By Ken Tanaka
Few cameras have faced the great expectations that Sigma’s DP1, and now the DP2, compact cameras have faced. Sigma’s own marketing tag line certainly fuels these expectations: "A Full-Spec Compact Digital Camera With All The Power of DSLR." I never touched a DP1, turned away by widespread stories of poor usability. But I was eager to take a look at its successor, the DP2.
What follows are my impressions of the Sigma DP2. Note that my evaluation of the DP2 took place within the context of my existing compact cameras; a Canon Powershot G10 and a Leica D-Lux 4 (a chichi version of the the Panasonic DMC-LX3), hence the references to these other cameras.
True to Sigma’s marketing claims the DP2 is capable of producing a high-quality low-to-moderate-ISO image file very comparable to that of a DSLR with an APS-C sensor. Indeed the DP2’s images can often best those of other cameras in the DP2’s size/price class. I must qualify this claim, however, by noting that obtaining optimal image quality from the DP2 is not always a predictable proposition.
What I found most surprising and disappointing was the DP2’s flimsy build and feel. The camera does not feel at all like a $650 camera marketed in 2009. (Sigma’s list price on the DP2 is actually a whopping $870.) It feels like a somewhat cheaply produced product below the industrial design standards of today’s higher-end compact cameras.
The Sigma DP2’s primary marketing claim is anchored in the performance of its 20.7mm x 13.8mm Foveon X3 sensor. (That sensor is approximately 6 to 7 times larger than the sensors in the Canon G10 and the Leica D-Lux 4.) Indeed, as some of the out-of-the-camera samples shown here suggest, the DP2 can do a nice job in this department. Images tend to be very crisp, extraordinarily noiseless at ISOs up to 800, and rich with detail.
The most significant DP2 image issues I encountered related to color casts and vignettes. The Foveon sensor seems to have a strong green bias. Raw images captured with auto white balance and the camera’s "standard" color profile are generally very cool and often show a slightly green overcast. They are also somewhat flat and undersaturated, contrary to the over-saturated Velvia-style samples that Sigma presents in its promotional brochure and website. While this is a relatively easily correctable characteristic, the DP2's tendency to also render greenish vignettes, or edge tints, is not so simple to correct. (See the Picasso sculpture image below for an example.) This quirk is rather unpredictable, although it seems more frequent at wider apertures.
As a side note, I was struck by how similar these DP2’s image quirks can be to those of the Leica M8 rangefinder, which can often produce cyan edge tints on images captured with uncoded wide-angle lenses.
Having been a long-time Canon G7, G9, and now G10 user, I have come to expect a very solid build in my compact cameras. Those cameras feel as if they’ve been hewn from solid blocks of aluminum. Even my Leica D-Lux 4 feels quite substantial. So I was surprised and disappointed with the DP2’s tinny, hollow build quality. I fully expect that a 3-foot fall to the pavement would instantly disintegrate a DP2 into a parts list. The DP2 just does not feel like a substantial camera.
Lens and focusing
The DP2’s 41mm single-focal length lens is the camera’s true star. Its sharpness, contrast, and nearly non-existent distortion are very reminiscent of some M-mount rangefinder lenses. The DP2’s terrific lens performance is one Sigma marketing claim that I can wholeheartedly confirm.
Unfortunately the DP2’s auto-focus performance is quite slow and weak. I would have expected the DP2’s fixed-focal length lens to be snappy in this department. But it can spend seconds hunting, even in well-lit scenes, and often completely wanders away in dimmer scenes. The DP2‘s manual focusing system is actually pretty good due mainly to a dedicated focus wheel. It would be much better, however, if the camera’s LCD screen was up to current-day specs.
It’s also worth noting, and warning prospective owners about, that the DP2’s focusing mechanism is loud...actually, very loud. The camera croaks, wheezes, and groans as the lens is focused either automatically or manually. I was startled by this noise when I shot the first frame. Who would expect this little camera to be as obtrusive as a growling stomach in quiet settings?
The past one or two generations of cameras have featured some gorgeous, large, high-resolution LCD screens. The Leica D-Lux 4 and Canon G10 both feature 3-inch 460K screens. But the DP2’s screen is only a 2.5" 230K LCD. It’s almost impossible to become comfortable with such a small, coarse screen after using one of these other cameras. Making this worse, however, is the fact that the DP2’s screen evidently has little in the way of optical coatings to improve visibility in bright conditions.
The DP2's menu features 21 settings provided in an old-style single list (but thankfully with circular navigation). The combination of button presses required to navigate and manipulate these settings takes some time to learn; it’s not exactly intuitive. The camera does feature a dedicated button for quickly changing frequently needed settings such as ISO. A completely separate "Setup" menu, which includes the memory card formatting function, is accessed somewhat oddly via the exposure program control dial.
Lock-ups and black-outs
Just 33 frames into the camera’s life it completely froze after recording an image to a 4Gb Sandisk Extreme III memory card. The status data remained displayed on the screen but the image was black and the camera would not respond to any button presses. Only removal of the battery cured this electronic catatonia. These seizures became so common that after the seventh occurrence, at around 245 frames, I stopped counting them.
At around the 200th frame, however, the DP2 developed a new malady. As with lock-ups, the status data remained on screen but the image went black. Unlike the full lock-ups, however, the camera remained responsive to button presses. The camera is clearly unusable in such a state, but cycling the power brought it back to normal.
Sigma claims that the average battery life for the DP2 is 250 shots. My own experience, in very moderate temperature conditions, is closer to 150–175.
At this writing the Sigma Photo Pro software provided with the camera is the only tool available for processing the DP2’s raw image files. To my surprise this software is really not bad at all. The Mac version was pretty snappy with a reasonably full complement of tonality adjustments. Sigma Photo Pro made working with the DP2’s X3F files relatively painless.
(N.b.: By the time you read this, Adobe will have issued a pre-release of the Camera Raw 5.4, which features support for the Sigma DP2.)
When Sigma finally introduced the long-awaited DP1 in 2008, many people rightly saluted the company for innovation. Innovations, however, must ultimately be integrated into products that represent genuine practical advancement. This is where I feel Sigma has failed thus far. The DP2 is simply not a competitive product with today’s other premium-priced compact digital cameras. I did not see any conspicuous persistent advantages from the Foveon sensor that would come close to counterbalancing the camera’s practical shortcomings. Frankly, I was not as impressed with the DP2’s Foveon technology as I was with its lens and the fact that it has such a relatively large sensor in such a small camera.
After using the DP2 daily for over a week I found it to be a sluggish, noisy, unreliable, and generally charmless device which I ultimately decided to return for a refund. That’s the bottom line of my opinion.
Given the recent advancements of the Micro Four-Thirds sensor format I expect several new compact cameras sporting these larger-than-standard-point-and-shoot sensors from Olympus and Panasonic in the near future. It will be a shame if Sigma is unable to leverage its investment in the Foveon X3 (which it now owns) in time to gain leadership in compact cameras. To do so, however, it will need to build better cameras around its sensors and lenses.
Featured Comment by Chris: "Being a happy owner of a DP2, I would agree with many of the points made here—the menus are a bit clunky, the focusing is noisy and slow, there is some weird WB out of camera. But after a few tweaks in Sigma Photo Pro the images simply sing. The amount of detail, quality of color and dynamic range are far more robust and professional than files generated by my Nikon D40. These qualities also translate well to black-and-white conversions. I love the minimalist, old-school, controls and simplicity and plan on getting the slightly over-priced viewfinder. But, the big thing for me is the fast ƒ/2.8 lens. Being able to shoot with a shallow depth of field with a compact digital is what I've been waiting for and is a big part of my photographic style."
Featured Comment by Andrew: "Sad but true. I bought one only because I had been anticipating it for so long, and I loved yet hated my DP1. Too late to return it. So much potential squandered."
Featured Comment by mcananeya: "How's this for a quirk of timing? Sigma just released a firmware update (http://www.sigma-dp.com/DP2/firmware.html) that supposedly improves autofocus performance and eliminates the camera lock-ups Ken described above. That obviously wouldn't change the noise and build-quality issues, but it's still unfortunate that Ken didn't get a chance to test a camera with the new firmware.
"I suppose that's the price you pay for being one of the first to review a camera...."
Featured Comment by Thomas Risberg: "That was a pretty poor review in my opinion. Not that I disagree with what you write, you seem to have uncovered some usability problems that exists for the DP1 as well. Nothing new here. You should however have tried a little harder to make use of the defining features of the camera which in my opinion are the sensor and a high quality lens on a pocket sized body. Looking around the web it doesn’t take long to find some excellent pictures taken with both the DP1 and DP2, so for you not even trying to produce some magic with this camera is disappointing and I expected a lot more from a review on TOP."
Featured Comment by Edward Taylor: "After my TOP review of the Sigma DP1, I used the camera for another few months. During that time I found that it did not give me reliable results. I occasionally got remarkable, "better than expected" images, but usually got images that could not measure up to my G9 or G10. Not to mention, the camera was so clunky to use. As a result, I missed so many shots that I stopped using it.
"Also, though I am not impressed with megapixel counts, I began to get annoyed with the claim that the camera was almost 15 megapixels. At times the resolution seemed limited to the 4–5 megapixels that it actually had. Under ideal conditions, the camera seemed to excel beyond its specs, but when do we ever have ideal conditions?
"Anyway, I was optimistic that Sigma would fix all these bugs with the DP2. They didn't. I had the camera for a brief time and returned it just as Ken did.
"My advice for a pocketable camera—go with the Canon G-10 or the Panasonic LX3 until Micro 4/3rds is a reality. Then re-evaluate the situation.
"Thanks Ken for an informative real-world review."