A Photographer’s Impressions of the Sigma fp Camera

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Sigma released the most intriguing and exciting camera of the year. This probably isn’t a statement you’d expect to hear, but I’d argue that 2019’s Sigma fp is the most unexpected and, subsequently, most pleasantly surprising camera from 2019. And not because it’s the best camera, but because it signals a clear and decisive break from the status quo of camera design that has been present in the industry for many, many years. Sigma has always gone rogue with its cameras, chiefly due to its use of Foveon sensors and rather distinct body designs. The fp, however, uses a more typical Bayer array sensor and a very sensible and modest brick-like shape for this ultra-compact full-frame body. And yet, Sigma still manages to clearly differentiate itself from everyone else.

The Sigma fp has garnered some attention online, leading up to the first shipments, but most of the interest garnered has come from the video end of the image-making spectrum. Many initial reports claimed the fp “is clearly designed as a cine camera with some photo specs” or “it’s great for video, quirky for stills.” Essentially, most people have pegged the fp as a video-optimized camera with the ability to shoot photos. Much like the way many DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are essentially photo-intended cameras with some video specs, the Sigma is the opposite of this. While I objectively agree with these statements, I don’t, however, agree with the tone or suggestion that you’d be foolish to use the fp primarily as a stills camera. I’m almost exclusively a stills shooter, and have thoroughly enjoyed working with the fp for the past week. It’s quirky (just like all Sigma cameras) and it has its drawbacks (just like every camera) but it brings a unique set of assets to the stills game that other cameras are hardly addressing. As much as I’m sure the Sigma fp will stand to please the video crowd, for this review I’m going to focus entirely on the fp as a camera for still photography and let the filmmakers out there tell you about its video capabilities.

The funny thing about the fp, as it relates to photography, is that the specifications aren’t really the deciding factor for this camera. I think this statement could hold true about many cameras currently, which is more a comment on the state of the industry and where we are in terms of image quality and what is considered acceptable performance for a camera. The fp has a full-frame 24MP CMOS sensor, which uses a Bayer color filter array, opposed to Sigma’s typical Foveon sensor design. I would be remiss in stating that a Foveon design would likely please or captivate more of the photo heads out there, but for now let’s talk about the advantages of a Bayer design. Compared to Foveon, Bayer is a more versatile and widely accepted standard for sensors, and it receives significantly more development by more manufacturers. The two clear points of distinction in this comparison are with usable ISO values and lack of noise. With a Foveon design, you’re essentially limited to working at ISO 100 or else risk having very noticeable color noise affect your images. With Bayer sensors (as evidenced by almost every other contemporary digital camera), you can easily push into ISO 6400, ISO 12800, and so on, with acceptable noise. The fp is a boon for Sigma enthusiasts because it is essentially the first Sigma camera that can be used in low light without needing to make long exposures.

In terms of image quality, it’s just as good as any other full-frame 24MP camera out there. It has its unique color-handling assets, which seem to take after a Foveon-esque look, but do lack the immense depth and richness of the Merrill and Quattro camera files. It feels clear to me that Sigma knows how it wants its colors to look, and the fp’s match in OOC saturation, warmth, and clarity. Designed more for cine applications, it is worth noting that the fp does have an array of Color settings and Tone settings, accessible via a dedicated button on the back of the camera, which would let you use anything from a Teal and Orange profile with a dynamic S contrast curve to a desaturated Monochrome effect. I chose to work in the standard Color profile, though, and shoot in 14-bit DNG for easy editing in Adobe Camera Raw.

Beyond image quality concerns, the sensor, of course, also avails a 49-area contrast-detection autofocus system. As far as contrast-detection systems versus faster phase-detection AF systems go, the fp is quick and reliable, but not mind blowing in terms of speed. Working with still subjects, I tended to stick to single point Single AF shooting, and with the compact 45mm f/2.8 lens, the AF performance was completely adequate. Shooting with the Continuous AF, which uses “moving object prediction,” focusing seemed to hunt a bit more. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting this camera to excel with its AF, and it did exceed my expectations, but it’s still not going to encroach on more sports-intended cameras. With the applications for which this camera is designed, manual focus will likely be the norm, or slower focusing performance won’t be too much of an issue.

Besides its minimalist appearance, the fp is a rather minimalistic camera in terms of features, too. This is where the fp separates itself from most other available “photo cameras,” because its deliberate omission of some common features taken for granted might feel like deal breakers to many, such as the lack of a mechanical shutter. Contributing to its especially small size, the fp lacks a physical shutter and relies on a fully electronic shutter. The other upsides of this is completely silent shooting, reduced vibrations due to “shutter shock,” a fast continuous shooting rate up to 18 fps, and since there are fewer moving parts in the design, it adds to the longevity and reliability of the design. The downsides, though: a slow flash sync speed of 1/30-second and the potential for rolling shutter distortion when photographing moving subjects (however, I never experienced this in daily shooting). The flash sync is the harder pill to swallow, and it’s further exaggerated by the fact that the camera doesn’t even have a hot shoe or sync port on it; you are required to use the included HU-11 Hot Shoe Unit, which attaches to the side of the camera body in a very similar manner to the classic Olympus XA2 with its A11 flash. Shooting with flash with a top 1/30-second sync essentially limits you to using flash in low light, low ISOs, or, weirdly, with ND filters, but it does work. As long as you can get by without needing to do daytime fill flash shooting, this system does work with its few caveats.

Another feature “missing” from the fp is sensor-shift type image stabilization. And I say it’s missing because at this point in camera development, it’s becoming an expected feature for most mirrorless cameras. The camera is compatible with image-stabilized lenses and it does have electronic image stabilization for video, but for stills you are left with pushing the ISO or (*gasp*) using a tripod. Similar to the lack of a mechanical shutter, I can only assume the omission of mechanical stabilization is due to keeping a lightweight and simple design, and also may be due to video shooters typically relying on external stabilization systems, like gimbals, rather than using in-camera functions.

Moving beyond these two drawbacks which, to me, are the main reasons why many are initially deeming the fp to be not ideal for stills, we get to my favorite part of the camera: its design. The physical form of the fp is what truly separates it from any other camera on the market, and is one of the key reasons there is so much intrigue surrounding the camera’s launch. Early advertising for the fp revolved around the concept of the camera being “modular.” Its minimalist design could be adapted to almost any kind of image-making need desired—it’s small enough to fit into a handheld rig, can obviously sit in a larger cine rig, could be used in some larger drones, can be fitted with grip accessories, viewing accessories, flash accessories, and more. It’s a scalable design, rather than being truly “modular,” but it’s a very smart move that lets the fp keep its claim as “smallest full-frame camera” or it can disappear into the infrastructure of complex rigging configurations. Rather than needing to design accessories around a uniquely proportioned body, the fp is a blank canvas, of sorts, that can inspire myriad accessories and mounting solutions for incorporating it into different photo and video applications.

For photography, specifically, the indispensable accessory needed is the HG-11 Hand Grip. When attached, suddenly the camera sits in the hand quite nicely. This clever little piece of bent metal with a rubberized coating makes holding the fp a total joy versus the decidedly unergonomic brick shape of the body alone. There’s a larger grip—the HG-21 Large Hand Grip—that would likely be even better for working with bigger lenses, but when just working with the 45mm f/2.8 lens, the HG-11 maintains a very streamlined and sleek profile. Another key design element of the fp is the inclusion of three separate 1/4"-20 mounts on the camera body—one on the bottom where you’d expect it and two on either side of the body. These two side mounts open up a surprisingly great number of mounting and accessory options for the camera: the neck strap lugs can be removed from the camera body because they connect via 1/4"-20; the aforementioned HG-11 connects via the right side mount; the HU-11 connects via the left side mount; and, if so desired, you could use these mounts in place of needing an L-plate when shooting in the vertical orientation from a tripod.

Quickly, I should also mention that the fp has a single SD memory card slot, which is UHS-II compatible, and it does have a USB 3.1 Gen1 Type-C port for tethered shooting or for charging the battery. It uses the same BP-51 batteries that are used in the dp Quattro series of cameras, and battery life is approximately 280 shots per charge. Battery life is another one of those arenas in which Sigma doesn’t have the greatest track record, mainly due to the extra processing power required by the Foveon sensors, but for this Bayer sensor, the battery performance seems adequate considering the small form factor of the battery. I still found it necessary to have a couple of batteries with me for a day’s worth of shooting.

The last part of the design that is somewhat contentious would have to be the lack of an electronic viewfinder. Or, rather, the lack of a secondary OLED viewfinder as seen in most current high-end mirrorless bodies. As with the dp-series of cameras, Sigma has created the LVF-11 LCD Viewfinder to remedy this situation; a loupe-style finder that fits over the rear LCD and provides a magnified view of the screen for eye-level viewing. I didn’t have a chance to use the LVF-11 on the fp, but I do own the dp2 and dp3 Quattro cameras and use the similarly-styled LVF-01 with those cameras and truly love the viewing experience. Prior to using this kind of a viewing system, you may think it looks rather clumsy and adds an unnecessary amount of length to the camera body. These statements are partially true, but once you give a chance to using the physically larger viewing aid, opposed to a smaller magnification EVF, you’ll notice and appreciate the difference and level of comfort. Manual focusing is noticeably easier and reviewing images feels more useful with the greater physical space your eye has versus smaller EVFs. The LCD itself is a 3.15" 2.1m-dot touchscreen, so it is slightly larger and higher in resolution than the norm. Also, there is a useful Display button on the back of the camera for cycling through up to four different custom display configurations; I like to set one up for working with the LVF, one when not working with the LVF, and a completely blank one for totally unencumbered viewing.

Finally, I want to mention briefly the 45mm f/2.8 DG DN Contemporary lens that is essentially the “kit lens” for the fp. I’ve already reviewed this lens a few months ago (a Sony E-mount version) and mentioned how much of a big deal this lens is to the L Mount Alliance. I still stand by that statement because it is still the most compact lens for the system and performs admirably. It pairs so well with the small form factor of the fp and I’m a huge fan of the choice to go with a good normal-length prime as the go-to lens for this camera versus some kind of a zoom. The ethos of a prime lens seems to suit the fp better than an unwieldy zoom, especially when using this camera for photography. It matches its slenderness and spryness quite well.

Reflecting back on the short amount of time I had to spend with the Sigma fp, I have to say that I understand the initial resistance to deem this a “photographer’s camera,” but I’d challenge that initial notion and say it really is a brilliant camera for stills shooting. It might not have every feature every photographer wants, and it’s obviously better suited for certain kinds of shooting than others, but on a physical, tactile level, it is a unique solution for getting a full-frame sensor in your hands every day. Its small size and intuitive design are fun and unobtrusive; it’s undeniably quirky, but it has character, which is, for me, one of the most valuable assets of a camera.

What are your initial impressions of the Sigma fp? Could you see yourself using one for photography or are you mainly interested in its video capabilities? And what do you think of the unique design and approach to camera design Sigma took with this model? Let us know, in the Comments section, below.

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