almost to the point of going BW. As well, the LCD is very prone to show fingerprints.
In use, both the Sigma DP Merrills are very responsive for a compact camera. They are ready to shoot in 1-2 sec at start-up, autofocus is very quick and it seldom hunts or miss, and while file writing takes some time, a deep enough buffer makes it possible to keep shooting.
On the other hand, image playback doesn’t work while the cameras are writing their files. This is quite frustrating, forcing you to wait and lose time and shots. It would be great if Sigma could implement a fast, low-resolution preview to be displayed while the cameras write their files in the background.
The Sigma DP Merrills aren’t fast street shooters, but they hold their ground. For my work as a Fine Art landscape photographer, however, I always used them either on a tripod or handheld at a relatively relaxed pace. As such, I have been very happy with them and never had to wait for them to let me do my work.
USE ON A TRIPOD AND FILTERS
Using the Sigma DP Merrills on an Arca-Swiss compatible tripod head is very easy. The tripod mount is aligned with the centre of the lens and adding a small and light universal Really Right Stuff compact-camera plate did the trick for me. As far as using filters, no problem. Both cameras feature a 49mm filter thread and internal focus, non-extending lenses.
In a word, if you use the cameras as they are intended to, image quality is simply wonderful. The clarity and per-pixel sharpness of the Foveon files needs to be seen to be believed. Detail is truly impressive, with no smearing, no aliasing, no moire, no interpolation artefacts whatsoever.
Comparisons between the Merrills and other cameras started to appear on the web, and you might want to check out diglloyd and Reid Reviews (both paid websites, but both worth the money) for more “technical” reviews. In particular, Lloyd’s findings on the rendering of smooth surfaces with the Sigma DP2 Merrill are very interesting and confirm my impressions with the camera.
Colour rendition is very appealing but definitely particular to Sigma. The Sigma DP Merrills’ files aren’t necessarily 100% faithful to reality, so to speak. However, they mostly depart from it in a subtle way and always very pleasantly so. That said, I wouldn’t use the Merrills for work where critical colour reproduction is needed.
Interestingly enough for cameras that tout their “full colour” sensor as their main strength, the black and white images produced by the cameras in this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review are simply amazing.
In fact, I’d go as far as saying that the Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill output the best BW images I have ever seen from any digital camera, short of the Leica M Monochrom and very likely of the Phase One Monochrome back (which I never used). The files have an amazing clarity and detail, the BW tones are so rich and the transitions so smooth, the images look so deep and three-dimensional, that one would almost want to shoot BW all the time.
Speaking of the Leica M Monochrom, by the way, it is worth considering that one can get the Sigma DP1 Merrill, Sigma DP2 Merrill and the newly announced Sigma DP3 Merrill (75mm equivalent, f/2.8) for less than the Leica M Monochrom’s body alone, which is something worth thinking about.
SIGMA DP1 MERRILL & SIGMA DP2 MERRIL: DIFFERENCES
The only difference between the two cameras in this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review is in their lenses. The Sigma DP1 Merrill features a 19mm f/2.8 lens, FOV equivalent in so-called “full frame” terms of 28mm. The Sigma DP2 Merrill, on the other hand, features a 30mm f/2.8 lens, with a FOV equivalent of 45mm.
Limiting both lenses’ speed at a slow f/2.8, while far from being state of the art, helped Sigma to keep them small and light. More, staying slow was a wise move on Sigma’s part to help keeping aberrations & distortion low and sharpness high over the whole frame.
The 30mm lens on the Sigma DP2 Merrill, equivalent to a “normal” lens in FF terms, is just great. Very well corrected, the lens is already amazingly sharp wide open on centre and it gets sharp all over the frame from f/4 on. Its colour rendition is very well balanced, with only a hint of green-magenta fringe and red-blue chromatic aberration (as per Sigma Photo Pro’s terminology) appearing on high contrast objects. CA is easily corrected either in SPP, or in Photoshop.
The lens shows some barrel distortion at close focus, which can be corrected adding about +2 in Photoshop. Out of focus areas are very pleasant, and so is the lens’ drawing in general. I’d rate this 9/10, just missing top marks due to the slight chromatic aberrations.
The Sigma DP1 Merrill, on the other hand, sports a little weaker lens compared to its sibling. That said, the 19mm Sigma lens is pretty sharp for a wide-angle and renders beautifully as well. However, if you start pixel peeping, the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s image corners don’t get as sharp as those of the 30mm until f/5.6-f/8.
The Sigma DP1 Merrill shows chromatic aberrations as well, but compared to that of the 30mm, CA on the 19mm is larger in pixels and gets triggered a bit more easily and more frequently than in the Sigma DP2 Merrill.
Colour rendition is generally balanced, even if a bit less so than with the Sigma DP2 Merrill. Under certain light conditions, a heavy hotspot of magenta colour cast can appear in the middle of the frame, sometimes a very sizeable one. Please note that I choose to correct the cast in the examples you see in this post to different extents, according to the mood of the image. That said, of course, I wouldn’t expect to see such a heavy colour cast from a camera aiming to such high levels of image quality.
While both cameras in this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review work very well and are a joy to use, despite their quirks, as always there is room for improvement. My suggestions for the next iteration of Sigma DP Merrill cameras would be:
– Add a hot-shoe based external EVF for those of us (like me, for instance) who don’t like to always shoot keeping the cameras at arm’s length;
– Open the RAW format to third-party developers and help them to make the best of these great files (Capture One and Adobe Camera Raw come to mind);
– Increase battery life;
– Fix, or at least improve, chromatic aberrations;
– Fix the magenta hot-spot in the Sigma DP1 Merrill; alternatively, add a software fix or an LCC function in Sigma Photo Pro.
I had a lot of fun using the cameras in this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review in the field, and I generally found the results to be up to the level I demand from the gear I use for my professional work. The cameras are small, light and easy to use, they let you use filters easily and they produce great files, which is what counts the most. I’ll definitely keep the Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill around some more and wait for Sigma to release the DP3 Merrill to complete the trio, while hoping for future improvement on the software side.
Thanks for reading this Sigma DP1 Merrill & Sigma DP2 Merrill review, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?
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