My Sigma DP1 impressions

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Is it fair to write down my impressions of a camera that is already more than a year on the market? Regarded obsolete in terms of technology of today’s standards. I personally think it is. In particular when there is still no serious competition on the market for this camera and the large sensor and the small package makes it an interesting selling point. And as a matter of fact, I believe that this camera will become a classic. I am talking about the Sigma DP1. And with the current price for this camera, it sort of started a second-life.
The camera was announced in 2006, but it took Sigma eventually almost two year to release this camera in the beginning of 2008. The camera comes with a 4.7 megapixel foveon sensor with a 1.7 crop factor, has a 28mm f/4 prime lens (35mm equivalent), and can be bought with a number of accessories like an optical viewfinder and an adapter with hood. When released, Sigma stated that the DP1 wouldn’t be the only camera in this segment and that more cameras were to follow. And as of no surprise Sigma just released the DP2. Please, don’t see the DP2 is a successor of the DP1. The DP2 comes with a 41mm f/2.8 prime lens and will be positioned next to the DP1. It does have a newer image engine and some smaller improvements.

I have been using the Sigma DP1 now for more then a month, loaned from a dear friend. Last year I have been able to use this camera too for just one day, but the thought of using this camera again have kept me busy ever since.
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Everything I write here are just my personal impressions of this camera and the quality of the photographs. For me no resolution tests, brick walls, and noise levels at different ISO’s comparisons. If you are really into 100% pixel peeping, then I am sorry for you. I prefer to use this camera for photography and nothing else. There are far more detailed reviews of this camera all over the net, and some of these reviews have been trashed and bashed enjoyably by Sigma fans in forums too. The best write ups I have seen however are those of Petteri Sulonen and Said Karlsson.

So what is the DP1? Sigma understood that there is a market for a compact camera with a APS-C sized sensor. To get the best from this camera and to make this camera compact, they opted for a 28mm prime wide angle lens. It turned out to be difficult to design a fast and small lens for this camera so the maximum aperture became f/4. Thankfully this lens is already very sharp at f/4 and there is no need to turn down the aperture, unless you want more depth of field of course.

The camera feels kind of heavy and solid (certainly heavier than my Ricoh GX200), but the finish is a bit slippery. There is no softer finish at the grip, which I do miss. And while the buttons have a nice touch, the lay-out makes it quite easy to accidently touch a button. Some buttons, the AEL and preview zoom button, can be reassigned to other functions, but make sure to use the latest firmware. The camera doesn’t come with a mode to save personal settings, but remembers your last setting.

The lens doesn’t fully retract into the body and when powered on or off it is quite slow with extracting and retracting. The LCD screen has been mentioned as one of the main problems of this camera in many reviews. The screen is rather dark and becomes hardly usable in low light. Setting the contrast for the photographs at something like +0.4 improves the view though. I think the best shooting improvement is to buy the additional VF-11 optical viewfinder or a viewfinder from another manufacturer (Voigtländer or Leica). I do however believe that the frame lines of the Sigma viewfinder don’t exactly match the 28mm view. It is actually closer to 35mm, but very workable anyway.

This camera is all about image quality and the quality is unlike anything I have seen from a compact camera. There is more detail, and the dynamic and tonal range is far greater. To me, the photographs appears less digital then I have seen before. For daytime purposes I really think this camera works best at ISO 200. When it gets darker there is a maximum ISO of 800. Together with the f/4 maximum opening of the lens that can be limiting. For color photographers I can say that the ISO 800 photographs do lose their colors. And that when you want to avoid too much noise in the shadows that it is best to overexpose slightly.
Sitting on the couch
For B&W photography however it becomes a different thing. Setting the camera to ISO 800 and underexposing -1 EV, -2 or even -3 EV mimics like pushing the camera towards ISO 1600, ISO 3200 or even ISO 6400. In combination with the monochrome white balance setting in Sigma Photo Pro you can get remarkable B&W photographs with a very pleasant appearing noise.

With f/4 you can already achieve some shallow depth of field, but I would personally have wished for a faster lens like f/2.8. It certainly would have helped the low light performance, since this camera doesn’t come with an image stabilizer.
Near home by Wouter Brandsma
Photographs are sharp and I personally prefer to set a little bit of minus sharpening in-camera, which Sigma Photo Pro directly recognizes. And with Sigma Photo Pro I enter another caveat. While it isn’t the only RAW converter that recognizes the X3F RAW photographs from the DP1, Adobe ACR and Lightroom 2 do so too, it definitely gives the best output. Unfortunately Sigma Photo Pro seems like a very old-fashioned application that is rather slow and still has some bugs in my opinion. Not only with the older version (2.5 for the PC), but also with the newer version (3.5.1 for the PC) I encounter problems with exporting the processed photographs. When I want to open these photographs in Photoshop CS4 I get a message that the files are corrupted. In closer inspection it becomes clear that most of the EXIF data is missing.

Sigma Photo Pro can however handle the photographs so incredibly well. The highlight and shadow recovery is phenomenal and the X3 fill light option is unlike anything I have seen before. The application just doesn’t force you to being creative.
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So, I mentioned that the lens is not the fastest lens in town and the extraction mechanism of the lens isn’t fast either. Sigma Photo Pro is kind of slow, saving the images takes ages and too long in my opinion, so this camera should really be a slow dog. But that is fully up to you in my opinion. The DP1 is not a snap shot camera. There is a shutter lag, but that can be minimized with the excellent manual focus. There is a focus wheel on the back of the camera that is the best implementation of manual focusing I have seen with any compact cameras. But still I think the auto focus could be improved, in particular in low light. The best feeling I can describe for this camera is being conscious. I think more before I press the shutter, I really slow down. Working with the viewfinder and hardly using the LCD screen makes it a very good experience too.

That is also why I would love to see one of the new Sigma DP2 features too added to the DP1 with a new firmware update. The DP2 has a new display option to only show the camera settings on the LCD screen, just like with dSLR’s. In combination with the viewfinder it would be perfect for me.
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That brings me back to concluding that I really like this camera and that I can hope that other manufacturers will follow too with a similar camera (read larger sensor). In the near future it will receive some competition from Olympus with their soon to be announced micro Four/thirds camera (aka the carrot) and the Samsung NX next year. It will also have some competition from the DP2, because not everyone favors the 28mm wide angle lens and would rather use a more moderate focal length. And I can only hope that others will join this niche market too like Ricoh for instance. The combination of Ricoh’s camera handling and the image quality of the DP1 would make it an absolutely interesting package in my opinion. It will be a classic camera, because it is the first and only camera in it’s class. On the other hand, it could have been such a better camera too. In a way it remains a doubtfull camera to me, a very good one though.

To finish of my impression of the Sigma DP1 I can conclude for myself that the unique and main (only) selling point of this camera is the image quality. I say so, because when I want to take a camera with me without anything specifically intended to photograph I would still prefer my Ricoh GX200 to take with me. Even though I like the DP1. Unlike the DP1 the Ricoh makes me more creative, because it is so intuitive and it is so easy and uncomplicated to use. I like the DP1 for what it does, a camera with a good lens able to produce stunning photographs. The camera forces you to think more deliberately, because of it’s counter intuitiveness. And since the recent price drops I think the price is now more in line with the feature set and quality of the camera.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma

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