Sigma Puts Its Incredible Image Sensor Technology Into Weird Cameras

Sigma Puts Its Incredible Image Sensor Technology Into Weird Cameras

Released over the last couple of years, Sigma’s three DP Merrill cameras were clumsy boxes built around an amazing image sensor matched to prime lenses at three different focal lengths. They took amazing photos, but they were also kind of frustrating to use. Now the cameras are getting a complete revamp, including a new image sensor and a wacky looking new body.

The new Sigma dp Quattro cameras come in three different models, just like the old DP Merrill line: dp1 (28mm equivalent lens), dp2 (45mm equivalent lens) and dp3 (75mm equivalent lens). As before, matching the lenses exactly to the the camera and sensor allows Sigma to fine tune the performance, which is what gave the DP Merrill line its awesome sharpness.

From the exterior, it appears as though Sigma has taken pains to overhaul the slab-like camera design it trotted out before with a new, odd-looking shape that sort of resembles the long cubic rectangles that we used to feed 110 film cartridges into. But though the new longer design looks more compact, or at least more manageable than before, it’s actually larger. The exact dimensions vary depending on the focal length of the fixed lenses but consider the specs of the dp2 Quattro vs the DP2 Merrill: The new camera measures 16.3cm x 6.6cm x 8.6cm inches whereas its predecessor came in at 12.2cm x 6.6cm x 5.8cm. (Weight is still TBD).

So new camera is bigger than before, but it’s hard to say what effect that will have on shooting with the camera. On the one hand, the trend on large-sensor compacts with fixed lenses has been, well, compactness. The old Sigma DP Merrills weren’t pocketable to begin with. If you used one, it was because of the superior sensor and glass. The new camera is even less prtable, but at least it has something of a grip design, and we have trouble believing the ergonomics could be any worse than before.

At the core of Sigma’s cameras is the company’s Foveon X3 image sensor technology, which uses stacked photodiode layers, one for each of the primary colours. On the Merrill cameras, this translated to three 15.4-megapixel layers on at an APS-C size format (23.5 × 15.7mm) sensor. Sigma advertised this as “46-megapixels”, which was a bit misleading.

Sigma’s new Quattro cameras are so named — we think, anyway — because the redesigned Foveon X3 image sensor is now stacked in four layers adding up to 39-megapixels. Sigma inexplicably claims that this is 30 per cent higher resolution than before. We asked Sigma to elaborate what they meant by this, but the company declined to provide more information prior to the dp Quattro announcement. We’ll update when we learn more. (If you know more, please educate us!)

We have high hopes for the sensor and optics given what we’ve seen from Sigma before. Here’s the wild card: We’re interested t see what sort of upgrade Sigma has made to the cameras guts to make it the kind of snappy powerful machine that most photographers expect these days. Following my review of the Sigma DP2 Merrill back in 2012, I met with Sigma reps who argued that the camera wasn’t supposed to be a fast consumer camera — that the whole point was that you would take your time on every photo, hopefully focusing manually, so that speedy performance didn’t matter. In other words, Sigma is trying to make a different kind of camera. A camera for the serious photogs. There’s something to be said for that argument, sure. But I would also argue that image quality on all digital cameras, and especially on large sensor compacts, has gotten so good that at a certain point even the most anal photographer is going to benefit from a big bump in zip over slivers of improvement on image quality. Sigma’s materials don’t say much about this, although, they do say that the camera only has contrast AF. Most good APS-C cameras these days use a combination of contrast and phase detect autofocus. Is that a bad sign?

As for video, Wi-Fi, or other newfangled features you’ll see on competing cameras these days, forget it.

Sigma says the 28mm equivalent dp2 Quattro will be the first to ship, but it hasn’t offered a price or release date for any of the cameras. If the dp Quattros follow the pattern established by the Merrill line before, the first will start shipping later this year for $US1000. Last time around, the image quality was worth the wait. Let’s hope the handling gets a little polish to match this time.