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Sigma SD10

Sigma's digital SLR uses Foveon's latest "X3" sensor technology to boost ISO and reduce image noise.

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Page 1:Intro and Highlights

Review First Posted: 10/26/2003

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3.43 megapixel sensor with "X3" technology from Foveon has 10.29 million effective photosensors for unparalleled sharpness and resolution.

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"Full color" pixels eliminate color moire in fine, high-contrast detail.

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RAW-format image capture preserves full image data for post-exposure adjustment.

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Improved sensor provides lower image noise and increased ISO range.

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Photo Pro software from Foveon offers excellent post-exposure color and tonal adjustment.


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Manufacturer Overview
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Sigma is a company with a long history in the photo industry, although they're better known for their broad line of lenses than their cameras. Sigma's lenses for 35mm cameras have developed a reputation for delivering sharp images at affordable prices, a combination that's brought them a huge share of the market among "enthusiast" film photographers. While their lenses enjoy wide popularity among both Canon and Nikon camera owners, a proprietary bayonet lens mount has somewhat limited the market reach of their own camera line.

Last year, Sigma entered the digital market in dramatic fashion with the Sigma SD9, leaping directly into the digital SLR fray, eschewing any intermediate steps in the consumer camera marketplace as a prelude. This move made sense, given Sigma's strong position as a lens manufacturer, and the presence this has brought them in the SLR marketplace as a whole. What's remarkable though, is the extent to which they achieved parity with other major manufacturers in a single step.

Much of the credit for this went to Sigma's use of Foveon's revolutionary "X3" sensor technology, which stacks separate red, green, and blue sensors behind every pixel of the sensor array. When compared to conventional CCD or CMOS sensors, which use a mosaic array of red, green, and blue filters over the pixels (other colors are used occasionally, but this combination is the most common), Foveon's X3 approach should yield almost twice the resolution for a given pixel count. The lack of any offset between color samples also promises to completely eliminate the color aliasing most digicams are prone to when confronted with fine patterns of high-contrast detail. Of course, there's no free lunch anywhere, so the Foveon sensor isn't automatically a be-all, end-all for the digicam market. In particular, the sensor in Sigma's first digital SLR suffered from problems with color purity, high image noise, and (related closely to this last) with rather strict limits on the maximum length of an exposure.

Now, a year later, Sigma has announced a successor to the SD9 - a camera that, love it or not, certainly has to have been among the most talked-about of 2002. The new Sigma SD10 is very much an evolution of its predecessor. The body, controls and interface are nearly identical, as is the sensor resolution. Under the hood, though, Sigma has made some significant changes to the sensor, firmware and software - as well as subtle tweaks to the camera body - that aim to extend the life of the basic design and enhance its capabiliites considerably.

Although Foveon has announced other X3 sensors over the last year, the SD9 (and now the SD10) remains the only digital camera on the market to have full measured color at every pixel location from a single sensor (as of October 2003). This alone has made it a must-have for many of our readers. If Sigma and Foveon have indeed managed to solve some of the problems they experienced in their initial outing, the SD10 could have a significant when it hits the market this November (according to the current schedule)!

We've had a few days in which to try out a near-production-level SD10 (final image quality, only minor tweaks in autoexposure and power management are left), and with the camera being so closely related to the SD9 that we reviewed last year, the learning curve was quite shallow. If you read our review of the Sigma SD9, you may find portions of this review (particularly those related to the camera's body and controls) very familiar, but you'll also find that we've highlighted all the changes we could find - big or small... Read on below to find out how the Sigma SD10 fared, with comparisons to its predecessor and the competition where appropriate.


What's Changed?

The overall changes between the original Sigma SD9 and the new Sigma SD10 are summarised as follows:

Hardware

  • New Foveon F7X3-C9110 X3 Pro 10M image sensor with microlenses. Sigma says that the new sensor offers increased dynamic range, reduced noise and improved color accuracy.
  • New AE sensor and circuitry
  • Uses only one set of batteries - secondary CR-123A (DL-123A) batteries in hand-grip no longer required
  • Contouring of hand-grip is different and grip is slightly smaller (due to removal of secondary batteries)
  • Battery tray has much larger contacts and heavier-duty springs, as well as small "levers" to help remove the batteries. Sigma tells us this is the same as the updated tray that was released for the SD9 to cure problems with NiMH batteries, and it is certainly a much better design than the original tray we received when we tested that camera.
  • "Cancel" and "OK" buttons on the rear of the camera, originally black with a white screen-printed logo similar to the camera's other buttons, are now colored rubber (red for "Cancel", blue for "OK") - making it less likely you'll press the wrong button.

Firmware (some changes related to the hardware changes above)

  • Maximum ISO rating increased. On the SD9 choices were ISO 100 - 400; on the SD10 this is ISO 100 - 800, with the ability to extend to ISO 1600.
  • Long exposures can be much longer. On the SD9, the maximum was 15 seconds at ISO 100, and 1 second at ISO 200 or 400. On the SD10, the default is 15 seconds at ISO 100 / 200, and 4 seconds at ISO 400 / 800. Additionally, in extended mode you can shoot exposures as long as 30 seconds in all ISO ratings.
  • Bulb mode differences. On the SD9, bulb was available only at ISO 100. The SD10 bulb setting is available at ISO 100 and 200 by default; if you put the camera in extended mode, it is available in every ISO rating. Curiously it is still limited to approximately 15 seconds in all modes in which it is available (even though the camera itself is capable of shots as long as 30 seconds as mentioned above).
  • Long exposures of 5 seconds or greater now have mirror lockup enabled even when you're not using the "UP" mode of the camera.
  • Exposure compensation increments are finer. Where the SD9 was + / - 3.0EV in 1/2EV steps, the SD10 is + / - 3.0EV in 1/3EV steps. This also applies to flash exposure compensation with either the Sigma EF500 DG ST SA-N or Sigma EF500 DG Super SA-N flash units.
  • Wireless TTL flash compatibility. Alongside the SD10, Sigma is announcing a new EF500 DG Super SA-N Electronic Flash unit which has an off-camera wireless dedicated flash mode. According to Sigma's documentation, the SD9 cannot do Wireless TTL.
  • New AF algorithm. Sigma says that the autofocusing algorithm has been improved and should offer "enhanced AF performance" overall. The most significant improvements are apparently in AF performance under low-light situations.
  • According to the Sigma Photo Pro 2.0 release notes, "The imager operating parameters have been optimized to avoid a tendency to highlight blowouts and 'blooming' in some overexposed and long-exposure shots. This change improves night shots, shots with the sun in the image, and such."

Software (Version 2.0 of Sigma Photo Pro comes with the SD10, including numerous changes as follows)

  • New "X3 Fill Light" slider, using Foveon-developed technology, aims to simulate the effect of "dodge and burn" in film photography, or perhaps a bounce reflector or fill flash on location when a photo was taken. See the separate news item on Foveon's announcement of X3 Fill Light for further details.
  • All changes made in Sigma Photo Pro's "Adjustment Controls" panel can be saved into the original X3F file. If you later decide you want to regress the changes, you can reset the file to its original out-of-camera condition. This also applies to images captured with the original Sigma SD9.
  • Adjustment settings applied to X3F files before saving them as TIFF and JPEG files are stored in those files as fields in the Exif MakerNote along with other details from the camera and the processing software.
  • White balance settings can now be changed as a batch from within the Sigma Photo Pro "Browser".
  • The CMY "Color Adjustment" circle on the Adjustment Controls panel now has index marks on it to show 5 unit steps of each color.
  • Instead of "Default", the adjustment settings stored in the X3F file is now referred to as the "X3F" setting, making it clearer that the setting is that of the individual X3F file, not a program-wide default.
  • The information window now shows extra information including an "Image Unique ID" which identifies the source X3F file, allowing you to confirm which files came from the same source image, The information window also contains the custom processing settings that have been saved to an X3F file, or were applied to the file before saving it as a TIFF or JPEG
  • Network support. In the v1.x versions of Sigma Photo Pro there was no way to open an X3F file that wasn't on your own machine. v2.0 now lists an extra "drive" titled "Network" in the browser tree - from where you can access drives on other computers in your network.
  • Increased processing speed. Sigma told us that Photo Pro is faster than before, although no specific figures were given. Specific speed improvements are apparently to be found in thumbnail loading and display time for X3F, TIFF and JPEG, as well as improvements in responsiveness of the user interface when the computer is heavily loaded.
  • Other unspecified bug fixes, etc.

Other (A quick summary of the changes of lesser importance that we noticed)

  • SD10 logos instead of SD9 logos on the front and bottom of camera (of course!)
  • Slightly different labelling of the IEEE1394 FireWire port (a clear arrow, instead of the possibly confusing line to indicate which port the text refers to).


High Points

  • 3.43-megapixel (effective resolution) Foveon X3 CMOS full-color-pixel sensor with microlenses delivering image resolutions as high as 2,268 x 1,512 pixels, with 10.29 million effective individual "Color Photo Detectors." (Separate red, green, and blue sensors for every pixel of the image.)
  • Pentaprism SLR viewfinder.
  • 1.8-inch color, TFT LCD monitor for image review, with approx. 130,000 pixels and backlight.
  • SA-type lens mount. (Sigma proprietary bayonet mount, as used on Sigma film-based SLRs.)
  • Auto and manual focus control, with Single and Continuous AF modes.
  • Program AE, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual exposure modes.
  • Eight-segment Evaluative, Center (spot), and Center-Weighted Average metering modes.
  • Sensitivity equivalents of 100, 200, and 400 and 800 ISO, plus an option to extend this to 1600 ISO.
  • Adjustable white balance with eight settings, including a Custom option.
  • Shutter speeds from 1/6,000 to 30 seconds plus bulb (limited to approx. 15 seconds).
  • External flash hot-shoe compatible with wireless TTL.
  • Autoexposure Bracketing mode.
  • Continuous Shooting mode.
  • Images saved as lossless raw sensor data files.
  • Compatible with CompactFlash Type I and II, including the IBM MicroDrive.
  • USB 1.1 and IEEE-1394 interfaces and cables, for connection to a computer.
  • Software CD-ROM with drivers and version 2.0 of Sigma Photo Pro.
  • NTSC and PAL video out options, video cable included.
  • Power from either two CR-V3 lithium battery packs or four AA-type batteries, or the AC adapter.
  • Lexar "Write Acceleration" compatibility.

 

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