Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Sigma DP2 Merrill (DP2M)

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
The Sigma DP2 Merrill, also called the DP2M, is a fixed-lens digital camera with a unique sensor. The lens is a 30mm (45mm equivalent) f2.8 that is fantastic. The sensor is an APS-C 46 megapixel Foveon sensor.

In case you don't know, there are (essentially) three types of sensors found in digital cameras. It's important to take a look at these to understand the DP2M.

The most common sensor type is called Bayer, which has pixels that are sensitive to red, green or blue, with only about half providing luminance information. Because of that the true resolution from a Bayer sensor is about half of what the pixel count would indicate. Bayer sensors are also subject to moire pattern distortion and require an anti-aliasing filter (although not all cameras with a Bayer-type sensor include this filter, but most do), which blurs the image slightly and further reduces resolution.

The next sensor type is Fuji's X-Trans sensor, which is very similar to a Bayer sensor except with an innovative modification which eliminates moire pattern distortion and the need for an anti-aliasing filter.

Finally, we have the Foveon sensor found on Sigma cameras. This sensor has three layers, one sensitive to red, one to green and one to blue (this is similar to most color films, in fact). In the DP2M, each layer has about 15 megapixels. Combined together, there is a grand total of 46 megapixels, and this produces images with a great deal of sharpness, detail and depth. Now 46 megapixels on a Foveon sensor is not quite equal to 46 megapixels on a Bayer or X-Trans sensor, but is roughly a 28 megapixel equivalent. Like the X-Trans sensor, Foveon sensors are not subject to moire pattern distortion and there is no need for an anti-aliasing filter.

One can see the advantage of the Foveon sensor very quickly. Packed into a small APS-C size is a sensor that can eclipse the resolution of almost all full-frame sensors and gets pretty darn close to medium-format sensors (I will not be doing side-by-side comparisons in this review). However, what one cannot easily see right away are the disadvantages of this sensor—and there are several big disadvantages—which we'll discuss a little later.

Foveon - Digital Transparency Film?
From The Past - Mojave, California
I've had a distant interest in the Foveon technology for several years now, but what really got my attention was a claim that the images produced by the sensor found on the Sigma DP2M resemble color transparency film.

I'm a relatively new convert to digital, and have shot film for over 15 years. Some of my favorite transparency films are (or, in some cases, were) Fuji Velvia 50, Fuji Reala 100, Kodachrome 25 and 64, and Kodak Ektachrome 100VS and 100SW. Each of these films have a different look, but they are (or were) great in their own way.

What I've discovered with digital capture is that, while it is much more convenient than film, and maybe even cheaper in the long term, most often it just doesn't match the quality and "look" of film. A few years ago one would have had to spend at least $10,000 on a digital camera body (not including lenses) in hopes of matching the image quality that film has been capable of for decades and decades and decades. The last couple of years has seen much progress in making quality digital capture affordable, but we're still talking about thousands of dollars for just a camera body.

So when I heard that the quality of color transparency film was available in digital form for under $800 (lens included, too), I thought this would be the camera for me! Does the Sigma DP2M live up to this claim? We will get to that soon.

What Is The DP2 Merrill?
Abandoned Homestead - Tehachapi, California
The DP2M  is a rectangular digital camera that most resembles a point-and-shoot pocket camera (although this camera is neither a point-and-shoot nor a pocket camera). It has simple controls and doesn't do a whole lot of fancy stuff. There are no scene modes or mechanisms for beginners. This is a photographer's tool, not an amateur's toy.

The rear screen, which is the only "viewfinder" to compose images, is sufficient (meaning, it does what it is supposed to do but won't blow your socks off). The video capabilities are less than what your cell-phone can do.

The fixed nine-blade 30mm lens, which is equivalent to 45mm in full-frame terms, is extremely sharp. There's very little distortion or chromatic aberrations to speak of. This lens is excellent! My only complaints are the maximum aperture of f2.8 (I'm surprised it's not larger—at least f2) and the minimum focus distance of eleven inches (which is good but not great). If you can overlook those two minor issues, the lens will not disappoint.

There is no image stabilization on the DP2M, which means in any condition other than normal daylight you'll want to at least consider the use of a tripod. While I've been able to get sharp images with a 1/25 shutter speed handheld, 1/40 is the limit I set for myself with this camera. In this regard the camera reminds me of using an old manual film camera.

Levels of Image Quality

Rusted Bolt - Loraine, California

The reason that I originally bought this camera, and the reason that you are interested in this camera, is one thing: image quality. Is it as good as others have said? What I've decided is that the DP2M has many different levels of image quality, and I'll go through those one at a time.

Level 1 - ISO 100 RAW

The DP2M performs at its peak at ISO 100 captured in RAW. The camera produces truly spectacular photographs at this level! Really, they have to be seen to be believed (either as a large print or at full size on a quality computer monitor). There is so much fine detail found in the images that it is hard to believe.

Based on my own experiences, the image quality at this level surpasses that of 35mm color transparency film but does not reach that of medium format color transparency film.

Which color transparency film, you ask? Not any one specific film. Out of the box the images from the DP2M probably resemble Kadochrome 64 the most (although not exactly), or perhaps Fuji Reala 100, but they can be made to look like anything you want in post-processing.

Level 2 - ISO 100 JPEG & ISO 200 RAW

I had heard that the DP2M made terrible looking JPEGs, and I can attest that there is some falsehood in that statement. At ISO 100 the JPEGs from this camera look great! Not quite as good as ISO 100 RAW, but pretty darn close. In fact, they look very similar to ISO 200 captured in RAW. The difference between image quality at level one and at level two is very small and won't be noticed without a close side-by-side study. I will also say that image quality level two is a close match to 35mm color transparency film.

Level 3 - ISO 200 JPEG & ISO 400 RAW

This is the first real noticeable drop-off in image quality. It is still excellent, and the photographs will still blow away a lot of cameras that cost much more, but it is certainly not at the DP2M's peak, either. This is a very usable image quality level that you'll avoid for real serious work and won't think twice about using for everything else.

Level 4 - ISO 800 RAW

Images captured at ISO 800 in RAW are sufficient for non-serious work and look best when converted to black-and-white. The difference in image quality between this level and level three isn't huge, but there is certainly a noticeable difference.

Level 5 - ISO 400 JPEG & ISO 1600 RAW

This is kind of the limit of the DP2M. It is definitely best suited for black-and-white photography due to noise/color degradation. This isn't the reason that you bought the camera, but it is marginally usable in the right situations.

Level 6 - ISO 800 JPEG & ISO 3200 RAW

I wouldn't use this image quality level for anything other than gritty-looking black-and-white images, and even then it is only marginally usable. While I'll say that the quality level of ISO 800 JPEG is similar to ISO 3200 captured in RAW, the results are actually much different. The images captured in RAW has more of a film-grain-like quality compared to the digital noise of the JPEGs.

While the DP2M is capable of ISO 6400, it's not a usable setting. Also, JPEGs above ISO 800 are not usable, either, and are best avoided.

To summarize, image quality is outstanding at levels one and two, good at level three, below average at level four, well below average at level five, and not very good at level six. With any digital camera there is going to be a drop-off in image quality as you increase ISO. Every digital camera will perform much better at ISO 100 than ISO 3200. But the DP2M has a much more dramatic drop-off than most, starting higher and falling lower.

Image Quality Compared

Web of Neglect - Mojave, California
I'm not doing side-by-side comparisons here. Many others have done that, and there is some value in it, but mostly it is anecdotal. However, the minimum you would have to pay is $2,000 to find a camera and lens combination that surpasses the DP2M's image quality at ISO 100. And even then the image quality won't be significantly better, only ever-so-slightly better.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this camera is that at low ISO it is such an incredible value. If the majority of your photographs are at low ISO, you will not find better image quality for anywhere near the MSRP of the DP2M.

The 3-D Look
The Sound of Silence - Mojave, California
A lot has been said about the supposed "3-D look" that Foveon sensors create. Sorry to disappoint, but there is no 3-D look. There is, however, a depth to the images that may be similar to an oil painting. Or maybe it is like color film—three layers of emulsion and a three layered sensor. I'm not really sure how to best describe it or understand it, but there is a look of depth that is different from images captured with other sensors.

In most images the look is very subtle, while in some photographs it is more obvious. I'm not sure what causes it to be subtle or obvious and I haven't figured out how to control it. But this look of depth gives images a plausible realism that is missing from other digital cameras. The photographs look more like film than digital.

Hall Loves You - Newberry Springs, California
In image quality levels one and two, colors from the DP2M are outstanding. Out-of-the-box colors are natural, accurate and realistic. Skin tones are especially well when set in the neutral color mode. Vivid color mode might be a little too vivid, but in the right situations it is a good option.

With most digital cameras, as color saturation is turned up fine details are lost. It is like an overexposure of color. It is very difficult to achieve Fuji Velvia colors from digital cameras. But the DP2M retains a large amount of fine details within highly saturated images. It is possible to replicate the look of saturated transparency films with images captured on this camera! This is an understated advantage of the Foveon sensor, even if you don't plan to have wild colors in your photographs.

As one increases ISO, however, the DP2M becomes less useful for color photographs. Image quality level three is fine (although not nearly as good as levels one and two), but I would not recommend this camera for color photography when using the higher ISOs.

Peerless - Newberry Springs, California
Black-and-white photographs are especially nice with the DP2M. I used to use Agfa Pan 25, and still sometimes use Ilford Delta 100 for black-and-white film photography. The DP2M in image quality level one can reach the fine grain of those films, including the Ilford Delta 100 in medium format.

For grainy-looking black-and-white images, image quality levels three and four are great, striking a good balance of noise and sharpness/details, giving just enough texture. Image quality level six is marginally usable for gritty-looking black-and-white photographs, and only after much post-processing.

Black-and-white print film will have a larger dynamic range than the DP2M. Dynamic range on this camera is on par with most digital cameras with at least an APS-C sized sensor, but it is no match for negative film. It is about the same as color transparency film, in fact. Using RAW will help squeeze just a little more dynamic range out of each image if you should need it.

Into The Sun
A Light In The Dark - Tehachapi, California
I'm not sure if this is an issue with just the DP2M or all Foveon cameras, but this camera does not like to be pointed directly at the sun. The light meter goofs exposures and there are some strange lens flares (typically not the good kind, either). If you like to photograph directly into the sun this may not be the camera for you.

With that said, a lens hood will go a long ways toward avoiding lens flare. Also, you can creatively use the camera's weaknesses as strengths if you try hard enough. Finally, many digital cameras struggle with being pointed directly at the sun, so it is not like the DP2M is alone with this issue.

Banding, Etc.
Water Storage - Rosamond, California
One area of concern with the DP2M, and apparently it is a problem with all 46 megapixel Foveon sensors, is banding and other weird noise issues. The problems seem to occur mostly in skies and shadows. It appears to get worse as one goes higher in ISO, but can sometimes be found even at ISO 100. What I find unusual is that it isn't in every image or even in most images.

I have several thoughts and observations with this. First, don't use a cheap circular polarizer filter, the camera won't like it. I found that out the hard way. Second, someone suggested that the banding and other noise problems occur more when the sensor is hot. I went back and discovered that the problem images tend to be at the end of a series of exposures in short succession (but not always). If you can give the camera a rest here and there that certainly helps. Third, overexposing a little and then recovering that in post-processing seems to help some. Fourth, don't try to do too much post-processing. Making major adjustments to the images seems to exasperate the problems. Besides, the photographs look great without much work. Finally, the banding and noise issues get worse as you increase ISO, so keep the camera at as low of an ISO as you can.

I wouldn't let this stop you from buying the camera, but it is certainly something that you want to be aware of. Like I said above, most images don't have banding and other noise issues, and with care you'll find that very, very few photographs have problems.

Camera Performance
Unused Bed - Hinkley, California
Auto-focus on the DP2M is fast and accurate in normal light, but slows down significantly in low-light situations. Overall the camera is fairly quick, but processing an image and writing it to the SD card is very slow. The camera has a good buffer, so as long as you don't max out the buffer (or insist on reviewing the images right away) this won't slow you down.

The DP2M can be manually focused, although I found it a bit clumsy to use at first. After several tries I was comfortable using it.

Auto-white-balance is very accurate most of the time, and wildly off every now-and-then. I'm not sure why. If you save in RAW this can be adjusted later, so no big deal.

The camera's built-in light meter does well, but perhaps likes to slightly underexpose. Adjusting exposure is easy so this is also not a big deal.

Battery life is a joke for the DP2M. I would say that 70 exposures are about average before the battery runs dead, although (depending on the exact circumstances) battery life can be up to 90 frames and as little as 50. Sigma included an extra battery, which still isn't enough. Three batteries should be a minimum for the DP2M. Thankfully, the batteries are small so it isn't too much trouble to carry extras.

It took a little while to get used to all of the buttons and settings, but once figured out adjustments are quick and easy. Nothing is buried deep in menus. One-handed operation is certainly possible.

Fixed Lens
Old Yield Sign - Boron, California
I mentioned earlier that the lens on this camera is great. Not perfect, but nearly perfect. Better than most, for sure! One thing that might turn people off to this camera is the fixed focal length.

I don't think this is a disadvantage, but perhaps this is because for the first 10 years or so of my photography I owned a 50mm prime lens, and that's it. I used one lens because I owned one lens and that lens was great. Limitations improve art. So instead of being turned off by the fixed lens, consider it a challenge.

Sigma also has wide-angle and telephoto versions of this camera, the DP1M and the DP3M, respectively. So if the 45mm equivalent focal length isn't for you, perhaps one of the other cameras would be a better fit.

Tired Old Purse - Mojave, California
Quite a few people have said that the DP2M is for landscape photography where one can set the camera on a tripod and take their time with each exposure. While I agree that the camera absolutely excels in that scenario, it is certainly not limited to that.

The camera has the right size and weight to be good for vacations and travel, and I believe enough versatility. I took my DP2M to a theme park and captured many successful photographs in a variety of situations. I didn't feel limited by this camera. In fact, it was much more pleasant to have the DP2M instead of a bulky DSLR.

Are there cameras that are better for travel photography? Sure there are. Many of those cameras also cost more than the DP2M. The point here is that this camera is capable of more than just landscapes on a tripod.

Photo Pro
Torn - Mojave, California
A lot has been said about how terrible Sigma's Photo Pro post-processing software is. This software, by the way, is required to convert the DP2M's RAW files, since Adobe hasn't created a profile for Foveon cameras. What I found is that the software isn't all that bad with one exception: it is horrendously slow.

Photo Pro is simple to use (mostly sliders: left or right, less or more) and does a good job with what it is designed to do. You cannot do everything you may want to do in post-processing using this software, so for images that require more than basic adjustments, simply save as a TIFF file and open it in your editing software of choice.

Copy Machine - Mojave, California
I cannot say enough about how impressed I am with the image quality of the DP2M at low ISO. It is truly great! The camera is still decent enough at the middle ISOs, especially for black-and-white photography, but is not good at all for high ISO photography.

That high ISO limitation, combined with the short battery life and other quirks, means that the DP2M is not for everyone. It is not even a camera for most. However, those who can happily put up with the deficiencies will be rewarded with fantastic potential.

The camera has an MSRP of $800 (the original MSRP was $1,000 when the camera was introduced), but can be found for less if you are good at shopping around and finding bargains. It can be found new for under $700 now and used for even less.

If you want a smaller camera with a reasonable price tag that has exceptional image quality at low ISO, the Sigma DP2 Merrill may be just what you are looking for. It is fun, unique and a great tool to have.

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