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Sigma DP3 Merrill Review: Bigger Lens, Same Body
by Laura Hicks -  3/19/2013

Sigma has long been known for the quality of their lenses, but their cameras have always taken a backseat. Although they should easily stand out of the crowd with their unique Foveon sensor and amazing image quality, Sigma cameras lack a few key elements that keep them from reaching the pinnacle of success.

The Sigma DP3 Merrill camera shares an almost identical spec sheet with the DP1 Merrill and the DP2 Merrill sans the large 50mm f/2.8 lens protruding from the front of the camera. Featuring a 46-megapixel three layer APS-C Foven sensor (15.6MP per layer), the DP3 Merrill offers users a bright 50mm lens that becomes 75mm with the 1.5x crop factor associated with these sensors. It unforgivingly lacks an anti-aliasing filter...giving the user a sharper, more resolute image. The DP3 Merrill is clearly designed for the high-end photographer who understands fine art photography and appreciates the amazing image quality of the Foveon sensor. And, as demonstrated with the other two DP cameras, Sigma is perfectly content to be defined only by their sensor. This segregation from the norm is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the Sigma DP series has a few major drawbacks that can make even the most discerning fine art photographer question buying this camera. The DP3 Merrill is currently available for $999.

Build and Design
Outwardly, the DP3 Merrill resembles a small black box. It is simplistic in design and larger than most compact cameras available today. The body is almost 4.8 inches wide, 2.6 inches tall and almost 3.2 inches deep including the lens on the front left side of the body. Shooting weight (without the battery, memory card, camera strap) is about 14.1 ounces. The camera body is metal, made in Japan, has a solid feel and appears well-constructed. The camera accepts SD/SDHC/SDXC and Multi Media Card memory media. 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 the camera.

Ergonomics and Controls
The body of the DP3 is finished in matte black paint that is smooth to the touch.  It does not offer a grip of any sort, unless you count a patch of raised dots on the back of the camera where a thumb rest would go. Another set of raised dots on located on the right front of the camera body. It is imperative that you attach the camera strap and use it while you are shooting just in case you lose your grip on the camera.

I am not a fan of the camera's design. It feels way to boxy in my hands and the lack of a grip makes it uncomfortable to use for long periods of time. That being said, I don't feel that the DP3 Merrill was designed for extended use without a tripod. The camera was really designed for a patient photographer who can wait out a shot for the perfect lighting while the camera sits contently on it's tripod base.

The control layout on the DP3 Merrill is identical to the DP2 Merrill - - it is simple and well thought out. At the top of the camera body, the hot shoe, power and mode buttons and a shutter button surrounded by the command dial can be found. A 3 inch LCD monitor is housed on the back, left side of the camera. Next to the monitor are auto exposure lock/delete, quick set, menu and view buttons. To the right of these 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 is smooth and consistent in its operation. 

Menus and Modes
The menus in the DP3 Merrill are logically designed and easy to navigate. There are three main menus: capture settings, playback menu and camera settings. The menu button on the camera back takes you to the menu. Select any of these settings, and the camera takes you into the submenus. 

The DP3 Merrill does not provide a retouch menu, solidifying the concept that this camera is meant for the fine art photographer. These photographers prefer to "nail the shot" in camera or use post processing software like Sigma's Photo Pro 5 to clean up their image. They know that in-camera retouching is simply not good enough. 

Just like it's predecessor, touching the quick set menu button allows easy access to eight camera functions: ISO, metering mode, flash mode and drive mode on QS1 and white balance, image size, color mode and image quality on QS2. 

Shooting modes are simple - the mode button on the top of the camera provides users to select from video, manual, shutter priority, aperture priority, program auto or three custom settings. 

Display/Viewfinder
The 3-inch TFT color LCD monitor on the DP3 Merrill consists of 920,000 dots and is adjustable for seven levels of brightness. I used the camera in medium outdoor lighting and found the LCD display generally easy to use. However, I did not have the opportunity to shoot in extreme brightness. Even in medium brightness, the monitor seemed a bit washed out. When I used the camera indoors it was easy to see and use as a framing tool. It was a bit more difficult outdoors, but not impossible.

Sigma makes an optional optical viewfinder for the DP3. The viewfinder mounts on the camera's hot shoe and has no diopter adjustment for varying degrees of eyesight. 

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 640x480 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

Conclusion

I really do love the image quality from the Sigma DP3 Merrill. After spending time with three Sigma cameras: DP2 Merrill, SD1 Merrill and the DP3 Merrill, I really have become a major fan of the Foveon sensor. They produce some of the most beautiful images. And the 50mm lens creates a perfect portrait focal length for close-ups. 

But, this image quality comes at a price. There are some major drawbacks to the Sigma DP line of cameras. The slow autofocus will easily turn off a majority of the working photographers - especially if they are working with moving subjects. The inability to produce a good, usable image above 800 ISO is also a major issue. Finally, a lack of battery life also cripples the user and requires that them to be fully aware of their remaining exposures. 

I don't love the ergonomics of the DP3 Merrill. I would much prefer to have a less "boxy" feel to the camera. In addition, the simplistic design of the camera is a little too simplistic for my taste. Yet, neither of these are deal breakers for me. 

The video functionality is sub-par and I would much prefer that the feature was removed so that it could be marketed as a still image camera only. You know, like the good 'ole days? Unfortunately, the video function on the SP3 Merrill only gives us more things to criticize. 

Overall, this is a great camera for a patient photographer who loves fine art images. Portrait photographers who work in a studio may also be interested in the DP lineup due to it's leaf shutter and excellent image quality. It also stands to reason that the DP3 Merrill may also bode well with an up-and-coming group of photographers who have a love of compact, large sensor, fixed-lens cameras. In that case, the DP3 can hold it's head high and brag about it's exemplary image quality and optically excellent lens. 


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