IMPROVING SIGMA DP MERRILL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
WHAT ABOUT IMPROVING THE SIGMA DP MERRILL STREET PHOTOGRAPHY CAPABILITIES?
While not made for street work, improving the Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities is something that can be done pretty easily. With their DP1 Merrill, DP2 Merrill and DP3 Merrill, Sigma achieved impressive image quality in a very small package, creating some amazing tools for Fine Art landscape photographers. However, designing the DP Merrill cameras Sigma had to make some design choices and compromises in order to stay within the size and form factor they envisioned. This, unfortunately, didn’t turn out great for those of us wanting to use them as street shooters.
First of all, they used a very small battery with very little power. Second, they didn’t design any sort of grip to help holding these all-metal, soap-bar-like cameras firmly in your hand while shooting fast-paced in the streets. Third, they didn’t include a built-in viewfinder (optical or otherwise), something I find very important when I work in the street.
So, how can we go about fixing these shortcomings and improving Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities? Read on to find out!
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, I am not affiliated with Sigma, Ricoh or Richard Franiec 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.
Let’s start with the underwhelming battery performance of the DP Merrill cameras. Sigma, well aware of the problem, decided to ship each camera with two batteries. Unfortunately, that is still not enough for a day out shooting, not even close. The problem could be easily solved buying some extra Sigma BP-41 batteries. If one could find them, that is, since for a long time they were simply non-existing on the market.
Luckily, you could use the Ricoh DB-65, which are identical to the Sigma as far as shape and power go (I got 4 of them myself and use them happily every day). As I write this article, it seems that you can finally find the original Sigma BP-41s in stock, so I’ll suggest you get a few of them while you can.
The problem is that at $40-50 US a pop this turns pretty expensive pretty fast, considering that you need at least 4-5 extra batteries for a day’s shooting without recharging. You can save a bit of money if you choose the $11 US Wasabi for Sigma BP-41 or similar knock-off batteries instead. However, I personally haven’t tried any of those, and therefore cannot recommend them. To solve the camera holding problem, thus dramatically improving the Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities, I went looking for third party grips online.
Luckily, I found quite a few different options. Out of all these, I decided to give the Franiec grips a try (you’ll find them following this link: FRANIEC GRIPS). My reasoning to choose Franiec grips has been as follows. First of all, looking at the pictures available online I thought they’d provide a good size grip. Then, they are machined individually from aluminium by Richard Franiec himself. As well, they covered the Sigma logo (an added bonus in my book for street shooting, even though I am sure that not everyone would agree on this one). More, they were very reasonably priced. Last, but certainly not least, they looked great and seemed to enjoy a very good reputation online. So, I went on and ordered three, one for each of my cameras.
Richard Franiec was very nice to deal with, very responsive and he shipped the grips out really fast. However, unsurprisingly enough, Turkish mail really took their sweet time to deliver them to me and I had to wait over 1 month from the day the grips arrived in the country to the day I actually got them in my hands (!!). When I was living at home in Italy, I used to complain about the Italian postal service. Live and learn, as they say: no matter how unhappy you are about any service, it can always get worse.
Back to the grips, and to improving the Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities. Franiec’s grips arrived perfectly packed and accompanied by very clear installing instructions. Installation is very easy and straightforward: open the battery compartment to find a reference point for the installation, peel the tape and glue the grips. It took me about 15 minutes to clean the grip area on the cameras with rubbing alcohol, as suggested by Mr. Franiec, and install the three of them on my DP Merrill cameras.
Once installed, the grips immensely changed the handling of the camera for the better. I’d still recommend using a wrist strap though, to make really sure that you aren’t going to drop the cameras under any circumstances.
My only (very small) qualms were that such aluminium-made grips might get cold to hold bare-handed in winter. As well, it felt like they could be slippery to hold with gloves. I’ll get back to you on that when I have more experience with them. Maybe Richard will add a version with a sticky-camera-rubber-cover as well in the future, which would further improve the grip’s grip and fix the winter problem as well. In any case, they are a great addition to the Sigma DP Merrill, and one that I highly recommend.
UPDATE APRIL 15, 2013: Mr. Franiec got in touch with me and confirmed me that due to the thermic qualities of aluminium there is no problem even in the cold. Thank you, Richard, for pointing that out!
Coming to my third issue with the Sigma DP Merrill cameras, the lack of viewfinders, the perfect solution improving the Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities would have been a built-in hybrid viewfinder “a la Fujifilm X100S“. As you might know, the Fujifilm X100S sports an optical finder with shooting information overlaid that could be changed to an Electronic View Finder (EVF from now on) with the flick of a switch, giving you the best of both words.
The second-best solution would have been having a built-in finder of any kind, either optical or electronic, even a simple one without hybrid wizardries. The third-best solution would have been an external EVF, one that could be mounted on the cameras’ flash hot shoe. This would have been a very practical solution to accommodate people needing a viewfinder, while not adding bulk and weight for those who don’t want or need one.
As an added bonus for multiple Merrill camera owners as myself, such a solution would have allowed me to buy one single EFV and use it with all three Merrill cameras, both reducing costs and the number of bits and pieces that I have to carry in the bag. Unfortunately, in their infinite wisdom Sigma didn’t make any such options available. So, the only possible solution today, which being an optimist I’ll call fourth-best, is buying and carrying external optical viewfinders.
Sadly, you’ll need one for each of your DP Merrill cameras. So, is Sigma providing us with such viewfinders? Yes and no. To be precise, they do for the DP1 Merrill and DP2 Merrill (the Sigma VF-11 and the Sigma VF-21 respectively). They don’t, not yet at least, for the DP3 Merrill. Luckily for me, thanks to a long past using Leica film cameras, I had lot of experience experiment with various models of optical viewfinders made by different manufacturers.
For the focal lengths considered here, unless you want your cameras to look “all Sigma” (in which case you can go for the VF-11 and VF-21 for at least two of your DP Merrill cameras), I’d recommend you try Voigtlander viewfinders, which in my opinion provide the best value for your money.
They are about $5-10 US more expensive than the Sigma counterpart, but they are much better built, a bit smaller, and optically better. As well, they come with a nice small pouch, which is great to protect them from damage when you throw them in your camera bag. If you want the best of the best, you can go for Leica or Zeiss viewfinders. However, to get these you’ll have to part from a much larger sum of money, and they might not be easy to find new in the focal lengths you need. If you really want them and are willing to spend some time looking around, however, they are pretty much readily available on the second-hand market, at more reasonable prices too.
Personally, I decided to go for the Voigtlander 28mm black, the Voigtlander 75mm black and the 47mm Pentax viewfinders, and I am very happy with them. So, are the three DP Merrill siblings now ready to go and shoot reportage-style out in the streets? I’d say yes, with a few small caveats.
For street work, I’d set my cameras aperture priority or manual mode, in order to keep your aperture under your direct control. I’d stay clear of shutter priority or P modes for street shooting, unless you need shutter priority for some particular situations, and you don’t care about controlling your depth of field as much.
If you want to use an optical viewfinder instead of your LCD, there are two possible ways of doing so and still get your pictures in focus. First, if you want to use autofocus. In this case, I’d recommend you use your centre AF point, aiming the centre of your optical viewfinder at your subject, half-pressing to focus. Then, is just a matter of waiting for the AF confirmation light to turn green and shoot (you’ll be able to see the green light on the right side of your eye’s field of view even while using an external VF).
Second, if you prefer to use Manual Focus. In this case, I’d recommend you choose your focussing distance using the very practical distance scale on the LCD, selecting a suitable aperture to take advantage of depth of field and / or hyper-focal distance. Once this is done, just look into the viewfinder to frame and shoot away.
My recommendation here is to be daring and turn it off. We didn’t have any image preview during the old, glorious film days, for those who still remembers them, and I think it works really well shooting in the street. Constantly peaking at the screen, personally speaking, breaks my rhythm and takes my attention away from the things happening around me.
More, given the underwhelming battery performance of these cameras, turning the LCD off will save you a lot of battery power, further improving the Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities. If you really need to peak at the screen – perhaps to check your histogram and such, something that could be useful especially during your acquaintance period with the new cameras – then bring some extra batteries, change them when you see one bar left in the battery indicator on your LCD and you’ll be set.
If you plan to develop your images in colour, I’d never go over ISO 400 if at all possible. In any case, only use ISO 800 if you are really desperate to get the shot and don’t care about image quality. If, on the other hand, you plan to convert your images to B&W using Sigma SPP 5.5 new monochrome mode (remember to check that you have the last firmware installed on your cameras), then ISO 1600 is perfectly usable, and ISO 3200 is OK too, if you like a gritty look.
That’s it, now you know what to do! Improving the Sigma DP Merrill street photography capabilities is easy enough, so get your Sigma DP Merrills ready and go out to have some fun in the streets as well!
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