Sigma DP3 Merrill: Performance

by Laura Hicks Reads (988)
Editor's Rating
6.40

TG Ratings Breakdown

    • Image/Video Quality
    • 9
    • Features
    • 6
    • Design / Ease of Use
    • 5
    • Performance
    • 7
    • Expandability
    • 5
    • Total Score:
    • 6.40
    • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10

Performance

Patience is a key virtue that you must possess when photographing with the DP Merrill series of cameras. If you don’t have patience, then it’s best to move on. Wedding photographers, casual photographers and sports photographers need not apply. This is a tool for the serious fine art photographer who is patient enough to wait out that perfect image.

Shooting Performance
The DP3 Merrill is a hands-down winner in the image quality category, but will never win the speed race. In fact, it easily loses in the startup race to a DSLR, most mirrorless cameras and a large handful of point and shoots. It takes about two seconds to display a focus point on the monitor. Powering up and taking the first image took about 3.5 seconds. Single shot-to-shot times ran about two seconds, but this all depends of the memory card you use. We highly recommend a fast memory card for this camera. Pushing all of the Foveon’s power and translating that to a final image takes a lot of horsepower. So be prepared! Write times for a single JPEG fine quality, high resolution image were at a snail’s pace at about 8 seconds. The good news, however, is that you don’t have to wait until the image is written to take another photo as long as there’s room in the camera buffer (which is 7 images in JPEG fine, RAW, or RAW/JPEG quality at the highest resolution). 

The DP3 Merrill offers 4 frame per second (fps) continuous shooting rates at high resolution. But again, write times are slow and it can take about half a minute to clear images when taken in high resolution mode. Even though write times are slow, the biggest problem with the continuous shooting mode in the DP3 is that there is no continuous autofocus. Whatever you focus on with your first shot, is what you get for the remainder of the burst. camera establishes focus with a first shot of a burst and maintains it for the rest of the burst. Again, this solidifies this cameras position as a fine art tool.

Autofocus times with the DP3 Merrill also creep at a snail’s pace. The camera generally takes a full second or more to focus. In good lighting the camera stays around the one second mark, but in poor lighting conditions it can take up to two full seconds. Because there is no focus assist lamp on the camera, focusing – whether auto or manual, is much more difficult. 

Sigma makes an optional flash for the DP3, but we did not have one available for this review. Instead, we used a studio lighting setup to test the camera’s leaf shutter. And we are so glad we did! This camera produced amazing results with our lighting set-up. If order to test the high sync speeds of the DP3 Merrill we used an Alien Bee 800w light with PocketWizard Transceivers attached to both the strobe and the camera. With our set-up we were able to achieve 1/1000 second shutter sync. A Sigma rep told me that the camera would be able to sync even higher depending on the aperture used. For example, if the camera is set to f/5.6 I should be able to see 1/2000 second sync speeds or if the aperture is set to f/2.8 I should see 1/1250 second sync speeds. That’s pretty amazing. Our images were super sharp and had great color quality when hooked up to the studio flash.

Sigma provides two lithium-ion batteries with the DP3 Merrill. Thank goodness they did. Battery life for the DP3 is extremely short. Sigma rates the DP3 as having a 97 image battery life, but I did not experience the battery lasting this many shots. After about 70 images I had to swap out my battery. I’m not sure why Sigma does not have a larger battery for this camera. Since the camera has to power such a large sensor, you would imagine that having a bigger battery is a no brainer. There seems to be plenty of room in the housing of the camera (without actually opening up the body). I am truly perplexed by this one. 

Lens Performance
The 50mm lens on the DP3 Merrill is fixed and offers amazing image quality. I experienced outstanding performance from this lens. You can tell that this lens was optimized for this camera. It image maintained good sharpness throughout the entire frame with the auto settings. If you wish for a sharper image, you can adjust for that in the settings or choose to correct with post production software. Chromatic aberration and distortions (barrel or pincushion) do not seem to be an issue with the Sigma DP3 Merrill. 

Video Quality
Well, what can we say? Honestly, I would prefer for Sigma to remove the video capability from their DP line of cameras. It offers poor quality and is not at all what we have come to expect from modern digital cameras. Unfortunately, the DP3 Merrill’s video quality becomes a major downfall to buying this camera. There would be a lot less to complain about if Sigma simply did not offer it.  

The DP3 Merrill’s 640×480 videos generate quite a bit of rolling shutter. Also, there is no continuous autofocus on the DP3 Merrill – focus is established with the initial pressing of the shutter button and does not readjust for the entirety of the video. Even in manual mode you can’t change focus during video capture. 

That being said, buying the DP3 Merrill for it’s video capabilities is like buying a Ford Model T to race in the Indy 500. It simply can’t compete. This comparison isn’t as crazy as it sounds, though…both the Model T and the DP3 Merrill are cool collector’s items with a specific purpose. The DP3 Merrill is unique with it’s Foveon sensor and 50mm lens, it creates stunning images and can be a fantastic tool for the right photographer. 

Image Quality
Here is where the DP3 truly shines. Default images out of the camera offer fantastic color rendition and sharpness even from the basic settings. Don’t like these? Feel free to make some adjustments to these settings in the menu feature. This camera indisputably produces some of the best still images of any compact digital camera, with one itsy, bitsy caveat…you have to shoot with low ISOs. 

Auto white balance was used across the board in this review due to it’s consistent quality. The DP3 Merrill also offers daylight, shade, overcast, incandescent, fluorescent and flash preset values along with a custom setting. 

High ISO noise performance with the DP3 was unimpressive. 

100 and 200 ISO levels are have great image quality, and 400 ISO is pretty good, too. Noise begins to appear slightly at 400 and becomes a bit worse at 800 ISO. The DP3 Merrill’s Foveon sensor struggles dramatically at 1600 ISO. 3200 and 6400 ISOs see a drastic degradation is image quality. Colors and details have diminished by 6400.

ISO 100                                                                         ISO 200

ISO 400                                                                         ISO 800

ISO 1600                                                                         ISO 3200

ISO 6400

As we stated earlier, your best results come with low ISOs – 100, 200 and 400. We really don’t recommend shooting at anything higher than 800 ISO. But at these lower ISOs, the image quality from the Foveon sensor is simply amazing. The color produced in these images can not be beat. 

During our review we took advantage of using Sigma’s proprietary software, Sigma Photo Pro 5. The software allows users to adjust elements of the image similar to a very simplified version of Adobe’s Lightroom. Although I would not choose to utilize this software on a daily basis, it is not difficult to learn and it is the only way to get your Sigma DP3 RAW images into a usable .jpg format. Also, it can be a good tool to use to change these RAW images into a monochrome format – a new feature for the latest version of the software. Below are a few examples of enhanced images edited in the Sigma Photo Pro 5 software. 

Original                                                            Auto Enhanced Image with SPP5

Original                                                            Monochrome Enhanced Image with SPP5

Original                                                            Monochrome Enhanced Image with SPP5

Additional Sample Images


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