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.
The camera is very quick to start up and shut down, has responsive buttons and dials and can potentially be a very quick shooter, both in continuous shooting mode and single shot mode. However, as noted below, I found some serious performance problems.
This should be a very strong area for the SD1 Merrill as its shooting performance can be excellent. The camera can fire off five to seven shots per second in continuous shooting mode and shoot as fast as you can press the shutter in single shot mode. But there are two problem areas that detract from the camera's performance.
The first is that I found the camera's auto focus to be unreliable in low light. Sometimes I would fail to achieve focus three or four times in a row. There were more than a few occasions when the camera indicated that I had focused but the image turned out blurry. This happened despite the fact that the camera has a bright focus assist lamp.
Another issue I had was the camera's frequent writing to the memory card, which would prevent any other actions from occurring. According to the manual, the camera has a buffer for rapid shooting that varies depending on the memory card and camera settings in use. When I looked in the viewfinder, the camera indicated that I had a seven shot buffer. Even in single shot mode the camera would start writing to the memory card before I'd taken all seven shots, at which point the camera became frozen until the writing process was completed. This would take anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds. When continuous shooting or shooting in RAW mode, the writing delay was even longer - as much as 60 seconds. One reason for these lengthy delays may be the large file size of the images. In "fine" mode JPEG images average about 7mb and RAW images about 60mb.
The camera uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack, BP-21, which I found to last for about 300-400 images, which is not that great for a DSLR.
The 85mm F1.4 EX DG Sigma lens that was provided with the camera was superb, with sharp, clear results throughout the entire image and virtually no distortion of any kind, including vignetting, lens flare and chromatic aberration. Colors were very natural.
Sigma chose not to include a video mode in the SD1 Merrill.
There's no question. The SD1 Merrill produces great looking images with sharp definition, good contrast and natural colors, both in RAW and JPEG modes. I did not notice any significant highlight clipping. White balance is also very good. I used the auto white balance setting, which worked well. Other white balance settings are daylight, shade, overcast, incandescent, fluorescent, flash and custom.
The camera's ISO ability is fair compared to other DSLRs. While the image looks good through 1600 ISO, colors fade badly at 3200 ISO and get even worse at 6400 ISO. Most cameras with APS-C sensors don't exhibit such significant color fading at 3200 and 6400 ISO.
100 ISO 200 ISO
400 ISO 800 ISO
1600 ISO 3200 ISO
The camera's built-in flash can be used in normal mode, red-eye reduction, wireless TTL, slow synch (which uses a slow shutter speed) and rear curtain synch (flash fires before the shutter closes). It is possible to compensate for the flash output level without changing the exposure by pressing the flash exposure button and adjusting the level with either the A-dial or S-dial.
Additional Sample Images
The Sigma SD1 Merrill is a contradiction. It's a well-constructed DSLR with good ergonomics, a useful quick-set menu and great image quality thanks to its use of Foveon technology. However the camera's performance is hampered by auto focus problems in low light and all-too-frequent writing to the memory card that causes the camera to freeze until the writing is completed. Further, the camera lacks several features that other mid-range DSLRs have such as a video mode, live view and an LCD on the camera's top plate. In addition, the camera's battery life is rather short compared to the competition.
Overall it's hard to recommend this camera wholeheartedly, especially at its premium price. For some, its superb image quality will be reason enough to buy it. However, its performance issues and absence of some popular features will cause others to look elsewhere.