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Sigma DP2 Merrill Review

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Sigma DP2M - Merrill on mono-culture.

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Any review of the Sigma line of DP and SD cameras has to start by saying that Sigma has provoked debate since the start.  First they collaborated with Foveon, then they bought the company. Thus no other camera maker in the world has access to 'Foveon' sensors or technology.  

Would Leica like it.... who knows?  My goodness what a combination if it happened.... ( ! )  

The DP and SD line were relatively expensive when they were first launched - however you could argue 'what price' would the major players pay to have defined an epoch like the relatively tiny Sigma... ?

With the DP1 and DP2,  Sigma arguably helped to create the market for premium large sensor compact cameras:  When the first DP Series were launched there was both excitment about potential and considerable head scratching - a few commentators at the time were more than a little confused!!

Roll forward to Summer 2012

Apparently Great Britain, home of 'Team GB', is exactly the same area as Michigan.  Makes you think ?  tiny but with a bit of global impact...  

But right now, as of writing, GB is in the the 'flat calm' after the Olympics of London 2012:  We're  elated, decorated and deflated in equal measure.  

But wait... 

I've got two little black Sigmas on my desk in front of me: S & M  if you'll forgive me. DP2S and DP2M that is...  and this is my personal review of the new DP2M, Merrill.  In the pages and the weeks to come, I will compare the 'young pretender' DP2M  Merrill to the DP2S. Later  the DP2M to the Fuji X-Pro1 and X100.  Exciting times to be interested in photography and particularly in sheer image quality from exquisite tiny tools! 

Cool.

Sigma DP2 Merrill 1/80th Sec @ f8.0 ISO100

Assumptions

In writing this particular review, I have made a couple of assumptions:  

  • The reader knows at least a little about the Sigma DP series, 
  • The reader has a technical appreciation of the sensor differences between Bayer, Modified Bayer arrangement used by Fuji and the Foveon principles (I don't want to get too bogged down in mechanics and pixel debates which polarise and in my view don't really achieve a great deal ).  

The Sigma DP2 Merrill: First Impressions.

Well, what about the camera….?

I've been looking forward to getting my hands on the DP2 Merrill since it was announced in February.  It's here!  Without the usual 'will they won't they' pre-amble that accompanied earlier camera model launches from Sigma. I was really pleased to get the call to say it was 'in' I jumped in the car and drove into town to see the guys and pick up the pristine, unopened white box. There's no feeling like it - especially when you've parted with your own hard earned cash!

In the Box

Peeling open the outer carton, the inner box stands in marked contrast to the elegance of the Fuji 'Black and Silk' approach.  Raw carton cardboard. Do you know what: I actually didn't notice until I wrote this down.  The camera was my focus, not the box - so whilst I didn't feel 'pampered' I'm not sure it mattered!  Software sigma PhotoPro 5.3, handbook and charger, cables:  All the usual suspects all there... except missing is the velvet pouch that came with the previous models.  Shame.  It was a little thing that was actually very useful.  (I'm using the pouch that came with my Fuji 60mm lens!)  I went through the package again last night after reading the 'in the box' list in the manual.  There it was.  A SECOND battery.  This made up for the missing pouch!

Size and Weight

Picking the camera up for the first time one is struck by the size, the weight:  The New DP is slightly larger in each dimension, more like an X-100 than a Ricoh GR-Digital: In fact more like a Fuji X-100 than the previous model!  I've owned and loved both the X-100 and several generations of the lovely GRD.) It's heavier too, at 385g, the old model was 295g (or 335g as I shot it with lens hood and filter).  The Merrill is about 30% heavier but it's not 30% bigger than before - so the net result is that more 'stuff' has been crammed in: it's denser and the extra few grammes mean than the it feels distinctly more solid in the hand than the 'S'.

In terms of the new size: I'm not sure how helpful it is to compare each dimension.  Suffice it to say that your old DP2S 'ever ready' case won't work for the DP2M: My take on the size increase is this:   either a camera is 'pocketable' or it's not.  After you've decided that a camera is too big to go in your pocket - within reason, how much too big is a bit academic.  The 'S' was on the borderline and once you fit the lenhood which is the only way of protecting the lens with a filter, it's no pocket rocket!!  The 'M' tips over:  It's a very convenient size - more compact than either the Leica M8 or the Fuji X-Pro1, but it's not a pocket camera.   It's a similar user experience to using the  Fuji X-100. Easily fits in a small bag and it's hardly noticeable around the neck or over the shoulder, or like me - hanging from a wrist strap in the tripod socket.

Sigma DP2 1/50 sec @ f11 ISO100

Build Quality

The apparent improvement in 'hand feel' and perception of quality continues with a revised  'button feel'. This hard to describe aspect really does demand that you pick up the camera yourself, but in my view, it tells a story of improved build quality and attention to detail.  The old buttons were functional, but had a sort of high pitched click after slightly too much button travel.  The buttons here are well damped, have a nice amount of travel and feel reassuring.   It's a bit like  the doors in a new kitchen.... they do exactly the same job as the old ones but are just better than before... if that makes sense ?

Slightly more 'matt' than the 'satin' of times passed, it's a surface finish which I've found to be hard wearing and resilient.  Matt black over a metal case with the now familiar raised braille like dots. In hand you can tell it's a DP series with your eyes closed: I'm not sure that the finish or feel is in the same league as the Fuji(s) and of course nowhere near that of Leica, but it's certainly fit for the job it needs to do and you won't think about it for years to come. 

The hinged battery cover now has a release slider rather than a sliding cover as previously.  I slightly preferred the old way of doing things but it's a step sideways neither good nor bad, just different.

Battery Life & File Size

It's too early to offer any meaningful thoughts on battery life.  First charge run was 59 frames but please see note on file size…. (Swallow hard!)  I ordered two spare batteries instantly. I have the camera set to produce the largest JPEGS and the maximum size RAW files.   The files are about 55 MB for a X3F (Raw) and about 5.4 - 11 MB for the JPEG  so that's 67MB of file write for every frame.  Out of interest the size range of the X-Pro1: Jpeg: 5.1 - 6 MB RAF (Raw) 26.1 MB

I think both might change once I'm into my stride using the camera but for testing it seemed sensible to get the maximum info stored possible.  I mention that because this obviously gives the battery more work to do - both in terms of in camera processing and in terms of actually writing the files to the card.   

For the record, I'm using a 16GB Sandisk Extreme Pro (A class 10 card) with a claimed write time of 95MB/Sec. It's a good quick card with enough room for my style of work, and I always carry a couple of spares.

I know battery life will will improve and there was a good deal of menu viewing and picture examination with the screen on more than normal.  I'll come back to this later when I've got more info. What is disappointing is that the new Merrill uses a different battery to the earlier models. This would be understandable if the march of progress had increased power density, or increased capacity, but it doesn't seem that way based on the numbers.   In fact the specs are similar:

BP-31 3.7v 1300mAh 4.9Wh
New BP-41 3.6v 1250mAh 4.5Wh

The new battery Called the BP-41 is physically fractionally smaller than previously because it is a symmetrical rectangle, so it's lost the rounded end of the old model (Which I liked because it made sure you got the battery oriented correctly and couldn't make an error) It is precisely this rounded end that accounts for the size decrease.

Surprise finding...  literally! - Reading the Manual last night and I glanced at the 'package contents'.  Odd.   I went back to the box and sure enough hidden away in the bottom there lurked another battery. The DP2M ships with TWO BATTERIES.    This is really welcome.  And Clever. 

Things that have vanished from the old DP2S

  • Focus dial has gone.
  • Mode dial had gone
  • Up / Down rocker has gone.
  • Flash has gone
  • Case shape has changed - where there was a raised 'thumb grip' there is now a flattened area the full height of the camera.  This is possible because the up/down rocker control has been removed, so there is actually more room for one's thumb. 
  • The button at the centre of the circular arrangement of left right up down controls is in the same place as previously but like all of the buttons,  it's now much bigger and easier to use.
  • DC in socket has gone (But there is a cutout near the batter compartment plugged with a rubber grommit:  Is there a mains battery coming?
  • Rounded end to one side of the battery.

New things - Physically on the camera

  • 2 x BP-41 supplied.
  • Bigger screen
  • Rotating dial around lens to focus replacing the dial
  • Bigger Buttons
  • Rotating Dial surrounding the shutter release. 'Command Dial'
  • 'Mode' Button
  • LED around Power switch
  • Power button more accessible
  • 45 degree Upward facing focus confirm LED
  • 'Film' plane marker  
  • Revised Strap lugs 
  • Different catch on the battery compartment
  • Tripod mount under lens
  • USB /  AV socket under easier to use flap.
  • Non-extending lens
  • 49mm Filter thread 

Of the buttons that remain from the old model,  there is no change to the button layout on the back. It's a very familiar place and even the QS buttons has been retained . This received a bit of negative comment when the original line was introduced but I liked it and it's second only to having direct buttons in terms of speed.  The new 'command dial' is a masterpiece. I really like it and it a big improvement ove r the old up/down buttons.  It's intuitive and fast to use.  I like direct access buttons and dials for key controls, but this is an arrangement that is a very good second best.  

Sigma DP2 Merrill 1/60th Sec @ f7.1  ISO100

Using the DP2 - Continued....

Auto Focus

I'm not going to spend ages on this.  It seems to occupy a number of reviewers and so I'm sure  a consensus will form.  But subjectively I find the new model an improvement over the old one in terms of both accuracy and speed.  It's impossible for me to say how much of a speed improvement there is, because this sort of  performance isn't a factor in the photography I use the DP for. Accuracy however is brilliant.

Auto focus has two sizes of sensor patch.  I think this size difference will impact upon both speed and accuracy (which are obviously linked factors)  This is the subject of some testing at the moment but I've set the camera to use the smaller of the two options, which is tiny! As I mentioned above, Speed is much improved over the older model, although it is still prone to hunt in limited light.   Subjectively the focus lock is not as speedy as either the best of the Micro 4/3rds cameras or indeed the Fuji X-Pro1, and nowhere near a good pro SLR, however it's better than  it was, and it feels so far to be more accurate:  It's giving me more confidence with every passing day!

Manual Focus

Of all of the changes made in the crafting of the DP2M,  possibly the biggest change is the loss of the Focus Dial to be replaced with the lens mounted Focus ring.

The new system involves the same method of switching between AF and MF (Using the top button in the circular arrangement. In MF mode, a distance scale (with selectable units) comes up on the back screen.  Here's the good bit: The distance is retained, not just after a power off, but after removing the battery for charging.    

I've noticed that a combination of sensor size, resolution, focal length means that focus even at f8.0 is absolutely critical as the depth of field is really very shallow and this is accentuated by  the steep  'fall off' to out of focus that is quite rapid. The closest experience I think, is using an f1.4 50mm on a full frame SLR maybe set to f2.8.  Even at quite moderate distances, f8.0 is not enough to help overcome a focus error of more than a few inches.    

AF-MF

One of the most welcome features of this new arrangement is AF/MF mode.  

Step one: Auto Focus half way (Keep your finger on this) 
Step two: Rotate the focus ring.

Quite brilliantly, the rear screen zooms to 100% to help you move the detailed point of focus where you want it, the second you stop rotating, the screen reverts to full screen view.  

Step three: Release the shutter.

This is ideal for my photography style - Detailed images, close up, marco style all benefit from this clever arrangement. I think it's a very good compromise but I can understand that some 'street shooters' might prefer the dial so they can glance down and shoot with perhaps a black rear screen.  I think there are arguably cameras better suited for street work, but I like this change.  

Good News.

The aperture of the DP2M remains wide open during focussing.  This might seem an obvious requirement in order to get an accurate point of focus rather than one masked by a 'stopped down' view, but the Fuji line seem to have 'issues' in this department.   If you use a rangefinder then this wont be a problem for you but with any focussing system that uses the capture lens for focus - it's a headache.   SLR's Solved the problem with 'Auto Aperture' and Depth of field preview in the mid to 1970's (I'm not sure exactly when so don't shoot me :-) 

However using manual glass  like the lenses from Zeiss, Leica or Cosina-Voigltlander on the Fuji X-Pro one has to:

  • Fully open the lens to the widest aperture
  • Focus
  • Check the enlarged view on the rear window
  • Stop the aperture down to the taking aperture
  • Check exposure
  • Fire

Hardly a rapid fire method... The alternative is f8.0 and 'Zone'.    

The DP2 approach to focussing is a really welcome feature that makes the camera much easier to live with.

Sigma DP2M Merrill 1/200s @ f8.0 ISO100. Click to Enlarge.

100% Crop from the image above. Click to see enlarged.

Shutter Release

The new shutter release button is larger than before.  It sits within the command dial and is altogether a more relaxing place to have your trigger finger.   The pressure needed to fire the shutter is much reduced and the 'feel' is completely different to the old model. Previously there was almost a 'click' that resonated and got amplified by the camera body, when the shutter release did it's thing, now it's much more subtle. Another nice step forward.