- Tremendous still image quality at and below ISO 400
- Great color
- Optically excellent lens
- Narrow useable ISO range
- Poor battery life
- RAW support via only Sigma software currently
- AF a bit slower than most current digital cameras
The Sigma DP2 Merrill will blow you away with excellent image quality from low ISOs, but this comes with a steep price tag and a few major shortcomings.
If you were to say “SIGMA” to someone who’d spent a good part of their photographic past shooting 35mm film, there’s a good chance the first word out of their mouth would be “lenses.” Founded in 1961 by Japanese optical engineer Michihiro Yamaki, the company’s first product was actually a 2x tele-converter. In the years since, Sigma has grown to become the world’s largest privately held manufacturer of camera lenses for a variety of different cameras including Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax, Olympus, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Leica and Kodak. Along the way they’ve added flashes and both compact and digital SLR cameras to their product mix, including the DP2 Merrill compact digital which is the subject of this review.
That “Merrill” in the product designation is in reference to the late Dick Merrill, an engineer and photographer who was a principal in developing the technology found in the DP2’s sensor. And since we’ve mentioned the “S” word, let’s spend a minute or two on a basic dissertation about the sensor in the DP2, since that is arguably one of the strongest selling points of this camera. In a typical digital camera the sensor gathers light at its photo sites called pixels – some pixels capture red light, some blue and others green. The sensor in the DP2, in SIGMA’s words “..captures all primary RGB colors at each pixel location with three layers, which results in incredibly detailed images with a three-dimensional feel.”
The design of the SIGMA sensor also permits the camera to dispense with an anti-aliasing filter found on virtually every other digital camera. Without going into engineering detail, the absence of an anti-aliasing filter, in theory, would be expected to slightly improve sharpness and resolution over an identical sensor equipped with an anti-aliasing filter. Improved sharpness and resolution, even slight, are good things.
The DP2 joins the burgeoning large sensor/compact digital camera ranks, mounting an APS – C size sensor with a 1.5x crop factor and 46 megapixel (mp) resolution. It’s those three layer pixels that are responsible for the hefty resolution advertised for this compact digital. The 3 inch LCD color monitor is becoming the benchmark size in this class, but elsewhere the DP2 strays from the typical compact digital recipe by featuring a fixed 30 mm/f 2.8 lens – zoom lens aficionados need not apply here. Applying that 1.5x crop factor, we come up with a focal length of approximately a 45mm lens in 35mm film equivalents – a focal length that nudges right up to the 50mm length that in film days was typically known as a “normal” lens because it provided a field of view approximately the same as that of the naked eye. If the fixed lens alone isn’t enough to differentiate the DP2 from most of the compact digital crowd, the absence of automatic and scene shooting modes certainly does. Your only shooting options are program auto, aperture priority, shutter priority or manual exposure. And video users take note: at a time when full HD video is proliferating in compact digital cameras, the DP2 offers a relatively pedestrian VGA (640 x 480) video capture option at 30 frames per second. Finally, the DP2 separates itself from the compact digital pack even further by eschewing stabilization that is found in virtually every new camera in the class these days.
The camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC and Multi Media Card memory media and SIGMA includes a lens cover, camera strap, hot shoe cover, two lithium-ion batteries and charger, USB and A/V cables, a printed instruction manual and CD-ROM software with each camera. The DP2 originally entered the market with a $1400 MSRP; the current MSRP is $999. If the idea of spending nearly $1000 for a compact digital with a fixed lens, basic video, DSLR-style shooting modes and no stabilization sounds like your cup of tea, read on.
BUILD AND DESIGN
Outwardly, the DP2 follows the generic compact digital camera template and features a rectangular body, gently curved edges and the lens barrel protruding from the front of the camera. But while many compacts are found with a camera body about the size of a pack of playing cards or cigarettes, the DP2 has stretched its dimensions well beyond those parameters. The body is almost 5 inches wide counting the attachment lug for the camera strap, 2.75 inches tall and almost 1.25 inches deep; the lens adds almost another 1.4 inches to that depth on the front left side of the body. Shooting weight (battery, memory card, camera strap) is about 14.3 ounces, so while the DP2 isn’t a candidate for shirt pocket carrying it does fit quite nicely into a jacket pocket (and the weight is not so onerous that carrying around the neck becomes a burden). The camera body is metal, made in Japan, has a solid feel and appears well-constructed.
Ergonomics and Controls
The rectangular body of the DP2 is finished in matte black paint that is fairly smooth, with no overt design features to promote a firmer grip on the camera. There is a small pattern of raised dots on the camera back in the vicinity of the thumb rest that provides a little bit of resistance to slippage – another grouping of similar dots on the right front of the camera body are positioned in such a way that my fingers never contacted them during normal use. The first order of business for a new DP2 owner is probably to attach the camera strap and have it around your neck when you’re shooting in case you lose your grip on the camera.
Once past the paint, the DP2 fit nicely in my hand, with the tip of the shooting finger falling directly onto the shutter button and the thumb settling in on the thumb rest area with no conflicts to other controls on the camera back.
The control layout on the DP2 is simple and well thought out – the top of the camera body features the hot shoe, power and mode buttons and a shutter button surrounded by the command dial. The left side of the camera back is taken up by the 3 inch monitor; arrayed vertically adjacent to the monitor are auto exposure lock/delete, quick set, menu and view buttons. Just to the right of this vertical configuration of buttons is a four-way controller including “OK”, focus point and focus mode buttons. A display button at the lower right rear of the camera body can display various data configurations on the monitor while shooting, including a histogram. The manual focus ring on the lens was smooth and consistent in its operation.
Menus and Modes
I found menus in the DP2 to be quite intuitive and easy to navigate. There are three main menus: capture settings, playback menu and camera settings. Pressing the menu button on the camera back takes you to the first page of the capture menu (four pages total), whose contents include settings such as ISO sensitivity, drive mode, white balance, image quality and size, color mode and color space, among others. Selecting any of these settings then produces a submenu for further actions. The playback menu is two pages long and the camera settings menu runs four pages. Vertical scrolling is accomplished via the four-way controller; horizontal scrolling via the command dial or four-way controller. Here’s a look at the first couple pages of the capture settings menu:
In another departure from a widely accepted practice these days among compact digital cameras, the DP2 does not provide a retouch menu that permits you to apply effects or modifications to images in the camera – the playback menu offers some simple commands such as “rotate”, but there is not a lot of post processing to be done inside the DP2.
Pressing the quick set menu button allows quick access to eight camera functions via two submenus: ISO, metering mode, flash mode and drive mode on QS1 and white balance, image size, color mode and image quality on QS2. Shooting out in the field I made good use of the quick set menu for speedy shifts in camera settings, so here’s a look at both pages. If you don’t have a flash mounted on the camera the quick set menu doesn’t permit you to access that function.
Shooting modes are basic – pushing the mode button on the top of the camera provides users with the ability to select from video, manual, shutter priority, aperture priority, program auto or three custom settings. The custom settings allow you to preset three combinations of shooting settings, including all items in the capture settings menu, the four still image exposure modes (P, A, S, M), the focus point within the frame and exposure compensation. Here’s a bit more detailed rundown on the shooting modes:
- Program auto – an automatic mode where the camera sets shutter speed and aperture; the user may rotate the command dial to obtain different combinations of shutter speed and aperture consistent with the camera’s interpretation of a proper exposure. The user retains a wide variety of inputs such as ISO, white balance, image quality, color space, sharpening, saturation, contrast and others.
- Aperture priority – user sets lens aperture, camera sets the shutter speed and the user retains a wide variety of inputs as with program auto.
- Shutter priority – user sets shutter speed, camera sets aperture and the user retains a wide variety of inputs as with program auto.
- Manual – the user sets shutter speed and aperture while retaining the wide variety of inputs found with program auto.
- Custom 1, 2, 3 – allows users to preset three combinations of settings from the above shooting modes and inputs.
- Video – allows the user to capture VGA quality video (640 x 480) at 30 frames per second. Maximum file size is limited to 2 GB for any particular clip, approximately 20 minutes filming time.
The 3 inch LCD monitor on the DP2 has a 920,000 dot composition and is adjustable for seven ranges of brightness. Even so, the monitor was hard to use in some bright outdoor conditions for both image composition and review – in this regard it was probably typical of most compact digital cameras.
SIGMA makes an optional optical viewfinder for the DP2 and provided one for this review. The viewfinder mounts on the camera’s hot shoe and has no diopter adjustment for varying degrees of eyesight. When shooting close-ups with the viewfinder (say, 2 feet or so from the camera to the subject) there is a bit of parallax to deal with. Because the viewfinder is mounted above the lens, at close range what your eye sees is not exactly the same perspective as that afforded the lens and the subject will not appear centered on the final image even though it appears so in the viewfinder when you initiate the capture process. Here are a couple of examples – the first was made using the monitor for image composition at about 1.5 foot distance and the second with the viewfinder from the same spot.
I found that at a distance of about 10 or more feet from camera to subject that parallax was minimal and the final image captured by the camera closely approximated what I saw through the viewfinder. Inside of 10 feet from the subject I’d be inclined use the monitor for all shots, but beyond the 10 foot range you can fire away with the viewfinder and be quite certain that with proper framing within the viewfinder what you capture will be very close to what you see. I personally am not a fan of monitors for image composition and capture and if I were to pick up a DP2 the first accessory I would add is the viewfinder, even with its $200 MSRP. As we will discuss further in the performance section of the review, the addition of the viewfinder to the DP2 has a couple of collateral benefits over and above making it easier to compose images in bright outdoor conditions.