Round Up: The DP1 debate and the future of the large-sensor compact

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Bungle (v., origin unknown) – to do clumsily and awkwardly; to botch

If you closely follow camera reviews on the web, you probably already know that the folks over at DPReview published their much-anticipated take on the Sigma DP1 earlier this week. I’m in no way trying to emphasize the negative (in fact, just the opposite – bear with me), but it’s a plain-as-day fact that the DP1 received the lowest scores DPReview has handed out in a good long while.

Sigma DP1

To say that, from all indications, Sigma has bungled a great opportunity with the DP1 would probably be too harsh, but there’s no denying that this saga has been unfolding slowly and painfully for those of us who looked to this first-of-its-kind release with high hopes. If you’re interested to learn more, you can follow the project back through the series of stories that moves in reverse from the DP1’s unveiling at PMA 2008, to technical hold-ups and delays, to the original product announcement all the way back at Photokina 2006. For the uninitiated, suffice it to say that the SIGMA DP1 is unique among pocket-size cameras, wrapping the physically larger sensor from a DSLR in a package roughly the size of a bar of soap. The primary benefit? DSLR image quality without the weight, size, or cost (well, sort of…) of an interchangeable-lens camera.

What the DP1 Promised

From the time of its announcement, many of us who’ve been a little less than welcoming toward all of the cell-phone style gadgetry that’s infiltrated most modern compact cameras thought that the DP1 was the camera we’d been asking for. Designed from a minimalist perspective, functionally as well as aesthetically, the DP1 promised to cover the critical components – big, DSLR-style sensor, sharp optics, and a (theoretically) simple interface – and throw an obscene gesture from cranky old-school photographers everywhere in the face of fun features and trendy technologies. I’m assuming the "1" in DP1 is for the single finger the camera would flash (if it had fingers) in response to questions about its lack of scene modes or face detection systems. "Face detection? We don’t need no stinkin’ face detection!"

All of this sounded great to me. The trouble comes in the fact that if DPReview’s low marks are a fair assessment (and there’s no real reason to believe that they aren’t), somewhere along the way – somewhere between the spunky prototypes, the snappy pre-production unit I handled, and the final version that rolled out to consumers – it seems the DP1 forgot that it was supposed to be a simple, elegant performance device. Sure, expectations were high, and some criticism is undoubtedly a result of the camera failing to clear this unnaturally high bar. But with an $800 price tag for a compact camera, asking a lot isn’t asking too much.

Meet the Press

This latest assessment comes as another in a series of gut shots for this camera that I so badly wanted to be good. When early murmurs following the retail release didn’t have the resoundingly positive ring many of us expected and hoped for, I did my best to write off the criticism as the work of a few malcontents who would be unhappy with anything. Even if the DP1 was really great, there would be people who hated it, right? Who thought it was terrible? Sure there would.

Given their respected place in this industry, DPReview’s long list of criticisms (and the pile of test shots to back them up) makes it harder by the minute for those of us trying to stay true to the DP1 to drown out the voices. I tend to counsel potential camera buyers not to make final judgments based on a single review – ours or anyone else’s – but the once-hailed DP1 is quickly racking up a list of lukewarm receptions. While not as critical of the camera’s image quality as DPReview, the respective crews manning review sites Luminous Landscape and Imaging Resource have expressed the same basic slate of usability concerns seen in the most recent review. All of this has implications not just for this particular camera’s long-term success, but for the success of the large-sensor compact concept generally.

Where to Now?

Whatever the final consensus from the review community, Sigma has, to their credit, still done something revolutionary with this camera; no one’s arguing that. Performance shortcomings that have been unearthed aside, the company deserves respect and commendation in my book for taking on a technological challenge that none of the major players were willing to consider seriously.

The bigger problem, though, is that if the DP1 ultimately falls flat in terms of sales, its technological successes may be mostly a moot point. Any high-school economics student could tell you that unless Canon watches potential G9 buyers head over to the DP1 in large (like "loss of potential customers to the DP1 is eating into our profit" large) numbers, there’s not likely to be a supercharged PowerShot G camera with an APS-C sensor in any of our immediate futures. The same argument applies equally to Nikon, Olympus, Sony, Pentax, or Panasonic: if the case of the DP1 pans out like it looks like it will, the big companies’ presumed reason for not undertaking a similar project – that the development outlay for this kind of camera is not in keeping with the potential return on investment – has yet to be torn down.

Who could even realistically jump in to this game in the near term? Of the larger players, Olympus appears to be the closest to having all of the pieces in place to go down the large-sensor compact road if it were to choose to do so – albeit with the slightly smaller Four Thirds, rather than APS-C, sensor format. The E-410 and E-420 DSLRs have approached large compact camera dimensions, the optics are potentially there in the Zuiko 25mm prime (though its more narrow field of view, equivalent to 50mm on this sensor in 35mm terms, might make it less than ideal for general shooting), and the E-420 already supports contrast-detection AF. Shrink the body, ditch the mirror and integrate the lens, fine-tune the AF system for quicker performance and you potentially have much of what the DP1 should have been. Even if the Four Thirds sensor in our imagined camera is only a half-step from current compact camera sensor sizes to where serious shooters would like them to be, a good half-step is better than a full-stride stumble.

Sadly, all of this is probably dreaming and nothing more: without the impetus for new camera development that a strong-selling, technologically successful DP1 creates, I’m betting few will follow Sigma. I guess there’s always the next DP model to look forward to, but at the pace things are moving in this game, who knows if any of us will live long enough to see it.

Round Up is a regular editorial column published twice weekly on

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