If patience is a virtue, photographers shopping for a new Sigma DSLR are saints. After all, it's been three years since the last Sigma digital (the SD10), and it was more than six months between the announcement and availability of the new Sigma SD14 ($1,600, street, body only).
Clearly, a truly unique camera takes time. And the SD14 is unique. It's the first and only DSLR to use a second-generation Foveon X3 sensor, which has a 1.7X lens factor, boasts 14.1 megapixels, and is promoted as a color-accurate, detail-obsessed, low-noise alternative to the CMOS and CCD sensors used in other DSLRs.
For more on the X3, see the McNamara Report. For how the SD14 handled our standardized tests in the field and the Pop Photo Lab, keep reading.
BEYOND THE SENSOR
Aside from the sensor, this is the first Sigma DSLR with a new five-point AF system, JPEG and RAW file storage, pop-up flash, lithium ion battery, and 2.5-inch LCD.
We described many of the camera's features based on a preproduction model in our December 2006 Hands On. Built to tougher standards than most sub-$1,000 DSLRs, the SD14 is similar in size and design to its predecessors, the SD9 and SD10, which share its stainless steel frame and tough outer casing, but lack the pop-up flash. The less-expensive 10.2MP Nikon D200 rivals the SD14 in strength, and exceeds it by including weather and dust seals.
However, the SD14 has a removable dust/infrared cutoff filter in front of the sensor that keeps image dust mostly out of focus. Removing this filter enables IR shooting when combined with the right opaque IR passing filters, a very nice feature (for more on how to do that, see our SD14 Camera Hack). Another improvement: a beefed-up shutter mechanism that Sigma now rates at 100,000 shots, similar to the ratings of the Canon EOS 30D and Nikon D200.
The SD14 also packs a totally redesigned pentaprism viewfinder that no longer shows a dotted-line frame around the field of view (a holdover from Sigma's full-frame 35mm SLR days). Since all Sigma DSLRs sport a much smaller image sensor and a 1.7X 35mm lens factor, the new viewfinder is a welcome improvement and projects a bright, clear image with 98% accuracy and 0.90X magnification -- earning it Excellent ratings in both categories.
The new pop-up flash, with S-TTL metering and redeye reduction, is similar in range and power (GN 38, feet) to the Nikon D200. Flash sync speed is 1/180 sec, same as Canon's EOS 30D and slower than the 1/250 of the D200, but it falls to 1/60 sec when set to wirelessly control the optional Sigma EF-500 DG Super flash ($240, street). Though useful, the wireless control doesn't match the sophistication and multiple channels of the D200's Commander mode.
Most of the controls on the SD14 are well placed and easy to use. A new Quick Set button makes it very easy to change common settings such as ISO, white balance, resolution, and file format. But to navigate and change the camera's eight special functions (including the meter pattern, flash, and AF mode, indicated by tiny icons in the small data LCD on top) you must press the function button repeatedly to get to the right icon, then hold it while turning the stiff mode dial. Lift your finger off the function button even slightly and you have to start over.
Press the Quick Set button on the back for access to ISOs 100-800, a surprisingly narrow range (you can add ISO 1600 via a menu setting). The addition of mirror lockup helps reduce camera shake during the long exposures you might need to make up for the lack of higher ISOs. The camera has all the usual white balance presets and an easy-to-create manual setting, but lacks a Kelvin adjustment or fine-tuning for custom WB. In our field tests, the white balance occasionally shifted to the magenta side on JPEGs at ISO 400 and 800, especially when bracketing exposures.
Also missing: automatic image presets for action, nature, portrait, or night scenes. And while the SD14's 150,000-pixel LCD has a decent viewing angle, and its menus are easy to read and navigate, images aren't as sharp in playback as those on the Nikon D200's 230,000-pixel screen.