The Sigma SD1 Merrill is a DSLR produced by Sigma Corporation, a well-known Japanese firm that specializes in creating lenses for other camera manufacturers. However, Sigma also produces digital cameras, such as the DP2 Merrill that was recently reviewed on our site.
The SD1 Merrill is Sigma's premier camera, a DSLR containing the innovative Foveon technology created by the late Dick Merrill, an electrical engineer after whom the SD1 Merrill is named. The camera has a 15.6 megapixel APS-C X3 CMOS sensor that uses Foveon technology, two image processors, a weather-sealed magnesium body, a three-inch diagonal 460,000 dot LCD, an 11 point auto focus system, a useful "quick-set" menu and buttons for various shortcuts.
The camera provided to me for review also contained Sigma's excellent 85mm F1.4 EX DG prime lens. The camera lacks a video mode and a live view system, features present in almost all DSLRs released in the past few years. The SD1 Merrill is also Sigma's most expensive camera. Let's take a closer look at this interesting camera.
The heart of the SD1 Merrill is its sensor, which uses Foveon technology. According to Sigma, a Foveon sensor provides a better image than the sensors in other digital cameras, which use a color filter array (CFA) - a mosaic of red, green and blue pixels in a checkerboard-like grid overlaying the image sensor. The Foveon sensor employs direct imaging involving three separate layers of pixels, one each in red, green and blue. This results in the Foveon sensor being able to capture more color information.
Further, the absence of the grid system means the camera does not require the low pass anti-alias filter used in cameras with CFA sensors, which should further improve the image. Sigma claims that, due to its use of Foveon technology, the 15.6 megapixel APS-C X3 sensor of the SD1 Merrill is the equivalent of a 46 megapixel sensor.
To interpret the information produced by its Foveon sensor, the SD1 Merrill uses two TRUE (Three layer Responsive Ultimate Engine) II processors, and to move this information to memory the SD1 Merrill requires a fast Compact Flash memory card rather then the SDHC cards used in most DSLRs. The result should be outstanding image quality.
Other than these factors, the SD1 Merrill appears to be a conventional mid-level DSLR, with some features that work well and are very useful, but with some curious omissions and some annoyances.
Build and Design
The SD1 Merrill has a tough magnesium body that weighs in at 700 grams ((24.7 oz.) excluding battery and memory card. Its dimensions are 5.7 inches (145.5mm) wide, 4.4 inches (113.5mm) high and 3.1 inches (80mm) in depth.
In height and weight the camera is similar to the mid-range DSLRs of its competitors, such as the Nikon D7000 and the Canon 60D. The SD1 Merrill has weather sealing for protection against rain.
Its body is well balanced with a comfortable, right hand rubberized grip. The controls are of a good size and solidly built. The dials are chunky with the right amount of click resistance. The camera's 3-inch LCD screen is fixed, but it doesn't protrude so it's fairly well protected against damage by scratching.
The SD1 Merrill comes with a lithium-ion battery pack (BP-21), battery charger, USB cable, video cable, neck strap, body cap, eyepiece cup (on the camera), finder cap (for use with the self-timer and optional remote), a CD containing Sigma's Photo Pro image organizing software and an instruction manual. Sigma's website shows the camera with a list price of $2,299.00. I was also provided with Sigma's excellent (and expensive) 85mm F1.4 EX DG prime lens, which does not come with the camera.
Ergonomics and Controls
The SD1 Merrill contains several dials and a host of buttons that work with the dials to adjust various camera settings. The main control dial on the camera's top plate has settings for manual mode, shutter priority, aperture priority, program mode and three different custom modes. The secondary control dial has settings for power off, single shot mode, continuous shooting, two self timer settings, mirror up (for reducing vibration for macro photography or long range shots), and auto-bracketing (for three or five frames of exposure compensation).
On the right side of the top plate there are two dials (the A-dial and S-dial) for moving through menu listings. The A-dial and S-dial also work with the numerous buttons on the camera as a shortcut to adjust menu items. The buttons include flash-exposure compensation, an assignable function button, ISO, depth of field preview, metering, exposure compensation, auto focus point selector, auto focus, exposure lock, and a quick-set menu. The main menu is brought up by a menu button located next to the LCD. Additional buttons around the LCD bring up playback mode, general camera information (such as date, time, and battery life) and delete. While using the various buttons entails a bit of a learning curve, they should not provide a problem for most users.
The other physical aspects of the SD1 Merrill are fairly conventional, although I noticed a few minor issues. The top of the camera contains a flip-up flash and a flash hot shoe. A remote control sensor is located on the camera's front, for using an optional wireless remote. While the right-hand grip is very comfortable, the shutter button is small and located right next to the exposure compensation button, so it's easy to hit the wrong button by mistake.
While the three-inch diagonal LCD is large and easy to read, the camera lacks a top LCD that is found in many of its competitors. The camera's viewfinder is a decent size and has a diopter control for adjusting focus. However the viewfinder cup is made of hard rubber and long use will irritate the eye. The camera contains a connecter area with ports for a power cord, a shutter release cable, a USB cable and a flash cable while the connecter area has a thick rubber cover, which should keep moisture away from the ports. However the cover is tethered to the camera with a thin piece of rubber, which is easily breakable. The camera's bottom plate contains a metal tripod socket and the battery/memory card compartment covered by a solid, plastic door. The camera uses only compact flash memory cards.
Menus and Modes
The quick-set button brings up a quick menu that permits easy adjustment of the most commonly accessed camera controls such as flash, ISO, metering, shot mode (single or continuous), image quality (RAW, RAW and JPEG, fine, normal and basic), color mode (standard, vivid, neutral, portrait, landscape, monochrome and sepia) and image size. I found the quick-set menu to be very useful and accessed it often.
The main menu, brought up by the menu button next to the LCD, contains numerous entries for capture settings, playback and camera settings. The settings are pretty basic for a modern DSLR. One thing that stands out to users of point and shoot cameras, and even some recent DSLRs, is the absence of an auto capture mode and the paucity of scene modes and color modes. Further, there are very few options in playback mode. If you want to make adjustments to your images you must do so out of camera.
Here are the camera's shooting modes on the main control dial:
The SD1 Merrill's three-inch diagonal LCD monitor is large and has high resolution (460,000 dots) and seven levels of brightness, so it's easy to read. Its resolution doesn't match the much higher resolution LCD monitors of the other cameras in its class, which are at least 921,000 dots, but since live view is not present in the SD1 Merrill, an ultra sharp LCD is not so important.
The camera's viewfinder is of the pentaprism type with 98 percent vertical and horizontal coverage and .95x magnification. At the bottom of the viewfinder there's a display that shows the exposure mode in use, the metering pattern, the shutter speed and aperture, the exposure compensation, the number of available pictures on the memory card and the buffer capacity available until the camera writes to the card. The viewfinder works well, though there were shooting situations where I would have appreciated the framing ability that live view provides.
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