Sigma's fixed lens wide angle compact with an APS-C Foveon Sensor has finally
arrived. Was it worth the wait?
Since it was first announced a year and a half ago, Sigma's DP1 (street: $799) has been creating buzz. Yes, that's the same base Foveon X3 chip as its DSLR brother, the SD14, taking up a whopping .5 x .8 square inch of real estate in this compact camera. But the DP1 has all new microlenses, a new Three-layer Responsive Ultimate Engine ("TRUE") processing, a specially designed 28mm f/4 equivalent lens (5 groups/6 elements), a new version of Sigma's Photo Pro RAW conversion software (v2.4 Win/v3.1Mac), and full manual controls, among other high-end features. And don't forget about the thousands upon thousands of Web postings on message boards and blogs discussing the camera -- not to mention a drag time from announcement to availability that can be best described as glacial.
But that's all past now. We've got a full production version of the DP1 and it is heading to the Pop Photo lab as we speak. But I couldn't resist stealing it away for a 24-hour whirlwind tour. Was it worth the wait? We'll have to wait for the final certified test results to make our final verdict. But I'm ready to share my initial findings on the shooting experience, feature set and handfeel -- along with a gallery of photographs shot specifically to challenge this upstart compact to see what it's made of.
The build quality of the Sigma DP1 places it squarely in the luxe compact category, alongside competitors such as the Canon PowerShot G9 and the Ricoh GRII. The lenscap fits firmly in place, but pops off easily. Buttons are well damped, and the shutter button has a satisfying tactile sensation that is often missing in economy and mid-range compact cameras. Skinned in black aluminum with boxy, masculine lines, this feels like a serious piece of photographic machinery. That big f/4 eye retracts partially during down time, and expands outwards slightly during shooting. There's no rubberized, curvy handgrip beneath the shutter button, but there are 27 tiny raised semi-spheres (3 rows by 9 columns) on the front and 34 on the back (3 rows by 9 columns, plus 7 more) that'll keep you from slipping your grip. The mode dial spins with good resistance, and the tiny switch for the popup flash works just fine. When activated, the manual focus wheel feels a little loose at first. But once you start thumbing right to your focusing distance on the fly, it feels just about right. The optional accessory viewfinder fits snugly into the hotshoe, as does the compact accessory strobe. It's an either/or proposition here: you cannot use the accessory strobe and optical viewfinder at the same time. It's not a fatal flaw, but it is a design oversight, I think.
The Sigma DP1 is a camera, first and foremost. For still photography, it has the MAAPS modes (Manual, Auto, Aperture-priority, Program, and Shutter-priority) and that's it -- just your good old-fashioned basic shooting modes on this puppy. The mode dial also includes a QVGA video mode (320 x 240 @ 30fps) and an audio capture mode. There's no SCENE selection with bizarre presets like "Wax Museum" or "Shiny Foods" to be found on this camera -- and it's actually quite refreshing.
Same thing goes on playback mode. There's a rudimentary slideshow option, DPOF printing, and not a lot of extraneous extras. In short, the DP1 is a camera for serious photographers, and Sigma doesn't try to hide that fact.
A tap on the MENU button brings up a long list image quality adjustments -- white balance, image size and format (RAW or JPEG quality -- there's no RAW+JPEG mode), metering, color space (Adobe RGB or sRGB), to name just a few. And the crisp white menu items simply pop atop the active scene -- tap the Menu button and the list disappears and you're seamlessly back to shooting. It's a nice touch.
LCD OR RANGEFINDER -- TAKE YOUR PICK
The optional optical viewfinder (street: $139) has a nice weight to it for such a small viewer due to its glass construction. For many photographers, it may take an adjustment to get comfortable with, since the viewfinder actually shows more than the taking lens will capture, and it's got its share of barrel distortion. Pay attention to those etching marks when using the optical viewfinder, or you'll miss the top of the Chrysler Building, or perhaps worse, your wife's head! The view is bright and crisp and I think a great percentage of DP1 purchasers will opt for the optical add-on.
The 2.5-inch, 230,000-dot TFT LCD usually does a nice job of framing the image for LCD viewfinding. It is very near 100% coverage, so what you see is what you get. In very bright conditions, it suffers a little from glare issues. In dim conditions, it may appear a touch grainy and noisy. In playback mode, particularly with RAW images, the images may appear excessively coarse, grainy and noisy, particularly with low-key images in magnified view -- but resist the urge to do in-camera deletions! It's just a quick RAW conversion in-camera. Unlike so many cameras where images may look fantastic on the camera's LCD but wind up being too soft when imported to your computer, many DP1 images may not look publication ready in-camera, but you'd be surprised what happens when they are processed through Sigma's Photo Pro software.