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?

DP1 “Rangefinder”

20 11 2007

One of the cool things about the Sigma Enigma DP1 is that when you add the optional optical viewfinder and lens hood, it looks a bit like an old 35mm rangefinder camera. And I think it will behave sort of like one too.

Sort of…

Leica M7; a real rangefinder

A true rangefinder uses optics and a beam splitter to let you accurately (and manually) focus the lens while looking through the viewfinder (but not the lens itself). This is different from SLR cameras, as they use a mirror and a prism to allow you to see directly through the camera’s lens in order to compose and focus. The main advantages of a rangefinder setup is that it is significantly smaller and quieter, making for more compact camera designs. On the other hand, the rangefinder focusing takes some getting used to. (Both types are explained rather nicely here.)

It’s that small and compact design that makes some people refer to small digital cameras with optical viewfinders as “rangefinder” cameras. However, this is incorrect, as those cameras invariably use autofocus, not rangefinder focus, so I will try to avoid using the term.

With regard to the DP1, I’m looking forward to its “rangefinder-like” design because I miss using an optical viewfinder. You can be much more discreet when taking photos if you can just slip the camera up to your eye and click the shutter, as opposed to holding it a foot or two in front of your face with two hands and composing in the LCD. This is particularly so in low light situations, where the light from the screen makes you really stand out.

Sigma DP1 with optical viewfinder
and lens hood

But there is a drawback to this kind of removable optical viewfinder (in the case of the DP1, it slips onto the hotshoe); they generally provide no feedback about camera functions and settings, such as ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. You could argue that those old Leicas didn’t provide that kind of information and it didn’t stop Henri Cartier-Bresson from bagging a few good shots. But HCB could just look at the camera in his hand and see right away what the settings were – because they were done manually, using dials. (And ISO was a function of the film in the camera, not an arbitrary shot-by-shot setting like it is with digital.)

Regardless, I’m really looking forward to the viewfinder; I’m tired of standing there like an idiot with the camera held at arm’s length while I compose in the LCD screen.

Speaking of the LCD screen, this whole fake rangefinder thing is only good if you can turn off the LCD. After all, there’ll be no stealthy shooting if you can’t cut off the glowing screen – which will be particularly irksome when the camera is at eye-level. I’m hoping Sigma has the foresight to add a “screen off” button for exactly that purpose. Ideally it would be a one-click, dedicated switch.

DP1 Caught on Video

10 11 2007

Fans of the Sigma DP1 have likely already seen these videos, both of which were taken a the PMA show in March 2007. But if you haven’t seen them already, here they are.

The first video (3:34) shows a guy from Imaging Resource interviewing a Sigma rep about the DP1. Note that at the end, the rep says it should be available in “April or May of this year” (2007). As if.

The second video (2:19), also taken at the PMA show, has no narration but it includes some captions in Spanish. It shows close ups of the camera in operation, including the optical viewfinder.