Following yesterday’s preview, today I got the opportunity to take the Sigma DP-1 out for a “test drive” around Focus. The camera I had access to was not a finished production model, but is very close – UK availability should be around the beginning of April, and if these preliminary results are anything to go by, the DP-1 is going to be heavily in demand. Quite often when looking at pre-production cameras there is no question of reproducing files produced by the product, Sigma’s DP-1 need have no fear.
Occupying a unique niche, the DP-1 is the first compact digital camera to use a fullsize APS-C sensor – few high end compacts improve significantly on their cheaper brethren – and the second compact camera to employ a Foveon sensor at all (whilst it did not make it to the UK, Polaroid experimented with the x530). Physically the DP-1 is clean to the point of puritanical in styling, a minimalist black rectangle with a slightly grippy surface and a retractable 6-element 16.6mm f4 lens (28mm equivalent), with a manual pop-up flash (GN 6) and a substantial and clear high resolution LCD which provides the Live View image composition as well as playback and menu functions. An optional VF-11 viewfinder extends battery life, providing a comfortable and quick manual composition technique. It also makes the camera very reminiscent of classic rangefinder/viewfinder cameras like the Konica Hexar or Ur-Leica.
It handles as well as you would expect, weighing 230g and fitting my hands perfectly; the control layout is largely intuitive with a manual focus dial on the rear and the familiar cross-shape control. Menu titles are logical and navigated in a sensible manner. The zoom/magnifier controls lead some to assume the extending lens may feature zoom, but these are for image playback and digital zoom (which has to be enabled in the menu, ensuring no accidental use of the buttons). An attractive additional function is the focus magnification – unlike any other digital compact I have used, the Sigma’s focus wheel provides instant, rapid manual focus with good visual confirmation. To assist with this, the lower-right button enables a zoom function – so the focus can be performed at higher resolution than the display will allow with the full image display.
The manual focus demonstrates immense confidence in the lens, and this is utterly justified. The 28mm equivalent lens offers minimal distortion and vignetting, with the fixed focal length design ensuring the optimal relationship between the lens and sensor. Consistent brightness and sharpness is obtained partly via the use of optimised micro lenses on the sensor, adding to the benefits of a substantially greater pixel pitch. Using manual focus also removes perceptible shutter delay, and allows close-distance work with creative use of DoF.
To understand the DP-1 it really is necessary to pick it up and use it. This camera offers DSLR optical performance at the sort of levels that would require serious investment in glass, with proven SD14 style colour and sharpness. Some compact features have made it into the firmware such as the ability to record video at 30fps in QVGA (320 x 240; example still from video below) and a camera shake warning, sometimes implied to be Image Stabilisation on the pre-production models. To demonstrate, below is a full size image taken indoors at 1/13th, ISO 100, f4.5. Aside from demonstrating excellent white balance, geometry and illumination, it also displays the kind of shake reasonably expected with this length of exposure. During the shot, the red “camera shake” icon illuminated, indicating that the shake warning is usefully sensitive (or may be entirely passive and merely provides an indicator at slower shutter speeds).
Having taken the opportunity to display an image afflicted with your correspondent’s poor hand, I shall also take the opportunity to display the true abilities of the DP-1. Bear in mind that this is a pre-production camera, and therefore the results and performance may have further refinements in finished, shipping examples.
The two images above demonstrate the in-camera JPEG quality nicely as well as the lens geometry and accuracy – one of the more challenging subjects I inflicted on the camera was a shot through the glass staircase of the NEC facing into the sun – which shot as RAW served to demonstrate the headroom available (with +/- 3.0EV, the DP-1 is ideally suited for HDR photography), you can find a couple of stops of adjustment either way in a 100 ISO image.
Another feature of the DP-1 is the quality of DoF, reminiscent of early Leica cameras. If you study the tail-light of this BMW motorbike (RAW file converted in Sigma Photo Pro), you can see the subtle yet distinct separation; the image linked below that shows the sharpness of the lens with the detail on the fuel filler cap.
(At this point, your intrepid reporter has to sleep. Well… maybe after one more picture!)
The DP-1’s optical performance places it in a league above current compact cameras, and lends it an air of “precision” that results in it being a little misunderstood by the typical industry pundit – I expect many reviewers to be unsure how to place the camera in the inevitable comparative reviews, much as happened with the SD14 previously. After discussing the performance and features with various people, it really comes back to the Leica comparison – not digital, but film – and when considering value it’s certainly fair to consider the DP-1 to be in a premium section of the marketplace. The f4 28mm equivalent is sharp fully open – spend the cash on an f2.8 Leica Elmarit and you will have a lens that is bright for focus, but softer when fully open for example.
I think it’s fair to say at this stage – with a more in depth review to come with production models – that the Sigma DP-1 will not be a camera for everybody – it’s not trying to, or going to, compete with the high-ISO, Bayer-pattern small sensor compacts; it will, however, be a camera that any photographer will truly appreciate the quality of when they get to use it.
One thing I have not covered is the quality of the files when working with Sigma’s own updated software; Sigma Photo Pro 3.1 for Macintosh brings the Apple version of the software up to date with the newer front end, brushed metal appearance and faster processing on Intel Macs. Producing 18.6Mp (double size) files from the RAW is fast, and if you reduce the default sharpening by around 0.8, the files are smooth with very few “jaggies” whilst retaining the natural clarity. We have found using Lightroom/Photoshop CS3 with the latest ACR plugin to produce much better upsampled files for stock library use – given the astoundingly clean and sharp originals produced by the DP-1 it should prove to be a useful addition to any stock photographer’s library, with the ability to set the camera up for discreet, “street” photography in fully manual mode and take instant shots.
A few people have wondered how the DP-1’s files will fare in Genuine Fractals, so I’ve downloaded a couple of trial versions of GF and CS3 to use whilst in Birmingham – here’s a sample. Exported from X3F in SPP 3.1 as a 16-bit TIFF file, increased to 18.6mp with GF5 trial (sorry, watermarks) with no adjustments to settings, then saved as highest-quality JPEG
Having made the error of assuming Sigma Photo Pro’s double-sized export was intended to produce 14Mp files without actually checking the filesize, here’s a proper 14Mp (4608 x 3072) example using the NEC staircase image (opens in new window)
… more to follow…