Photographers carry a lot of gear. It’s an occupational hazard and one of the reasons we collect camera bags: we’re always trying to find a better way to haul a metric tonne of cameras, lenses, and lighting. But I’m constantly looking for ways to lighten the load, because I’m a firm believer that having more gear just slows you down. So, naturally I’ve been monitoring the compact camera revolution closely.
What revolution, you ask?
In case you haven’t noticed, that smartphone you’re carrying has a pretty spiffy camera built into it. As I write this, three of the top five most popular cameras on Flickr are different varieties of Apple iPhone. People are using their camera phones to capture their memories and buying fewer point-and-shoot compact cameras. To battle flagging camera sales, manufacturers are introducing more powerful and higher quality compact cameras, like the Micro Four Thirds and APS-C size sensor cameras. The latter eliminates the large reflex mirror and pentaprism, putting DSLR quality imaging into your (admittedly large) jacket pocket.
A unifying characteristic of these cameras is that their sensors rely on a Bayer filter to accurately record color. Pixels in CCD and CMOS digital sensors can only record shades of gray, so the sensor sits behind a Bayer filter that exposes each pixel to one of three primary colors: red, green, and blue. The full color image is constructed by demosaicing the data from neighboring pixels and interpolating the missing information. This interpolation creates artifacts in the image that are mitigated by an “anti-alias” filter that blurs the image a bit, covering up the jagged artifacts. You end up with a full color, slightly blurry image.
A Foveon sensor does things a bit differently. It stacks three sensors in series, each designed to absorb red, green, or blue. Since the sum of each pixel in the stack contributes directly to the image, no anti-alias filter or interpolation is required. Ergo, you get a sharper image.
There are pros and cons to each system, but enough with the technobabble. Let’s talk about the camera.
The Sigma DP2 Merrill
Sigma’s DP2 Merrill uses the Foveon X3 sensor. Their marketing materials claim 46 megapixels, since it’s a stack of three 15.4 megapixel sensors. The actual image dimensions are 4800 x 3200, but pixel counts aren’t everything. In my experience, if you can cope with the camera’s eccentricities and rudimentary editing software, the detail and resolution of images are nothing short of stunning.
The camera itself is lightweight, compact, and elegant. Some describe it as a brick. I like the way it feels in my hand — just enough mass to feel stable but not so much to feel heavy. The matte finish is nice, though it does make it a bit slippery to hold.
Right off the bat you’ll notice that there’s no viewfinder — electronic or otherwise. Composition, exposure, and camera settings are all handled via the rear LCD. That means viewing in bright conditions is difficult. I rigged up an LCD viewfinder loupe by drilling some holes and threading some shock cord into one that I bought for my Sony NEX-5n (see the photos on the left). With the loupe installed, the rear display becomes a great electronic viewfinder.
The control buttons are spartan, but everything you need is available via a couple of clicks and a spin of the control wheel. Make no mistake — this is not a camera meant for fast action or changing settings often and quickly. It’s something to be used slowly, deliberately.
I will run out of superlative adjectives describing the image quality from the Sigma. The images are incredibly detailed. When you zoom in 100% on your computer screen, it’s sharp — stunningly so – and very smooth, free from the fuzzy artifacts you get with other digital cameras. I’ve printed 17in x 22in photographs made with this camera that look fantastic. Friend and fellow photographer Don Ross tells me that he’s made 24in x 36in and even 30in x 40in prints. Given good light and methodical image making, that makes this camera a solid competitor for heavyweights like the 36 megapixel Nikon D800.
Of course, to see this unbelievable image quality, you have to get the images onto your computer, and right now that’s a bit of a problem.
To get the maximum quality and latitude from the Sigma (or any digital camera for that matter) you need to shoot RAW format. As of this writing, the only way you can convert the RAW files from the DP2 is with Sigma Photo Pro or with Iridient Digital’s Iridient Developer. The Foveon sensor is so different that all of the usual RAW conversion software doesn’t read the files, and that’s a big bummer.
Sigma Photo Pro isn’t awful, but it’s not wonderful either. If you’re used to Adobe Lightroom, Apple Aperture, or other software in this space, prepare to be disappointed. Photo Pro feels coarse, like a blunt instrument and reminds me where RAW image software was 10 years ago. Getting good, accurate color out of it is a chore. My workflow revolves around getting the image exposure and color “in the ballpark” and then exporting a big TIFF file that I can take to Lightroom for fine tuning.
And those big TIFF files are fantastic. With the advent of the D800, I finally saw a reasonable replacement for the dynamic range and resolution that I used my film cameras for. Now with the Sigma Merrill cameras, I see a way to get that medium format, black-and-white film look in a portable package.
But wait a minute: the D800 has 36 megapixels and the DP2 Merrill only has 15. How can I compare the two?
Again, pixel counts aren’t everything. When the D800 arrived on the scene it stunned the industry with the unprecedented number of pixels packed onto its 35mm size sensor. That’s medium-format-digital level resolution, and the prints show it. With good glass and technique, truly enormous, detailed prints are possible.
The quality of those pixels is what’s important. A 12 megapixel point-and-shoot camera with it’s half inch sensor is no match for a camera with the same number of pixels on a bigger sensor. In a similar (but technologically different) way, Foveon pixels are worth a little more than their Bayer-filtered counterparts. Because there’s no interpolation going on to reconstruct a color image, photographs from a Foveon have a smoothness and clarity of detail that allows them to be displayed and printed much larger than Bayer images.
A Replacement for DSLRs?
Well, not really. Yes, the images are fantastic, especially when you realize it’s coming from a sub-$1,000 camera that weighs less than half a Nikon D800 with 50mm ƒ/1.4 AF-D attached (2lbs 13oz for the Nikon vs 1lb 2oz for the Sigma). But the Sigma just isn’t very versatile. While you can dial the ISO from 100 to 6400, I’ve only produced usable images at ISO 400 or below. With my D800, I regularly shoot with impunity up to 3200.
The DP2 files also don’t have the dynamic range of the Nikon RAW files. I find shadow noise to be very noticeable on the Sigma, especially if you increase the base or shadow exposure in the RAW coversion. The Sigma images also contain a great deal of banding noise and color fringing in the out-of-focus areas. Thankfully, their Photo Pro software takes care of a good bit of this and I have yet to see it in a print.
It comes with a fixed 30mm ƒ/2.8 lens, the equivalent of 45mm on full-frame digital. It’s a great, sharp lens with decent close-focus capability. But you’re stuck with it and its not-impressively-fast ƒ2.8 maximum aperture. If you want something wider or longer, you need to get either the Sigma DP1 or DP3.
In short, no — it’s not going to replace my DSLRs. They can’t (currently) be matched for versatility, speed, and low-light performance. But I will carry the Merrill when I know I don’t need the speed or I don’t want to be weighed down with a lot of gear. Heck, it might even replace my Hasselblads or 4×5 Crown Graphic.
I’ll share more thoughts after I’ve spent some time with the camera. Feel free to share your comments or questions.