Ah the mysterious and often discussed Sigma “DP” line. What’s not to like about the concept? Make a prosumer size camera, but stick a DSLR size sensor in it. Use a sharp prime lens in it rather than a zoom. Give it manual controls with an emphasis on manual focus as well. In short, make a fixed lens camera with the quality of a DSLR for those times when advanced photographers want a camera that can fit in a (large) pocket.
The DP2 is the second generation of this camera concept by Sigma. The first generation was 2007’s DP1. The main difference between the two is the fact that the DP1 has a 28/4 lens and the DP2 has a 40/2.8 lens. There are a few functional and handling improvements on the DP2 as well. But for most people, the lens is the thing that matters. This will become particularly true if Sigma releases an upgraded DP1 as I have been told they are going to do. That version of the DP1 will then have all the same improvements as the DP2 does and the only difference will be the lens.
The Sigma DP2 Digital Camera is a high-end compact digital camera equipped with a 14 megapixel Foveon X3 direct image sensor. Featuring Sigma’s unique ‘True’ image processing engine and a 24.2mm (41mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens , this compact camera provides the same superb image quality as found in the Sigma SD14 professional SLR. With the DP2, it is possible to record images in RAW or the widely used JPEG in four resolution modes. Furthermore, it offers five Exposure modes and three Metering modes as well as being equipped with a built-in flash, hot shoe, and 2.5" TFT color LCD monitor.
Rather than list out the full specifications here, anyone who needs that info should follow this link to Sigma’s website.
Photo.net’s partners have the Sigma DP2 available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.
The DP2 is a camera in the same general size range as cameras like the Canon G10 and the Lumix LX3. It’s body is somewhere in between the size of those two cameras, though it’s lens barrel sticks out a bit further. Probably owing to the fact that larger optics are required to create an image circle that will cover the larger sensor. Aside from an interesting manual focus “dial”, the body is laid out fairly simply with none of the more advanced “joysticks” or other quick ass innovations that this class of cameras has been seeing recently. This can be both good and bad. A camera doesn’t need any fanciness for the buttons if the design is done well enough that the camera feels logical and easy to use to the photographer. How does the DP2 stack up in this department? We’ll get to that a little later. For now, suffice to say that the DP2 looks a lot like a utilitarian prosumer camera. Nothing fancy, somewhat square in shape, but nothing out of the ordinary or crazy either
The DP2’s feel is a bit lower than I would have expected for a camera in this price range. Now, to be fair, I think I have gotten spoiled by cameras like the Canon G10 and the Panasonic LX3 mentioned previously. These cameras, particularly the G10, have really raised the bar for this class of cameras in terms of having a solid feel to them. The DP2’s metal clad body is decent enough, but it’s buttons and switches have a rough low-end feel to them. Overall it doesn’t seem to have be poorly built by any means, it’s just that my expectations are higher these days.
Let me get something out of the way first off. Despite being marketed to an “advanced” class of photographers, the DP2 (like the DP1) has no built in optical or electronic viewfinder. Sigma does offer an hot shoe mount viewfinder, but it is the old rangefinder-style optical viewfinder. Now, with one focal length available, that style of optical viewfinder is actually pretty usable for the DP2. But if you require a viewfinder that displays shooting settings, focus confirmation, or any other sort of information, you are going to be out of luck with the DP2.
Startup is pretty slow by today’s standards. First the lens barrel has to extend (which is does with no small amount of motor noise), the the camera has to boot up, then the screen image has to pop into view. No, it doesn’t take that long in reality. But it’s another one of those things where photographers have gotten used to the bar being raised. Other cameras in this class, in general, have much faster startup times.
The DP2’s mode dial has seven settings. The standard P/A/S/M (Program (auto), Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual) along with settings for video and audio recording. The audio recording setting is of dubious value to me. Even if I had something to record via audio, I’d probably just record a video clip. However, I could see it being useful for people who want to make audio shooting notes of their photography sessions. Perhaps for names or locations that they wanted to be sure to remember. The final mode dial setting is a “setup” setting that gives you access to most all of the non-shooting settings for the camera. These are things like LCD brightness, language settings, firmware updating, etc. On the one hand, this is a pretty good idea. It’s very quick to access and it keeps all of the camera’s non-photography stuff out of the “menu” button list. However, the issue is that so many other cameras have these settings in the same place as the photographic settings (contrast, file size, review duration, etc) and if you are used to being able to find the non-photographic settings there, you are likely to forget about the “set up” setting on the mode dial. That happened to me once or twice and I spent a couple minutes looking for whatever setting I was trying to change until I remembered the mode dial setting. Also, because it’s a physical switch, you cannot be looking at some setting and then jump right back to shooting mode if you see a photo you need to take. You have to actually spin the dial back to one of the other settings. I sat there at one point half pressing the shutter button over and over wondering why the DP2 wouldn’t go back to shooting mode until I remembered to reset the dial. To be fair, these are more my own issues than issues with the camera. I’m used to my compact cameras being designed a particular way and can’t really blame the camera if the DP2 is set up a differently. The “setup” dial setting is a fine system and with more use I’m sure I wouldn’t have any issue with it.
The DP2 has the common 4-way toggle with center “OK” button for navigating menus on the back. The “up” button also acts as a AF/MF toggle and the “down” button brings up the AF point choice screen. The “left” and “right” buttons are over/under exposure when in P/A/S modes and adjust aperture when in Manual mode. These work together with another set of “up/down” buttons that are located on the upper right of the camera back (and also double as magnify in/ou buttons for playback) that adjust shutter speed in S/M modes. Annoyingly, none of these buttons are labeled in any fashion to indicate their exposure control functions. I see this as being a bad choice on Sigma’s part. Particularly since this camera is aimed at advanced photographers who might be coming from film or digital SLRs and very likely will want to make use of more than just the Program auto exposure mode. Most photographers understand that on a small camera it is difficult to have dedicated buttons or command wheels like SLRs have. But it becomes particularly frustrating when you feel like you have to go on a hunting trip to find the unlabeled button to make the camera change one of the most basic photographic settings like the shutter speed. Once memorized, the DP2’s exposure controls are fine. In fact, could probably be counted as better than many of its competitors considering that there are specific buttons for both shutter and aperture in Manual mode. As many other compact cameras make you press a button to switch between shutter speed and aperture settings, that is something that should be noted by those who use Manual mode a lot. Perhaps even more nifty is the fact that in all 4 shooting modes, you can set the magnify and left/right buttons to control a number of different functions instead of the default choices. This is a very good thing. If a camera has to rely on buttons, I like having a lot of choices for those buttons.
As with most cameras, the DP2 has dedicated display toggle, playback, and menu buttons. The only user assignable button is an AEL (autoexposure lock) button that can be set to lock AF or AE. Sigma’s nod to the new “quick settings adjustment” features that are showing up on many cameras is a “QS” button. Pressing it brings up four settings (ISO, metering pattern, flash & white balance) that you can change by pressing the 4-way toggle. Pressing QS again brings up another four settings (image size, image quality, color mode, and drive mode) to chose from. These either choices cannot be user adjusted, but they do cover the most common settings for many photographers. One would expect that pressing the QS button a third time would make the QS screen go away and return you to the standard shooting screen. However, that isn’t the case. Pressing it a third time just sends you back to the first QS screen. Because I can be a little thick headed, I more than once pressed QS 4-5 times before I remembered to just tap the shutter button to return to shooting. Ah well, sometimes all this staring at a computer screen for work starts to rot my brain.
The one innovative control device that the DP series has is the manual focus control wheel. Unlike most other compact digital cameras, you don’t have to press buttons to change your focus distance when using manual focus. With the DP2 you just spin a little dedicated thumbwheel. There is a distance scale that shows up on the screen and a indicator that shows where your focus is at. There is also a distance scale on the thumbwheel itself. The scale on the screen can be set to feet or meters but the printed scale on the wheel is in meters only. No big deal in my book. One thing that would have been a very good idea if they had thought of it (and that they probably could add with a firmware update) would be a set of indicators to show depth of field for a given focus point and aperture. This would have been a great advantage for street photographers and would have helped a lot in the “slow AF” department that I discus further down.
The DP2’s battery life is okay, but nothing to write home about. Sigma claims 250 shots per charge. Like other reviewers, I tend to feel that 175 is a more accurate representation. However, I suppose that it all depends on how you use the camera, how much time you spend reviewing images, how many times you use the flash and so on.
Like the DP1, the DP2 has a fixed focal length lens. The only zooming here is with your feet. However, the good news is that the DP2’s 40/2.8 (in 35mm equiv) lens is nice and sharp. No, f/2.8 isn’t fast. But it’s a lot better than the DP1’s f/4 lens. Chromatic aberrations are very well controlled and there is little in the way of barrel or pincoushin distortion, both unusual in cameras of this class. In short, it’s a very good lens. The DP2 has a close focus of 28cm, so while good, it’s not a macro lens in any way. This is to bad as one of the real advantages of using a prosumer level camera is that they all have great macro settings built in. Given the AF issues (see below), it’s a real shame that the DP2 doesn’t give you the option to use it to photograph small stationary things.
The DP2 has three metering settings: matrix, centerweighted, and spot. Nothing particularly fancy about that, just three basic proven selections. Metering was consistent, but I found the camera to underexpose 2/3 of a stop or so. I found myself regularly setting the camera to overexpose a bit. However, as this isn’t something that I see reported regularly on the internet, there is always a chance that it was a sample variation in my specific unit. Overall, aside from that issue, I would say that the metering is up to par with other cameras in this class.
The DP2 has five ISO settings when shooting in JPEG mode, 50/100/200/400/800. Switching to RAW mode gives you access to 1600 and 3200. Noise is very well controlled for a camera in this class. Unsurprising given that this should be one of the main benefits of using a large sensor in a compact camera. Blowing away any small-sensor camera, the DP2’s noise is much more fairly compared to other APS-C sensor DSLR’s. There is some color blotchiness and loss of saturation in the higher ISO’s, but I find it pretty acceptable in the DP2’s camera class. In short, noise is very impressive, even up to 800 in JPEG mode. Which makes it strange that 1600 and 3200 require shooting in RAW to use. I’m sure that Sigma had their reasons, bur from my view it seems like a JPEG version of 1600 and 3200 would have been perfectly acceptable for most users.
The DP2’s autofocus is, well, just awful. Flat out awful. Oh, it’s accurate, and to be fair it’s accurate even in low light. But it is slow, god is it slow. To make matters worse the image freezes for at least half a second (perhaps more) when the camera is autofocusing. This makes it virtually impossible to focus on anything that is moving. You can’t keep the AF point on the moving subject because the image on the screen freezes so you end up focusing on something else by accident or losing the subject as it moves out of the frame. I can’t explain just how annoying this is for a camera that, by all rights, should be interesting for a serious documentary or street photographer. But no documentary or street style photographer I know has the patience or time to deal with AF that takes forever to lock on like this does. The only way I was able to shoot photos of my son was by using manual focus and guessing at the focus distance. As I said before, this would actually be okay if the MF system gave you a depth of field indication. More than anything, the DP2’s AF was it’s Achilles Heel for me. It made me seriously question if I would be interested in owning the camera. Firmware updates were released in 2009 that supposedly improved AF accuracy, and some claimed speed as well. But to be honest, the AF was already pretty accurate and I didn’t see any speed improvement myself. So I can’t really offer much encouragement on that end.
The DP2 has eight different white balance settings, all the standard choices (auto/sun/shade/cloud/incandescent/fluorescent/flash/custom). Nothing particularly special there, like multiple fluorescent choices or a manual temp setting, but more than enough for the average photographer. However, I have to say that I was pretty disappointed with the performance of the “auto” setting. I was constantly finding that the balance ranged from a little warm to a little cool. It never seemed all that consistent. Now, to be fair, many cameras have some white balance issues on “auto” but this seemed a little worse than normal. The other settings were accurate enough, but I wouldn’t call them “class leading” in any way.
As had been mentioned earlier, the DP2 has a great lens with little in the way of aberrations or distortion. Noise is well controlled and colors are smooth. Well done images tend to have a very nice 3-D effect (for lack of a less cheesy term). Is this because of the much heralded Foveon X3 chip that the Sigma cameras use? I have no idea. The Foveon is one of those things that sounded pretty interesting a couple of years ago when it was announced. Normal image sensors record one color of light (red, green, or blue) per photosensor and then use the value of the neighboring chips to estimate the value of the other two colors for that photosite. The Foveon chip has sensors that record all three colors at once on three different layers (much like film emulsion), eliminating the need for estimation and in theory creating a better image. But is it true? to be honest, I had a hard time getting past some of the DP2’s other problems to get to a point where I could compare it’s images to images taken with standard sensor cameras. Like I said, when things were good with the DP2, they were very good. But that didn’t happen enough for me to create a decent opinion. However, here’s something to be aware of, that “14 megapixel” DP2 won’t give you a filesize like 4536 × 3024 or something similar. Oh no, what you get is a file size of 2652 × 1768. Why? Well that’s because Sigma figures that you should multiple everything by three because of the three layers on the sensor. Is this bunk marketing jargon? Yes, no, and maybe. It’s hard to make the case that less resolution is good, but the fact of the matter is that the DP2 is no 4MP camera like the filesize would have you believe. The general feeling by photographers is that, while 14MP may be stretching it a bit, the DP2 matches up quite well with cameras in the 8-10MP range.
Despite camera makers including software with their cameras, most serious photographers use a program like Photoshop to sort, to edit and even to convert their RAW files. There are plenty of photographers who never even take the manufacture’s software disc out of it’s cellophane wrapper, myself included. However, given that the DP2’s RAW files aren’t handled well by Photoshop or Lightroom, chances are good that you are going to need to use Sigma’s RAW program: Sigma Photo Pro. SPP is okay I guess, the results are pretty good. But it’s a clunky program with none of the utility or processing power of the more standard image programs. I’m glad that Sigma included it, because it is needed. But I really wonder where the issue is with Photoshop not being able to deal with the RAW files. If it is on Adobe’s end, I wish they would hurry up and get off their asses. If it is Sigma’s fault, well, who in their right mind would make an image file format that couldn’t be handled easily by the most common image processing program on the planet?
The DP1 was pretty impressive in 2007. Oh, it had many of the same problems listed here. But, good god, it had a large sensor in a small form factor. That was a first and photographers looked past the cameras quirks in order to take advantage of that fact. Time however, has not been kind to the DP line. In 2009 the DP2 shares a number of the DP1’s problems (though improving on many as well) but the difference is that photographers now have multiple micro 4/3 cameras to consider as well if they want a large sensor in a small camera. The DP2 feels like it was rushed to market so that the DP series would have a matched pair with two different focal lengths. I wish they would have waited 6-12 more months and done a bit more work. Why are we still dealing with a user interface that looks like it came from 1999? Why does the camera still take multiple seconds rather than tenths of a second to start up? Why does the AF freeze the image when it focuses?
Great images can come from the DP2. The lens is wonderful and the Foveon X3 sensor lives up to much (if not quite all) of the hype surrounding it. But the fact of the matter is that issues like the abysmal AF speed will cause many photographers to stay away from this camera. Even those who aren’t bothered by the AF may very well find the difficulties in processing the Sigma RAW files to be an annoyance they just don’t need. I said it earlier and I will repeat it, who releases a camera that makes files that Photoshop doesn’t play well with?
You can see the DP2’s potential. Some of the images just look like they could be magic. Magic like the way people can pick out Leica slides on a light table even when they swear that they shouldn’t be able to. Magic in the way that make you sit there and stare at the screen saying “I made THIS image?” for a half an hour. Even on images where the AF or white balance fail you, you can still see that potential for greatness. The quality is there in both the sensor and lens to have something really special. But the whole package just doesn’t come together in a way that I felt worked for my photography. I spent more time being frustrated with the DP2 than I did liking it. And at the end of the day “potential” doesn’t trump “results”. It’s a shame really, because there is a lot to like about the final images that can come out of the DP2. I’m just betting that many photographers in the DP2’s target market won’t be willing to jump through the hoops it takes to get there.
Photo.net’s partners have the Sigma DP2 available. Their prices are fair and you help to support photo.net.
* Text and images ©Copyright 2009 Josh Root.
Text and images ©Copyright 2009 Josh Root.