Sigma’s DP2 – Camera less obscure
Sigma’s DP1 was launched in 2007 (with production models available in 2008) to great critical acclaim. occupying a unique spot in the marketplace by combining an APS-C format sensor with a compact “point and shoot” style body. There were a few controversial design choices, and the user and reviewer feedback varied greatly with the time and effort people were prepared to put in learning about the camera, yet the verdicts on the optical performance were united – the DP1 was astounding. Now the DP2 has arrived, with production-quality units available from UK retailers.
Even at launch, the DP1 was mooted to be one of three, and the following year saw the accouncement of the DP2 – the 41mm version. Photokina saw the first prototypes, and Focus on Imaging saw the first hands-on reports; now the camera is shipping and I’m fortunate enough to have one of the first in the country. Since Focus, the firmware has been finalised and the first delight is discovering that in raw mode, the ISO 3200 option has remained.
With that in mind, how does Sigma’s newest camera shape up – both in isolation, and compared to the DP1? The 28mm equivalent pioneer of Sigma’s DP range continues as a current model – due to the sequential nature of SD naming many people have assumed that the DP2 is a successor to the DP1. Whilst there are improvements, the DP1 remains the “Wide” companion to the “Standard” DP2).
Over the DP1’s specification, the DP2 differs in detail. The basic 14Mp (4.5 x 3) Foveon sensor remains and the dimensions and styling are near identical. Screen, battery and card/interface locations all remain unchanged (though firmware changes mean that the 2.5” LCD has improved low-light performance; the DP1 also benefitted from this development with updated firmware). The manual focus wheel is now stiffer (a change introduced during production of DP1s) meaning it remains where you set it even if you accidentally brush it, the location of the buttons on the rear has been revised and there is now a QS – Quick Set – option. The wheel on top provides access to the setup menu, providing a new interface model which is considerably easier to use and differentiates between “Setup” choices like date/time and the like, and shooting choices.
If anything the DP2 user is spoilt for choice, as the QS button allows rapid access to 8 different shooting controls – ISO, WB, drive, Self timer, Flash, Colour (for JPEG), metering and file type. These functions are duplicated in the shooting menu, which also allows configuration of the display, the soft buttons and storage of the configuration amongst other features. A live-view histogram makes an appearance in programme and priority modes, as does the ability to vary the number of gridlines (which are now a subtle grey). The amount of information displayed on the LCD can be reduced to aid composition, and like the DP1, the LCD can also be disabled to save power when using an optical viewfinder, and zoomed when using manual focus.
Technically the DP2 differs in an evolutionary style from the DP1 – the processor is updated (the TRUE II is a faster part, developed in partnership with Fujitsu; the specification suggests that the Foveon-specific component is getting a bit more refinement now and it will be interesting to see how this progresses with Sigma’s ownership of the sensor firm) and mechanically/optically, the lens and sensor are optimised. What this translates to for the end user is a faster shooting experience and the same stunning optical quality we enjoyed with the DP1. Most early DP2 buyers familiar with the DP1 are already reporting a very different user experience when it comes to shooting speed.
Standard lens; tighter composition
As a street shooter, I wasted a lot of space with the 28mm equivalent DP1 when going for portraits, though I also got results I enjoyed. Having both cameras would be the ideal for me. 41mm is apparently the definition of a “standard” focal length for 35mm and it’s a little disconcerting to be used to composition with the DP1 to have something so familiar yet delivers such a different field of view. With this precision there is no distortion evident whatsoever. No matter where in the frame, straight lines are straight on a fairly typical shot; measuring reveals minimal distortion on the most critical test subjects. The lens is sharp edge to edge, corner to corner, with no aberrations or flare, fully open remains stunningly sharp, and the bokeh is dreamlike, smooth.
Like the DP1, the DP2 exists as a camera above any other consideration – marketing and on-paper features have been overridden in the pursuit of optical quality. In an off-the-cuff, lazy shot of some weeds in the yard, my own inability to predict what direct sunlight shining on them would do has combined with this bokeh (foreground and background) to give an almost impressionistic quality to the overexposed areas. The subject, a single flower, almost floats above the rest of the image. The posterized tones do strange things with the bokeh at the clipping point which is partially an effect caused by using the ISO 50 mode.
ISO 800 100% clip of a full aperture shot
Another ISO 800 example at 100%
Whilst Sigma have not claimed significant improvements in the X3 sensor, the addition of ISO 3200 is quite surprising to anyone familiar with past Foveon cameras. During the run up to the DP2’s announcement many discussions about marketing and ISO rating were had amongst pundits and reviewers, and my own experience of how Sigma rated their cameras was that they were conservative, but “accurate” – if they say ISO 800, then ISO 800 is a usable upper limit, unlike some manufacturers where claims of 1600 or 3200 ISO were usually the source of much horror when actually trying to use those modes. Made for good marketing speak though.
Photo Pro 3.3/3.5 software (screenshot image: Sigma DP2 brochure)
Nikon’s D3 was the exception to this, and that’s been my workhorse for the past year. The DP2’s 3200 ISO mode did not carry high expectations for me, and the initial press release had stated 1600 ISO (already implemented in the SD14 via Extended Mode), so I was not prepared for the results that the DP2 gave in my first, well lit tests. 1600 and 3200 ISO are only available for raw files, because Sigma Photo Pro (which has been revised to give version 3.3 for Mac and 3.5 (reviving the 3.x versions) for Windows) does most of the processing; also the DP2’s 3200 mode does not reflect the same ISO 3200 sensitivity as, say, a D3 – with the same subject in low-light conditions, the DP2 offered 1/30th @ ƒ8, compared to the D3’s 1/100th @ f8.
It appears to be doing the same basic technique in camera, simplified for the user, that Sigma users have done for ages when trying to use the dynamic range of the Foveon effectively. Where ISO 3200 mode shines is with the built-in flash and when wishing to capture faster subjects; the low-light sensitivity of the Foveon sensor remains unchanged and if you do opt for a shorter exposure you won’t capture enough light for a meaningful result. With that in mind, it’s still laudable that Sigma have had the confidence to allow this prototypical feature (rumours abound that the SD10 had an ISO-3200 firmware) onto a production camera and that in certain conditions the results are acceptable, and can even be impressive. The normal range of ISO modes – 100 to 800 – available to all shooting modes provide excellent results.
Like the DP1, the DP2 is not a camera for machine-gun capture. It’s an alternative to a mechanical, film camera which most users will have forgotten existed, a format of body and image quality that remains unique in the marketplace. Shooting remains limited to 3 frames in raw mode continuous, though the performance improvements from the new processor are meaningful. It also seems to handle the process of writing to the card and shooting in a logical fashion. Even as a D3 user, I don’t find the delays in shooting significant, but for any DP1 owner I can say that the pipeline performance really is 20% faster. The instant (in MF mode) shutter response remains, and some tweaks to power management offer a few improvements (powersave mode revives when tapping the shutter button, something I don’t recall my DP1 doing).
The LCD screen, as a composition and framing tool, works well in most conditions. Low-light has been improved further, though the contrast-detect AF could still benefit from a focus assist light if you’re shooting in very dark situations with the intention to use flash. Some users will employ a keyring light. The optical viewfinder is an improvement over the model supplied with the wider DP1, even with glasses the framing lines are visible. For those of you who do have trouble with optical viewfinders, the Ikodot is an interesting alternative and works well with the DP1 and DP2.
Overall, the DP2 brings improvements to the DP series that will make it more acceptable and accessible to photographers weaned on a diet of consumer-friendly small sensor compacts, and will positively delight DP1 users adding the standard lens model to their kit. For a first-time user, the DP2 will impress those looking for the ultimate in image quality – if you’re used to Bayer DSLRs, you’re going to be blown away by the sharpness and accuracy of this lens and sensor combination – if you’re used to compacts then this is an entirely different league. It may be a camera with a 4.5Mp output file entering the market in 2009, but you will never see results this sharp at a pixel level from any other camera on the market.
At £599 SRP, the DP2 still represents an expensive option for the serious photographer, and unlike the specialised 28mm equivalent DP1, it’s competing with some very competent DSLR glass at that price. As a pocket camera or travel option it has no real competition; no digital camera can match the optical performance at these dimensions at any price.
– Richard Kilpatrick