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!

Usage Reports; Details Please!

6 03 2008

A number of people are giving brief usage reports on the Sigma DP1, but what seems to be missing are the important details about usability.

For example, Jack Howard gives a “first look” over at PopPhoto in which he mentions using manual focus, but he doesn’t say anything about how manual focus is achieved. He also mentions the widely known fact that you have a choice of using the LCD display or the optional optical viewfinder to compose, but he doesn’t mention if the LCD goes off when using the optical viewfinder.

These may sound like piddling details to some people, but they go to the heart of what serious photographers see as the difference between a gadget and a camera. What we photographers are looking for is usability based on how we really work and react in the field. That generally means a lower reliance on nested menus and endless button pushing to change modes.

Let’s look at manual focus for example. I used to have a Nikon Coolpix 5400. Nice camera, and it included a manual focus feature, but that feature was completely unusable. You had to hold down one button while rolling a command dial with a different finger, all while trying to compose your shot. It was terrible and I never used it.

On the other hand, I currently use a Lumix DMC LX2, a very well designed compact camera. To use manual focus, I flick a physical switch on the lens barrel to enter manual focus mode, then I use my thumb to move a little joystick on the back. All the while, the screen shows a close up of the center zone so I can see the focus, plus there’s a bar on the side that displays the depth of focus. It’s very easy to use, requires only one finger, and involves no pecking through menus. I can go back to autofocus with one flick of my finger. As a result, I use manual focus fairly often, as I did when shooting my nephew’s basketball game and I wanted to pre-focus in order to reduce lag time.

Manual focus helped me get this shot.

So how about the DP1? Is using manual focus as effortless as it is with the LX2? (I doubt it, as the DP1 doesn’t have a physical switch for changing focus mode.)

Then there’s the issue about the LCD when using the optical viewfinder. It makes sense that you should be able to turn off the LCD. No, it is imperative that you should be able to turn off the LCD. If you’ve ever tried to be inconspicuous with a compact digital – especially in low light – you know how important it is to turn off that big glowing light. With the optical viewfinder, the LCD isn’t necessary, and in some shooting situations you would really, really want it to be dark.

But just because something makes sense, doesn’t mean they build it that way. Also, there’s the question of how easy it is to turn off the LCD; does it go off automatically when you mount the optical viewfinder? (I hope not, as there may be times when you want both.) Can you turn it off with a flick of your finger, or do you have to peck your way through a nest of menu items?

We need to know! Why isn’t anyone telling us?

Sample Photos Coming Online

5 03 2008

Now that the DP1 is on the market, real-world sample images are starting to show up in various places. Among the most interesting I’ve seen are by Carl Rytterfalk. You can see them, along with descriptions of his first few days with the DP1 on his blog (day one, day two, mixed light). Images there link back to the full size ones, as hosted on Flickr.

I must admit, I’m very impressed by the image quality I’m seeing!

DP1 Has 16:9 Mode

28 02 2008

On the first day of the recent PMA 08 show, the Imaging Resource Newsletter published a report of the Sigma DP1’s updated specifications. Given the level of anticipation of the camera’s overdue release, I’m surprised more people haven’t picked up on this. On the other hand, the specification changes were fairly minor. For example, weight went up by ten grams, and the top shutter speed dropped from 1/4000 to 1/2000.

One thing that really grabbed my attention – something I’ve seen no other reference to – is the DP1’s new dual aspect ratio; you can choose between the conventional 3:2 or 16:9.

That won’t mean much to many people, as the 16:9 mode is essentially just an in-camera crop. But it means something to me, because the camera I’ve been using for the past year is the Panasonic Lumix DMC LX2, which has a native 16:9 sensor. With the LX2 I also have the choice of shooting 3:2 or even 4:3, but I find myself leaving it on 16:9 for virtually every shot. I’ve come to love the wide, sweeping cinematic view that 16:9 provides, and one of my biggest concerns about switching to the DP1 was that I would miss that cinematic perspective.

I like the 16:9 perspective; very cinematic. (Taken with Lumix DMC LX2.)

You can argue that any camera can give you 16:9 because it’s just a matter of cropping. But just as some people prefer prime lenses over zooms because of the way they can pre-frame the shot in their minds, I prefer shooting in 16:9 instead of cropping to it for the same reason.

In a related note, I should add that the LX2 is a brilliantly designed camera. It makes use of physical switches on the camera for things like setting aspect ratio and focus mode (manual/closeup/auto). I really hate having to scroll through menus, so having dedicated buttons for certain tasks is a good design strategy. It makes for better usability. The only thing the LX2 lacks is a large sensor and an optical viewfinder. If it had those, I wouldn’t even bother thinking about the DP1.

DP1 Available at Amazon

9 02 2008

The Sigma DP1 is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. The price listed is $799.99 U.S., marked down from the “list price” of $999.99. Shipping starts as of March 25, 2008. Unfortunately for Canadians like me, it ships only to addresses within the U.S.

DP1 on Amazon

They also accessories listed, such as the lens hood for $19.99, the optical viewfinder for $149.00 and the EF-140 external flash designed specifically for the DP1 at $79.00.

How long before other online retailers list this camera, with prices? When will it show up in stores?