The Sigma sd Quattro H camera is a unique-looking, mirrorless camera with a unique sensor capable of producing sometimes astonishingly crisp images. The technology involved means this camera is not the first choice for everyone, but should certainly be under consideration by landscape, portrait, architectural and lifestyle photographers.
I was loaned a Sigma sd Quattro H and the Sigma 14mm, 50mm, and 120-300mm lenses. I took the camera to Alaska, Washington, and California to test it in the real world.
First, a few stats from Sigma’s website.
|Lens Mount||SIGMA SA bayonet mount|
|Angle of View||Equivalent to approx. 1.3 times the focal length of the lens (on 35mm cameras)|
|Image Sensor||Foveon X3 direct image sensor(CMOS)|
|Image Sensor Size||26.7×17.9mm (1.0in. ×0.7in. )|
|Number of Pixels||Effective Pixels: Approx. 38.6MP T(Top): 6,200×4,152 / M(Middle): 3,100×2,076 / B(Bottom): 3,100×2,076 Total Pixels: Approx. 44.7MP|
|Storage Media||SD Card, SDHC Card, SDXC Card, Eye-Fi Card|
|Type||Electronic viewfinder (approx. 2,360,000 dots color LCD monitor)|
|Viewfinder Frame Coverage||approx. 100%|
|Viewfinder Magnification||0.96x (-1m-1, 50mm F1.4 at infinity)|
|Auto Focus Type||Phase difference detection system + Contrast detection system|
|AF Point||9 points select mode, Free move mode (It is possible to change the size of Focus Frame to Spot, Regular and Large), Face Detection AF Mode|
|AF Operating Range||EV -1?EV 18 (ISO100 F1.4)|
|Focus Mode||Single AF, Continuous AF (with AF motion prediction function), Manual|
|Focus Lock||AEL/AF lock button is pressed or shutter release button is pressed halfway|
|Metering Systems||Evaluative Metering, Spot Metering, Center-Weighted Average Metering|
|Metering Range||EV 0?EV 17 (50mm F1.4 ISO100)|
|Exposure Control System||(P) Program AE (Program Shift is possible), (S) Shutter Speed Priority AE, (A) Aperture Priority AE, (M) Manual|
|ISO Sensitivity||ISO 100-6400|
|Exposure Compensation||±5 EV ?in 1/3 stop increments)|
The big difference – a Foveon X3 Sensor
Sigma has chosen a different beast of a sensor for its sd Quattro H camera; the Foveon X3. A graphic from Foveon’s site describes it best.
Instead of using a Bayer pattern as most commercially available cameras use these days, the Foveon X3 captures each color, and luminosity information, at each pixel site. It accomplishes this because each wavelength of light is absorbed in different rates in a silicon chip.
Essentially, instead of having red, green and blue pixels side by side, the pixels are stacked on top of each other. This produces a sharper image overall. The overall brightness of the image is recorded on the top layer along with the blues. Here’s another way to look at it compared to the Bayer pattern.
The ‘H’ in ‘sd Quattro H’ represents the sensor size. It is not a full-frame sensor nor is it APS-C, it is in-between. The crop factor is 1.3x, still requiring a 40mm lens to equate to a typical 50mm lens on a full-frame sensor.
The Quattro’s sweet spot – image quality
Before we get to the downsides of the Sigma sd Quattro H, let’s cover what it does so very, very well; details.
No matter the lens (and I tested the camera with a Sigma 14mm, 50mm, and 120-300mm), the amount of detail you can pull out of images is fascinating. Image crispness is helped further by the sensor’s configuration, which does not suffer from moiré like other cameras with Bayer pattern sensors. I tried and tried to shoot and show some moiré, but it’s just not there.
Landscape and portrait photographers will love the amount of detail in every shot. Lack of moiré increase its apparent sharpness without compromise, also making it a quality platform for architectural photographers. Add in the ability to bracket with three or five frames (and ranges from 1/3stop to 3stops between those frames), and the patient photographer will find much joy with this setup.
Below are 100% crops, along with original images, to help you compare.
Upon first using the Sigma camera, you will notice how slow it is. While this is not on purpose, it’s a side-effect of the massive amount of data the camera’s sensor creates. This large amount of data also drains batteries on the order of maybe 200 images shot per 1800 mAh battery (comparable to most DSLR batteries).
Sigma attempts to mitigate the slow processing with an eight-shot buffer and a continuous shooting speed of 4-8 frames per second depending on image size and format. This does a decent job of helping the camera keep up with moderate action. Make no mistake, this is not a sports photographer’s camera, but in a pinch, it can capture fast action.
The buffer is the same no matter the file format (see below for file sizes). Even in JPEG mode, you will get eight shots then have to wait about one second between shots for processing and buffer actions.
Auto-focus is also subpar and often seems to favor the contrast-detection aspect more than the phase-detection aspect of its hybrid focus system. There isn’t much hunting, but in low light, it does struggle more than I would like. I often found myself defaulting to manual focus when I knew the light was not ample.
However, the camera does have a Focus Peaking option which allows live view focusing with a digital zoom for accomplishing precision focus in manual focus mode.
The sensor has a dynamic range of slightly less than 10-stops, giving pause to those accustomed to the growing dynamic range of most modern DSLR cameras.
The camera also struggles with detail in black areas in the frame. It turns on its head the “Expose To The Right” idea held by most DSLR photographers. An example below of a shot exposed to the right to as I would normally shoot it, along with a crop of the darker areas.
In the past, Sigma cameras had two options: their proprietary 14-bit X3F format or JPEG. This meant either using Sigma’s Photo Pro software (currently on version 6) or outputting compressed JPEGS. You don’t spend money on a camera like this for the JPEGs, so it caused some consternation.
The sd Quatro H has a new option which helps open possibilities: DNG files. All of us using raw file editing programs can rejoice and not have to worry about conversions. However, the format has a lower bit depth than the .X3F format.
File sizes vary significantly from format to format. A typical JPEG file will be 10-15MB, JPEG super-fine setting (explained in a moment) 25-35MB, X3F will be 50-60MB, and DNG balloons to 120-150MB. For a 64GB SDXC card, this nets about 3600 regular JPEG, 1800 super-fine JPEG, 630 X3F images and 410 DNG images, according to the back of the camera.
A full list of various file sizes can be found on Sigma’s site.
Image Quality – Comparing X3F vs. DNG vs. JPEG Super Fine vs. JPEG Normal
This next comparison is a bit tricky because we have to use Sigma’s Photo Pro to process and export the X3F file. I’m going to make all the original files available here (file download size: 210mb) so you can download them and compare without my need to export for web viewing.
There has always been controversy over how many pixels are reported on the Foveon sensors. Sigma says the images in X3F format have 39 megapixels, while the JPEG Superfine has 51 megapixels. Yet, the images that come out of the camera are 6192×4128 or 25,560,576 pixels = 25.5MP. So what gives?
The X3F file contains 25.5MP of data on the top later that records the blue channel and the luminance information. The next two laters each capture 3096×2064 or 6.39MP of information for red and green colors. Add those together and you get 25.5 + 6.39 + 6.39 = 38.28MP (I’ve done some rounding in this calculation).
The X3F has more bit depth and thus more information. However, Sigma Photo Pro is not the most refined program in the world and takes some patience to use. You will get the most out of the camera if you can take it slow and edit in Photo Pro. With that said, the DNG files are excellent (if a bit inflated in MB) and can be edited easily in Lightroom and other programs compatible with the format.
Lastly, what about that Super Fine JPEG format? I have to admit; it’s tempting to lust after 51MP out of a mirrorless camera. Yet, the quality of those shots is juuuusstt off the mark for my liking. Let me give you some 100% crops for comparison. I didn’t include the X3F version because the Photo Pro software is not straightforward on how to perform a crop, even after consulting the manual.
For my liking, that last one has just a little too much pixelation when looked at up close.
The sd Quattro H has all the standard shooting modes you’d expect: Manual, Program (with program shift), Aperture Priority and Shutter Speed Priority.
ISO is selectable between 100-6400, not quite the range we’re accustomed to with modern DSLR bodies. Further, noise becomes quite notable around ISO 800, making it difficult to get used to the higher ISO limits. It does have the ability to use Auto ISO and to limit the range, which I find useful.
While there are only nine focus points, arranged in a standard 3×3 grid, Sigma does give you the capability to change the size of the focus points in three steps, with the larger size covering a decent 60% of the viewing area. You can also select individual points instead of using all nine. This combination allows for a fair amount of control for wide-open scenes down to a need to focus on an individual stamen on a flower.
Sometimes my eyes don’t seem to see straight, so I found the onscreen level to be very handy. It can be turned off for those who don’t want it, but for the rest of us, it’s quite useful.
Unexpectedly, the smaller LCD display on the back, highlighting exposure settings, battery level, exposure compensation, ISO, metering mode and shooting mode, is a welcome addition. Especially those using a tripod at eye height, which is when you have to stand on tiptoes to view the top display. Most of us glance at the rear display on our camera more than the front and this easy reference screen is handy. Controls for each of those items are located just to their right for easy, quick access.
As with other mirrorless cameras, having the histogram displayed in the viewfinder is a boon, especially when the dynamic range of the camera is less than 10-stops. Keeping the exposure correct with a histogram to help analyze a scene is very useful.
The Sigma sd Quattro H comes with two control wheels on the top of the camera. When shooting in Manual mode, the different dials, as expected, control shutter speed and aperture for easy shooting. The rear dial does not stand out too far and has just the right amount of tactile response when functioning. These functions can be switched around in the camera menu.
On the back of the camera are multi-directional buttons to assist in menu and control selection. They are well placed and easy to access without removing your eye from the viewfinder.
Also on the rear of the camera is a selector switch for using the viewfinder LCD or the rear camera monitor while shooting. I found the camera was often slow in switching from the rear monitor (on most of the time the camera shutter has been pressed halfway to activate auto-focus) to the viewfinder. This slight lag in switching became annoying in constant use and while quickly reviewing images on the rear screen before commencing further image acquisition.
The solution for me was to use the viewfinder only. However, this slowed down my process as only reviewing of images within the viewfinder is less than ideal. I wish the switching mechanism was quicker.
The camera also has controls for changing what information is displayed on the various screens, adjusting focus points and auto exposure/autofocus lock.
Fit & Feel
Admittedly, the Quattro looks a little odd. It has a weird shape and the viewfinder seems to be in the wrong spot.
The grip is comfortable and makes all-day use easy. While not cupped in like some DSLR cameras, it has enough surface for a solid grip.
The viewfinder is off to the side to allow space for the hotshoe directly over the lens. This tripped me up more than a dozen times as I grabbed the camera, with its DSLR-like feel, and brought it up to my eye in the wrong location. Not a big deal, but it felt a little off at times. Those without a lot of DSLR experience will not notice anything amiss.
The camera feels solid like a quality DSLR while having less weight. It feels like a camera that can handle hard work for years to come.
Before we get into the menus, the Quattro has a hand QS button on the top, just next to the shutter release. It brings up a Quick Selection menu (either in the viewfinder or back screen). This is where you’ll want to make most of your image quality and other changes. The menu options are selectable within the camera’s options menu.
You select the camera’s menu by pressing the obvious MENU button on the back of the camera. The top control wheels or the back multi-directional buttons control the menus. Menus are displayed in an over-down setup, much like Canon cameras.
There are six shooting menus, two review menus, and five setup menus.
Do I have to use Sigma’s app?
For those of you happily stuck in your ways with your favorite image processing workflow, the quick answer is “no.” Because of the sd Quattro H’s ability to produce DNG files, the world is your oyster when it comes to editing photos.
However, and this gets into the technical side of things, the DNG file has already had some processing done to it in its creation. There is evidence that the color balance of the original X3F file is easier to accomplish using Sigma’s PhotoPro software than working with the DNG file. This is because of the camera’s need to convert the information it collects from the sensor and craft a DNG file.
Sigma’s PhotoPro software has come a long way and will create better images for you than simply using the DNG file. Think of it this way; the DNG files are higher quality than the JPEG files, while the X3F files are higher than the DNG. Each step, from JPEG to DNG to X3F, allows for more latitude and control when processing your images.
My suggestion if you acquire this camera: take the time to learn Sigma PhotoPro if you want professional quality results.
Hidden option: Easy Infrared
One feature not often touted in Sigma’s literature or sales documents is its infrared capabilities. This will undoubtedly appeal to various landscape photographers because of its ease of use.
I was not able to acquire one of the needed pieces to make this system work before I returned the camera, but I was able to test the removal of the infrared filter. It is located front and center on the lens mount when the end cap is removed. After you remove the filter, you need a visible light filter on the front of whichever lens you use.
The combination of removing one filter and adding another adds full infrared capability without an expensive conversion typical with DLSRs these days. The versatility this adds could make it a likely option for those wanting to dabble in infrared photography but not wanting to lug around a whole other camera for the purpose.
The Sigma sd Quattro H camera is a mixed bag with a specific audience. They have made strides in shooting speed and buffering over time (the first iterations of their Foveon sensor cameras were quite slow, almost to the point of uselessness) and that has helped bring up overall usefulness.
If you are a landscape photographer and take things slow, this is a great camera for incredible detail. Travel photographers will enjoy the camera (if they aren’t shooting a lot of fast action) for the lack of moiré in buildings and other patterns found while exploring. I can also see macro photographers gaining a lot from the details and Focus Peeking feature.
However, the speed of shooting and speed of auto-focus can hold this camera back for the average photographer. It can be a bit frustrating to wait for images to appear and battery life is less than most of its competitors.
Have you used this camera? What are your thoughts? Please share with us in the comments section.