Sigma is an oddball company. Starting with its cultish following that keeps calling Bayer sensor 'blur' despite the fact that all great photographers of today manage to create great images with it; it is a company of hollow marking claims about Foveon sensor, with optimistically creative pixel count and unclear claims of color accuracy; finally, products such as SD1 which was priced in medium format range, but dropping to 20% of its initial price in mere few months.
But the way I see it, the biggest problem that Sigma has is the lack of significant user base among professional photographers. Even going to Sigma website leaves me perplexed - they could not even pay someone to use their camera? Most images showcased are shot with Sigma lenses, but not Sigma camera. Moreover, they are nice, clean images, but hardly the kind of stuff that captures people imagination.
|Sigma DP2, San Francisco|
But all of these is the evidence of manufacturer that cannot find a clean story to sell their product, rather than a fundamentally bad technology. Plenty of cameras, such as NEX-7, are not widely used by professionals. This does not make them substandard, just not professional grade. Cultish followers and pricing anomalies are even more removed from the question about the true quality of the sensor. And ultimately I and many other users are willing to put-up with bad cameras and clumsy marketing if ultimately there is something to show for the efforts.
About all Sigma cameras
I have used some five Sigma cameras up until now - DP1, DP2, DP2s, SD14 and now DP2 Merrill. I found each one of those cameras awkward but straight forward to use - thanks to very few features. For me no Sigma would be the only camera to have for a shooting occasion. This is not as much for the limited usable ISO range (and limited it is) or lack of advanced features, but because of unpredictable, artifact full images. With most other mirror-less cameras I can predict what the result will look like, but I have never gotten to that state with Sigma. DP2 Merrill is no exception in that sense. Sometimes images will excel your expectation, but more often some crazy things will happen...
|Sigma DP2, Florida|
It would be easy to dismiss Sigma as the company who bet on the wrong technology and lost. I think in the long term this is correct, but at present it is too early to bury. This realization for me came from the analysis of my images that I choose to display on my website. When I count how many of my favorite images were made with Sigma count is about 20%. That is given that I could not have shot more than 1-2% of all the images with Sigmas. This is very unreasonable fraction for a failed brand. The other cameras that I use are not exactly budget point-and-shoots - they are some of the most recommended enthusiast/professional cameras - Nikon D700, Sony NEX-7, Fuji X-Pro1, Olympus E-PL1, Nikon D600 and many more, some 40 cameras in total.
|Sigma DP2, San Francisco|
So camera is odd, featureless, usable only at base ISO - there must be a reason why so many images look good. I find it unhelpful when people talk about '3D effect' but never bother to demonstrate it or even explain exactly what it is.
I think I have an idea what it is that looks good for me, and I will try to be more precise than - oh, that special je ne sais quoin. One very distinct case is color reflections in the water or glass. This sounds insanely specific and of little use, but this is where I see the most of the difference, and when those images come out good they are great. While lights reflected in the water look good with any camera, none look as good as with Sigma. Most of the time reflections loose color and sharpness, but not with Sigma. You get those thin, brightly colored lines as if drawn with a pensile directly on the water. Look at the image from Singapore for example.
|Sigma DP1, Singapore|
In general this ability could be formulated more broadly - ability to retain color of the bright light. My other cameras make color patches white as their intensity increases, while Sigma retains the color and tends to saturate color channel rather than making it white. This property can cause Sigma to blow red channel, but can also be very useful in other settings.
|Sigma DP2 Merrill, Los Altos Hills, CA|
If one wants to have amazing experience with Sigma he/she just needs to seek out opportunities for Sigma to excel, and avoid all other situations where Sigma is likely to fail. In general it could be formulated as a simple set of rules:
- Do not be caught with only Sigma camera on you.
- Always shoot in low light with a tripod.
- There are two usable ISO settings - 100 and 200.
- Always shoot RAW - JPG from Sigma are useless.
- Make sure there are bright colored lights in the picture.
Another application which Sigma sensor seems to be good for is Black & White portraits. It is kind of hard for me to review, since it is very rear for me to shoot B& W. But with few shots that I took, Sigma seems to be pretty good; though to be honest many other cameras are very good at this too, and in general camera is far less important in this case than the subject and lighting.
|Sigma DP2, Stanford, CA|
Impressions from DP2 Merrill
When I opened the camera box I was surprised that it is quite a bit bigger than non-Merrill version. I, just like everyone else, like smaller camera and this was unpleasant surprise, especially that the difference in sensor size is pretty negligible. Camera also became heavier. I hope this is not just a way for Sigma to convey that you are getting more camera for money.
At the same time there was a noticeable improvement in construction, or should I say feel of the construction since I have not opened either one of them. No more odd sounding motor extending the lens. The buttons feel solid and definitive. The control wheel is very comfortable and easy to use. Quality of the monitor is a substantial improvement over the previous models. If old DP cameras had LCD from approximately year 2000 or so, now there was a quantum leap to approximately 2006. Still far, far away from the bight, vivid LCD's of todays cameras.
|Sigma DP2 Merrill, Half Moon Bay, CA|
Merrill inherited excellent quick selection menu of later DP series which makes control, if not close to pro cameras, still quite comfortable to use. Overall menu is also pretty clear thanks to not so sophisticated feature set.
People took an issue with me commenting on Sigma community referring to Bayer sensors as "blurring". The point I was trying to make is not that Sigma is not sharper - it is, which I thought would be clear from me stating that the camera demonstrates "amazing sharpness of Sigma lens/sensor". The per-pixel sharpness of Sigma is quite unique. What I meant is the comments by some Sigma users that they are tired of Bayer blur, making it sound like there is no way to make a decent picture with a Bayer sensor - which I think is insane, given the quality of the best images produced by the rest of photographic community vs Sigma.
Finally, my big disappointment with Sigma not having too many photographers that I would consider exceptional. After all camera is just a tool. If one can shoot a picture with an iPhone that would be great, clearly they can do much more with Sigma cameras. I would love to see someone who is better than me, spends more time behind camera and spends necessary time to learn how to optimize camera's capabilities to consistently produce outstanding images. I remember some 3 years ago I saw a website of a photographer shooting with SD14 whose images I thought were generally exceptional - I was unable to locate him/her since. I do not know why this people are not there...