First Look: Sigma DP1

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.

HANDFEEL

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.

FEATURE SET

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.

The newest version of Sigma Photo Pro (v2.4/Windows, v3.1/Mac) ships with the camera and is needed to process your DP1 X3F files. (The older versions of Photo Pro will launch thumbnails of X3F files, but cannot process the DP1 RAW data.) As of today, Sigma's Photo Pro is just about the only program that can handle the DP1's X3F files -- and we're talking about both standard RAW converters and HDR programs that process and merge RAW files into high-bit images.

The interface is basically identical to the previous versions, with the biggest change being DP1 support for RAW processing. Clicking an image folder launches thumbnails, and clicking an individual thumbnail for a RAW file launches a larger version for RAW cooking. The combined 100% magnification loupe and color meter is a very nice touch, and on the PC version is the only image magnification option. Mac users can zoom in all the way to 1600% on the image preview.

That's not the only difference between the Mac and PC versions. Curiously, the Windows and MacIntosh versions of Sigma Photo Pro output different file sizes. A DP1 X3F file processed in Windows SPP v2.4 as a 16-bit TIFF as a Large (13.9) output file yields a 79.9MB file (4573x3048px). The same X3f image processed on a Mac in Sigma Photo Pro 3.1 as a 16-bit TIFF as Double Size will yield a 106.3MB file (5280x3520px). Weird, huh? But just because Macs get bigger files, don't think you'll see a major gain in resolution -- that comes from the capture data, not the post-processing interpolation. A quick side-by-side comparison of actual pixels from a Mac-processed and Win-processed X3F file shows the same degree of fine detail.

Conversion can be applied using the X3F (in-camera), Auto (self-explanatory), or Custom Setting with preview. Exposure, Contrast, Shadow, Highlight, Saturation all have separate sliders. There is only one slider for Noise/Sharpness control. The X3 Fill Light slider appears to function similar to an HDR Local Operator and too heavy a hand with this slider can result in an overly processed, artificial looking image. But with a light touch, it can really help pull in some detail. Other adjustments include a color picker for one-touch balancing or a color wheel for pushing and pulling color manually and input/output adjustments on the histogram. Files can be also batched with any of the three settings without a preview, but a Custom Setting must be first saved in order to be applied to a batch.

The initial processing of the thumbnails may take several seconds, and, particularly with higher ISO shots, is curious, as the image gradually gets crisper and sharper as the progress display ticks by. Saving the image as either an 8- or 16-bit Tiff or JPEG feels significantly faster than the Save time for SD14 RAWs with the previous version of Sigma Photo Pro.

A few words on Automatic Exposure Bracketing, HDR, and the Sigma DP1

On the second page of the MENU list is Automatic Exposure Bracketing, and it'll go up to three stops for three shots in 1/3 stop increments. And of course, this can be combined with +/-3 Exposure Compensation (also in 1/3 stop increments) for a ton of exposure control. Depending on the exposure mode, it may change both the shutter and aperture, so HDR photographers are advised to keep it in Aperture-priority mode, which only adjusts the shutter speed during an AEB burst. And it will grab three shots (RAW or JPEG) in just about a second. Oh yeah, and it is well balanced with a flat bottom, so it can easily be set down on a table when you don't have a tripod but have the HDR bug.
As of today, none of the HDR programs natively support the DP1's X3F RAW format, so it's necessary to convert the images to a more common filetype . We suggest converting the images to 16-bit Tiffs in Sigma Photo Pro, using the "X3F" (default camera settings) conversion to keep the captured data as unmodified as possible before HDR merge. Using the "Auto" or "Custom" conversion methods may cause results that are unpleasant or "creative" depending on your personal HDR vision.
In any event, that's a pretty amazing AEB range in a pocket camera, potentially shooting from -6 to +6 in just two bracketing sequences. And throw in manual focus, which will keep the camera from switching focus between the two sequences, and this may be a very serious pocket camera for HDRI. Our initial experiments with a single AEB burst yielded nice results (in both the subtle and surreal genres), and we'll be revisiting this topic in greater detail once the full lab test is completed.

TO THE LAB!

As I write this, the Sigma DP1 is headed to testing. I'm very curious to see how this big-sensor compact performs. Check back in a few weeks for a full lab report. For now, here's a sampling of images shot with the Sigma DP1 around New York City. All shots were captured as RAW and converted to Large (13.9MP) 16-bit Tiffs in Sigma Photo Pro v2.4 for Windows (except for slide 32, which was processed with the Mac version 3.1) and converted to JPEG for the Web in Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended. 100% pixel views are saved at Maximum quality with no Unsharp Masking applied.

Sigma-DP1-1-125-f-6.3-ISO-100.-Ever-wonder-how

Sigma-DP1-1-125-f-6.3-ISO-100.-Ever-wonder-how

1/125 @ f/6.3 ISO 100. Ever wonder how the New York Public Library keeps those lions so clean?Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene-a

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene-a

100% pixel view of the previous scene at ISO 100.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-IQSigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of

Sigma-DP1-IQSigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of

Another 100% pixel view of the previous scene at ISO 100.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-160-f-7.1-ISO-800.-Here-s-another-v

Sigma-DP1-1-160-f-7.1-ISO-800.-Here-s-another-v

1/160 @ f/7.1 ISO 800. Here's another view outside the New York Public Library, this time at top ISO of 800.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-800

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-800

100% pixel view of the previous ISO 800 scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Another 100% pixel view of the previous scene at ISO 100.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-50-f-4.5-ISO-800.-This-available-li

Sigma-DP1-1-50-f-4.5-ISO-800.-This-available-li

1/50 @ f/4.5 ISO 800. This available light scene of the stairwells inside the New York Public Library reminds me of Harry Potter, even though these steps are marble.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

100% pixel view of the previous scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-8-f.4-ISO-100-EV-7.-We-cranked-up-t

Sigma-DP1-1-8-f.4-ISO-100-EV-7.-We-cranked-up-t

1/8 @ f.4 ISO 100 EV+7. We cranked up the Exposure compensation to pop the fruit in this shadowy street scene. It's nice and sharp for a slow handheld exposure -- framed using the optical viewfinder for added stability.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-10-f-4-ISO-100.-Again-we-were-in-t

Sigma-DP1-1-10-f-4-ISO-100.-Again-we-were-in-t

1/10 @ f/4 ISO 100. Again, we were in the hard late afternoon shadows of the skyscrapers for this street scene. That is subject movement on the walker, not camera shake, as evidenced by the overall sharpness of the still elements in the scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-25-f4-ISO-100.-This-yellow-sign-mad

Sigma-DP1-1-25-f4-ISO-100.-This-yellow-sign-mad

1/25 @ f4 ISO 100. This yellow sign made me hungry. And the DP1 did a nice job with shadow detail in this shot. There's a little bit of blown sky in the background, but evaluative metering held the detail in the majority of the scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-60-f-5-ISO-100.-You-ever-wonder-how

Sigma-DP1-1-60-f-5-ISO-100.-You-ever-wonder-how

1/60 @ f/5 ISO 100. You ever wonder how all those glass windows get installed on a skyscraper? Next slide shows a closeup of the workers.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene-a

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene-a

100% pixel view of the previous scene at ISO 100.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Another 100% pixel view of the previous scene at ISO 100.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-200-f-8-ISO-200.-Has-anyone-been-ke

Sigma-DP1-1-200-f-8-ISO-200.-Has-anyone-been-ke

1/200 @ f/8 ISO 200. Has anyone been keeping track of how often I shoot the Empire State Building? It gets great afternoon light!Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-200

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-200

100% pixel view of the previous ISO 200 scene showing details atop the Empire State Building.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Another 100% pixel view of the previous ISO 200 scene showing shadow detail.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-20-f.4-ISO-100.-Framing-with-the-op

Sigma-DP1-1-20-f.4-ISO-100.-Framing-with-the-op

1/20 @ f.4 ISO 100. Framing with the optional optical viewfinder takes a little bit of practice, as evidenced by my inability to frame this symmetrical scene squarely! Disregard the slight skew, but do look at the lines near the edges of the frame.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-60-f-4.5-ISO-100-EV-7.-We-went-to

Sigma-DP1-1-60-f-4.5-ISO-100-EV-7.-We-went-to

1/60 @ f/4.5 ISO 100 EV +7. We went to +2/3 EV for this shot, since the very bright window display was fooling the meter in evaluative mode.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-100

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-100

100% pixel view of the previous ISO 100.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Another 100% pixel view of the previous ISO 100 scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-125-f-7.1-ISO-100.-The-afternoon-su

Sigma-DP1-1-125-f-7.1-ISO-100.-The-afternoon-su

1/125 @ f/7.1 ISO 100. The afternoon sun glares off the building and causes some blown highlights, but the shadow detail is still good in rest of the scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-160-f-4.5-ISO-100.-The-snow-didn-t

Sigma-DP1-1-160-f-4.5-ISO-100.-The-snow-didn-t

1/160 @ f/4.5 ISO 100. The snow didn't fool the meter here in evaluative metering. Not really a day for outdoor dining, what with the dirty snow on the ground...Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

100% pixel view of the previous scene -- highlights.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

100% pixel view of the previous scene -- mid to lowtones.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-scene

100% pixel view of the previous scene -- shadows.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-25-f-4-ISO-200.-There-seems-to-be-a

Sigma-DP1-1-25-f-4-ISO-200.-There-seems-to-be-a

1/25 @ f/4 ISO 200. There seems to be a food joint like this on every other block in Manhattan...Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-200

Sigma-DP1-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous-ISO-200

100% pixel view of the previous ISO 200 scene. There's seating upstairs...Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Sigma-DP1-Another-100-pixel-view-of-the-previous

Another 100% pixel view of the previous ISO 200 scene.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-20-f-4-ISO-200.-The-Sigma-DP1-naile

Sigma-DP1-1-20-f-4-ISO-200.-The-Sigma-DP1-naile

1/20 @ f/4 ISO 200. The Sigma DP1 nailed this exposure in evaluative metering mode. I wanted perfect exposure on the shaded, but lit, street stand, and was willing to let the sky and background go to get it.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-IQ

Sigma-DP1-IQ

Sigma DP1 IQ
Sigma-DP1-1-250-f-9-ISO-200.-Just-another-after

Sigma-DP1-1-250-f-9-ISO-200.-Just-another-after

1/250 @ f/9 ISO 200. Just another afternoon outside New York Penn Station captured with the Sigma DP1 at ISO 200.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-1-200-f-8-ISO-200.-Penn-Station-cr

Sigma-DP1-1-200-f-8-ISO-200.-Penn-Station-cr

1/200 @ f/8 ISO 200. Penn Station -- crossroads of the entire Universe.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-This-High-Dynamic-Range-Image-is-a-thre

Sigma-DP1-This-High-Dynamic-Range-Image-is-a-thre

This High Dynamic Range Image is a three-shot AEB sequence merged to a single 32-bit file and Tonemapped in FDRTool 2.1 to equalize the lighting in this train station tunnel.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-This-High-Dynamic-Range-Image-is-from-a

Sigma-DP1-This-High-Dynamic-Range-Image-is-from-a

This High Dynamic Range Image is from a three-shot AEB sequence at -3,0,+3, merged and Tonemapped in Dynamic Photo HDR using the Ultra-Contrast processor pushed way up for that surreal look.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-Here-s-a-variation-on-the-last-image-p

Sigma-DP1-Here-s-a-variation-on-the-last-image-p

Here's a variation on the last image, processed from the same source file as the last image, Tonemapped in DPHDR with the Eye Catching Tonemapper for a more subtle HDR effect.Photo By Jack Howard
Sigma-DP1-The-X3-Fill-Light-slider-appears-to-fun

Sigma-DP1-The-X3-Fill-Light-slider-appears-to-fun

The X3 Fill Light slider appears to function similar to an HDR Local Operator and cranking it all the way up can result in overprocessed, artificial-looking images. But with a light touch, it can be very useful.Photo By Jack Howard
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