SIGMA SD1 MERRILL FIRST LOOK REVIEW

The Sigma SD1 Merrill and Sigma lenses

IN THE END, I COULDN’T RESIST FOVEON'S CALL: READ MY SIGMA SD1 MERRILL FIRST LOOK REVIEW TO FIND OUT WHAT I THOUGHT ABOUT IT!

This Sigma SD1 Merrill first look review came to life after first trying the small, lovely Sigma DP Merrill series of compact cameras. I loved the Foveon’s results, and after a few months of tribulations with myself, I finally took the plunge and got the Sigma SD1 Merrill, together with a few lenses.

The primary use I have in mind for this setup is to exploit the quality of the Foveon sensor to create Fine Art Landscape images for my VIERI BOTTAZZINI FINE ART PRINTS business. This first impression review has been written with this is mind, so if your working style and requirements are different, my thoughts and conclusions may not apply to you. Otherwise, read on to see what I thought about the Sigma SD1 Merrill!

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.

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For a long time, Sigma has been known mostly as a manufacturer of cheaper off-brand lenses for various camera mounts. Most of these were considered to be just decent quality lenses, with a few notable exceptions. As well, when it came to quality control, Sigma’s record has always been less than spotless. In recent years, though, this trend has steadily and rapidly changed for the best.

Sigma’s newly released lenses, as well as their high-quality compact cameras, have been very well received. They provide excellent quality while still keeping at a reasonable price. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I particularly liked the line of DP compact cameras, such as the DP1 Merrill, DP2 Merrill and DP3 Merrill. See THE SIGMA DP MERRILL COLOURS: THE TRUTH REVEALED!, SIGMA DP1 & DP2 MERRILL VS SONY NEX-7 REVIEW and SIGMA DP1 MERRILL & SIGMA DP2 MERRILL REVIEW for my views on these little cameras.

After using Sigma DP Merrill cameras for a while, I started enjoying the Foveon sensor’s qualities. The next logical step has been considering the use of that sensor within a proper DSLR camera body. Sigma DP Merrill cameras are fun, but for my work I need a wider choice of lenses and accessories, a longer battery life, and so on. In short, I need a professional camera system. Enter the Sigma SD1 Merrill, a no-frills, basic-featured, solid photographers’ camera. As we’ll see in this Sigma SD1 Merrill first look review, a camera built for those of us who aim for maximum image quality and that can take their time while working.

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BUILD AND ERGONOMICS
The Sigma SD1 Merrill’s unconventionally looking grip, with its deep finger recess, makes for one of the most comfortable cameras I had the pleasure to hold. The body feels very well built, a solid brick with no cracking or rattling. The rubber covering the grip and the thumb rest is grippy, making holding the camera very easy and safe. Still, Sigma managed to make the Sigma SD1 Merrill 200 gr lighter than the Nikon D800E I am currently using (700 gr vs. 900 gr, body only).

On-camera controls are very well laid out and easy to memorise and use. As a long-time Nikon shooter, I especially appreciated the AF button, allowing me to decouple AF operations from the shutter button. While Sigma’s implementation is not exactly the same as Nikon’s, it took me just a few minutes to get used to it.

The QS and FUNC buttons complete the array of what I call “useful buttons”, versus the “traditional” ones such as Playback and Delete, for instance, which do not need any explanation. The QS button offers 2 panels of Quick Set options: ISO, Metering mode, AF mode, Flash mode (Qs1), and WB, Image size, Colour mode, File (Qs2). The FUNC button, on the other hand, calls the Status display, where you can change ISO and focus point, settings that also get dedicated buttons. I also like the Drive control dial, placed on the left side of the pentaprism, which serves as On-Off switch as well.

From the Off position, you can turn it on to Single or Continuous Shooting, 10 sec or 2 sec Timer and Mirror Up. The latter has a timer function as well, which you can control via menu. Kudos to Sigma on this one, having access to M-UP and Timer without having to fuss with the menus is just great. 

On the pentaprism’s right side, you’ll find a classic mode dial, with a twist. Besides the usual M, S, A and P modes, it offers three custom modes – aptly named C1, C2 and C3 – where, among all sort of parameters, you can also set the exposure mode you’d like to use for each mode. A feature very well thought of, one which saves me some time compared to what I am used to do with my Nikons.

All the most important controls can be reached in more than one way, more or less directly, either through menus or dedicated buttons. The Sigma SD1 Merrill definitely puts you in charge and makes it easy to do so. The only exceptions to this are the ISO button and the exposure compensation button. The former requires a bit of contortion on your index finger’s part to reach it. The latter is placed on the shutter’s side and might cause some confusion in fast-paced shooting. On the other hand, you’ll probably not want to use the Sigma SD1 Merrill for any fast-paced shooting to begin with.

THE SHUTTER
Doing this Sigma SD1 Merrill first look review, I found the shutter to be one of the best features of the camera. In short, this is one of the best-damped shutters I ever heard and used, short of film Leica M cameras and, of course, of lens shutters.

For your reference, the Sigma SD1 Merrill’s shutter is much quieter than that of both my Nikon D3X and D800E, and a quick test with a laser pointer tells me it generates much less vibration too, something quite useful if you shoot at shutter speeds below 1/15 sec.

THE SOFTWARE SIDE: MENUS & FIRMWARE

The camera’s menu is very simple and straightforward. Divided in panels, it’s not cluttered with too many options, while offering all you need to set the camera up to your liking. Particularly useful is the AF Micro Adjustment, which allows you to get the most out of your lenses.

Anything else is basically what you’d expect from a Nikon or Canon camera of yesteryear. For my style of shooting, I have no complains with Sigma’s minimal approach to features. However, since different photographers need different features, I can say that the Sigma SD1 Merrill is not a “universal shooter” kind of camera by any means.

GRIEVANCES, MISSING FEATURES, THINGS THAT COULD BE BETTER
The Sigma SD1 Merrill is quite a spartan camera, and has been designed to be a no-frills, photographer’s camera. Therefore, I’m not going to talk about missing features that aren’t there by design, such as video and the like.

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Live View. Let’s start with what for me might be the biggest missing feature of all, Live View. All the DP Merrill cameras sporting the same Foveon sensor used in the Sigma SD1 Merrill don’t even have an optical viewfinder and do Live View well enough to work out the LCD only. So, why not include Live View in the Sigma SD1 Merrill as well? This, together with the lack of an electronic level, are the two most useful feature for landscape, cityscape and Fine Art photography that I see missing in the Sigma SD1 Merrill. I am honestly surprised to see how Sigma thought that we wouldn’t need them, particularly seeing the target the camera addresses.

GPS. While I personally almost never use it, the lack of GPS, even if done via an external accessory, is also something many landscape photographers will find sorely missing.

Focus Modes. Coming to the camera’s operations, one slightly annoying thing is that when in Single Focus mode the Sigma SD1 Merrill works in Focus Priority mode only. When in Continuous Focus mode, on the other hand, you can only have Shutter Priority. While this might make sense for most situations, it would be great (and probably easy enough to implement in future firmware) to have the chance to mix and match modes to taste.

Exposure Compensation. While it works as expected in S, A and P mode, it would be great to be able to use exposure compensation also in M mode. My proposal is to have it work tweaking ISO between a Min and Max ISO range, user-definable via the menu. I think this could be doable in firmware if Sigma decided to implement it.

Image Writing Speed. While doing this Sigma SD1 Merrill first look review, this has been my main grievance with the camera’s operations. The camera isn’t sluggish at all when it comes to starting up, focusing, browsing and changing the menus. More, all buttons are very responsive. File writing speed, on the other hand, is incredibly slow. The buffer is deep enough to shoot 6-7 pictures in a row, which might be fine for most applications short of sports and PJ. However, while the Sigma SD1 Merrill is writing files to the card you basically cannot do anything except taking more pictures. Sure, you can focus and change settings such as shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

However, playback is not available, not even for older pictures. No action on the menus is actually possible, because while you can actually access them, the camera is so slow that you cannot pretty much change anything.

While this is OK in most situations, there are times when you wish the camera didn’t completely lock while writing images to the card. For instance, if you shoot a burst of photographs in continuous mode, you’ll have to wait a long time before you can see them. A rough test I did showed that if you shoot 7 pictures in Continuous Shooting mode, it takes about 15 sec before you see the first preview on screen. Then, it takes 5-6 seconds for each subsequent preview. Finally, it takes 1.30 minutes before the Sigma SD1 Merrill is fully functional again and you can use it for playback and all other functions. While this is not making it impossible to use the camera by any means, in these days and age it feels like a lifetime.

IMAGE QUALITY
Image quality, with any camera system, is basically function of the lenses, the sensor and the post-processing. The Foveon sensor is great, if you know how to manage it. RAW processing and lenses, on the other hand, can be cause for concern.

RAW Processing. Using the Sigma SD1 Merrill, in fact, you are forced to use Sigma Photo Pro as your one and only RAW converter. While the results you’ll get out of it are very good indeed, SPP will truly make you sweat to get them.

Let me be diplomatic and just say that the software is not designed in the most friendly and intuitive way. If you are used to Apple or Adobe RAW conversion software, or even to Nikon Capture (not the best designed software ever, just to put it mildly), you’ll find yourself fighting for your life when you start using SPP. Batch editing is all but absent, but once you edited your images one by one you can batch save them as TIFF or JPG, with your choice of options.

Lenses. My first concern was that while the DP1 Merrill, DP2 Merrill and DP3 Merrill do come with dedicated lenses tuned to the sensor, with the Sigma SD1 Merrill image quality will be at the mercy of the lenses you attach to it. Sigma’s past reputation for manufacturing less expensive but also lesser quality lenses is what had me pausing the longest, before deciding to get into the system.

Another point of concern is Sigma’s lens line-up. While Sigma offers some lenses that no other manufacturer produces, its line-up is sorely lacking in other areas. For instance, there aren’t any Tilt-Shift lenses; the wide-angle side of its line-up is not as strong as Nikon or Canon, especially if you need fast zooms and / or primes; and so on.

After long researches, I decided to go for the 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM, 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM, 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM, 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, 70mm F/2.8 EX DG Macro, 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM and 150mm f/2.8 AF APO EX DG OS HSM. Among Sigma’s offering, these looked like the best options for my kind of shooting.

THE SYSTEM
When you buy a camera, you really buy into a system. It is wise to keep this in mind, when deciding which way to go. With Sigma, you buy into a pretty well-developed system, but certainly not into one of the most developed systems out there.

You have Wireless Flash Control a-la-Nikon CLS, but it only works with the Sigma EF-610 DG Super Flash (at least, it’s way cheaper than a Nikon SB-700 Speedlight or Nikon SB-910 Speedlight). You have a vertical grip, the PG-31, but it only features a shutter button, no Shutter or Aperture adjusting dials. You have a macro ring flash, the Sigma EM-140 DG Macro Ring Flash, but it’s no Nikon R1C1. You have the Sigma USB Dock to fine-tune and Firmware-update your lenses, something that no other manufacturer offers, but you can use it with just a few lenses. Plus, so far, no FW updates appeared since its introduction. And so on.

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One more thing to consider is that third-party accessories manufacturer are less keen on creating stuff for the Sigma system as well, since the user base is much smaller than, say, Nikon or Canon’s. For instance, since there isn’t any dedicated L-bracket available for the Sigma SD1 Merrill made by either Really Right Stuff or Kirk, I had to get the Arca-Swiss universal one. While it works, this is bulkier and heavier than the Kirk bracket I use on my D800E, and much less stable.

IN THE FIELD
Let’s now have a look at how the camera performed in the field. During this Sigma SD1 Merrill first look review, I went to Mantua, Italy, and did some shooting there. I used the 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 DC HSM, 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM, 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM, 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM and 150mm f/2.8 AF APO EX DG OS HSM, and I am happy to report that I got very good results with all these lenses. The weakest of them, not surprisingly, was definitely the 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS HSM, which turned out to be a better performer than expected anyway, creating pleasant images despite its technical weaknesses.

What about the Foveon sensor? In a way, the same considerations applying to the Sigma SD1 Merrill apply to its sensor as well. If you use it within the boundaries of what it does best, in my opinion there is little that can touch the results you get with it, short of getting a 36 Mp Nikon D800E or going to digital Medium Format.

With the right lenses, the Sigma SD1 Merrill is a really great tool, capable of creating images of the highest quality on today’s DSLR market. Amazing sharpness (equivalent to about 30 Mp on a Bayer sensor), great micro-contrast and images free of most of the usual artefacts we see in digital images shot on Bayer cameras, makes for a great landscape setup.

The problems start when you push ISO over 400-800 for colour images, and over 1.600-3.200 for B&W images. At these ISO levels, which are pretty standard for Bayer cameras, Foveon colours start to fall apart in a very strange way. The surprising thing is that, due to the Foveon’s particular architecture, images that look really horrible in colour are amazingly clean when converted to B&W using the new Monochrome mode in SPP. Looking at the colour version and at the B&W version side by side one wouldn’t believe they come from the same file.

Another weakness of the Foveon sensor, and this is the one that disturbs me the most for my work, is its tendency to get noisy on long exposures, even at base ISO. I’d say that anything up to 15 seconds is perfectly fine, while when you start approaching 30 seconds noise becomes apparent. The Sigma SD1 Merrill limits you to a maximum of 2 minutes in “Extended Mode”, which is just as well. You’ll already start to see very noticeable noise in images taken at such shutter speeds, and I wouldn’t want to go much longer than that even if it was possible to do so. Therefore, if you plan on shooting a lot of long exposures, then you’ll probably be best served by a different camera.

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CONCLUSIONS
Drawing this Sigma SD1 Merrill first look review to a conclusion, let’s start by saying that this camera is most definitely not a “Universal Shooter”. It is a very specialised tool, and as such it is for you to decide whether it is the right camera for you or not.

Used under the right conditions, the results it provides are nothing short of exceptional for a camera of this size and price. However, I strongly suggest you think carefully about the kind of work you intend to do with it: if the camera and its features are OK for your work, I’d definitely recommend giving the Sigma SD1 Merrill a try; you won’t be disappointed.

Personally, it took me a long time, research and debate with myself before deciding to take the plunge, but I am happy I did. After a week or so of use and a few hundred images, I decided to keep it and stay in Foveon-land a little longer, just to see what happens.

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Thanks for reading this Sigma SD1 Merrill first look 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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JOIN THE DISCUSSION

2 thoughts on “SIGMA SD1 MERRILL FIRST LOOK REVIEW”

  1. Yes, I agree 100% with you. Foveon cameras aren’t for the mundane photographers and also very specialized tools. When I started to use my first Sigma DSLR, the SD15 I noticed something that made me mad… The lens I ordered with it , the Sigma EX DC Macro 18-50mm F2.8 for 450 USD was a huge disappointment due extreme astigmatism at the corners even at medium apertures but the image center was outstanding. Then I tried several Sigma optics and at that time the only one that really surprised me was the EX DC 70mm F2.8 Macro. This lens is a monster, tack sharp from edge to edge at maximum aperture.

    The problem was clear, Sigma lenses at that time simply aren’t at the same level of the SD-15. I decided to convert the camera bayonet to Leica-R standard and installed a custom made focusing screen on the SD-15. With decent lenses, the camera turned from dirty water to Chateauneuf du Pape wine…

    When I started to used the SD1 the problem turned even worse… The only lens at the same level for use with the SD1 was, again, the 70/2.8 Macro. Some time later, Sigma launched the ART series, and the 18-35 F1.8 ART finally came. What a wonderful combination.

    Reply
    • Well, as always the most important thing is the glass in front of the camera :) I think that the new Sigma offerings are very very good, finally. Too bad that I moved on in the meantime…

      Reply

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