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.

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?

What’s The Big Deal With Foveon Sensors?

13 11 2007

One of the big selling points of the Sigma DP1 is its Foveon sensor. Why, you may ask, is that such a big deal? What follows is the short answer. (If you want the long answer, start Googling.)

Foveon is a company that makes sensors for digital cameras. The Sigma DP1 uses the Foveon X3 sensor, which is also found in larger cameras such as the highly anticipated and well received new Sigma SD-14 DSLR. Before we get into the specifics of the Foveon X3, what follows is a bit of background information.

There are basically two types of digital camera sensor; CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) and CCD (charge-coupled device). Each type has its advantages and disadvantages, which can be summarized as follows:

  • CCD sensors typically produce less “noise;”
  • CCD sensors typically are more light-sensitive;
  • CMOS sensors use far less power (up to 100 times less);
  • CMOS sensors cost less to produce.

Both types of sensor are currently in use, but CMOS seems to be gaining in popularity, due largely to market pressures to drive the cost of cameras down and to design for long battery life. Also, with evolving technologies, some people claim that the sensitivity and noise issues associated with CMOS sensors are becoming less apparent.

All that said, the Foveon X3 sensor that will be used in the Sigma DP1 is a CMOS sensor. In short, that means good battery life and a lower price (as if… – the DP1 will not be cheap). However, there is another factor that sets it apart from both CCD and other CMOS sensors. Without getting into a lot of technical details, suffice to say that the Foveon X3 uses a different array of photosensitive diodes on the sensor; an array that is said to provide better light sensitivity and image quality by mimicking color negative film in that the red, green, and blue (RGB) color sensitive pixels lie stacked on top of each other, in layers, instead of spread on a single layer as is found in conventional, mosaic sensors.

Foveon vs. Conventional Sensors

Conventional sensors (both CMOS and CCD) use what’s called the Bayer filter array. According to this Wikipedia entry, the differences between the Foveon X3 and Bayer array sensors can be summarized as follows:

In the Bayer sensor, each photosite in the array consists of a single light sensor (either CMOS or CCD) that, as a result of filtration, is exposed to only one of the three primary colors, red, green, or blue. Constructing a full color image from a Bayer sensor requires demosaicing, an interpolative process in which the output pixel associated with each photosite is assigned an RGB value based on the level of red, green, and blue reported by those photosites adjacent to it. The Foveon X3 sensor creates its RGB color output for each photosite by combining the outputs of each of the stacked photodiodes at each of its photosites. This operational difference results in several significant consequences.

In the case of the Foveon array, the consequences are essentially:

  • Color artifacts normally associated with Bayer sensors are eliminated.
  • Light sensitivity is increased (although color noise may also be increased in low light situations).

Here’s another view of the differences:

Foveon vs. Conventional Sensors

In this illustration you can see that with the Foveon X3 array, there are actually three pixels in each location (stacked on top of each other). This is tricky, because it can confuse the whole pixel count issue, which is highly over-rated anyway. In short, the DP1 bills itself as a 14 megapixel camera, but you need to divide that by three to arrive at a real sense of the dimensions of the sensor. In other words, it’s really a 4.6 megapixel camera times three (or, three layers of 4.6 megapixels).

Wait a sec… before you scream “What? Only 4.6 megapixels?” keep in mind that we’re talking about 4.6 megapixels, times three, on a really big sensor. And remember, as I mention in another post, sensor size is more important than pixel count – you are better off with fewer pixels on a big sensor than lots of pixels on a small sensor. In other words, forget about counting pixels; what counts is sensor size and (according to Foveon), pixel array.

There is still the question of noise on the Foveon X3, since it is a CMOS sensor. That issue is contentious; some reviewers of cameras using those sensors claim the resulting images are noisier than with comparable non-Foveon sensors. However, it is unclear if that is due to the sensor itself, or the image processing algorithm of the camera’s software. This review of the Sigma SD-14 on PopPhoto.com implies the images have very little noise. And remember; the Foveon array supposedly eliminates the color artifacts (a type of noise) that one gets with Bayer array sensors.

When it comes right down to it, the big deal as it pertains to the Sigma DP1 is not so much that it comes with a Foveon X3 sensor as that it comes with a big sensor. A “DSLR-sized” sensor in fact, which is revolutionary for any pocket digital regardless of whether it’s a Foveon or a Bayer array.

After all, when it comes to digital, size does matter. (I’ll say more about relative sensor sizes in a future post.)

Further reading: