My Sigma DP1 impressions

2009, Photography

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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

25 thoughts on “My Sigma DP1 impressions

  1. Thanks for the review Wouter. It will contribute to making this camera a classic. It also demonstrates why we must be careful in evaluating these tools. The photographer is still key even in the digital age…taking what seems to be flawed and turning it into a great tool shows that you are a real pro.

    1. I think the problem with many reviewers is that they take evaluating photographs, evaluate the tool and move on to the next camera.

      But that said, the DP1 is probably one of the most flawed cameras on the market. But when you can cope with the camera and it’s flaws….. It can certainly become a great tool with outstanding image quality.

  2. i’m thrilled with what you have been able to do with the DP1 — far better than anything i produced. guess i’m just the impatient sort 😉

    the one caveat on using the DP1 is the stunning images it produces, leaves you hungry for more and, ultimately, unsatisfied when you go back to small sensor — no matter how intuitive they are. the Sigma makes you crave excellence!

    your review above is perhaps the most fair and balanced i’ve seen and you have articulated it so much better than i ever could…. it makes me wish they had you as one of their testers, initially. or even now!

    not everybody shoots in a slow and deliberate manner and responsiveness is so important, as you say, for creativity. the fact that you have much more patience and love the images as much as i do, says a lot. the flaws are in the handling and the mechanics, whereas the images it produces are stunning.

    i, too, hope there is competition coming as i feel it would force Sigma to address the shortcomings even more than it has in the DP2. when you’re the only game in town, why bother?

    1. I agree so much with you Cam. As long as Sigma doesn’t get any serious competition, you need to be patiented and go on with the camera when the flaws really starts to bug you. And all of sudden you except it and it becomes an incredible camera. The only uncomfortable feeling I have with this camera, is that it could have been so much better in my opinion.

      Therefore I think none of my money will be used for a DP2. Sigma should have addressed the known shortcomings, period. That is why competition is so important. I can only hope the Olympus m4/3 with the 20mm lens will be a very good, and I can only hope that Ricoh will do something similar too.

  3. Very good and balanced review of the DP1 Wouter. I think having a bigger sensor in a compact camera is very appealing but not when it coes at the cost of the handling and usability.

    Overall I think this sentence says it all:
    “Unlike the DP1 the Ricoh makes me more creative, because it is so intuitive and it is so easy and uncomplicated to use.”

    The best image quality is worth nothing if you only take mediocre pictures with a camera because it does not inspire you or allows you to work easy and intuitive. Even worse is if you actually leave the camera at home.

    It is a shame Sigma could not improve on the DP2 in a meaningful way to make the camera more intuitive to use. I hope Olympus with their upcoming digital PEN or Ricoh will be able to deliver a compact camera with a larger sensor and good interface.

    1. The best image quality is worth nothing if you only take mediocre pictures with a camera because it does not inspire you or allows you to work easy and intuitive. Even worse is if you actually leave the camera at home.” This might be your impression of the DP1, but it is actually the Ricoh camera that remains unused for me most of the time. I really hate it that a camera is so much fun to use and the image quality shows that is was not worth all the effort when I compare it to the DP1.

      Seriously Cristi, I know your opinion about the DP1 (and the DP2). But the image quality is unlike anything you have seen from the Ricoh cameras. And remember, I have been using Ricoh cameras too for quite some time. You can’t see the image quality at a show. It is a camera you need to work on. And at some time you might hate it, because it is not intuitive. But when you except the flaws and you see all the photographs you took with it, you realize it is a special camera.

      Competition might be good though, because it will make the flaws more apparent when people choose other cameras instead. And I really think Ricoh should do so too. And for me personally, when Ricoh won’t come with an affordable compact camera with a large sensor (read APS-C sized), then the GX200 will be my last Ricoh camera.

      And speaking of ideas for Ricoh as a possible design option, I have a Ricoh 500G in front of me. It is larger than the GX200 or the GRD2, but very nice format with an optical viewfinder. The lens is small and relatively fast (f/2.8) and all still quite pocketable.

      Cheers,
      Wouter

  4. I just went by what you wrote and this is what I got out of your impressions of the DP1. If a camera makes you more creative then to me this is worth more than any image quality gain you can get.

    The DP1 was and is not really a camera for me but if the DP2 would have been released last year I would have bought it, fiddly controls and everything, instead of the GRD II and 40mm lens.

    Competition is good indeed and we can only hope Ricoh and Sigma improve upon their cameras based on the feedback they recieve. For the moment the Olympus m4/3 seems the most promissing if it is half as good as the rumors suggest.

    1. When a camera is very makes you creative then that is absolutely important, but for me the end results does matter. This weekend for instance I had both the DP1 and GX200 with me when I visited Ronald. Because of the blue skies and bright light I opted for the DP1 as it gives me so much shades of colors, while the GX200 would all be harsh and contrasty.

      On Sunday I picked up the GX200 when I took my daughter to the zoo and I was so disappointed with the results. The camera was fast and easy to use. Snap focus, manual exposure, and all that, but the photographs were all to hard and too much contrast (I speak of macro contrast while I would prefer micro contrast). I hate to admit it, but now I really think I should have taken the DP1 with me. Maybe I would have missed a few shots, but I would certainly have kept more keepers. Sigh.

      I do however get pretty exited about all the Olympus (E-P1) rumors. That camera with the 17mm lens would perfect for me.

  5. Yes Wouter, I can confirm your general statement to the DP1. And also the usage of the GX200. As you know I also own both Camera. The GX200 since Sep. 08 and the DP1 since end of Apr. 09. After using both for the same purpose I like to reduce the usage of the DP1 as unbeaten image quality in this cameraclass as long you do not get direct light in the lens!
    But in the meaning of the “swiss-knife” GX200 – the DP1 is far away of a daily to use “Be Happy” Cam.
    There are just so many limits for MY creative, offhandedly, unusually and also usual photo practice.

    But in Fairness: If you reduce your expectations back to the “analog times” you get more and more happy with the DP1.

    By the way: I have to send the DP1 to the repair service because of getting dust on the sensor – after just 650 shots!

    1. Dust on the sensor? Sorry to hear Burkhard. It all reminds me of my GX100 experiences with the three dust issues within a year.

      The thing with my GX200 is that posting this impression of the DP1 I get more and more frustrated with the outcome of the GX200. Yes, the GX200 (and so was the GX100) is so much fun to use and makes me creative, but I have become unhappy with the quality of the photographs. Maybe I should have never tried the DP1. Not knowing what is possible makes you happy with what you already have.

      When I used the DP1 last year I was in doubt and I have that feeling again since using the DP1 this year.

      To be fair and honest. The Ricoh is great, but for the first time I would now pick up the DP1 more than the Ricoh.

      Good luck with your DP1 and hopefully it returns quickly.

      Cheers,
      Wouter

      1. You are right. It were better not to try the DP1 if you wanna be happy with the GX200 image quality. But now you are addicted ( like me a bit) to the image performance of the little sigma. – what can we do to get out of this dilemma?

        Ricoh will not change to the Foveon Sensor. Sigma will not change to Ricoh-like Handling.

        Guess we have to control our wishes……

        1. I use the Sigma now more often and can only hope that Ricoh will use a much larger sensor camera in their next cameras.

          What is your prefered camera now Burkhard?

  6. Hard to say. GX200: for all purpose, especially nightshots. DP1: meanwhile for specific daytime/afternoon purpose where either no probs with direct light nor to dark.
    But I´m still testing the range of possibilities for my best results.
    I think I have to learn more about the special DP1 Flair and their “reduced to the max” princip….

    1. I seem to agree with you about the usage about both cameras. I haven’t really used the DP1 though for nightshots, but will try it soon. It is just that I think the 28mm is a little too wide for general purpose (I like the upcoming 17mm lens for the Olympus E-P1), but currently it is my favorite camera.

  7. Thanks so much for this excellent review. I recently purchased the DP-1 given its price change in recent days. I’m NO photo expert so I have nothing to add BUT I wanted to say that the Nikon WC-E68 wide angle adapter fits perfectly on the 46mm filter thread of the DP-1 and allows a 19mm fov on the DP-1. It’s at least something to experiment with for those who might be so inclined.
    Thanks, Frank Weir

  8. Thanks for a nice, balanced review. Personally, I’m thrilled with my new/used DP1. It’s compact enough to be unobtrusive in places I travel that I don’t want to overtly stand out more than necessary. The image quality has kindled in me, a serious interest in learning more about photography. I’ve read lots of reviews before purchasing the DP1, and thoroughly read the caveats. However, these did not deter me from purchasing it. I’m extremely happy with it.

    I’ve also found that it is great for street photography, despite what others have written. I’ve enjoyed hanging it around my neck, trying to act nonchalant, while waiting for the ten second shutter release. Unlike most point and shoot cameras, (my old Canon SD750) it’s a camera that can take great, high quality images, as well as a camera that makes one think. Granted, it’s not for everybody , but it adds up to a good thing, for me.

    1. Thank you very much. It is absolutely no camera for the point and shooter, but if you take your photography serious and can live with caveats of a camera and still be inspired, than this camera can certainly bring something.

  9. Hi, Wouter

    I have both ricoh gxr and sigma dp1s and I can’t decide which one to bring in a one-month vacation along with a dp2s (and grd3 as a backup).

    I’m very confortable with a 28mm & 40mm in everyday photography, so here’s the point : dp1s or gxr a12 28mm?

    Images quality seems equal. Sigma true resolution could be an issue compared to ricoh, but smaller files could be a great help because I don’t plan to bring a computer with me during holidays. I love sigma compactness, manual focus and the idea of not be able to take several pictures in a row, a small issue which often results in ‘WOW pictures’ due to the fact each photo has been really well composed 🙂
    I take many more pictures of the same scene with the gxr, and i usually keep only one, which means the number of images that are kept is similar to dp1s.
    But images possibilities are in favour of the gxr.
    I also like ricoh settings and lens luminosity.

    Please help 🙂

    I must say i have 2 Lens converters for dp1s (or dp2s) : a 20mm equivalent lens and a close-up filter, but i’m more confident with gxr because I’m afraid the dps could die during holidays (with no particular reason)

    Thanks

  10. I think you already know the answer. You want reliability, shoot mostly at 28mm, and your iso’s reach to 1600 and 3200. Yes, the DP1 has a 28mm lens. High iso performance however is just not good and reliability sure is an issue.

  11. Well, Wouter, for BW shots, the DP’s 1600 or 3200 shots have a lovely grain : that’s part of the problem 🙂

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