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Sigma DP1 Merrill Review

Overview by IR Staff
Posted 02/08/2012

Shooter's Report by Eamon Hickey
Posted 05/22/2013

With a major sensor and processor upgrade, the Sigma DP1 Merrill -- along with its near-identical triplets the DP2 Merrill and DP3 Merrill -- were the highest-resolution, fixed-lens rangefinder-style cameras on the planet when announced, according to Sigma. With its 46-megapixel Foveon sensor, the Sigma DP1 Merrill was designed for photographers who not only demand high resolution in a compact body, but also want to shoot with a wide-angle lens. The fixed-lens focal lengths are the primary difference among the three Merrills, and the DP1 features a 28mm equivalent lens designed for street photography and shooting landscapes.

While earlier upgrades to the DP1 and DP2 models were relatively minor, the Sigma DP1 Merrill is an entirely new camera, despite using the same model number as the previous generation. (The "Merrill" in the model name is homage to the late Dick Merrill, a cofounder of Foveon and co-inventor of the Foveon technology.) Incorporating the same 46-megapixel, 14.8 million photosite sensor as Sigma's flagship SD1 digital SLR, the Sigma DP1 Merrill is capable of producing some incredibly sharp and detailed images.

Foveon technology. Like all Sigma cameras, the DP1 Merrill uses the unique three-layer Foveon sensor technology that stacks the red, green and blue pixels on top of each other. The result is a camera with fewer pixel sites than most other cameras, but much higher resolution than you might expect because there's no interpolating needed to combine data from the RGB sensor elements. The lack of interpolation also means exceptional detail rendition and fewer artifacts than found in conventional cameras. However, the trade-off is poor high-ISO sensitivity.

The point of all this description is to clarify and explain the megapixel rating of this camera, and help translate it into a more conventional megapixel basis. Though the official spec for the sensor in the Sigma DP1 Merrill is 46 (effective) megapixels, the number of individual photo sensors integrated on the chip, images output by the camera are only 14.8 megapixels in size (4,704 x 3,136 pixels). In practice, we've found Foveon chips resolve roughly the same detail as Bayer-striped arrays with about 1.5x their photosite count. That is, we thought the 14.8/46 megapixel Foveon sensor in the SD1 (the same as in the DP1 Merrill) resolved about as well as a 20- to 25-megapixel sensor with a conventional layout.

The raw resolution is only part of the story, though: There are clearly fewer small artifacts in the Foveon images (since there's no interpolation), and we thought that images from the Sigma SD1 had more dimensionality (for lack of a better term) than those from cameras with conventional sensors. There are of course endless arguments over resolution in the digital photo world, but our experience with the SD1 gave us high expectations for resolution and image quality from the Sigma DP1 Merrill.

Other upgrades. The massive sensor upgrade is only the tip of the iceberg here. The Sigma DP1 Merrill also received dual TRUE-II processors to handle the increase in data, a new lens, a new body and an all-new control layout. The Sigma DP1 Merrill 's 19mm lens still has a 28mm-equivalent focal length thanks to the larger sensor, but is faster than the DP1x's 16.6mm lens, with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 versus f/4.0 on the previous model.

While it looks smaller in the photos, the Sigma DP1 Merrill is actually slightly bigger and beefier than its predecessor, with dimensions of 4.8 x 2.6 x 2.5 inches, and weighing in at 12.7 ounces without battery and card. (As compared to the DP1x's 4.5" x 2.3" x 2.0" and 8.8 ounces.) That's a modest handful; larger than some smaller Micro Four Thirds models, but considerably smaller than other high-end cameras such as the Fuji X-Pro1. The larger body size does permit a 3-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor, a big step up from the 2.5-inch 230K-dot screen on the earlier model.

The Sigma DP1 Merrill's control layout is new and different from that of the DP1x in a number of respects. Rear-panel controls are largely similar, although the button spacing has changed somewhat, the zoom in/out buttons have vanished, and there's no longer a control wheel under your thumb at the top of the rear panel.

The top deck has changed even more, with no dedicated Mode dial as before, but rather a Mode button, to be used in conjunction with the dial that now surrounds the shutter button, and also serves as the zoom in/out function as well. The other big change is that the earlier internal flash has also been dropped, so flash photography will now involve an external unit attached to the standard hot shoe above the lens.

Connectivity. External connections on the Sigma DP1 Merrill are quite basic and consist of a combined USB/AV port for high speed USB 2.0 data transfer and composite NTSC/PAL video output with monaural audio, and a standard flash hot shoe. No HDMI port is provided.

The camera comes bundled with Sigma Photo Pro software (downloadable from Sigma's website) compatible with both Windows and MAC OS, and is recommended for processing the camera's RAW images.

Battery and storage. The Sigma DP1 Merrill uses a proprietary lithium-ion rechargeable battery (BP-41) that's rated at just 97 shots per charge. For this reason, Sigma includes two batteries in the DP1M retail box, as well as a battery charger (BC-41). An optional SAC-5 AC adapter can be used to power the camera, via a CN-11 dummy battery connector.

The camera captures still images as JPEG and 12-bit RAW (.X3F) files, and can also shoot JPEG+RAW. Movie files are recorded in VGA (640x480) resolution only, in AVI format. The DP1M uses SD or MMC cards for image and video storage, including newer SDHC and SDXC types.

All in all, the Sigma DP1 Merrill presents a straightforward, compact package for high-resolution street photography. Pricing for the Sigma DP1 Merrill was originally set at US$999 at launch in September 2012, but now lists for US$799.

 

Shooting with the Sigma DP1 Merrill

by Eamon Hickey

If Sigma cameras with Foveon sensors have achieved a kind of quasi-mythical status -- and a strong group (note, I'm choosing not to use the word "cult" here) of followers to go along with it -- then don't count me as a convert. However, you might call me a sympathizer. I love the way many low-ISO Foveon images look, but I’m not as forgiving as many of the Foveon faithful seem to be about the performance and usability limitations of previous Sigma cameras.

To see how much progress Sigma has made on the usability front, I took the DP1 Merrill for a walk around my neighborhood in New York City (Greenwich Village, broadly speaking), which always puts on a great show for a photographer, with everything from grand apartment buildings to flowers in the parks to an endless variety of street life and activity.

Design and handling. Though described as a compact camera, the Sigma DP1 Merrill was a bit bigger than I expected it to be, and certainly wouldn’t fit into anyone’s pants pocket. The design can only be described as minimalist, or dare I say, utilitarian. The body is a simple, squarish block with few bells and whistles -- just a smattering of basic controls and a hot shoe for an accessory flash since it doesn’t have one built in. The 19mm lens juts out on the right side about an inch and a half (looking from the front) and bears no functional adornments save the focus ring, bayonet hood mount and 49mm filter threads. Overall, the Sigma DP1M's (1980s retro?) design left me a little cold, but it somehow fits its no-nonsense nature.

Picking it up, the camera has some heft to it and it felt well made, though not exactly pleasing to hold. It fit my large hands just fine, and the limited physical controls were easy to reach and navigate. There's no real grip on the Sigma DP1 Merrill except for a series of raised nubs where your right thumb goes when you snap a shot. The shutter felt mushy, but the rest of the controls were crisp and tight.

Controls and user interface. I set the Sigma DP1 Merrill for my preferred exposure mode, Aperture Priority, selecting my preferred aperture values using the top-deck control wheel and letting the camera set the rest of the exposure. Right off the bat, I was pleased that I could display a live histogram on the camera’s LCD for determining exposure and also access exposure compensation directly at any time with the left and right buttons on the four-way controller. This is so simple but so powerful -- making fast, precise analysis and adjustment of exposure from shot to shot as easy as pie. The same straightforward exposure control simplicity is available in Shutter Priority or Program mode, as well. Program Shift is also supported, just by turning the control wheel in Program mode.

Next, I went looking for my secret feature obsession -- the ability to separate autofocus activation from the shutter release and assign it to a different button. Alas, the Sigma DP1 Merrill doesn’t have this capability. That’s disappointing, but the DP1 Merrill does allow direct toggling from autofocus to manual focus with a single touch of the top button on the four-way controller, which is great. And I had no trouble manually focusing using the ring on the lens, nor did I have any difficulty judging focus with the magnified view on the LCD.

Within my first half dozen shots, I was already impressed with Sigma’s design sensibility for the DP1 Merrill’s critical exposure and focusing functions. These were simple and straightforward, with no fancy adornments, but powerful enough for advanced photographers and very fast and efficient to use.

Functions that are secondary but still important such as ISO, drive mode, white balance and others are always a challenge for a camera designer. Do you bury stuff in menus, or festoon the camera body with a dozen or more buttons and levers? Sigma’s solution on the DP1 Merrill is the Quick Set button, which works in combination with the four-way controller and the top-deck control dial. This system is not as fast as dedicated external buttons would be, but it’s a lot better than menu diving. On a West Village street where I had been shooting shadowed shop windows at ISO 400, I suddenly spotted a driver unloading a bright red Coca-Cola delivery truck in dappled sunlight. I was able to switch to ISO 100 (to maximize image quality) very quickly and get the shot before the driver walked out of the scene. I wouldn’t be happy with the Quick Set interface on a DSLR, but for a compact, fixed-lens camera like the Sigma DP1 Merrill, I can live with it.

All is not wine and roses, of course, because, well, it never is. Trying to shoot a strongly backlit scene in Washington Square Park, I ran into a modest drawback. The Sigma DP1 Merrill’s live histogram -- my strongly preferred guide to exposure -- stops responding to exposure changes in some circumstances when you’re intentionally trying for severe underexposure (to protect bright highlights or shoot a silhouette, for example). I had to rely on older school exposure skills, which seem to have atrophied, and I blew the shot.

As I shot more with the Sigma DP1 Merrill, I also came to realize that the live histogram didn't give a particularly good preview of the exposure. Instead I had to take the effort to check the actual image histogram to be sure and make the proper adjustments. That’s not a huge problem in general -- I learned that I could compensate for it with reasonably consistent results -- but it can be annoying because of other performance limitations I’ll talk about later in this report.

Over several days shooting with the Sigma DP1 Merrill, I used it indoors, under heavy overcast and in bright, clear daylight. I never had a real problem composing images with the new LCD, which is sharp and reasonably contrasty and clear. That said, I’ve worked with some that were easier to see in bright light, and displayed colors and contrasty scenes with more visible detail.

Lens. To give the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s 19mm lens a workout, I took the camera to Grand Central Station for a wide-angle vista of the station’s main concourse. This is a horribly cliché image -- only half a billion tourists have shot it -- but it’s a really fun cliché to shoot. We evaluate the DP1 Merrill’s image quality in depth below (in the Image Quality Comparison section), but I’ll just say here that my ISO 100 Grand Central images are loaded with beautiful, tiny details -- wreaths, intricate stonework, commuters mesmerized by their smartphones -- across nearly all of the frame. Bottom line: this is a high quality lens.

If I can only have one focal length, a 28mm-equivalent lens would be my first choice for a wide-angle camera. In my days of shooting with the Sigma DP1 Merrill, the lens worked well for some nice cityscapes, landscapes and interiors, and it was still decent for people shots after cropping, especially since the DP1 Merrill’s images are so detailed. Of course, a single-focal-length camera limits what you can effectively shoot. Some photographers hate that and others, like me on many days, are happy to work within those boundaries.

How good is the Sigma DP1 Merrill's fixed 28mm-equivalent lens?
Find out by clicking here to see our optical test results.

I’m sure some photographers would like the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s lens to open a stop wider than its f/2.8 maximum aperture, but I never wished for that extra stop as I shot with it. (And it's a marked improvement on its predecessor's f/4.0 max aperture.) Instead, I was delighted with the relatively light weight and small size of the f/2.8 optic.

Note that maximum shutter speed varies with aperture. At f/2.8, the fastest shutter speed available is 1/1250 second. At f/4.0, it increases to 1/1600 and at f/5.6, the top shutter speed is 1/2000 second. The minimum aperture is f/16, and unfortunately there's no built-in neutral density filter.

Performance. After shooting in Grand Central Station, I headed to Bryant Park and then walked up Fifth Avenue with the idea of seeing how well the Sigma DP1 Merrill works for my favorite kind of photography -- street shooting.

On my earlier trip in the Village, and also at Bryant Park, I found the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s autofocus (AF) system to be somewhat sluggish for stationary subjects. It was fast enough for most shots in bright light, but it often hunted a lot in low light or on low-contrast subjects. And a few times I lost moments -- the perfect posture or facial expression -- while waiting for the AF to respond, even in bright light.

I also tried it out on skaters in Bryant Park and on the moving crowds of tourists and shoppers along Fifth Avenue. No dice. If it moves, the DP1 Merrill’s AF system is not much interested in focusing on it.

So, while walking on Fifth Avenue, I decided to set the DP1 Merrill for manual focus and pre-focused the lens at about 7 to 8 feet The camera shoots very quickly this way, with minimal shutter delay, and I got several pictures I liked, including an on-the-go grab image of a food cart vendor that’ll make it into my collection of favorite New York City images.

Just how fast is the Sigma DP1 Merrill? Find out by clicking here to see our full battery
of rigorous, objective speed and operation tests conducted in the IR Lab.

Using the Sigma DP1 Merrill, I captured one of my favorite photos I've ever taken of NYC street life. This shot of the street vendor and his cart just seems like it could come to life at any minute and exudes that special, extra-dimensional Foveon-sensor quality.
While this pre-focused shot turned out OK, it proves that it's still difficult to nail the perfect exposure with a camera that's limited in its settings and slow to respond to the ever-changing, ever-moving mix of subjects and light of city streets.

Later on the same walk, I experimented with a third AF mode, called Direct Manual Focus, which allows you to use the camera in autofocus mode but -- as long as you hold the shutter release half-depressed -- you can switch to manual focus by simply turning the lens ring. It’s handy, but the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s shutter release button is overly mushy, meaning I often had trouble holding the half-depressed position while I focused, resulting in either an inadvertent picture if I pressed down, or reverting back to autofocus if I let up.

The Sigma DP1 Merrill’s buffer can hold seven images, which was enough for me; I never overran the buffer and don’t think I ever would with this camera. However, compared to other cameras in its class, the DP1M is slow in terms of shot-to-shot cycle times, and its buffer isn't particularly deep, according to IR lab tests.

And that brings me to one of two performance problems that bothered me. While the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s buffer allows uninterrupted shooting for seven shots, it takes a dreadfully long time to clear. I found that it took several seconds before you can play back a just-shot image (depending on your card speed and image file format). That’s a long wait to be able to check focus or composition. It was especially vexing to me while making some careful landscape shots in Washington Square Park and Central Park, when I wanted to check the image histogram and precisely adjust my subsequent exposures based on what the histogram told me. (And recall that I needed to check the actual image histogram for these precise adjustments because the live histogram is relatively inaccurate.) I never lost a shot because of this, but I confess to some sour feelings for the DP1 Merrill as I was standing out in the wind on a cold day in Central Park, waiting, waiting, waiting.

On the day that I was shooting along Fifth Avenue I discovered the DP1 Merrill’s second performance problem, and this one’s a biggie; Sigma just has no excuse for it. I began shooting in Grand Central Station with a freshly charged battery at 1:20 p.m. One hour and twenty-four minutes later, after 57 shots, the battery was dead. Now granted, I was doing a lot of LCD viewing, it was cold (around 40 °F/4 °C), and it’s true that Sigma includes two batteries with the camera for just this reason. But this is still ridiculous, plain and simple. (As we noted in our overview, the battery is rated for just 97 shots.)

Photo Pro software processing. On my last day with the Sigma DP1 Merrill, I hopped a subway to the Upper East Side and walked over to Central Park to look for the closest thing New York City provides to landscape images. In the park, I shot several scenes with the last remnants of delicate fall color; some with lots of very fine detail, including foliage, and some others with strong contrast ratios and extended tonality ranges.

For practical purposes at this time, the unique RAW files produced by the Sigma DP1 Merrill’s Foveon sensor require Sigma’s free Photo Pro software to develop them into viewable images. Most DP1 Merrill owners will end up using this software, so I spent some time working in Photo Pro with these Central Park shots, as well as my earlier images, to see what it can do.

(Editor's Note: All of the images in this Shooter’s Report gallery were converted/edited using Sigma Photo Pro and/or Adobe Photoshop Light Room/CS5.)

With very little fussing of the controls, I could produce quite beautiful, exquisitely crisp images from the DP1 Merrill’s Foveon RAW files using Sigma Photo Pro. The program incorporates decent tools for controlling exposure, contrast, tonal range, sharpness, noise reduction and lens corrections. Only its white balance and color adjustment controls are substantially below standard.

Sadly, this experiment cost me what remained of my youth. Photo Pro is very slow and clunky, lacking most of the workflow efficiency tools you’ll find in programs like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Phase One Capture One, Apple Aperture and several others. I loved the end results but could barely tolerate the process. If you’re considering buying this camera, you owe it to yourself to get a hold of a few Foveon raw files, download Photo Pro, and test it out to see if you can live with it before making the purchase.

Image quality. There's something very special about the images captured by the Sigma DP1 Merrill and other Foveon-sensor cameras. We've called them extra "dimensional" or "rich" before, but mere words can't do enough to describe the unique characteristics of the photos produced at low ISOs by the three-layer Foveon sensor. The photo of the NYC street vendor that I mentioned earlier in my report is one of my most favorite shots I've ever taken while walking around the city, and the DP1M's sensor and processor give it that extra something I wouldn't likely be able to achieve with a non-Foveon camera, even in post processing.

Look at the side-by-side comparisons below that pit the DP1M against some other serious cameras at base ISO, and you'll begin to see how sharp and detailed the Sigma DP1 Merrill's photos are. But once you get above ISO 400, things fall apart quickly. At ISO 1600, the images begin to exhibit a scorched or baked look, with colors losing their intensity and detail diminishing, and they suffer greatly in comparison. In my opinion, you simply can't use this camera -- and other Foveon-based Sigma models -- for any quality photography in low light without a tripod.

You can view the IR Lab's in-depth Sigma DP1 Merrill image quality test results by clicking here,
and read further on in the review for side-by-side comparisons
against the Sigma DP1 Merrill's top competitors.

The DP1 Merrill, like other recent Sigma cameras, can now produce JPEGs in camera (older models could not). I found that the in-camera JPEGs fell short of what I could easily, albeit very slowly, produce from RAW files in Photo Pro. If I owned this camera, I would use in-camera JPEGs only for initial sorting of my pictures, and I suspect most Sigma DP1 Merrill owners will feel the same.

640 x 480
Motion JPEG, Progressive, 30 fps
Download Original (12.7MB AVI)

Movies. It’s a simple process to record video with the Sigma DP1 Merrill. But the camera has possibly the most rudimentary set of video features (only exposure compensation is available) and specs (VGA resolution with a 640x426 image area and mono sound) that I’ve seen in half a dozen years. If I wasn’t reviewing the DP1 Merrill, I would have used my smartphone instead -- it’s a much better video camera than the Sigma DP1 Merrill.

Summary: I started this review sympathetic with the Foveon flock who worship the low-ISO images that Sigma cameras like the DP1 Merrill can produce. Unfortunately I have to say I'm still not a convert. While I was very impressed with some of the photos I took with the DP1 Merrill, it’s just too limiting of a photographic tool to recommend to the average enthusiast photographer. It was fun to play with the camera for several days and see what it could do -- especially when I put it to its best purpose, street shooting -- but the Sigma DP1 Merrill lacks the flexibility and overall performance that other top compact cameras and DSLRs in this price range could provide. That said, I’d happily shoot with the DP1 Merrill again, and I’m sure there are plenty of savvy photographers who’d be very happy owning it and exploiting its special properties when the perfect situations (still subjects, good lighting) arise.

 

Sigma DP1M Image Quality Comparison

Below are crops comparing the Sigma DP1M with the Sigma SD1, Nikon A, Ricoh GR, Sony RX1 and Sony NEX-7.

NOTE: These images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. All cameras in this comparison were shot with our very sharp reference lenses.


Sigma DP1M versus Sigma SD1 at ISO 100

Sigma DP1M at ISO 100
Sigma SD1 at ISO 100

These two Foveon sensor-based cameras do a very nice job rendering crisp detail and accurate colors at low ISOs. The DP1M gets slightly higher marks for both clarity and color accuracy in each of the above crops, especially the mosaic. Click any crop to explore the test target in its entirety, as these cameras cans certainly hold up to close inspection at base ISO.


Sigma DP1M versus Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100

Sigma DP1M at ISO 100
Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 100

The Nikon Coolpix A has a 16MP APS-C (DX) sensor, which would suggest it should at least hold its own in image quality comparisons, but it's simply not in the same league as the DP1M at low ISOs, which exhibits much greater clarity and detail across the spectrum.


Sigma DP1M versus Ricoh GR at ISO 100

Sigma DP1M at ISO 100
Ricoh GR at ISO 100

The Ricoh GR with its 16MP APS-C sized sensor does a slightly better job than the Nikon A did in the table above for the first two crops, yet loses all contrast detail in the red leaf swatch. Still, the DP1M is superior to the GR in most respects.


Sigma DP1M versus Sony RX1 at ISO 100

Sigma DP1M at ISO 100
Sony RX1 at ISO 100

The Sony RX1 retails for almost three times that of the DP1M and has a full frame sensor, so we would naturally expect it win in the image quality department. But the DP1M has nothing at all to be ashamed of in these comparisons, as is evident above.


Sigma DP1M versus Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100

Sigma DP1M at ISO 100
Sony NEX-7 at ISO 100

At 24 megapixels, the NEX-7 boasts the resolution to compete with the Sigma DP1 Merrill. Fine detail is incredible in the slightly more expensive NEX-7, but again the DP1M certainly belongs in this league at low ISOs. That, however, is where its magic ends.


Most digital SLRs and CSCs will produce an excellent ISO 100 shot, so we like to push them and see what they can do compared to other cameras at ISO 1600, 3200, and 6400. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Sigma DP1M versus Sigma SD1 at ISO 1600

Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600
Sigma SD1 at ISO 1600

Though the Foveon sensor and its three layers allow for incredible detail at low ISOs, it pays the penalty in image quality at higher ISOs, as is clearly evident here for both Sigmas. Interestingly, the DP1M had better image quality at base ISO, but is slightly worse here. No matter, though, as this camera should probably not be used above ISO 400 anyway (or perhaps ISO 800 when shooting RAW).


Sigma DP1M versus Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600

Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600
Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 1600

The Nikon Coolpix A does a good job of retaining color at this ISO, but the DP1M as you can see loses a ton of color fidelity and detail.


Sigma DP1M versus Ricoh GR at ISO 1,600

Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600
Ricoh GR at ISO 1600

Similarly, the GR does a much better job than the DP1M here with color and reasonably good detail for this ISO, although it loses a lot in the red swatch.


Sigma DP1M versus Sony RX1 at ISO 1600

Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600
Sony RX1 at ISO 1600

High ISOs are where the RX1 really shines, and the crops above would fill in for some cameras at base ISO(!). Again, the RX1 is a far more expensive camera with a full-frame sensor, so low ISO comparisons are more appropriate when considering the DP1M.


Sigma DP1M versus Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1600

Sigma DP1M at ISO 1600
Sony NEX-7 at ISO 1600

As with the RX1, the NEX-7 certainly does a good job for this ISO. This comparison clearly demonstrates the big discrepancy between a traditional Bayer sensor and the Foveon sensor at high ISOs, and the DP1M's "scorched" look and lack of color saturation are clearly evident above.


These days, ISO 3200 is a very viable shooting option for most good cameras, so let's take a look at some comparisons there.

Sigma DP1M versus Sigma SD1 at ISO 3200

Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200
Sigma SD1 at ISO 3200

Your computer screen is not glitching -- you are looking at Foveon sensors used well above the ISO they should be. Go back to base ISO if you are considering one of these cameras and forget you were ever here. (But look at the fine detail table below first, as it may help your decision.)


Sigma DP1M versus Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200

Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200
Nikon Coolpix A at ISO 3200

Not a bad showing for the Nikon Coolpix A at this ISO.


Sigma DP1M versus Ricoh GR at ISO 3200

Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200
Ricoh GR at ISO 3200

And the Ricoh GR also makes a fairly good showing here, especially considering being the lowest priced camera of the comparison group.


Sigma DP1M versus Sony RX1 at ISO 3200

Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200
Sony RX1 at ISO 3200

Yes, those really are ISO 3200 crops for the RX1 on the right. They are the Dr. Jekyll to the Sigma DP1 Merrill's Mr. Hyde.


Sigma DP1M versus Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3200

Sigma DP1M at ISO 3200
Sony NEX-7 at ISO 3200

The Sony NEX-7 does a pretty decent job at this ISO, though it's not as good as the RX1.


Detail: Sigma DP1M versus Sigma SD1, Nikon Coolpix A, Ricoh GR, Sony RX1 and Sony NEX-7

Sigma
DP1M

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Sigma
SD1

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Nikon
Coolpix A

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Ricoh
GR

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Sony
RX1

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Sony
NEX-7

ISO 100
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Detail comparison. This table is intriguing, as the DP1M image at base ISO is simply stunning in its clarity and detail. That image shows why photographers would choose the DP1M over others for its specialized use, and not be concerned with how it looks at higher ISOs. You simply won't see that "Pure" ISO 100 crop look much sharper than you do on this camera unless you step up considerably in price.

 

Sigma DP1 Merrill Print Quality

Crisp and vibrant prints to 24 x 36 for ISO 100/200; ISO 800 capable of a decent 11 x 14; ISO 3200/6400 prints are unusable.

ISO 100 images are crystal clear and vibrant at 24 x 36 inches, with excellent color and detail; suitable for wall display up to 36 x 48 inches.

ISO 200 shots are also very nice at 24 x 36, with only slight loss of contrast in the red fabric swatch; wall display prints suitable up to 30 x 40.

ISO 400 prints are quite good at 20 x 30, but lose almost all contrast in our red swatch. Greens have odd spots of desaturation that are apparent regardless of print size.

ISO 800 13 x 19-inch prints show a bit of a brown, scorched look in yellow and orange colors. And the odd, desaturated splotches in greens that we noticed at ISO 400 are much more pronounced. 13 x 19-inch prints are very crisp, but noise is rather apparent. We'll call 11 x 14 prints good, but the green glitches are problematic.

ISO 1600 yields 8 x 10 prints that look grainy and faded. The 5 x 7s are usable but still grainy, and the 4 x 6-inch prints quite crisp and reasonably clean, but still too muted in color to be called good.

ISO 3200 and 6400 prints are too grainy and muted to be usable, even at 4 x 6.

Like its big brother the SD1, the DP1 Merrill with its APS-C Foveon sensor is certainly capable of producing excellent printed images at low ISOs. We called the wall display good to 36 x 48, but even 40 x 60 looks good if you're just a few feet away. But the nature of the sensor that allows for such incredible low ISO images doesn't lend itself at all well to high ISOs, and it definitely shows in the prints. Once you get to ISO 800, the quality falls very quickly. Stay at ISO 400 and below and you will be quite happy printing your DP1 Merrill JPEG images.

 

In the Box

The retail box contains the following items:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Sigma DP1 Merrill Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Exceptional detail rendition and color resolution at low ISOs
  • Sharp, relatively fast 28mm-equivelent lens
  • Simplified, easy-to-use controls that limit menu diving
  • Good build quality
  • Quick Set button gives you fast access to preferred key settings
  • No demosaicing artifacts
  • Great per-pixel sharpness (no AA filter)
  • In-camera chromatic aberration suppression
  • Fast manual focus and prefocused shutter lag
  • High-resolution (920K-dot) LCD
  • High, Medium and Low RAW file sizes are supported
  • Fixed focal-length lens limits shooting flexibility
  • Very poor high-ISO performance
  • No control over in-camera noise reduction
  • Need to shoot RAW to take advantage of what the sensor has to offer
  • No built-in flash
  • Large macro area
  • No image stabilization
  • Slow cycle times and burst mode
  • Shallow buffer depth (7 full-resolution images)
  • Very slow buffer clearing
  • Camera is unresponsive while writing images to card
  • Sluggish, poor low-light autofocus
  • Poor white balance in incandescent light
  • Very poor battery life (at least Sigma provides two batteries)
  • Limited support of RAW files (ACR and LR don't support X3F files)
  • Bundled Sigma Photo Pro software is rather slow and clunky
  • Huge full-resolution RAW files despite being (losslessly) compressed
  • Movies limited to (poor) VGA resolution with mono sound
  • No HDMI output

 

Our cons may outweigh the pros for the Sigma DP1 Merrill, but that's a little misleading. Despite the shortcomings of this fixed-lens compact, it delivers some of the most beautiful, detailed images at low ISOs that we've ever seen from a camera in its price range. Paired with a sharp 28mm-equivalent lens, the DP1M's 46-megapixel, three-layered Foveon sensor captures images that demonstrate remarkable per-pixel sharpness and an extra-special dimensionality that has created an almost cult following of Foveon faithful.

In addition to its massive sensor upgrade (46 megapixels compared to the DP1x's 14 megapixels), the Sigma DP1 Merrill further improves upon its predecessor with a faster lens (f/2.8 compared to f/4.0) and a streamlined design that features a straightforward, almost minimalist approach to its controls. That's a good match, considering that the camera's imaging goals are equally straightforward -- nothing less and nothing more than to take exquisite stills (of stationary subjects in good lighting).

However, such inflexible goals may be a turnoff to many. While the unique design of the DP1M's Foveon sensor takes great photos at low ISOs, it conversely takes increasingly poor ones as sensitivity rises above ISO 400. The Sigma DP1 Merrill is also a sluggish shooter overall, with an AF system that struggles to lock focus in anything but well-lit settings, especially on moving subjects. Add to that its fixed, wide-angle lens and terrible movie-recording capabilities, and the camera's long list of limitations simply doesn't leave it with much mass appeal. After all, there are a lot of compact cameras available at the same (or even lower) cost that not only provide excellent image quality, but also speedy performance and immense adaptability to a wide variety of shooting situations.

That said, we still give the Sigma DP1 Merrill our recommendation and a Dave's Pick, albeit with significant caveats. The Sigma DP1M is designed strictly for hobbyists who recognize the camera for what it is -- a specialty instrument -- and are willing to deal with its performance and usability limitations to obtain the remarkable images it's capable of producing. Other photographers, even those striving for the best image quality possible, should look elsewhere for a more flexible, forgiving compact camera solution.

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