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Sigma, known mainly to photographers for their affordable lenses, recently caused quite a stir among discerning photographers. How? By building three compact cameras around the incredible sensor taken from the SD1, which initially cost $10,000. The image quality is simply incredible, and the cameras themselves are small, light and unobtrusive. For photographers seeking the best possible image quality on a budget, they’re unmatched.
But there are lots of compromises. Foremost among them is battery life. The small batteries don’t last long so you’ll need to buy spares. Fortunately, they’re cheap. Second compromise; usability. It’s pretty good for a compact camera, and the controls are well laid out for photographers, but there’s some shutter lag, the auto-focus can’t match dSLRs and the huge RAW files take a while to write to the card.
The main compromise we’ll deal with is focal length. Each DP Merrill camera is essentially identical except for the length of the fixed prime lens.
All three lenses have a maximum aperture of f2.8 and a minimum aperture of f16. In my opinion (and not just mine), they are some of the best lenses ever made, including Leica and Zeiss.
In use, being restricted to a single focal length changes the camera entirely. This comparison therefore focusses on which of the Sigma DP series will be right for you. For the cameras themselves, I highly recommend Michael Reichmann’s review at Luminous Landscape.
I’ve used all three cameras for a variety of genres. Now comes time to choose.
The Sigma DP1m is very convenient if you want amazing image quality in a tiny package. I was able to take photographs that I otherwise couldn’t have made. This is because it doesn’t look like a serious camera and it’s effectively silent in use. Professional photographers, especially those working where cameras are unwelcome, will appreciate this. Compared to carrying a Nikon pro-body with a wide-angle lens, it’s very much smaller. However, I missed photographs due to the shutter lag and the corners a bit softer than the other two DP cameras.
The Sigma DP3m is specialised. I found a 75mm equivalent lens a bit long in use as an everyday camera. However, it is a pocket portrait monster, delivering incredibly sharp files with beautiful bokeh. It’s also got an amazing macro capability which, while not a true 1:1 reproduction, gets close enough for most applications. And there’s no noticeable distortion. The Sigma DP3m really excels when you fuss about and stitch images. 14.85 megapixels is enough for most applications, but if you want to print enormous files, you can increase the image resolution by making mosaics from multiple pictures using software that can stitch panoramas. Because the image quality is so amazing at a 100% level (because it’s not interpolated like a Bayer sensor), the files can be that much better, rivalling medium format cameras worth tens of thousands. For me, this is the niche use the DP Merrill series excels for. I can carry a tiny compact camera, a few cheap batteries and a lightweight CF tripod when I’m doing fine art photography and create the most amazing results.
The Sigma DP2m is a bit of a compromise. I’d recommend getting both the Sigma DP1m and the Sigma DP3m; they work very well together as a pair. But if this isn’t an option, the DP2m is your camera. It’s neither too wide-angle nor too telephoto. You can stitch images if you choose as there’s no real distortion, but the standard-lens approach works well for a range of subjects. The important thing is that you get access to that incredible X3 Foveon sensor. Download some Sigma DP Merrill sample images here; they speak for themselves.
Ben Evans teaches Barcelona Photography. Learn the most important things about photography in one hour for (and for less than the price of a lunch) with the best-selling ‘Photography: The Few Things You Need To Know’ Audiobook – www.GreatBigBear.com/Audiobook
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