[NOTE: I'm having a technical problem with this page. When clicked on, the two vertical pictures are opening at sizes that are much larger than the image files, which shouldn't be happening. The overlarge size makes the image quality look excessively poor. I have sized both vertical pictures at the sizes they appear on this page, i.e., without being clicked on, so please judge them as they appear below. I've submitted a Help Ticket to TypePad and will work to resolve the issue as soon as I can. I apologize to Ed for the problem. —Mike]
By Edward Taylor
I am what they call an early adopter. I have had and still have a lot of cameras. I enjoy cameras, but am most interested in how their evolution improves overall image quality (IQ) or makes it easier to "get the photo." By 2001, I had owned a string of point and shoot (P&S) digital cameras. I had been pretty happy with the images from my Nikon Coolpix 990, but I could tell that the resolution was not as good as film. The first camera that I thought, for my purposes, might be able to replace a film camera completely was the Nikon D1X. I was unhappy about what, at the time, seemed like a ridiculous price; and the camera seemed huge and heavy to me, but I bought it anyway. The images it produced blew me away. I was happy for a short time until I learned that Nikon was coming out with a 5-megapixel Coolpix called the 5000. Its megapixel count was only a few short of the D1X’s 5.7 megapixels. It was small and only $1000. I felt sick to my stomach. I thought I could have gotten almost all the image quality of the D1X in a much smaller package for a fifth the price that I had just paid. I ordered the small camera, thinking I might sell my D1X. As soon as I had both cameras, I started comparing images. It became painfully clear that there were factors involved in image quality beyond megapixels. The Coolpix also had shutter lag and the D1X did not. Lesson learned.
That imagined small camera with the quick response time and the DSLR quality images has become somewhat of a holy grail in photography. Whether it is fair or not, P&S cameras inevitably get compared to DSLRs in terms of IQ, resolution, noise, quickness, lenses, etc. To this point, in my opinion, none has measured up.
My current P&S is a Canon G9. I hate to miss a good shot, so I almost always have a camera with me. When faced with the decision to lug around my Canon 5D with its heavy 24–105 lens, or just grab the tiny G9 and put it in my pocket—you guessed it, I usually take the G9. It is easy to use, has a built in flash (important for snaps) and it doesn’t freak people out at a gathering.
I take a lot of photos—maybe an average of 100 per day. It turns out that a substantial number are taken with the G9. Most of my family snapshots and street shots are taken with the G9—and that’s the rub. Why? Because I don’t really like the quality of the image that comes from the G9 or any P&S that I have used. It seems adequate for pictures of things, but for pictures of people, I just don’t like it. When I get a great "people photo" with the G9, I always wish I had put out the effort to carry the 5D, because I know it could have been that much better. Still, I consider the G9 to be one of the best P&S cameras made.
Since shutter lag on P&S cameras has significantly improved, now, most of the limitations of P&S cameras are attributed to their small sensor size and resultant less-than-stellar IQ. Cramming more tiny pixels on those tiny sensors has not improved image quality the way one might have hoped. To their credit, Sigma is the first company to try to address this problem, and in so doing, has significantly raised the bar. The Sigma DP1 is the first P&S to utilize a sensor that is found in a DSLR. So, despite all the great cameras that have come out in the last few years, the Sigma DP1 piqued my interest more than any other camera including the 21 megapixel Canon 1DsMKIII. I ordered it at the first possible chance many months ago. I finally received it last week and have been happily snapping away. In order to maximize the assumed IQ advantage of a camera like the DP1, I only shot RAW. I also only used it the way it ships. I did not have an optional viewfinder, lens shade, or external flash. Adding those things would make the camera too large to be pocketable anyway.
I opened the box containing this small camera with a large (24.9mm measured diagonally) Foveon X3 sensor with great anticipation. I couldn’t find the camera at first. Had they sent me a cameraless box—just cords and manuals and a disk? It turned out that what I thought was a transformer for the charger tucked all the way on one side was actually the camera. After I found it, I was impressed with its small size (4.5 x 2.3 x 2 in.) and light weight. Some people have knocked it for being "plasticky," but I thought it was a cool little camera with a simple design.
As I held it in my hands I thought to myself, "This is the future of P&S cameras." I didn’t realize at the time that it was also going to be a "blast from the past." Before going any further into what may seem like a good bit of criticism, let me say up front that I really like this camera, and, despite its high cost, would buy it again.
First let me make it clear that the DP1 is not and never could be what is referred to on TOP as a DMD (Decisive Moment Camera). Why? Because it is slow. That is one of the main reasons I called it a "blast from the past." It suffers from shutter lag, slow focusing, LCD screen lock, and slow write speeds like I haven’t seen in years. In fact, the LCD screen lock is something I don’t remember at all. When the shutter button is pushed half way, the screen locks and you cannot see to reframe the photo unless you wait a second or so until focus is achieved. In effect, the whole camera locks and you can’t do anything for a second. That was really annoying. Even though there are tricks you can use to make the camera a little faster, it is still way slower in most respects than, for example, the G9. I don’t know why it should be so slow. Other cameras handle the same number of pixels or more without a problem.
It has some other quirks as well. Auto exposure seems to be hit or miss. I had to switch to manual mode or use exposure compensation on more than a few occasions to correct for poor exposure that remained poor no matter where I pointed the camera. I can usually get a camera to readjust the exposure by pointing it at something brighter or darker in the picture, but this didn’t seem to work with the DP1. It was as though it was stuck on the wrong exposure. This may have been partly due to the LCD locking as mentioned above. Also, there were several instances where even in good light, I could not get the auto focus lamp to come on, but the photos seemed to be focused when checked later.
The camera is also lacking some more modern developments. It doesn’t have face recognition or a "smile" recognition feature. This is no big deal. In fact, I prefer it this way. Unfortunately, it also lacks any form of image stabilization. There is no macro mode, there is no built in optical view finder, the flash is weak (not too uncommon), and there is no Auto Flash. Also, there is no automatic lens cap like on the G9, and the one offered doesn’t even have a place for a string to attach it to the camera. Of course, many will also lament the lack of a zoom.
There has been a lot of discussion about the adequacy of its 28mm ƒ/4 lens. Many have said that a 35mm or 40mm equivalent, or even a "normal" 50mm-e lens would have been preferable. I might have opted for a 35mm-e or 40mm-e myself, but I found this lens to be quite usable. I don’t use lens charts, but in real life, it is sharp and shows little objectionable distortion. I learned to use my two-leg zoom to get in close with good results. As far as the ƒ/4 aperture is concerned, I would have preferred an ƒ/2 or ƒ/2.8, but I understand that compromises had to be made to keep the camera small. To cover the area of the large sensor, the lens would have to be quite large if it opened up more. One possible problem with the lens is that it bulges out a bit and without the lens shade it may be subject to glare. I did not have a problem with that, though.
Resolution may be more important on the DP1 than on cameras with a zoom. Because of the fixed 28mm lens, images might need cropping more often. Sigma claims that the DP1 is a 14 megapixel camera. In my opinion it is not. Raw files are 4.7 megapixels and after RAW processing, the TIFF files are comparable to 8 megapixel files. I compared the resultant images to images from a Nikon D1X (5.7 megapixel) and a 20D (8 megapixel). The images were a little better than the D1X and close to the 20D in terms of resolution. I also compared the images to ones from a 5D (12 megapixels), and the 5D images were clearly higher resolution. As I said, I don’t use charts. This is just how it appears to me.
There has been some talk from the “lunatic fringe” about a green cast appearing in the corners or edges of images from the DP1. I was surprised that I actually noticed this myself on a few images, but it seemed to appear sporadically and very infrequently. The latest news is that this may have been fixed in the newest firmware from Sigma.
What about IQ? Can this little camera actually produce an image that is comparable to a DSLR? The answer is YES. I have never used a P&S camera that has produced images as "DSLR like" as this camera's. I think the images compare well to images from your average consumer-grade DSLR. (Those cameras produce great images). It would be unfair to compare the DP1 to a Canon 1DsMKIII or a Nikon D3.
Under the right circumstances the images from this camera can be quite stunning. Noise is low even at ISO 800. Shadow detail is good. Dynamic range may be a little less than most DSLRs, so maintaining highlight detail is more the challenge. Color, contrast and sharpness can all be easily optimized with RAW processing. I was also impressed by how well the images held up even with a lot of post processing in Sigma’s RAW program. The RAW file processing program was unable to properly adjust some files though, and there was just no way to convert them to TIFFs or JPEGs without tremendous artifact and distortion. I don’t know how frequently this occurs, but I don’t know of any alternative programs that can convert these RAW files. BreezeBrowser was the only program I had that could view the X3F Raw files.
There is something really beautiful about the images that come from the Foveon sensor. I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but the images are smooth and luxurious.
If you only make relatively small (8x10") prints to view your photos, then the advantages of having a large sensor in your P&S are mitigated. But if you make large prints or like to get lost in your photos while gazing at them at 100% on your 30-inch monitor, then this camera will truly impress you and bring your P&S images to a whole new level.
In my opinion, despite all the limitations, the Sigma DP1 can produce the best images of any small, light weight P&S camera that I have ever seen or used—and not by a small margin. Even at ISO 800, it produces results that are unimaginable with other P&S cameras at any ISO.
Can the DP1 replace a decent DSLR? No. Can it replace a good P&S like the G9? No. Why? – Because it is too slow and it is not versatile enough.
Because of the limitations mentioned, this should not be your only camera. In fact, It should not be your only walk around camera. It is simply too slow. While trying to get some shots to go with this review, I went to a skate park where I have previously taken some nice pictures with a DSLR. With the DP1, I finally gave up. I simply could not get the timing right to get anything decent. Those skate boarders just move too fast. I then tried to get some shots of my two grandsons who do not sit still for a second, and had no success there either. There was too much shutter lag and the camera was just too sluggish. I hope that there will be a DP2 that improves on this camera’s weaknesses and I hope other companies will also make large sensor P&S cameras. We’re not there yet, but we are getting closer to that elusive Decisive Moment Camera. I do not want the effort to die with the DP1. To motivate the camera companies, we should all go out and buy one.
If the lighting is attractive, and your subject is not moving and you have a minute or two to get the photo, then, for a small camera, the Sigma DP1 will give you unprecedented results. As I said before, I really like this camera. When I am walking around with my Canon G9, I plan to keep the DP1 in my other pocket, and pull it out when the opportunity arises for it to do its magic.
All the pictures accompanying this review were taken in RAW mode. They were taken over a couple of days in a few hours of shooting randomly right around where I live. They've all gone through the Sigma RAW processor, but have not been manipulated otherwise, except for sizing for posting on the web. Unfortunately, you will not be able to see how technically impressive these files are by looking at these small renditions.
Edward Taylor has been an avid photographer since age 11. In the '70s, he worked as a writer and photojournalist for several Philadelphia area newspapers and did public relations and commercial photography. Despite switching careers, his interest in all things photographic has never diminished. He now does portraiture and scenic photography in North Carolina, and is actively entrenched in both the technical and aesthetic aspects of digital photography.
Copyright 2008 by Edward Taylor—All Rights Reserved
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