"Photography is all we do, and it’s all we’ve ever done."
—Sigma press release for the sd Quattros
Sigma has dropped the curtain on a dazzling surprise. The audience gasps! Applause swells and fills the room!
First of all, if you think Pentax is the wallflower at the DSLR party, consider Sigma. It owns the rights to an inherently superior sensor architecture, but, because it's proprietary, it's been stuck with developing it alone. My belief is that if the Foveon technology had been "open source" and available to all companies to develop competitively, it would be perfected far beyond where Sigma has been able to take it alone, and it would be in 98% of all cameras by now. If not 100%.
As it is, it's pretty amazing. The technically most impressive digital images I've ever seen were taken with Sigma cameras. The Foveon sensor has a beauty and an innate integrity that is unique. With intensive development from huge multinational electronics giants working competitively, the Bayer array sensor has come a very long way. It's still inherently a rather primitive kludge, analogous to tricolor cameras from the early days of color photography, which made original "color separations" on three sheets of B&W film in-camera...never mind that the color sensitivity of B&W film itself wasn't truly panchromatic! Analogously, Foveon is Kodachrome.
But consider the poor SD1, Sigma's first and nearly only DSLR [UPDATE: This isn't quite right. See Jim Kofron's Featured Comment below for more accurate information. —Ed.]. It was introduced in 2010 for a price of nearly $10,000...which probably sensibly reflected the development cost. It had a Sigma lensmount. With pixel count not an accurate metric of image quality, it came to be widely believed that the company's "pixel count equivalent" was a bit of a fudge, if not a con. Sigma couldn't win for losing. And its very rarity meant that most people couldn't see the pictures.
So along came the very strange digicams—cameras that took the form of fixed-lens point-and-shoots, but required the care of shooting with medium format to achieve the image quality of which they were capable. Add awkward proprietary software, and you had truly quirky outlier cameras that were not only out of the mainstream but very far from it. And at that, you had to buy separate cameras to get different lenses, as with 1960s Rolleiflexes. Weird. Quirky. But that sensor—wonderful.
Enter the sd Quattros
So what's happened now? Sigma has put its best Foveon X3 Quattro Direct sensor into an interchangeable-lens mirrorless body somewhat similar to the Leica SL. The sd [sic] Quattro and sd Quattro H differ only in the size of their sensors: APS-C (1.5X crop factor) for the former and APS-H for the latter. Remember APS-H from the Canon EOS-1D and the Leica M8? Sigma's is 26.6×17.9mm (1.0 inch×0.7 inch), with a 1.2X crop factor, and, as for pixels...well, it's complicated. In three layers, the top layer is 6,200×4,152, the middle and bottom layers are 3,348×2,232. Sigma estimates the quality to be about equivalent to a 45-MP Bayer array, but that's disingenuous because it's not equivalent. It's better.
As far as the details are concerned, I'm not going to get into that here. The cameras are in development—there's no ship date and no hint as to pricing yet. Here are the spec sheets if you want to delve into them.
Suffice to say that if you love Sigma Foveon quality—they have a small but devoted (dare I say cultish?) fan base—that game just changed.
This one's going to be fun to watch.
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Chris Fuller: "I had a Sigma DP2 Merrill and the images were astounding, if you knew how to use it correctly. I loved their look. However, ultimately the slow software and the camera's very limited use for certain types of photography did not match my goals, so I sold it. Still think of that camera, though, with great fondness."
Jim Kofron: "Hi Mike, The SD1 was the first and only DSLR to use the 'Merrill' version of the Foveon sensor. The very first DSLR was the SD9 (first Foveon sensor, sans microlenses), followed by the SD10, SD14, and SD15. I've owned the last three (and have a DP3 Merrill). It's been a while since I've had a new Sigma (I skipped the SD1), and I'm looking forward to these new cameras (I'll probably spring for the H). I assume that this will also mean that I'll be springing for some new glass too...
"The game has changed. Hopefully the EVF and focusing have improved the operational characteristics. The QS menu system on the Merrills and Quattros are actually quite nice—the camera will get out of your way when you want to shoot. Having said that, I've had a hard time really embracing my DP3 (which creates marvelous images) because I really like to look through a viewfinder. And yes, I know that you can add one to the top, but...."
Geoff Wittig: "I will confess to never handling one. However, my understanding is that Sigma's Foveon sensor cameras have been hamstrung by a combination of sluggish electronics and kludgey raw processing software, rendering them marginally usable in the real world, despite the immense potential of their sensor architecture. Hopefully Sigma are devoting sufficient resources to the supporting electronics and software so the undoubted virtues of the sensor are available in a usable form.
"We're so spoiled by the remarkable speed and responsiveness of modern cameras that sluggish, balky devices are immediately kicked to the curb. I recently pulled out my old EOS-1Ds (circa 2002) and took a few shots. At its introduction it was considered much more usable and responsive than Kodak's competing 14-MP DCS Pro SLR, but today it feels like it's set in cement. You take a shot and count ('One-one thousand, two-one thousand'...) for several seconds before the preview image comes up on the LCD. It's excruciating!"
Massimiliano Marchetti: "I am an happy user of the three Merrills and one has to see the prints to really realize the quality and unique signature of the Foveon sensor. This is a surprising and very welcomed announcement from Sigma; waiting to see how they will improve upon the existing models and fix some of the issues of the Quattro series sensors. One thing for sure they need to improve is the Sigma Photo Pro software that is still incomplete and slow even if it usable with some pain and patience."
Kenneth Tanaka (partial comment): "My own history with Sigma's Foveon cameras has arced over the years. My first encounter was with the original DP camera (which I reviewed here in 2009?) was a horror. I had never encountered a gadget that provoked me so close to mayhem. But some of the image files were wonderful. Fast forwarding a few years I bought the DPx Merrill cameras. Better design, or at least more tolerable. Last year I decided to spend dedicated time seeing what these guys could really do for me. After only a couple of weeks using the DP Merrills exclusively (I felt like Alfred Eisenstadt) I ended up with two outstanding sets of images, two of which have become among my all-time favorites. One is superb a street collage and the other is a rather surreal park/construction scene. Of course you cannot possibly discern the distinctive qualities of these images on a web site; you must see them printed large. But you can get a sense of their extraordinary detail from this tiny section of that park scene. You can nearly tell what these guys had for lunch! (By the way, I shot both of those as in-camera JPEGs.)
"Is this new Sigma in my future? Probably not, as I'm trimming kit and becoming more selective in my needs. But those of you who are curious about the legendary Foveon sensor it may soon be an excellent time to buy a used DPx Merrill to see for yourself.
"Your Sigma DPx Merrill Fun Fact! The Sigma DPx Merrill battery (a Sigma BP-41) is the same as Ricoh's DB-65 battery, used in their GR and GR II cameras!"
Al C.: "The DP Merrills are, in both absolute and relative (to peers) terms, the most amazing product of any kind I have ever owned. You nailed it: it has that Kodachrome glow, that ineffable transparency of light captured live. But then it may even be better in B&W, with that purity, bite and texture of 'narrative' which only the best of B&W can convey. Sure, I have to wait 15 seconds to chimp a shot. So? Sure, SPP takes five seconds to process a raw image. But my jaw hits the table every time the finished image locks in on screen.
"For the audiophiles among you, the analogy which comes to mind is that Bayer is solid state and Foveon is tube.
"In 2002 I was speaking with a pre-eminent, old-timer Sand Hill Road venture capitalist. I asked him which of his portfolio companies he believes will be a breakthrough homerun, knowing he's had quite a few of those. Without thinking, he said Dick Merrill's Foveon. He said it will revolutionize digital image capture. He was wrong. And he was right. If only...."