DP1 Inspires LX3… Inspires DP2?

1 03 2009

(Temporarily pressing “Play.”) I started this blog in November 2007, when — like so many others — I was keenly anticipating the arrival of the up-to-then enigmatic DP1. I did a lot of reading, which resulted in a lot of writing, about what to expect when the camera arrived.

Then it arrived.

The story by now is well known. Image quality on the DP1 is outstanding (as expected), but other things are poor. For example, some people don’t like the build quality, and the menus are poorly designed. Then there’s the hotly debated issue of the fixed focal length 28mm (equivalent) lens, with its very slow f4 maximum aperture. Many people argue that if Sigma is going to insist on a prime (i.e., not zoom) lens, then at least make it a fast one.

Finally, there is poor performance in terms of various lag times (shutter lag, auto-focus lag, etc.). That was the deal breaker for me. I cannot abide a slow, unresponsive camera.

Given that a lot of people were talking about the DP1 as a good camera for street photography, slow performance was a deal breaker for a lot of other people too. Some argue that by using all manual settings the camera is reasonably responsive, and I’m inclined to believe it. But still, all that poorness, combined with the very high price (almost $1000 in Canada) meant I abandoned any plans to get a DP1. After all that hype, the response at launch time was lukewarm at best. Reviews were generally bad, and sales were disappointing.

Around that time, I started appreciating the camera I was already using; the somewhat flawed but otherwise delightful Lumix DMC-LX2 (or simply LX2 for short). There had been rumors of an LX3 in the works, so my DP1 anticipation shifted to LX3 anticipation.

Finally, in late summer 2008, the LX3 was announced and then released. What really got my attention was how much Panasonic (the makers of the Lumix brand) were “borrowing” from the DP1’s hype to promote the new camera. It was very clear that the central focus of the LX3 marketing effort was the message “Disappointed by the DP1? The LX3 hits where the DP1 misses.”

Let’s recap the DP1 hype, and compare it with the LX3 message:

  • The DP1 promised outstanding image quality based on a large sensor that used fewer (but more sensitive) pixels.
  • The LX3 was heavily promoted for its new, larger sensor — one that uses fewer pixels than its predecessor. Reviewers went mad over the “less is more” design. This despite the fact that upon closer reading, the new sensor is inconsequentially larger than the previous one — and certainly a lot smaller than the DP1’s — but the fine points were missed by most people. All they heard was “bigger sensor, fewer pixels, just like the DP1!”
  • The DP1 promised a return to rangefinder-style street shooting via its optional clip-on optical viewfinder.
  • The LX3 also delivered an optional clip-on optical viewfinder.
  • The DP1 promised a top quality wide angle (28mm equivalent) lens, and insisted its slow f4 maximum aperture was not an issue.
  • The LX3 delivered a top quality Leica lens that was even wider (24mm equivalent), zoomed “3X,” and most impressively, had a maximum aperture of f2.0 — an unprecedented speed in a compact digital camera.

The bottom line was “we do all the things the DP1 was supposed to do, plus we do the things the DP1 cannot do, at about half the price.” (The LX3 retails at about $550 in Canada.) The response was overwhelming — literally. Panasonic has had trouble keeping up with demand. A plethora of rave reviews has lead to shortages of the camera in Canada, the U.S., and parts of Europe. Stores can’t keep them on the shelves.

If you read my other blog (and look at my photo blog) you’ll know that I bought an LX3 — and I love it. Lag times are acceptable (and, as with the DP1, I can make them disappear almost completely by using manual settings), and although it doesn’t use a Foveon sensor, I’m perfectly happy with the image quality — which improves significantly on its predecessor.

Film festival by blork, on Flickr

I’m loving my LX3!

Around the time that the LX3 came out, Sigma announced that the DP2 was in development. Changes we know we’ll see are a less wide angle lens (supposedly in the range of 40mm equivalent) but faster — f2.8. Apparently there will be modifications to the menus, as well as performance enhancements.

The question I have is this: has Sigma paid any attention to how Panasonic used their failure to enhance their success? And will the improvements in the DP2 reflect that knowledge?

Will Sigma step up and not just correct their mistakes but make the DP2 — and the DP2’s message — so kick-assingly awesome as to steal back some of their own hype? They could start by hammering away at the LX3’s biggest shortcoming; its lack of availability. After all, showing up is at least half the battle.

We’re on the verge of the Photo Marketing Association’s big PMA 2009 trade show. Will the DP2 make an appearance? Will it step up to the DP1’s failings? Will it make a dent in the LX3 demand?



4 07 2008

For the record, this blog is now officially on pause.

There are several reasons why I am suspending (although not necessarily quitting) My DP1:

  1. It’s out there. When I started this blog, the DP1 was an overdue enigma, a highly anticipated great idea that kept slipping its release dates. But now it’s out there, for anyone to see and buy, so the need to rattle the cage has diminished.
  2. Now that it’s out there, a lot of other web sites with a lot more resources and a lot more clout are doing a great job of reviewing and discussing the DP1, making this blog sort of redundant.
  3. Even though it’s out there, I still don’t own one. (More on that below.)

Readers of this blog probably know that I live in Canada, where there doesn’t seem to be a lot of retailers pushing the DP1. Indeed, I had to go to France in order to see one in real life, and even then it was a non-functioning display model in the FNAC store at La Defense in Paris.

When I finally picked up that DP1, tethered as it was, and with a dead battery, I wasn’t sure what to think. After all that anticipation, all that reading and writing, and there I was with a DP1 in my hand. It didn’t feel very different from my Lumix DMC-LX2, actually. About the same size and dimensions, but with a bit more heft and a build quality that seemed more “beta” than refined. I knew I was holding something quirky and special, but by then my desire to actually own one had dwindled.

I admit that I was disappointed with the various reviews of the DP1. Almost unanimously they cheered the image quality but boo’ed the camera’s slow responsiveness and retrograde interface. Truth be told, pixel-peeping image quality is not the most important thing for me. I need a camera that handles well, is quick, and responsive. After all, getting the shot on a 1/1.7 sensor is better than missing the shot on an APS-C Foveon.

I feel like a heretic in my own religion for saying that, but there it is.

There are rumours of a DP2 and even a DP3 coming soon. There are also rumours of a Lumix DMC-LX3 coming out in the autumn of this year. In the meantime, I am still a fan of the DP1, and I applaud Sigma for sticking its neck out and trying something different. But in the end it’s not really the camera for me.

I’d be really happy — over the moon, in fact — if Sigma manages to make a DP2 or DP3 that handles like a Lumix DMC-LX2 but has the image quality of (or even close to) the DP1. That would be heaven for me.

TOP Update of DP1 Review

24 05 2008

Edward Taylor has posted an update to his review of the DP1 that he published on The Online Photographer (TOP) back in April. Now that he’s had more time to work with the camera, he feels he should clarify a few things. The bottom line is that he still feels it is fundamentally flawed in terms of speed and usability, but he says he would buy the camera again because of the outstanding image quality.

As Taylor correctly points out, it is not a “Decisive Moment Digital” nor even, really, a “point and shoot.” It is a departure from the norm, a particular and peculiar camera that the photographer must adapt to. Not unlike a Holga, in fact; both are odd cameras that require a different way of thinking. As Taylor says: “you don’t always need speed. I adapted to its slowness.”

Those who were hoping for an all-purpose camera, or some kind of super camera that would perform miracles will be disappointed. But those who are willing to see it for what it is, and can adapt to its quirks, will be blown away by the image quality.

Speaking of Holgas, I’ve been playing around with one recently. I ran two rolls of 120 through it (the first film I’ve shot in eight years), and I managed to get five or six pretty good “Holgaesque” images, including this one:

Dreamworld Mini

If you’re a pixel peeper you won’t have much to say about that. Ditto if you’re the type who insists on conventional framing and composition. It’s got none of that, but I really like it regardless. In fact, this is the antithesis of the image quality one should expect from a DP1, and I guarantee you the Holga is twenty times slower than the DP1. Yet there it is, and I like it.

And people who like their DP1s really like them too.

By the way, DPReview has published a thorough review of the DP1. Their conclusions are pretty much the same as everyone else’s but with a lot of detailed information to back them up. This is not headline news at MyDP1, because if you’ve been following the DP1 story then you already know about that review. After all, a review from DPReview is pretty much the one to watch for.

Shutterbug Reviews DP1

9 05 2008

George Schaub at Shutterbug has reviewed the DP1, and it is the first time I’ve seen a mainstream review where the reviewer really gets it. Schaub starts the review with an anecdote in which he asks a DP1-toting stranger how he likes the camera, and the stranger says “the picture quality is terrific, although it does make you think.”

There you have it. Aside from image quality, that’s the biggest differentiator with the DP1; it’s a “photographer’s camera” and it demands that you think a little bit about what you’re doing. Some people probably think that’s a bad thing, but as someone who developed my photographic eye long before cameras became “smart” (and, correspondingly, photographers became stupid), I’m enthusiastically in favor of that idea.

No, seriously. Technologies like face recognition and auto fill flash take away from the experience of photography. While it is true that they raise the technical quality of photographs taken by those who know nothing about photography, it also means those people will never actually learn about or understand what they are doing. As more and more photographs are composed and lit according to the machine’s decisions, we become saturated and overwhelmed with a deluge of boring sameness.

Forget that. Take control. Learn! Make your own decisions! The DP1 certainly has some usability flaws, but the best thing to do is keep the settings as simple as possible and learn how to use things like focus lock and exposure lock. Learn, understand, and take back control of the making of your photographs.

Imaging Resource Reviews DP1

4 05 2008

Imaging Resource has reviewed the DP1, and has reached essentially the same conclusions as most other reviewers: great image quality, bad usability.

In brief, here are Imaging Resource’s “pros and cons:”

Pro: Con:
  • Excellent optics, though maximum aperture is a bit slow at f/4
  • Very low barrel distortion
  • Very little chromatic aberration
  • Foveon sensor captures smooth, well-defined detail
  • Small camera design is easy to bring along
  • Good button placement
  • Good feel to all buttons and controls
  • Hot shoe for accessory flash or viewfinder
  • 3.77 fps continuous mode (but only 3 frames)
  • RAW software is included, and allows for better quality images with just a few adjustments
  • Unique design, great for the contemplative photographer
  • RAW images taken at ISO 800 look good at 11×14 inches
  • JPEG images are of poor quality, with little consistency from shot to shot
  • Sensitivity tops out at ISO 800
  • Lens cap is a pain to put on, doesn’t work with lens hood
  • Difficult to manual focus without close measurements
  • Not good for Macro photography
  • Changing AF points is too difficult
  • Autofocus is slow
  • Poor low light AF performance
  • Lacks built-in optical viewfinder
  • Images are undersaturated by default; increasing saturation does very little
  • Saturation decreases further as ISO increases
  • Incandescent white balance is poor at best, regardless of setting
  • Slow startup and cycle times
  • Camera functions lock while images are saved to card
  • Animated menus slow you down
  • Single focal length limits photographic possibilities
  • Digital zoom blurs due to upsampling
  • Lacks histogram while shooting
  • Pop-up flash is weak
  • No RAW+JPEG option
  • RAW processing software is slow
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Maximum shutter speed varies with aperture
  • No Bulb mode

Full review here.

TIPA: “Best Prestige Camera”

28 04 2008

This year’s European Technical Image Press Award (TIPA) for “Best Prestige Camera” went to the Sigma DP1. I don’t know much about TIPA, or how prestigious those awards are. The blurb that accompanies the announcement on the TIPA web site looks like it was lifted right out a Sigma brochure, which gives the impression than TIPA is little more than a marketing trick:

The Sigma DP1 is the first compact camera with a large sensor, and the one it uses is the same size as that found in the Sigma SD14. The Foveon technology employed gives very high quality images in RAW format at ISO ratings up to 200, though the sensitivity can be increased to ISO 800 if needed. Thanks to the fixed-focal-length 28mm f/4 lens, images produced by the DP1 have a quality comparable to some D-SLRs. Elegant, stylish and pleasant to use, the DP1 boasts an external viewfinder and a slick manual focus option for precise control. This luxury compact is a new departure for the digital compact, and reveals a promising line of development for the future.

However, if I put my cynicism aside, this award reinforces the idea that the DP1 is not just a point-and-shoot camera with a big sensor. It is a something very different and unique, with a special appeal.

But I can’t help but wonder if this is the right award for this camera. The title “Best Prestige Camera” and the last line of the award blurb (“This luxury compact…”) imply this is a camera with a broad appeal, if only people could afford it. Sort of like a Porsche or a Rolex. In reality, the DP1 – when understood – has a narrow instead of a broad appeal. It’s almost like a Holga (its image quality opposite) in that it is strange and flawed and limited but it produces beautiful images for those who are inclined to accept and know it for what it is instead of wanting it to be some kind of multi-purpose all-appealing camera.

It’s a quirky camera that appeals to quirky people. While I remain somewhat disillusioned over the DP1 (see my most recent post before this one), I haven’t given up on it entirely. And this award has re-piqued my interest a bit. After all, I can be quirky, but I’m not sure my quirks and the DP1’s quirks line up.

Luminous Landscape Reviews DP1

22 04 2008

Luminous Landscape has reviewed the DP1, coming to many of the same conclusions that we saw with the TOP (The Online Photographer) review last week. Namely, that the camera feels nice in the hand, takes outstanding photographs, but is slow to use and ergonomically annoying in terms of menu layout and access to functions.

Hmm. The bloom is definitely coming off the rose when it comes to my view of the DP1. I would still like to try one out, and I suspect I would really like it if I had one, but as a priority it is rapidly fading. This is due to a number of things, including the fact that I have become re-infatuated with my Lumix DMC-LX2, despite it’s lousy sensor.

I’ve been using manual focus on the LX2 a lot lately, where it is quite nicely integrated. You switch from auto to manual by sliding a button on the lens barrel (no poking through menus), and there is an on-screen magnified preview that works reasonably well, and a focus depth indicator. Also, there is very little chance of the focus drifting once it is set (unless you turn the camera off and on again). On the DP1, the focus button apparently moves quite easily, so it can be knocked out of place without you noticing.

The one glitch in LX2 manual focusing involves the toggle you use for focusing; it is the same one you use for setting aperture and shutter speed when in manual, shutter priority, or aperture priority mode. Therefore, when in those modes you can’t manually change focus (or at least I haven’t figured out how), because the toggle controls those other things. I get around this flaw by snapping the camera into P mode, focusing, then snapping back into the other exposure mode. Not exactly elegant.

Go Habs! I’m learning to love my DMC-LX2 all over again.

I should mention that I firmly believe it is the photographer that makes the photograph, not the camera. However, the photographer needs to know and understand his or her equipment, and feel “at one” with it in order to make the kind of photographs he or she wants to. You don’t get that very much with badly designed or ergonomically challenging cameras. If you’re always fighting with menus, or if you’re never sure what the camera is “thinking,” or how it might butt in on your process by imposing a limitation or a setting other than what you want, or if it is just too damn slow to respond at the rate that you are, then you won’t be happy and your photographs will suffer.

Besides all these usability issues, there are a number of personal factors weighing on my budget; medical things and other demands that take a higher priority.

I haven’t given up on this camera yet. But my interest is definitely waning, at least for now.

DP1 Reviewed at TOP (The Online Photographer)

10 04 2008

The Online Photographer has posted a long and impressive review of the DP1 (Sigma DP1: The Future Meets the Past), written by Edward Taylor. The gist of it is that Taylor really likes the camera, but laments that it’s a step backwards with regards to a few usability issues; namely, its slowness. He also describes the auto-exposure as “hit or miss,” and comments on the lack of image stabilization, macro, auto flash, and built-in optical viewfinder.

On the other hand, to no one’s surprise, he has really good things to say about IQ (image quality):

Can this little camera actually produce an image that is comparable to a DSLR? The answer is YES. I have never used a P&S camera that has produced images as “DSLR like” as this camera’s. I think the images compare well to images from your average consumer-grade DSLR. (Those cameras produce great images). It would be unfair to compare the DP1 to a Canon 1DsMKIII or a Nikon D3.

He further describes the images from the Foveon sensor as “smooth and luxurious.”

Personally, I am really turned off by the problems with speed. I really need for my camera to respond when I want it to respond. I do not want to go back to 2002, where focus lag, shutter lag, and all those other lags made me miss shot after shot because the camera was fiddling with itself while the scene in front of it dissipated. As Taylor says:

…let me make it clear that the DP1 is not and never could be what is referred to on TOP as a DMD (Decisive Moment Camera). Why? Because it is slow.

On the other hand, just when I’m ready to give up on the DP1, I read this, farther down in the review:

In my opinion, despite all the limitations, the Sigma DP1 can produce the best images of any small, light weight P&S camera that I have ever seen or used—and not by a small margin. Even at ISO 800, it produces results that are unimaginable with other P&S cameras at any ISO.

Still, I need to remember what my priorities are. Yes, I want the best possible image quality. But I demand responsiveness. I will not stand for a sluggish camera.

Unfortunately, these speed problems are probably beyond what can be fixed with firmware. That leaves me wondering if the DP1 and I have much of a future together.

Update: After I wrote this post I went for a walk with my Lumix DMC-LX2. I set it on manual focus and wide angle (28mm-e), and did some “from the hip” shots as I walked. I never know what I’m going to get when I do this, and most of the time it’s not great. But when I saw this guy looking up in the air as he spoke on his mobile, I just turned the camera and clicked. I think it’s a pretty cool shot. But would I have got it with the DP1? (Andrew, in the comments, thinks “yes.”)

What\'s up?

Sigma DP1 Firmware Upgrade

9 04 2008

Sigma has announced a firmware and software upgrade for the DP1, to be released April 11, 2008. This is encouraging news, as it indicates that Sigma is committed to maintaining the camera and not just tossing it out there to sink or swim.

Compare that with the Lumix DMC-LX2; an excellent camera in many ways, but in definite need of some firmware improvements. Yet Lumix – aka, Panasonic – is notorious for their complete lack of follow-up. There have been no announcements, additional information, nor firmware upgrades for the LX2 since its release in late 2006.

According to the Sigma press release, the DP1 firmware upgrade (to version 1.01), takes care of the following issues:

  • The grid display mode for picture taking is added to the LCD monitor.(It cannot be used in MF mode and movie mode).
  • Improved stability of the camera’s operation.

The software upgrade (to version 2.5 for Windows and 3.2 for Macintosh) includes the following improvements:

  • Improved color reproduction of the SD14’s RAW images.
  • Coloring at the corners of the image generated under a specific condition of the DP1’s RAW image has been improved.
  • (Macintosh version only) When the image’s white balance, captured by a custom white balance, was changed using Sigma Photo Pro3.1 for Macintosh, the image was not able to return to the original condition. This color balance was corrected even if it returned it to “former setting” afterwards.

Those don’t look like very big changes, but again, it is encouraging to see that Sigma appears to be committed to supporting and improving the DP1.

DP1 Processing and Write Speeds

21 03 2008

I have to confess that I was disappointed when I read PopPhoto’s recent DP1 review. PopPhoto gave the DP1 high marks for image quality, which is to be expected, but the review mentioned some timing issues that made me cringe. After all, usability is a major concern for me; if I don’t enjoy using the camera, then I simply won’t use it.

PopPhoto reports that the autofocus system is not very fast, although they aren’t very specific. This brings to mind my old Nikon Coolpix 5400, which was a decent enough camera, but it was slow when focusing and that drove me crazy. Several times I just wanted to throw the camera against a wall when I missed a shot because the AF was slowly going in and out and not making a decision.

But what really stood out for me was PopPhoto’s numbers on the processing and write speeds. The review says it takes about 12 seconds to store a RAW image. 12 seconds! Furthermore, it takes 23 seconds to store a burst of three images.

Those times are completely unacceptable for things like street photography. As I look through my negatives from back in my film days, how may times do I find a good photo that was taken a second or two after one that’s not as good? This happens all the time; you see a scene coming together, you grab a shot, and a second or two later the scene really comes together so you grab another shot – and it’s that second shot that you use.

Woe betide the DP1 user who can only stand there grimacing while the greatest photo opportunity he’s ever seen passes before him as his camera lies limp in his hand, processing an image.

Airgue-Mortes band

This is the second frame; the one before it was boring (click for larger version).

On the other hand, Carl Rytterfalk has published an eight minute YouTube video (and related blog post) in which he implies the camera is faster than the timings we get from PopPhoto. Carl does a three shot RAW burst, and the images process and write in about (by my rough count) 13 seconds. That’s still a long time, but it was a three shot burst. He goes on to say that the wait time for single shots is about four seconds. Still not great, but better than 12 seconds.

I was very discouraged by the PopPhoto review (with regard to timings), but watching Carl use the camera in his video has restored my interest.

Here’s Carl’s YouTube review. Visit his blog for further details and discussion.

Update! In a later blog post, Carl gives some more precise numbers, using a slow SD card and a fast one. What a difference! 10 seconds with the slow card and 2.5 seconds with the fast one!