My DP2 Quattro Review #sigmaquattro
So I was selected to trial a Sigma DP2 Quattro camera last week. This camera does not go on the market until August. So I put it through it's paces.
Before we begin with my review of the Sigma DP2 Quattro, I must first confess some reviewer bias. I own a Sigme DP2 Merrill, and I love it. I refer to it as my magic camera. This would be like Kai Wong reviewing a Leica. That being said there are some things that I was really hoping for next generation.
In my opinion, these Sigma cameras are unique in the market. Their sensor technology captures absolutely stunning quality images. Some have compared them to medium format quality. However, there are significant drawbacks. You buy one of these cameras for the same reasons you would buy a film camera; not because it is easy but because it is hard and results reward your efforts. These Sigmas require the operator to "tame" them in a similar fashion to Jack White and his broken guitars. They keep you in the process, because you have to focus on every shot and really anticipate the shot...I mean really, really anticipate the shot! And they need tons of light. And sometimes the autfocus has to search. And the software to decode the raw files is slow. And. And. And. Then at the end of effort, the images are so stunning that make you giggle like a little school girl. Seriously, you will. Why? Because they are unbeleivable and you earned those images!
First, I have to say that I really wish Sigma had sent me an email prior to the arrival of the camera to tell me that I was selected because I was preparing for my first gallery show and it was a busy week already. Oh well! I fit in time to play with the new toy.
First, the Quattro batteries are twice the size of the Merrill batteries. This is a good thing because I would usually have to carry at least 3, sometimes 5 batteries, due to the way it ate through batteries like a fat kid does cupcakes. Likewise, the battery metering is something I hoped they worked on. The Merrill would say it was at full power right up until about 5 shots before it was dead. And the cursing ensued...
After going through 2 batteries with the Quattro, I must say that both battery life and metering are greatly improved. Actually, mine seemed to indicate it was dead long before it actually was. It is nice to know there is some emergency juice just in case. I really like the improvements.
So if you know anything about this camera it is probably the shape that you have heard of. The Merrill is a nondescript brick and the Quattro is anything but. It is long and lean. Unfortunately, the ergonomics did not quite work out for me. See I am a rather large American male with large hands. The handle was obviously designed for someone with much smaller hands and I had trouble getting a good grip on it. I also had trouble had trouble getting to the shutter button. It felt awkward. I then handed it to a female friend with much finer hands than I. It fit her hands better, but she too did not necessarily enjoy the shutter button.
Other aspects of the shape are a little baffling as well. The lens barrel is monstrous when you consider the front element is only about 10mm in diameter. It is much bigger than the Merrill's for the same focal length. I just seems like there is a lot of empty space in the barrel. I would like to see an x-ray of what is in there. I am highly curious.
They sent along a lens hood as well with the package. I do not get that hood for the DP2. The front element is so small and the hood is shallow and really wide. I am sure it would shade the lans from any but the most oblique light. Nice thought though. It is probably more appropriate for the upcoming DP1.
For all of the additional real estate offered by the new design, I was surprised to see that the LCD screen was pretty much the same size as the previous generation. Likewise, to my untrained eye the resolution did not look all that much different either. I will leave verification of that up to the experts.
The biggest surprise that came in the package was by far an included Sigma flash. It is a neat little unit and has both manual and TTL modes. The flash is controlled through the camera, which cool and limiting at the same time. I prefer to get my flashes off of the camera, and this unit does not lend itself to anything but saying on the camera.
That distinction is rather important to me because I typically use a radio popper with my Merrill. Something about having it fire three flshes at a time always makes me smile because I know I am doing something that Sigma neither imagined nor intended. I am happy to say that the Quattro can be hacked in the very same way.
However you choose to do it, Foveon cameras need to have some means of additional light. The sensor requires so much light that a flash is almost obligatory. It is a limitation, but again the results are so worth it.
The Image Quality
Now the part that everyone has been waiting for. The IQ. I have included some comparison shots between the Quattro, Merrill, and my Canon 6D.
I am honestly surprised by the results. At full size the sharpness and detail of the images is on par. At 100% crop (that is just how you look Foveon images...they are so sharp) it seems like the Merrill delivers slightly sharper images if you are pixel peeping. Curiously, though, when conveted to 16-bit TIFFs the Quattro files are typically 20MB larger that similar Merrill files (~80MB to ~100MB), which would make you think there is more detail. See the examples below.
From a white balance (WB) and color correctness stand point the Quattro blows the Merrill out of the water. It is dead on pretty much everytime. I got used to always adjusting the WB for my Merrill. Typically the tint was too green. Not so with the Quattro.
Likewise, the autofocus is much improved. The Quattro does serach nearly as much as the Merrill and it is much faster.
One interesting addition to features of the Quattro is the ability to pre-select the tone curve, which I have not seen on any camera that I have used before. Honestly, I never got around to playing with it, but thought that it was of note.
The ISO performance of the Quattro is similar to the previous generation. Sigma evens tells you that the optimal ISO range for the Quattro is between 100-800, which is the same as the Merrill. Disturbingly, if you wander outside of that range for the Quattro larges globs of noise start to appear. Refer to the image below. There is more on the low light performance in the next section.
The Light Performance
Another surpise came when I did a simple test on Aperature Priority mode with identical ISOs and aperature settings to see what shutter speed teh cameras returned. The Quattro regularly returned a shutter speed that was 2/3 to a whole stop slower than the Merrill. Hunh. I thought one of the big improvements with the Quattro was the low light performance. My, albeit amateur test, told me different.
On the other side of the histogram, how does teh camera handle really bright situations. One thing that always bothered me about the Merrill was the aperature based shutter speed. Wide open (f2.8) the fastest shutter speed was 1/1,250th, but the maximum shutter increased to 1/2,000th at f5.6. I never understood it because you need the faster shutter speed at the lower aperature. Unfortunately, this is unchanged in the Quattro. The result is that if you are shooting wide open on bright day you will constantly be hitting the limit or over exposing. I would really like to know what the reasoning or physical limitation is behind this because it seems completly counter intuitive to me.
The File Processing
For those not familiar with the Foveon sensor, it produces massive (50MB+) RAW files. This results in long write times to the memory card and even longer processing times in post. Sigma promised that this would be greatly improved with the Quattro. Without doubt this is biggest improvement in the Quattro. Typically, the Merrill requires at least 10 sec to put an image on the card. With the card that Sigma sent (45MB/s), the Quattro only took 5 seconds, and when I put a 90MB/s card in it that time dropped to 4 seconds. Whoa!
The next step is to convert the RAW files in Sigma's free proprietary software, PhotoPro. To accomodate the Quattro, they just PhotoPro 6. Honestly, I, like most Merrill owners, have wished that Adobe could figure out how to decrypt the Sigma RAW files, so that this additional step would not be in post would not be required. Then again, it is all about how you look it. If you compare it to film, it is rather fast and it adds a little to the suspense before you get to really look at your photos. I like a little suspense in my life.
The Other Details
This section is for people that like to hack their gear. I really like hacking my gear and like figure out ways push it further than the manufacturers had anticipated. So here are some fun hacks that worked on the Merrill and I checked to see if they work on the Quattro. Just like the using multiple flashes.
One very nice touch is the change in filter size to 58mm from 39mm on the last iteration. 58mm is a far more common filter size and now I can use the filters from my Canon lenses on the Quattro without an adapter, which sometimes used to introduce vignetting. My Canon 500D close-up filter now connects directly to the Quattro, and better yet the auto focus still works when I use the 500D. I had to focus manually on the Merrill when I used the 500D. The 500D effectively reduces the minimum focusing distance by half and allows you to get a little closer taking macro pictures. I really wish Sigma had added a Macro mode.
On that note, I really, really wanted the Quattro to have a remote shutter release plug in and bulb mode for long exposures. Unfortunately, there is still such immediately available way to do long exposures. Instead, it is a matter of hacking it and setting the shutter to the maximum (30 seconds) and setting the shutter to a 2 second delay.
The fact is with such a magical sensor, you will want to use in as many situations as possible. Sometimes it requires some significant creativity.
The Quattro represents an interesting step forward for the Foveon cameras. I think the shape is an attempt to set the Quattro apart from the rest of the mirrorless cameras on the market, but the ergonomics may not work for all users. The speed and color accuracy are without a doubt greatly improved. However, I did not see the improvement in low light that I was anticipating and the image detail is slightly less than its predecessor, but it is still incredible.
The Quattro like the Merrill is more of a pro-sumer mirrorless camera. It requires you focus and concentrate when creating images. I recommend this camera for the photographer that needs to fall back in love with his or her craft. It is not a work horse like your DSLR, but offers such a different photographic experience that makes taking pictures feels fresh and new. It makes medium format quality images in a crop sensor body. I do not think it was ever meant to be shot on Auto. It wants you to take control of it.
For all others, the limitations may be too much. I do not see it as enough of an improvment on the Merrill to justify a one to one upgrade. Picking it up in a different focal length is a definite posibility, though. I am looking forward to hearing about the DP1 and DP3 offerings.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my review.