Once a product designer, always a product designer. Never mind that I established my design legacy in the arena of professional music software and hardware — my need to improve a product’s usability knows no boundaries.
So naturally (given my passion for BW photography), if a manufacturer misses a golden opportunity to produce a unique and affordable BW camera, an obsessive need to rectify the situation overwhelms me. Such was the case earlier this year, when Sigma announced their upcoming Quattro series of compact cameras. Looking at the Quattro’s specs and design dictates, I knew Sigma was zeroing in on a near-perfect camera for BW photographers — though I felt the addition of two specific features would help separate these photographers from their cash. Specifically, it’s my belief that Sigma needs to make the following software additions to the upcoming Quattro cameras:
1. Implement a user-selectable black & white raw format. This would have two significant benefits: First, it would allow photographers to implement a pure BW workflow — one in which files were never once rendered or viewed in color. Second, because the BW raw file would consist of a single layer of data, it would allow BW photographers to eliminate the extra workflow hassles of using Sigma Photo Pro software. Instead, BW raw files could be opened and edited directly within Lightroom, Aperture or whichever raw converter the photographer preferred.
2. Implement software-based contrast filters. By offering in-camera software-selectable contrast filters that emulate the use of traditional colored glass filters, photographers would be able to adjust a scene’s contrast before a photo is taken, rather than in post. These software-based filters would essentially alter the way the Foveon’s three layers are “mixed together” prior to writing the BW raw file, creating a “film like” BW shooting experience without necessitating the actual use of colored glass filters.
Rather than filing my email under “c” for “clown” (as many manufacturers have been known to do), Sigma actually responded — mentioning their intrigue with the suggestion, and asking if I’d like to borrow a DP3 to familiarize myself with Sigma’s unique Foveon sensor.
“Of course,” I answered. And a week later, the DP3 arrived at my front door for a two week loan.
While this might seem like plenty of time to familiarize oneself with a camera, there were a few factors that conspired against me: First, smack in the middle of my review period, I went on a 5-day trip that afforded me very little opportunity for photography. Next, I succumbed to a head cold that dampened both my energy and my enthusiasm for several days. Then, speaking of dampening, the two weeks also coincided with a significant stretch of typical Vancouver weather.
So my two week romp with the DP3 actually worked out to something more akin to a few days. But it was still long enough for me to form some rather potent impressions about both the camera and its Foveon sensor.
Part 1 and Part 2 of this series focussed extensively on the camera’s Foveon sensor — particularly on its unique capabilities for BW photography. Those two articles built a justification foundation for the two suggestions I submitted to Sigma.
Here, in Part 3, I’ll look specifically at the Sigma DP3 Merrill as a camera, rather than as a box that holds a Foveon sensor. As per my nature, I’ll also offer several other suggestions, which I believe would greatly improve the usability of future Sigma compact cameras.
A Semi-Organized Cacophony of Thoughts
I love cameras. All cameras. I believe there is no such thing as a bad camera — there are only bad matches between cameras and the photographers who operate them.
The Sigma DP3 and I were never meant to be a couple. We are not soul mates; we are not lovers; we’re not really even friends. Mostly, we’re like a pair of co-workers who have absolutely nothing in common — save for a moderate disdain for one another — but who must somehow coexist on a 2-week business trip. In other words, everything I’m about to write is a subjectively tainted observation of a photographer whose needs do not match the camera’s capabilities.
The single biggest reason for this mismatch is that I am a photographer of things that move. Sometimes the subject is moving. Sometimes it’s me that’s moving. Usually both of us are moving. Conversely, the Sigma DP3 is a camera that excels at photographing things that are stationary. If you primarily shoot landscapes, portraits, products or architecture, you’ll likely dismiss many of my observations as “irrelevant.” And you should — because if I possessed a broader photographic repertoire (or still had my job as the photographer for BC’s Provincial Parks), I would seriously consider owning a set of these cameras.
So with all requisite caveats out of the way, I present — in no significant order — a random collection of observations, recommendations, plaudits and complaints:
1. Autofocus is much slower than other current-generation mirrorless cameras. In good light the camera will, on average, focus in about 2 seconds. In dim light, look for something closer to 3 seconds. On paper, these values sound perfectly acceptable — unless you shoot things that move. In this case, both your subject and the context that surrounds it will have joined the annals of history long before the camera locks focus. Sigma has attempted to address this issue through a menu item, which lets you limit the distance through which the camera hunts for focus. This can speed things up a little bit, but it does require you to know that your subject will be within the specified distance limits — a non-issue for those shooting planned or static subjects, but a problem for a photographer who tends to dart in, out and around his subjects.
2. Speaking of mingling amongst subjects, another camera attribute I desire is inconspicuousness. In general, the Sigma does quite well in this category. It’s small(ish), black and unassuming. It allows you to disable all its various electronic beeps and burps. Its shutter is quiet, and its rear LCD can be disabled. That’s the good stuff. Unfortunately, when that rear LCD is off, a ring around the camera’s rather large power button pulses bright green. Having any large, bright and conspicuous light is bad enough — but having it pulse is like a beacon that draws people’s eye to the camera. I searched through Sigma’s menu items several times, hoping for a way to disable the Power button’s glowing light, but could find no such option.
3. Having just mentioned the LCD, this might be a good time to address the elephant in the room — this camera has no viewfinder. While it may be possible to blindly guess framing with a wide angle lens, the DP3’s 75mm (equivalent) demands that the photographer have some way to view and carefully frame his subject. Since I’m genetically unable to photograph with a camera held at arm’s length, I dug out my old Voigtlander 75mm optical finder and affixed it to the DP3. While this significantly improves the camera’s ergonomics, the solution is not without its own set of issues.
Focusing is one such issue, since with an optical viewfinder, there’s no way to see exactly what the camera chooses to focus on. As is my custom with every finder-less cameras, I “solved” this problem by first configuring the camera to use only the center focus point. Then I spent a bit of time “teaching” myself to know exactly where the center of the frame was when peering through the viewfinder. Through simple, rote practice, I’m able to train my eye to compensate for the vertical parallax that inevitably occurs whenever the focus distance changes.
Kudos go to Sigma for placing the hotshoe directly over the lens, so one needs only to compensate for vertical parallax, and not horizontal. And as long as I’m awarding kudos, I’ll award a second for Sigma’s placement of the focus confirmation LED, which sits atop the camera and is easily seen in one’s peripheral vision when peering through an optical viewfinder.
4. Getting back to the LCD, I should probably mention that images previewed on this screen are of relatively low quality. As such, the LCD is probably best used to verify that you got the shot, and not to judge an image’s focus, tonality, noise or color. Fortunately, as a Leica M9 shooter, I’m accustom to a quasi-useless LCD, and I rarely (if ever) chimp my shots.
5. If the lack of fidelity displayed by the LCD doesn’t convince you to stop chimping shots, the agonizingly long wait times will. Because, once you take a photo, you need to wait between 14 and 18 seconds before you can push the Play button and see the image on the LCD. Different levels of visual complexity seem to affect the wait time. If you’re the sort who takes a shot, then sometimes wants to verify that you got the shot, those 15 odd seconds might as well be an eternity — even for someone who shoots static subjects. But if you shoot things that move, the problem isn’t simply a case of boredom — it’s the fact that whatever scene you’re waiting to verify will be long gone should you realize you need a “do over.” Sure, you could simply take a second shot without bothering to verify that you need one, but wasting shots with the DP3 is not something you want to do. “Why not” you ask? Read on…
6. Throughout my time with the DP3, I averaged only about 24-25 shots per battery. In other words, each battery was basically the equivalent of a 24 exposure roll of film. Personally, I like shooting film. In fact, about 90% of last years’ shots were taken on one film camera or another. But here’s the deal: I shoot 36 exposure rolls, not 24. 24 exposures is simply not acceptable — at least not for a photographer who spends his precious few brain cells hunting for shots, rather than counting exposures. Plus, with film, you get a visible exposure counter to keep you abreast of how many shots remain. With the DP3, all you get is a tiny 3-bar battery indicator that’s of little real use. With so few exposures per battery, Murphy’s Law easily asserts itself: the battery always seems to be dead right when you’re presented with your best shot opportunity of the day.
Many reviewers have stated that they get about 70 shots on a charge, so I suspect my well-used demo camera came with a pair of equally well-used batteries. I know my paucity of shots per charge is definitely not due to any configuration issues. I set the LCD to economy mode, which turns off the LCD after a mere 10 seconds. I set the LCD’s brightness two-notches dimmer than its default value, insuring I couldn’t adequately see anything when trying to compose outdoors. I even set the Power Off time to 1 minute, but missed too many shots because the camera had turned itself off — so I reverted to the default setting of 5 minutes.
On one occurrence, I actually got 34 exposures from a single battery. I felt like a five year-old on Christmas morning! Alas, the extra juicy battery was but an anomaly. It’s great that Sigma ships the camera with two batteries, but if I owned this camera, I wouldn’t even think about leaving the house with less than 4 or 5 batteries in my pocket. Which brings up yet another problem…
7. … It takes 2 hours to charge a battery, and the charger handles only one battery at a time. Let’s do the math: If I shoot 5 batteries in a day, then it’ll take 10 hours to charge them all for the next day. That would require setting an alarm to wake me every two hours at night, so I could get up and swap batteries. Optionally, I could buy twice as many batteries as I need — meaning I could sleep through the night — but every waking moment would then be dedicated to swapping batteries out of the charger. A better solution is to purchase several additional chargers. The best solution would see Sigma selling a charger that handles multiple batteries simultaneously. Any way you slice it, batteries are an issue with this camera.
8. If the camera is turned off (which will be the case several times each day, since the battery drain issue necessitates very short auto-power off settings), it will take 2-3 seconds for the camera to power up and be ready to shoot. That’s a bit slower than today’s norm, but isn’t too bad if you’re shooting static subjects. Alas, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, I shoot things that move — if I have to wait three seconds for the camera to turn on, I’ve missed another shot.
9. Speaking of turning on the camera, I’d like the option of having it remember which menu item I used last. As it works now, powering the camera off and on causes it to default to the first menu page. I’d much prefer it remember the last setting so, for example, I wouldn’t have to scroll through a bunch of infrequently used menu items just to reach one that I use all the time, like “Format Card.”
10. Unlike many modern cameras, which have 1/4000s as their fastest shutter speed, the DP3 tops out at only 1/2000s. I’d be fine with this, except that you can only achieve this speed at f/5.6 or higher. From f/4 through f/5, the fastest speed drops to 1/1600s, and below f/4 the top shutter speed is a paltry 1/1250s. In other words, the more likely you are to need a faster shutter speed, the less likely Sigma is to give you one. Unless you want every photo to have expansive depth of field, you’ll need to rely on neutral density filters to shoot below f/4 on a semi-bright day. For this reason, I’d like to see Sigma include a built-in neutral density filter, much like Ricoh has done with their GR camera.
11. The model I tested, the DP3, is one of three nearly identical offerings in Sigma’s compact camera lineup. These three models are distinguished mostly by focal length. The DP3 sports a 75mm (equivalent) focal length; the DP2 has a 45mm (equivalent) focal length; and the DP1 clocks in at 28mm. Since the majority of my photography is on the wide side, I personally classify 50mm lenses as “telephotos.” 75mm might as well be a birding lens in my hands. Needless to say, a lot of my time with the DP3 was spent backing away from the subjects I wanted to photograph. Still, I enthusiastically applaud Sigma for releasing a range of compact cameras with varying focal lengths. It’s something I wish more manufacturers would do. I’m from the school that says “I’d rather carry multiple camera bodies with different focal lengths, than carry one body and have to swap lenses.” It’s the whole “shooting things that move” aspect — swapping lenses takes time — grabbing a body with the right lens attached takes far less. Personally, if I were to own an entire set of DP compact cameras, I’d probably use the 28mm model about 66% of the time, the 45mm variant around 33% of the time, and the 75mm DP3 for those 1% fringe cases. Your shot mix might be totally different.
12. Speaking of lenses, I feel the DP3’s f/2.8 aperture is a stop too slow for a camera that dedicates itself to 75mm photography. Many customers may wish to use this camera for portraiture and, though I don’t necessarily subscribe to the notion that “portraits = shallow depth-of-field,” that extra f-stop could be quite useful for anyone hoping to achieve this look. The issue is exacerbated further by the camera’s APS-C sized sensor, since obtaining a 75mm (equivalent) field-of-view means the camera actually uses a 50mm lens — and thus produces the deeper depth-of-field characteristics of that lens. All that said, the lens is already quite large, and I suspect an upgrade to f/2 would likely result in either a much larger lens or a more expensive camera (or both).
13. Writing about shallow depth-of-field leads handily into the next topic: bokeh. Bokeh rendering is a matter of taste, and thus purely subjective. Personally, I find the DP3’s to be particularly ragged and swirly when areas of high contrast are rendered out-of-focus. For a camera dedicated to 75mm photography, I would want and expect a smoother out-of-focus rendering. But that’s me and my own idiosyncrasies talking. Your photographic aesthetics are (very likely) quite different than mine.
14. Returning to focus issues for a moment, I want to touch on the camera’s manual focusing capabilities. Once again, as a photographer of things that move, I tend to rely heavily on manual focusing — if implemented correctly, it’s simply much faster (and sometimes more accurate) than relying on auto-focus. Alas, manual focus on the DP3 seems to be more of an afterthought than a feature.
One of my biggest issues with the DP3 (and many mirrorless cameras) is that setting a focus distance requires using the rear LCD. To set the focus distance, you need to turn the focus ring on the lens while squinting at the little distance scale on the rear LCD. Ergonomically, I find it quite cumbersome to hold a camera at arm’s length and rotate the lens — I would much prefer a focus dial somewhere on the camera body, which would enable me to set the focus distance with one hand (again, similar to the Ricoh GR). Actually, what I’d really like is a distance scale on the lens itself — that way I could quickly and easily zone focus, and not have to worry with the rear LCD at all. Of course, this has traditionally required a mechanically coupled focus ring, but there are ways around this. I’d suggest Sigma emulate Olympus’ clutch focus solution for its compact camera line. Since the DP3 possesses some quasi-pokey auto-focus times, it could be made much “speedier” if it just had a more thoughtful and useful implementation of manual focus.
15. My remaining issues relate to Sigma Photo Pro. I mentioned many of these in Part 2 — the instability of the software; its poorly developed UI; its intrusive addition of extra work into every digital photographer’s workflow. But there are a few other issues I’d like to address, as well:
First, Sigma’s file format and the software required to interpolate it, are both proprietary. This makes me instantly concerned about whether or not I’ll be able to access my images in the future. It’s never good to have the access to your photo library hang on the fate of a single company.
Second, one really needs to keep two versions of each photo on their hard drive. First, there’s the proprietary x3f file that the camera generates. Then there’s the TIF file that you’ll need to create using Sigma Photo Pro (which is necessary for working on your photos in Lightroom, Photoshop or any other industry-standard photo editor or filing program). You might think, once you convert an image from x3f to TIF, that you could throw away the x3f file. That would be a huge mistake. It’s always possible that Sigma will improve its raw conversion at some future date, or that you might want to re-interpret how you render a particular raw file. So, not only are x3f files much larger than standard raw files, but the need to retain both the TIF and X3f files means you’ll be making a significant investment in hard drives.
It probably seems as if I’m being unduly harsh on the Sigma DP3, but the fundamental reason for this is actually one of positive intent: I like the look of the camera’s output so much, that I really want it to be a “better” camera (for me) than it actually is.
It’s important to note that, while I might have a significant number of complaints about this particular camera, I have very few complaints about Sigma’s Foveon sensor. Personally, what I need is better access to this sensor’s capabilities than what the DP3 provides.
Of course, I was aware of this long before Sigma lent me a DP3 — I know what my own peculiar needs are as a photographer, and I knew the current Sigma line would not be able to satisfy those needs. But what I didn’t know was just how seductive that Foveon sensor would be.
The bottom line is this: The files from the DP3 are so good that I’m almost willing to forgive Sigma for the sins of its camera, its firmware, and the Sigma Photo Pro software. And this says a lot about the Foveon sensor, because I really didn’t much care for the camera, its firmware or the Sigma Photo Pro software. Because the upcoming Quattro series will likely address several of my DP3 complaints, I’m now even more convinced that Sigma would be crazy to not implement my BW software suggestions. But then, anyone egotistical enough to maintain a photography blog all these years is bound to think such thoughts…
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS:
All photos were, of course, shot with a Sigma DP3 with its fixed, 75mm equivalent lens. They were rendered to TIF files in Sigma Photo Pro, using its Monochrome tab, then further processed in Lightroom and/or Photoshop. Because of both the 75mm lens and the camera’s rather deliberate handling dictates, you’ll notice a dearth of my signature “people” shots. Fortunately, the gentleman depicted in “Covert Pursuit (version 1)” was moving quite slowly and cautiously as he crept up on the tulips — allowing for one of the very few “candid” photos I managed to secure with the DP3.
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