A Field Review of the Sigma DP1x
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The Sigma DP1x was announced in Feb. 2010 but didn’t really make it into stores until this September. The Dp1x is a niche camera designed for photographers interested in high quality files in a compact package. This is a small camera with an SLR sized sensor. In fact, the sensor is from 7 to 12 times larger than the average point-n-shoot camera. The camera comes with a 16.6mm f4 lens (equivalent to a 28mm on a full frame dSLR). In theory, the combination of a prime lens and a big sensor should give this point-n-shoot a real advantage in producing quality files over a regular compact camera.
I thought it would be fun to try the DP1x as a landscape ‘point-n-shoot’ camera. I am a fan of wide angle lenses for my landscape photography (24-28mm is my most used lens range) and I am also a fan of prime lenses, so for me the DP1x was great to try (one lens, small camera, ‘big’ results). I am not going to spend a lot of time on the technical aspects of the camera. For that stuff go to the Sigma Dp1x site which explains the concept and design of the camera. All I was interested in was how the camera handled and what kind of files it produced in field conditions. As well, readers should note that I am sponsored by Sigma Canada. I hold no punches in this review but some people might be hesitant about my objectivity. I direct reader’s to some other review sites if you want other opinions: Trusted Reviews, Let’s Go Digital.
One last caveat, I am a working photographer and not a camera reviewer. All I can tell you is what I like and dislike about a camera. Also I can only compare this camera with other digital cameras I own or have owned. The only point-n-shoot digital cameras I have used extensively are the Canon G9 and the Canon G11. I do make some comparisons about performance of the Sigma Dp1x against the Canon G11 (and against its bigger cousin the Canon Rebel T2i) even though this is like comparing a cheetah with a house cat.
When I first unpacked the camera it struck me as a little ‘plain’. Let’s just say this camera is not a fashion statement. But later I learned to appreciate its simple design and layout. Secondly, I was surprised that the lens which sticks out of the body actually expands out even more when the camera is turned on. I suppose this is a design function of the large sensor but it just seemed weird to have a ‘retractable’ fixed lens. Also the camera does not have a built in shutter-like lens cap like the Canon G-series but instead uses a regular lens cap like a dSLR. The controls seemed pretty intuitive but I did need to look up a few things up to understand how they worked (like how to get auto bracketing). Finally the LCD screen on the back of the camera is disappointing, not too large and not very bright and ‘snappy’.
In the Field
I took the Sigma DP1x in the field with me on the Fire and Ice Photo Tour 2010 and then used it subsequent to that to make photos around the house and on short excursions. To see some samples of the kinds of shots I took with the camera check out the my Daily Snaps. To summarize, below is a list of things I liked and disliked about the use of the camera in the field:
- I really do not like to have a lens cap on a point-n-shoot camera. I am used to the built-in lens cap on the Canon G11. I hate having to remove the lens cap on the Sigma DP1x whenever I want to shoot (I always misplace it in some pocket). Also the camera won’t turn on unless you remove the lens cap. This means if you just want to playback photos for review, you’ll need to take off the lens cap before the camera will turn on. Can you say annoying?
- The LCD is smallish and not too bright or snappy. The LCD is functional except in bright sunlight where it is too dim to really see what your doing. I had to use a Hoodman Loupe over the LCD in bright daylight to compose photos. And in dimmer light like dawn and dusk, the LCD was very grainy. Canon cameras, and especially the G11/G12 have an amazing bright, snappy, beautiful LCD. The display on the G11/G12 just out shines the Sigma display (see photo below).
- Auto-focus in dim light was sometimes problematic. The Canon G11 could focus in much dimmer light than the Sigma DP1x.
- Sometimes white balance would appear to change from one shot to another or from one ISO setting to another. White balance seemed most consistent at 50ISO. No problem if you shoot RAW, but a real problem if you shoot in JPEG mode.
- When shooting RAW images it takes ‘forever’ to write the images to the SD card. Faster cards help but the Sigma is notorious for being slow at writing RAW files. A single RAW images takes 5 to 7 seconds to write to the card. Do an exposure bracket of 3 RAW shots for HDR and you’ll be waiting for about 20 seconds before the camera is ready to shoot again! This wasn’t so bad for landscape photography but for street photography, this might be a serious drawback.
- Movie mode is pointless at 320 x 240. Why have a big sensor with such tiny movies? Why have a movie mode at all?
- Battery life is ok, but not great (250 shots at 25C). I could shoot all day on one battery even in cold conditions (around freezing) but I needed to keep the camera fairly warm between shots in order to keep the battery charge up (I carried it in my coat)
- No macro mode. The Sigma only focuses to 30 cm (1 foot) and so macro photography is out of the question.
- No face recognition auto-focus. I have gotten spoiled by face recognition on the Canon G11. It works great to automatically recognize and on a face in the frame. The Sigma DP1x is not a spontaneous people camera.
- Why is the lens only an f4? I was hoping for at least a f2.8 lens for lower light and thin slices of focus applications.
- And why no Optical Stabilization built into the lens? A point-n-shoot is for hand-holding and OS (IS on Canon) really helps us get sharper shots.
- No tilt swivel LCD screen. I am getting addicted to the tilt swivel screen on digital cameras and wish every camera (even pro dSLR’s) had these wonderfully flexible displays.
The Sigma LCD on the left is very dim and flat even with the screen turned to its brightest setting (as it was here). The Canon LCD at default settings is bright, contrasty and colourful (overly saturated IMO). I think the Sigma shows colours accurately but the screen is often too dim to compose photos well.
- I like the simplicity of the design. The Canon G11 has so many buttons and dials that it reminds me of an airplane cockpit. The Sigma is clean and sparse and the controls are intuitive and well laid out. How refreshing!
- My biggest pet peeve with the G11 is that they put a whole lot of camera controls on the back of the camera right where your thumb is supposed to rest to hold the camera (the same is true of the G12). I am always accidentally hitting some button with my thumb on the G11 when I do not want to. And forget about wearing gloves when shooting with the G11! Imagine my joy to find that the Sigma has a ton of space for the thumb (see photo below). And the controls are easy to access even with gloves on. Winter photography is easy with the Sigma camera. I could even use the controls on the Sigma by feel when looking through the Hoodman Loupe.
- With both the Sigma and Canon cameras, I almost always select my focus point manually. The Sigma is much faster to use in this regard than the Canon.
- If I need to use manual focus it is super easy with the Sigma with the handy manual focus thumb dial. Trying to manually focus the G11 is like trying to milk a cow in handcuffs (with your hands behind your back and with giant mittens on).
- Changing the aperture, using exposure compensation and getting into auto-bracketing mode is so much easier and so painless with the Sigma. Canon requires that you push three buttons, stand on your head and sing the national anthem backwards to change these things (except exposure comp).
- The QS (quick select) button on the Sigma makes changing ISO, white balance, flash modes, metering modes, image size, picture style and motor drive settings so fast and simple. Hurray! Canon makes these cahnges an obstacle course!
- In aperture priority the Sigma meters and functions down to 15 second exposures. The Canon G11 stops functioning at 1 second in aperture priority. In order to shoot exposures longer than 1 second with the Canon G11, I need to switch the camera to manual mode and then changing aperture and shutter speed is painful requiring Canon’s famous three button, thumb smashing, curse the world dance.
The Sigma DP1X (bottom photo) has tons of space for the thumb and the controls are well spaced out for easy access. The G11 (top photo) has no space for the thumb and all the back panel controls are jammed together in a minute little space. Good luck not accidentally hitting one of these buttons when you hold the camera!
For me this is where the wind meets the sail. Does the bigger sensor and the Foveon technology of the Sigma DP1x give us great images as promised? Let’s take a look.
Below is a comparison shot of the same scene taken with the Canon G11 at maximum aperture of f8, the Sigma Dp1x at f11, and the Canon Rebel T2i (an APS sized dSlr) using a Sigma 17-50 f2.8 lens at f11. All images were shot at 100 ISO and all images were processed with the same settings in Adobe Camera Raw. There are distinct colour differences between each file, none are right or wrong, just different. Which one is ‘best’ is simply a matter of preference.
When we look at the details of each file, we notice a difference in sharpness between the small sensor G1 (top photo) and the larger sensors on the Sigma (middle) and the Rebel (bottom). I enlarged each photo at the point of focus (the grass blade to the lower left) so that differences in DOF are not responsible for differences in sharpness. To my eye the Sigma is slightly sharper than the Rebel but not by much.
Moving on to a more colourful object (my jeans on my bed), the image below shows how each camera renders the scene. Each camera was set at f5.6 this time at 100 ISO and all images were processed using the same settings in Adobe Camera RAW. The top photo is from the CanonG11, the middle photo from the Sigma DP1x and the bottom photo from the Canon Rebel T2i outfitted with a Sigma 17-50 f2.8 lens. Again we see differences in colours and in contrast. To my eye (as I remember the scene) the Sigma seemed to handle the accuracy better (but this is purely subjective).
When we look at the details of each shot at the point of focus we see that the larger sensor cameras had more detail than the Canon G11 (top) but the Sigma DP1x (middle) significantly outperformed the Rebel (bottom). Also the colours of the Sigma DP1x really are vivid but true in hue (the Foveon sensor advantage?).
In another test with just the two point-n-shoots battling it out in a high contrast scene, the two cameras gave very different results. The G11 is the top photo, the Dp1x is the bottom photo.
When we look at details of the two photo, the Sigma just blows away the Canon in terms of resolution.
I did a shot in low light in my bedroom to see how well each point-n-shoot handled longer exposures (4 seconds at f2.8 for the Canon, 8 seconds at f4 for the Sigma) and how much I could force a shallow slice of focus by using the widest aperture on each camera. Also it was interesting to see how both cameras handled the green apple colour of the walls. Again the Sigma (bottom) really seemed to give accurate colours while the G11 (top) struggled with the intense greens turning them more yellowish. Also notice the distortion in the Canon lens at its widest setting (barrel distortion). The Sigma does give a better thin slice of focus than the G11 which has a hard time giving blurred backgrounds even at f2.8.
I rarely shoot with any of my cameras at higher ISO’s. I prefer to use ISO 100 or lower whenever I can and I use a tripod a lot. But I did a comparison of ISO between the two point-n-shoot cameras and the Sigma seem to fare better than the Canon as would be expected for a bigger sensor camera but not by as much as I thought. It looks like the Sigma gets a little softer as ISO goes up. I processed all the files at the same settings with no noise reduction in Adobe Camera Raw. The Canon G11 is on the left and the Sigma is on the right. The ISO settings from top to bottom were ISO 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, and 3200.
I need to test further the ISO performance of the Sigma DP1x and see if it can perform as well as the Rebel and other APS sensor dSLRs. More on that in a later post.
The Sigma DP1x is a specialty camera, no question about it. It is not an all around point-n-shoot that is versatile to use like the Canon G11. If you want a ‘do everything camera’ then the Sigma Dp1x is not for you. But if you want really great files and do not feel limited by a prime wide angle lens, then the Sigma is a top performer. I absolutely love the handling of the camera (Canon take note!) but the main short coming for me is the DP1x’s weak LCD display (it is dim in bright light and performs poorly in low light). If Sigma upgrades this camera with a better display screen, gives it a faster lens with OS (Optical Stabilization), and improves auto-focus in low light then they would have an absolute killer point-n-shoot camera!. For me, as it is now, and despite its shortcomings, it has still found a way into my camera bag because of its amazing image quality and use-ability. Now I take two cameras with me, the G11 and the DP1x. I almost always go for the Sigma first especially for important images where quality is my number one concern.
Below are my review ratings for the Sigma DP1x
Image Quality 9/10
Build Quality 8/10
LCD and Image Display 6/10
Price 6/10 ($800 MSRP)
Total = 7.4/10