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?

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?

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!

Lenses: Prime vs. Zoom

15 11 2007

One of the contentious features about the DP1 is its 16.6mm (28mm equivalent) prime lens. “Prime” means it is a fixed focal length lens. In other words, no zoom.

No zoom? Yes, it sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But keep in mind that the DP1 is all about technical image quality. That’s why, for example, there’s so much hype about the large Foveon sensor. Many people believe that a prime lens provides better image quality because it doesn’t require all the light-bending (and potentially image corrupting) lens elements that go into zoom lenses.

On the other hand, many people feel that today’s zoom lenses are just as sharp as any prime lens – or, if there is a difference, it is too slight to be noticeable. Plus, there is no doubt that a zoom lens give you more flexibility as a photographer; you can do portraits, streetscapes, and group shots without ever having to change a lens. So why would Sigma choose to lock us down with a 28mm equivalent wide-angle prime?

To find the answer, we need to look at who Sigma is targeting for this camera. Given the (likely) high retail price and the lack of a zoom, Sigma is clearly positioning it as a specialty camera, not a general-purpose point-and-shoot for the casual snapshooter. I believe they’re going after the professional and serious amateurs who want a high quality, compact pocket camera as an adjunct to their DSLRs. It’s for the photographer who wants a small compact for times when the DSLR isn’t available or is not practical. For example, when he or she wants to be inconspicuous while shooting street or candid photographs.

As you probably know, or can surmise, a big part of being a good street or candid photographer is the ability to shoot fast and unobtrusively. Skilled practitioners have developed the ability to compose and frame the image in their mind’s eye before they even raise the camera. Zooming, on the other hand, slows one down – especially with the clumsy motorized zooms that compact point-and-shoot cameras use.

Henri Cartier-Bresson using his Leica with a 50mm prime lens (photo by Jane Bown, 1957)

If you’ve ever seen a master street photographer at work, you’ll know what I mean. Raising the camera and shooting a photograph is as fast and discrete as lifting a finger to scratch an eyebrow. It’s the complete opposite of the loud-mouthed, in-your-face fashion or paparazzi style of photography.

By eliminating the zoom, Sigma seems to be targeting that kind of photographer. It’s no wonder that the DP1 has, even prior to its release, developed a fairly small but very enthusiastic fan base. Some complain that the lens is a bit too wide, at 28mm equivalent, for good street work (after all, most of the great street photography of the 1940s and 50s was shot with 50mm lenses). But if the image quality is as high as promised, there will be plenty of latitude for cropping.

(Click for larger view in new window)

Personally, I’m happy with Sigma’s decision to use a 28mm equivalent lens. Most of my work back in my film days was shot at 28mm. It’s how I see the world. The Sigma DP1 reminds me of the Nikon Coolpix 35mm camera I bought in 1995 when I wanted a pocket camera to complement my FE2 and N90 SLRs. That little guy had a 28mm lens – virtually unheard of at the time for a pocket camera. I took it with me to Italy in 1997 as my only camera, and I bagged some pretty nice shots, including a photograph of two nuns at the coliseum in Rome.

It’s not that I couldn’t have taken that coliseum shot with a zoom lens. But over the course of my two weeks in Italy with just that one fixed-length lens on a tiny pocket camera, I found myself previsualizing everything at 28mm. I wasn’t mentally zooming to compare how it looked at different focal lengths, and more importantly I wasn’t spending time physically zooming.

When the shot of the nuns came together in front of me, I saw it in my mind exactly as it came out – and I had to act fast, as the coliseum was flush with tourists at the time and I had to be ready when there was a break in the crowd.

World Cup Aftermath, Montreal 1994

World Cup Aftermath, Montreal 1994. (Larger version here.)

We don’t always have that luxury, as was the case in Montreal, in 1994 on the day of the final game of the World Cup. It was Brazil vs. Italy, and Brazil won. I just happened to be in Montreal’s Little Italy when I saw the riot cops arrive. Apparently they’d been tipped off that the local Brazilians were coming to taunt the Italians. In the end it was just a bunch of good-natured latin-blooded machismo and bravado, which I think I might have captured with this grab shot of a local Italian-Quebecer who was completely unfazed by the whole thing.

That was shot with a 28mm prime on my Nikon N90. There was no time to zoom or to re-compose. I saw the moment coming together and managed to get the shot just in time, thanks to my prime.