Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sigma DP2 Merrill: A Real World Review

Introduction

The Sigma DP2 Merrill is the best DP yet.  We need to get that out of the way right off the bat.  I assume the DP1 Merrill is better for some who prefer its wider angle lens, but other than the lens I think the cameras are the same.  Both cameras share the latest Foveon sensor and that is what makes this camera glorious.  If you want awesome image quality in a small camera and can live with a prime rather than zoom lens (but a great prime lens!), long write times (during which you can keep shooting), slow and time-consuming RAW conversion software (that nevertheless produces outstanding pictures), and you shoot primarily in decent lighting, then this camera definitely should be one the short list of those you consider.

At 4.8' wide by 2.6' tall by 2.3' deep with a weigh of 11.6 oz., the camera is a little bigger than the DP2x (4.5' x 2.3' x 2.2' weighing 9.2 oz.)  It feels good and bit more substantial in your hand.  Like its forebears it is metal clad and well built. It's Foveon sensor has about 3 times the pixels of the older DPs as well - Sigma claims 46 Mp, detractors say it is more like 15.3 Mp.  Comparing Foveon megapixels to megapixels from other cameras that all use Bayer patterns is like comparing apples and oranges because they work in different ways.  I discussed this in more depth here a couple of years ago.  Let's just say that this camera captures an incredible amount of detail.

As I was going into this review one of my concerns was whether the 30mm lens (45mm equivalent as Foveons are APS-C sized) would be up to the sensor.  No worries there - the lens is superb, and is even sharp wide open at f2.8.  With a 9 bladed aperture, the bokeh is outstanding too.  In fact, the combination of sharpness from the lens and sensor with creamy out-of-focus areas is really striking.


Also, for the first time in a DP camera, this model sports a competitive 3 inch LCD screen with 920,000 pixels.  Way better than the 230,000 screen that has graced the prior models.  And, just as important as the increased resolution is "viewability" of this screen - it is bright and apparently has some sort of anti-glare coating that actually makes it usable on sunny days.  In fact I'm going to say that this single change improves the usability over prior DPs more than any other development.

You can see all the specs here on Sigma's website.

Controls and Settings

DPs are minimalist tools - no goofy JPEG conversion modes to simulate toy cameras, no "portrait" or "landscape" settings - it is a camera designed for shooting RAW.  If you aren't willing to put in the time to convert RAW files on Sigma's software (more on that later), then you are missing the primary point of getting this camera.

The "power" button is in the middle of the top of the camera. To it's right is the "Mode" button.  Press it and spin that big quality wheel beside it that surrounds the shutter button to pick your "mode" on the LCD screen.  Your choices include Manual, Shutter priority, Aperture priorty, Program, and Custom 1, 2 & 3 for saving whatever custom settings you prefer.  If you don't already know what all of that means you should pick the P.  Better yet, you should probably pick a different camera unless you are committed in your soul to really learning the craft of photography.  You can also pick a movie mode but it is limited to 640 x 480 (VGA) quality so that is pretty pointless.  

The back has buttons you should already know because they are pretty standard with the exception of the QS button.  That pulls up 2 screens of "Quick Selections."  You can choose 4 adjustments to access in these but the default works pretty well - bring up ISO, metering mode, Single/Continuous frames with timer option, and flash options in the first screen.  Pushing the QS button again brings up a screen with white balance, Jpeg quality options, some color intensity options, and file types (I kept this on RAW + JPG so I didn't deal much with the options on the second screen).

One the options in the menu system is to shoot auto-focus + manual.  This works pretty well.  If the camera is struggling with focusing in low light, low contrast situations, you can turn the focusing ring on the lens (yes, it has a focusing ring!) and the LCD immediately zooms so you can focus on your subject.  If you press the Focus button on the back a small distance scale appears on the screen to tell you how far away you have focused.  You can select feet or meters for the scale. Very handy in the right circumstances.

All of the controls have a nice, firm, quality feel.  Really everything about this camera is very well built and I found the controls and the menu system to be quite intuitive after just a little use.


Real World Use

In the real world, this camera is easy to use - assuming your real world is outdoors during daylight hours!  Mine is, by and large.  Most of my photography takes place early in the morning, often under a thick cloud of fog.  The DP2 Merrill focuses competently and accurately, and the image quality is outstanding up to ISO 400.  Even without image stabilization I only ruined a couple of shots through camera shake - but beware shutter speeds less than 1/60 of a second.  The sharp lens and high resolution sensor quickly reveal any motion during picture taking.  

The camera comes with two batteries.  For a reason.  I've read others who have said they only got about 100 pictures taken before the first battery died.  I don't think I've ever got that many, but then I tend to take only a few pictures at a time and move on so there is probably lots of energy spent in starting up and shutting down the camera.  I have averaged in the high 80s per battery.  Wow!  But, like I said, the camera comes with 2 batteries and so you should always have the second one with you when you are out and about.

As mentioned earlier, the LCD screen if clear and visible in almost all shooting situations.  Here are some "sunny time" shots.













As I noted in an earlier post, 100% crops at low ISO are amazing on the screen.

The pictures from foggy mornings, often shot at ISO 400, are also excellent.

















Although not a macro lens, you can get close enough to most flowers for effective shots and the combination of sharpness and bokeh is pretty impressive at f2.8.





Due to its small size, the DP2 Merrill can be a camera you have with you most of the time.


Why do my wife and daughter look like this on Sunday mornings?


And I look like this?

In the Digital Darkroom

Once you have finished taking pictures in the field, the fun is just beginning because you have a lengthy process ahead of yourself working up those gems you shot.  First of all, as of right now and apparently for the foreseeable future the only software on the planet that will convert RAW files from the Foveon Merrill sensor is Sigma's own Photo Pro 5.  Despite its name, this definitely is not a program most "pros" would choose.  It is slow and clunky, although easy and straightforward to use.  You can't crop or really do anything except on a global basis for each picture.  But there are sliders for adjusting exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights, saturation, sharpness, and white balance.  There is a wheel for making color adjustments, a "fill light" slider that works well in bringing up shadow details, as well as options for noise reduction and chromatic aberration correction.  But 95% of the time I just set it to "auto" correct the RAW image and exported the result as a 16 bit TIFF file which I then imported into Lightroom.  Those files seldom needed any further refinement and I mostly used Lightroom as the springboard to convert pictures to black and white (you were wondering when I was going to mention that, weren't you?) in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Although there is some noise visible before Photo Pro does its thing, even at ISO 400, automatically corrected files look very, very good, allowing nice indoor pictures by window light at f2.8.



By ISO 800 there is not only noise but some funky color spots, though Photo Pro 5 does a decent job of taming the problems.


But by ISO 1600, "color creep" is too bad for most uses.



Note the weird colors in my daughter's hair and on her neck here.

Of course, it's better in black and white!



Yes, there are more steps than most of us spoiled digital photogs are used to taking, but before you start whining and bellyaching you should know that a good number of primarily film shooters read this site and this whole routine is still much shorter and less time consuming than theirs.  So try to not embarrass yourself.  You either find the results worth the extra work or you don't.

Here are a few more black and white pictures that were processed in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.












There is a huge amount of clear detail in files from this camera and they make incredible "straight" pictures as well as stand up well to extensive torture, um, I mean manipulation.


Conclusion

The Sigma DP2 Merrill is a wonderful camera.  Not a perfect camera.  But when used within its limitations by a photographer with reasonable care and patience, it is capable of outstanding results that will hold up not just when posting to the web, but when making enormous prints.  At low ISOs the color accuracy and detail and acutance/micro-contrast is mind blowing, especially in light of the size of the camera.

Yes, its pictures are grand - but is it worth a grand (as it is presently retailing just below the $1000 mark here in the U.S.)?  Yes!  And no.  If you are going to use it regularly it is easily worth that.   And if you take the kinds of pictures I have posted with this review, then I think you will use this camera regularly.  It is capable of world class photos and fits comfortably in the palm of your hand.  On the other hand, if you need (or want) a versatile camera, good ISO performance, excellent auto focusing, a zoom lens, or fast and easy processing of images, then you should keep moving because this camera is not for you and you will never use or appreciate its full potential.

Finally, if you want to see my previous posts about this camera, they are here.

Hey, if you like this review and buy this camera because of it, please consider purchasing it through B&H Photo and Video using the link at the top right hand corner of this page.  This site will earn a commission and the price is the same.  Thanks!

36 comments:

  1. A helpful review, especially about bokeh. The shots with fog are illuminating, too. I assume the red leaf shot in illustration of bokeh was at f/2.8.


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    1. Thank you Charles. And yes, I overlooked putting in that detail but it was at f2.8.

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  2. Great review of a great camera, Jeff. And as always, companioned by wonderful images. From my point of view, the DP2M is definitely a camera you need to spend time to master it. A camera to get used to, and ideal for slow, contemplative photography. And while the Foveon sensor produces state of the art color files, I'm primarely impressed with the black and white images I can create from these files. Not only are they incredible rich in tones, they also provide detail at no end. I have never before experienced so rich files from a digital camera, not even from my M9 with top Leica glass. And speaking about glass, as you mentioned, the Sigma lens is extremely sharp and the perfect companion for DP2M's Foveon sensor. Sigma has a clear winner here, one that will travel with me on a daily basis for some time to go. Have you ordered your DP2M already?

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    1. Thank you Markus. I have not ordered mine yet - but only because I am not sure that I need this much resolution as I tend to like small prints most of the time, and because I am thinking of shooting some film. :)

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  3. Hey Jeff. Great review. I like your pictures and I'm very impressed by this camera. I was kind of undecided, but your review convinced me to go for it. keep up the excellent work.

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  4. Great review, Jeff! It's an appealing camera, for sure. Believe it or not, I think my biggest hangup is the battery life. I know they include two, but I'm always forgetting to charge batteries, and I think it could be painful for me.

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    1. Thanks Amin! The battery life is definitely sub-par. I always remembered to have the spare in my pocket but this is definitely one of the oddities about the camera.

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  5. Beautiful photos and post. I don't care that much about the battery life. I like to take photos slowly and stuff to enjoy it all more.
    Even with my Fujifilm X100 I can walk around for week before the battery runs out. Some reviews said that they could not even get thru one day with it.
    This Sigma looks something real special, but somewhere I feel that there is nothing it would do more than my X100 for how I use my cameras :)
    Mabey some day, if I start printing more.
    Thank You.

    Tenisd.

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    1. Thank you. You bring up a good point I think - one is unlikely to see the full benefit of using this camera unless they print often. But then they can print really large if they want.

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  6. I've had the DP1 and DP2 Merrill cameras for a week now and have never seen image quality as good as this. I made a 1x1 meter print of a photo taken with the DP2 Merrill and it is very, very sharp. I haven't used a D800 or D800E, so I cannot compare to that, but my previous camera was a Leica M9-P with 35 and 50mm Summicron and I must say I prefer the Sigma's as far as image quality is concerned. Yes, the camera is slow to write the RAW files to the card, but for my type of photography - landscapes, portraits - I don't need a fast camera. It is truly remarkable how Sigma was able to create these < 400 gram cameras that can be used professionally. I recommend them without hesitation.

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  7. Great review and some wonderful pictures. I agree with the point about the workflow compared to film. Most of my activity recently has been MF film based. Using a DP2M is a breeze in comparison. A camera which more than rewards careful and considerate use. My first 30x20 prints have detail and luminance which put easily compete with MF film.

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  8. Hey from Australia. Im an original Dp2 owner, so im looking forward to the advancements on the Merrill. Love you blog and some great shots there.

    Duncan
    Australia

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    1. Thank you for your kind words Ron, Louis and Duncan.

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  9. Hi Jeff, I've been addicted to both DP Merrill's for one and a half weeks now. I was wondering which Color Mode you use... Standard or, as I read elsewhere on the net as recommended, Neutral? I actually prefer Vivid the most, but that's just because I like to go over the top with colors... :-) My only disappointment until now is not the extremely short battery life (dead after 30-40 photos if you use the screen a lot, like I do), but that batteries unfortunately are not available (yet) from my Sigma web shop... sigmabenelux.com. Your blog is great, Jeff! I'm looking forward to reading more about your experiences with these wonderful Sigma cameras.

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    1. Ron, I've always shot in standard. I guess that since I shot everything in RAW I figured that choice didn't make any difference, although I may be wrong on that. Thanks for liking my little blog. I have been having trouble posting on it as much as I would like due to a lot of work in my "real" job, but I do enjoy it when I have the time. :)

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  10. John H. Seidel sent me an email about a problem getting his comment to post. I do moderate and approve comments but his has never appeared for moderation so I don't know what happened. So, if anyone is having any problems posting comments please email me as Mr. Seidel has. Also, as he had some pertinent information to share, here is the text of his email:

    Hi, Jeff.
    Thanks for your review of the Sigma dp2 Merrill.
    I tried to post a comment and when I hit the 'publish' button, my post disappeared. Do you check them before they go online? Or has it just gone away for some reason.

    The post I left was to thank you and to tell Ron that Michael Reichmann at Luminous Landscape (review http://www.luminous-landscape.com/reviews/cameras/sigma_dp2m_review.shtml) says that a Ricoh battery is the same. It might be worth a look around on the web to see what people are doing with the Ricoh battery.

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    1. I would add that Michael Reichmann's review is interesting and entertaining reading as well - very much worthwhile for anyone considering this camera.

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  11. Hi Jeff!
    Thanks a lot for a wonderful review on DP2 Merrill! I have Fuji X100 and X-Pro1 at the moment and have been thinking to add a new camera with a fixed prime lens. One great option would be the DP2 M and now even more after reading your review. Fantastic shots and very nice blog.

    Greetings from Finland!

    Jonne

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  12. Yet more wonderful files from the DP2M. I'm beginning to recognise an indefinable 'look' to all the photographs I see posted from this camera, its extremely attractive to me, I can see a DP2M at some point in my future.

    Chris Searle

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  13. Forget the color of the camera - I'm more impressed with the shots themselves. I have to admit, that camera can probably give any of my leica cameras a run for their money.

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  14. With low iso's the colours are beautiful. Very nice pictures, I own one myself. I am an Sigma DP enthusiast, my first one was the DP1. The "old" ones are still amazing, the Merrill is out of this world. L lenses and a Canon 1DsMarkIII full frame are not able to produce this kind of details.

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  15. The results produced by this camera can be easily compared with the ones of medium format digital cameras (Phase One). I have seen this comparison in the Luminous Landscape review of this camera.
    When I shoot it I have the medium or large format in mind. Patience and again patience. I fell like Atget lugging around a view camera and a tripod and taking pictures of city landscapes.
    I have no complaints about this camera because my hopes are only for excellent picture quality and not for a tool to serve every possible light condition and situation. Being able to have a small black box in my bag that delivers medium format results in the right conditions is just hard to imagine, though true and heartwarming. Alpa + Phase One crumbled in a small black brick....with a lens (and what a lens that is).

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    1. I think you have the right approach. If one thinks of it as a medium format camera in a small package then I don't know how they could help but be happy with this camera. Thanks for your comment!

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  16. I loved your review. All of the odd quirks that you'd think Sigma would address and fix are kind of a pain, but the quality of the file makes this an extremely different beast from all of the digital cameras currently out there. It's the type of camera you would use like a film camera. Slow and purposeful. That would be the only way I'd bring this camera, if I were purposely looking for those large print shots. If I want candids, I can always carry my D-Lux 4, which I still do. As the world goes crazy over upgrading, and I've been caught in it, it's nice to know that this Sigma camera overall delivers the best pictures if you take the time. I kind of like that challenge and think I will be buying one soon. Now which one to choose? Oh boy. That's tough.

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  17. I have the original dp2, it's my fave cam, I will soon order the Merrill. Great review, lovely photos.

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  18. I enjoyed your review. Great little camera. Thank you°

    Klaush

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  19. Solid review and some fine shots to back it up (I particularly liked the contrail reflection in the RR puddle). Those crisp B&W shots remind me of an M3 + old glass. I've had this camera + accessories + new Macbook in my B&H cart for the last month. I'll be sure to use your link and re-cart everything before purchasing.

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    1. Thank you very much, whoever you are. :)

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  20. Thank you for your review and for the great images. I have been thinking about purchasing the DP2M for a while now. As I looked at your images, I saw that the picture of the dog has some heavy green edges. Do you know if this is a common problem or does it appear only under some specific shooting circumstances? I have also heard of color banding in smooth transition of colors, have you got any experience of that? Hope to get your reply sir, in the meantime thanks again for the great review.

    Luca

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    1. Luca

      The DP2-M struggles in many ways at ISOs above 400. Color fringing, banding, colors that are just plain and simple inaccurate, and noise are all problems that pop up. I didn't use the camera enough to learn when to expect what. It definitely works betters in black and white conversions at high ISO than it does in color. At lower ISOs however, pictures are amazing.

      Jeff

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  21. I bought a DP2 merrill and after a day of testing it I am sending it back, I really don't like it at all.
    The reason is not its slow operation, poor ISO, lack of aperture support or poor battery life which I was all well aware of but actually the images it produces.

    At first my jaw dropped like anyones will when viewing the full size RAW files, the colors are rich and accurate and the detail is absolutely incredible.
    While everyone is crazy about it I realize it is not suited to any style of photography and just don't work for me at all.
    I bought the camera because I loved the colors and the fantastic sense of volume you can get with it, the problem is that you'll get this contrast even in the detail so every detail is magnified, close or far away unless you play with depth of field. I feel it is way over the top.
    Let me specify that for landscape photography, portrait (with dof), macro etc... basically all types you can see in this review this won't be an issue and most probably a strength to many photographers.
    My style is street photography not necessarily centered on characters, and I like a clear composition so the eye of the viewer is well directed, then it is very hard to achieve with this camera. The overwhelming detail kind of loses the eye of the viewer and the image strength in my opinion.
    Well its just my drop of criticism in a ocean of praises, but I am sure many people could relate to my experience and be disappointed.

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    1. Thank you for your insights. The camera probably is best suited for subjects where maximum detail is wanted.

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  22. Cheers and well done for the review and your beautiful daughter too! I'm getting the DP3 for professional portrait use in the studio, there the flaws of this camera simply do not matter and the DP1 Merrill (actually have a DP1 for training) I will get for my personal use, since I come from 8x10, I have the patience and the skills to use this camera as it should be used, means tripod, 100 ASA and frame the picture before even grab the camera. Keep on!

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  23. Thank you Jeff for your honest review. Have been using the now old original DP2 and very pleased with the images it faithfully reproduced despite its moans and groans that came with the package it has served me well so with this in mind plus your review of the new DP2M will seriously consider buying the DP2M as i believe the extras purchased for my DP 2 will also fit the new model.

    Now we have the DP3M entering the frame any thoughts on this please ?.

    Derek.

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  24. Your story and others' inspired me to get one. DP2 Merrill. I got mine today and this thing resolves more detail on trees on a mountain from 2 miles away than my 300mm Nikkor telephoto. A tripod is a must though for these distant landscape shots.

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