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A Niche Camera for your Photography Itch – A look at the Unique Sigma DP1

By David Langs

When manufacturers shoehorn a number of elements and technologies into a product not often found in an item of its type, the results can be rather quirky. These "Frankenstein" devices have a tendency to be more of a "miss" than a "hit," but occasionally something breaks through as an innovative display of genius. At a time when more and more digital SLR camera makers are offering full-frame sensors, and point and shoot users are becoming weary of the artifacts and noise attached to using a sensor the size of an ant's whisker, Sigma has decided to squeeze an APS-C-sized sensor into a compact point-and-shoot enclosure, with a prime (non-zooming) lens to boot. Do we need to form an angry crowd wielding pitchforks and torches or should we embrace the DP1 as a vision of what is to come? I got my hands a DP1 in order to figure that out for myself.

Sigma DP1
The Sigma DP1

Neither this, nor that…

I'm not a big fan of taxonomy and classification. I feel that with a greater number of statistics generated from more and more encounters with a set of variables, that there are far too many exceptions to the rules. When examining the DP1, you must take a similar approach as it is a camera that does not categorize well at all. At first glance the camera has the look and size of a Canon G9, but then the fixed 28mm equivalent lens (full-frame standard) dismisses any further comparison. When mounting an accessory optical viewfinder, it vaguely resembles a digital cousin of a Leica Barnack screw mount or Voigtlander Bessa T, but then the manual focusing dial puts you in Rollei 35 or Argus C3 territory. Save yourself the head strain and look at the DP1 as a unique beast like the tiny Tessina or the Cirkut panoramic camera. The closest comparison I can make is to the late Canon S-series compact cameras that ended with the S70. The DP1 form truly has no brethren in which to compare to, but it has many elements drawn from contemporary photographic devices. Sigma has dipped their toes in the waters of optical oddities before and garnered a number of rabid fans for their 50-500mm zoom lens, often referred to the "Bigma" or their 30mm f/1.4 prime. The DP1 is clearly a continuation of that trend where Sigma produces what others don't, thereby filling gaps in the photographic marketplace.

The DP1's most prominent feature is its APS-C Foveon X3 sensor - a sensor that has a few quirks unto itself. Like the Fujifilm SuperCCD, The Foveon CMOS sensor rebels against the traditional Bayer patterned CCD / CMOS design and uses a stacked-pixel array in layers of red, green and blue similar to the dye layers in color film (remember film?). This layout permits the light reaching the sensor to be accepted by a photosite on at least one of the layers instead of interpolating color and anti-aliasing the recorded pixels as a Bayer pattern does. Essentially, each Foveon pixel has three colors of sensitivity as opposed to the Bayer pattern that has two green-only pixels paired with a red-only and blue-only pixel to gather and combine optical data. This results in a more natural blending of colors in the Foveon files. The caveat is the megapixel count. Frankly, the Foveon sensor in the DP1 is 14 megapixels, but when dividing by all three layers, the result via a bit of mathematical voodoo, is a 4.7 megapixel image file. Therefore, the Foveon sensor is difficult to evaluate side-by-side with other types of sensors, as such, this camera is a bear to compare. A Foveon-sourced photograph is distinctly different from any other sensor; which can imbue your photographs with a certain flavor that others do not have. Chromatic and luminance noise is reduced, and there is an improvement in overall color fidelity that can range from subtle to dramatic. The DP1's files are a bit dry and unsaturated, but the color is far more accurate than the often too punchy and unnatural colors produced by most point and shoots and even some digital SLRs.

Cracking the shell and pouring over the guts of this camera (not literally of course, this camera was a loaner) a couple of elements stick out. This part I mean quite literally. The fixed 16.6mm lens extends quite a bit when activated; in a manner that almost defeats the point of having a simple set focal length in a compact camera. A different optical formula may have been a better choice for this camera, a Tessar-type perhaps, to retain the svelte figure of the DP1. The Sigma engineers' lens choice becomes a double-whammy when one realizes that its widest aperture is f/4. A not-so-fast f/4 lens limits a lot of creative options, especially for bokeh junkies. At the same time, a lens of this nature as contained in a point-and-shoot camera is still an exclusive that certainly has some redeeming merits. The lens is surprisingly without distortion and pairs well with the Foveon sensor to keep aberrations at a minimum.

The control of the lens is somewhat of a curiosity. For starters, having a digital zoom function on a prime lens is a bit of a puzzler; akin to incorporating a washing machine into a Formula One race car. I still have not touched either the zoom-in or zoom-out buttons as I can't figure out why I would ever need them with a purposely fixed lens. What helps a user get over their optical quibbles is the manual focus dial to the rear - another can't-be-classified item onboard the DP1. There is a smooth, rotating thumb-wheel that has foot/meter markings atop the dial. This requires you to move the camera away from your eye if you are using the viewfinder. The AF works well and isn't a distraction, but scale focusing with a stepped motor lens is an acquired taste. The "zoom" mentioned above might prove useful when checking manual focus, but I didn't try it purely for the sake of my own silly principles. Oh, a prime is a prime and a zoom is a zoom, and never the twain shall meet.

Notes from the Field


Image Quality:

This is where the Foveon sensor shines. The color palette is unlike anything I have seen out of a digital camera, point and shoot, or SLR. It does not mean it is better, but rather different. My eyes found the tonal range and smooth transitions pleasing, and I was quite happy with the lack of blocked up colors often found in the upper spectrum of CMOS or CCD sourced images. Since the sensor does not follow Red+Green+Blue+Green pixel formula, I found the balance of colors to be film-like as the Foveon recording pixels are more evenly distributed. The dynamic range is quite wide and can compete with the newest crop of 14-bit sensors found in the latest generation of digital SLRs. My joy subsided when I went out shooting at night. I love photographing at the first or last glint of sunlight, near total darkness or shadowy streetscapes. Obviously this type of photography puts digital sensors through their paces and chromatic and luminance noise is rampant. Frankly, this digital shortcoming is what keeps my refrigerator stocked with sheet film. All that being said, I'm not sure who to blame, Sigma the lensmaker, or Foveon the sensormaker; but at night with many points of illumination such as street lights, stars or automobile headlamps, I occasionally experienced red ghosting and halos across my images, rendering them completely unusable.

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Speaking of the color red, the Foveon sensor possesses a spectral oddity. Certain red tones are recorded as a bright magenta. This is akin to the Leica M8 recording blacks as purple, but unlike the Leica, it caused by a completely different scenario that cannot be alleviated with UV/IR filtration. There is no Sigma fix aside from some careful photo-shopping with selective color adjustment, assuming it is possible. Admittedly, this is not a common occurrence, but if you see a pink fire truck when reviewing the day's images, you will know the source. A colleague discovered an application still in development, Sigma RAW Unpacker that not only correctly deciphers the Sigma RAW file but seems to bring the wild fluctuation in the red channel under control. It is not perfect, but the program can recover red tones that are found on this planet, from an image that looks like it was taken on Mars.

Do Porsches come in pink?

Speed:

Dispel any thoughts of becoming the next Ron Galella with this camera. This camera is not a Leica-lite, nor is it zippy enough for modern photojournalism. In fact, there is not one facet of this camera that could ever be considered fast. Then again, my 4x5" RB Graflex is as slow to operate and that does not hinder my enjoyment while shooting it. Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thoughts that govern most photographers:

Grab a camera and go shoot

versus…

Plan a shoot then fire away

It boils down to the issue of pre-thought a là Ansel Adams or post-thought a là W. Eugene Smith. This camera is without any doubts is for the former; photographers who meticulously select their shoots and carefully plan and organize their imagemaking, putting maximum emphasis on the act of photographing and lessening their post-processing labor. The DP1 is the thinking person's camera. The "snap-happy, chase the kids and cat around the house weekend-warrior" will despise this camera. On the other hand, the "my Deardorff is my reason to exist; one-sheet, one-shot photog" will do veritable cartwheels over the DP1.

Operability:

The buttons and controls are laid out is a way that anyone who has used an SLR or point and shoot camera will feel right at home with the DP1. It has a bit of girth and not much of a frontside grip, but in my oversized hands, it felt right. The camera does some odd things while you are shooting (surprised?) as it locks up entirely while it saves a single image. The bigger the file, the longer the wait until the next shot can be made. If you plan on shooting in Raw, invest in the fastest memory card you can and pack a large sack of patience.

The lens cap is a bit fiddly to lock in place, and what is worse is the optional accessory HA-11 lens hood must be removed completely in order to place the cap over the glass. It is somewhat annoying when you want to whip the camera out and start shooting. Adding to that quibble is the fact that the cap has to be off for the camera to operate when not taking photos. Not such a big deal you would think; but if you simply want to review a couple of images, the lens needs to do its extending thing before you can start flipping through your photos.

Camera with hood
Camera with hood

The camera is usually quiet except when the lens is extending when turning on and "going to sleep" after a period of inactivity. Oddly, the lens sleeps while the rest of the camera is active, in as much as while you are reviewing images or changing settings, the lens will retract if you take too long.

I did become rather adept at holding the camera vertically and shooting from my hip with the camera palmed in my hand. Patient street shooters may find their own methodology for using this camera to produce superb candid photographs. Scale focusing in manual was my only workaround for the focus-priority AF that often won't fire until the camera achieves good focus. Often the AF will result in missed shots for the trigger-happy photog. On the other hand, for someone like me who's Voigtlander Vito folder and Leica M3 single-stroke require some forethought and pre-focusing, manually pre-focusing the DP1 I found to be quite natural. My greatest issue is its lack of close focusing, which is to be expected in compact and point-and-shoot cameras. Again, I blame the lens choice for limiting the minimum focusing distance to 11.8"/30cm in manual and 20"/50cm in AF. There is an accessory close-up lens that is available, but it was introduced after my tests were concluded. The AML-1 lens, when used with the accessory hood adapter, provides focusing as close as 7.9-13.0 inches (20-33cm.)

The VF-11 accessory viewfinder is small and unobtrusive, which is a good thing since it doesn't add a great deal of bulk and visible mass to the camera's form. It has mirrored framelines that hearken back to the view through point and shoot rangefinders from the 60's & 70's. I personally preferred my venerable 30mm Zeiss Ikon viewfinder, but you are going to have to scour high and low to score that bit of antiquity. Otherwise, depending on your personal shooting style, the Sigma viewfinder should speed-up composition, requiring less reliance upon the LCD display at times when it may be distracting to others or when shooting in bright sunlight.

Post Processing:

Like most other digital photographers, I don't want to install yet another application as a part of my editing workflow. Due to the proprietary nature of the Sigma DP1 Raw format (X3F) as of the publication date of this article, there is no application that can read these files aside from Sigma's own import/conversion application - Sigma Photo Pro (SPP). Adobe, Apple and others will eventually open their doors to the X3F files, but until then, get used to SPP. Thankfully, the program, while a bit sparse, does an excellent job of quick sorting, correcting and exporting Raw files to a TIFF or JPEG format accepted by your favorite photo editing application. I was startled by the massive difference between the "processed Raw" file and what I originally shot. When importing into SPP, there was a brief flash of what I remember seeing on the back of the DP1 after exposure, then SPP "pre-fixes" the shot, smoothing noise and shifting color before I do my own corrections. SPP runs on PCs with Windows 2000 to Vista and Mac OSX 10.4 or later, with either a PPC or Intel processor. Most of us would prefer the robust correction tools found in the Adobe Camera Raw converter, but if you are conservative with your adjustments you can export to TIFFs from SPP, and rely on Photoshop for the majority of your photo fixes. Still exporting to DNG would be nice and kill two birds with one stone.

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Final Thoughts

What is in a name? That is a question asked in many contexts but here it has a lot to do with the DP1's legacy. If this camera exited from the factory of some high-end German manufacturer, this would be an instant cult camera. But, because it doesn't have Leica or Zeiss emblazoned across its exterior, I don't think that the DP1 will be recognized as the uniquely uncategorizeable, yet overwhelmingly enjoyable camera that it is, and to me that is a real shame.

Despite the nits I picked in the above paragraphs, I inexplicably have a great fondness for the camera. If I saw the specs on a sheet of paper or glimpsed the camera resting on a store shelf, I would probably look right past the DP1 and pay it no greater attention than a disinterested glance. Having spent some time with this unintentionally out-of-place camera, its left-of-center engineering and oddball sensor, I have found that somehow all of the elements just fit together into a cohesive and ultimately highly usable piece of equipment; don't ask me how – they just do.


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