Sigma DP2 Merrill - So what do I think of it? A sort of conclusion to the review..

Its difficult to come to an objective assessment of this camera, so I'll forget about that and give a subjective one instead.

Since it has arrived and I've started taking pictures with it, I've more or less lost interest in everything else. As I wrote yesterday, I now have the DP2M sitting alone on a shelf with everything else moved to the "To sell" part. After less than a week I already can't imagine ever leaving home without it. The files from all the other cameras I own and cameras I view samples of on the internet look poor by comparison. Its pretty much what I've been waiting for, in terms of how I want my pictures to look, since I started with digital cameras. The experience of looking at a medium format Fuji Velvia transparency on a lightbox through a high quality loupe has finally been replicated digitally. Everytime I open up an image I've taken with it, I can feel a rising sense of anticipation as I move to viewing it at 100%. The amount of time I spend looking at each picture has risen considerably as I want to look at every part of it to check out this "hyper-reality" that far exceeds what I saw with my eyes. 

My interest in photography took off when I started to once again roam around some of the more scenic areas of the UK. As someone who prior to that had spent the majority of my time indoors and in dark windowless rooms, earing my living as a musician, the open air and non-urban environment was a rediscovery of how I spent much of my youth, and my first instinct was to get myself a "decent camera" so that I could take some of what I had experienced back home with me. Those early machine processed prints from the local chemist have been replaced by more sophisticated ways of capturing images. From transparency film to digital capture. Over time I realised that this was what I wanted to do full-time and I worked hard to turn my passion into a job. Since then using digital cameras has been somewhat frustrating. In my film days, the camera and lens(es), to a certain extent, were secondary to what emulsion I used them with, and the digital experience, with different cameras containing different image capturing devices has meant that a lot of different gear has passed through my hands. Up to now I have never been entirely satisfied with what I have taken. For this last week, since the DP2M arrived, what I saw through the viewfinder has finally been matched by what I see on my screen.

I use a lot of musical analogies and this post is going to have one more!. Its obvious that there is a relationship between a musician and the instrument that they use. Its also obvious that not all musicians use the same instrument. After time however, many find an instrument that works for them, something that "feels right" and that allows them to get on with the important bit, which is creating music. I'm starting to feel that, in photographic terms, about the DP2M. I've finally found "my camera".

Sure it has flaws, but I'm beginning to think about turning those flaws into virtues. It has terrible battery life and slow, somewhat inflexible software with which to process the files. But then I've known for years that I take far too many pictures, too many variations that fill up my hard drives and consign me to a life largely spent in front of this screen. So why not take less? Make the ones I do take count and think more about getting it right "in camera" rather than spending countless hours in Photoshop. The camera has a fixed prime lens, albeit a very very good one, but that has never held photographers back in the past. As well as that, its a focal length I like anyway, its simple, and it means I have to make a decision as to what put in the frame at the time, rather than shoot a lot of options and decide later what works best. I am after all "making" pictures rather than "taking" them. Or I should be.

Whatever anyone thinks about any camera and whether they choose to try one, buy one or not, depends on what they want from that camera. Some may want speed, flexibility, lots of features and options, some may want superb image quality, some may want all of that. Michael Reichmann in his review of the camera, caused a bit of a stir with his "the DP2M is not for pussies" section, and while his language may have been somewhat colourful and open to misinterpretation, I can see what he's getting at. The DP2M is a stripped down, not particularly user friendly or well-specified picture creating device. In many situations, it makes image making harder rather than easier. There are however some reasons for that. The Foveon sensor capture process is obviously not particularly fast, simple or that versatile. Sigma could have decided to make creating the files slow, and power and storage space hungry on purpose, but I doubt it. If they could have made the process faster, use less battery power and make the files smaller and better at higher ISO's, then I'm sure they would have done just that. They have however, to their credit as far as I'm concerned, concentrated on one thing at the expense of photographers convenience, which is make the images the camera creates, under optimum circumstances the best possible. 

So why, you might ask, do I seem to be quite forgiving towards the DP2M, and not towards a camera like the Fuji X-Pro 1. Well, with the Sigma I can see to some extent what has caused the operational problems and of course the image quality at low ISO's is quite simply better. Even when the Fuji raw files are run through Raw Photo Processor 64, still the only software that does the files justice, the DP2M files are still sharper and with more clarity. 

Now this is not to say that Sigma shouldn't take responsibilty for the disgraceful way that this sensor was originally marketed. The initial release of the SD1 with its ridiculous and illogical pricing and the insulting and disgraceful way that Sigma attempted to justify this is something the company will have to live down for some time to come. The fact that they saw the error of their ways and went some way to remedy the situation is to their credit, but this should never have happened in the first place. 

This of course leads to another question, which is why don't I get an SD1? Well I have thought about it, but another DSLR and a bag full of heavy, bulky lenses is not the way I want to go. Besides, if I'm keeping a DSLR, I'm keeping the NIkon D800E. I'm also not convinced that I can find a decent Sigma zoom with across the frame sharpness and that would be the only reason I would ever consider the SD1.

So who is the DP2M for? It seems to me its for photographers who are looking for the ultimate image quality in a reasonably sized and priced package. Its for photographers who value this image quality above all else. Its for photographers who are aiming to create images that are meant to last and that can still excite the viewer by their sheer technical excellence many years down the line. Its for photographers who don't shoot fast and loose in the hope of something interesting happening in front of their lens and its for photographers who want to be just as excited by viewing their images as taking them. To paraphrase Michael Reichmann, the DP2M is not for wimps. This isn't a virtue, its just a fact of life. 

For my part there are really only three things that I would like to have been different. The battery life is obviously not a help, neither is the fact that I have to undertake a complicated procedure to get a raw file workflow that I find satisfactory and I would have liked a decent viewfinder. I'm actually quite happy with the AF and overall speed of the camera. For what I use it for its fine. I like the lens very much, it is a really great optic well matched to the sensor and I've yet to see any samples taken with the SD1 and any other lens that matches it for quality. 

And then of course there is this wonderful image "look". I've never seen anything better. Sometimes when I look at the files, I think that they are in fact TOO sharp. Does the real world actually look like that? Anyone who wears glasses will know that feeling when the optician finds the correct combination and suddenly the world snaps into sharp focus. That's pretty much how the DP2M renders images. Once I looked at images I had taken with this camera, I knew that all the images I have taken with my other cameras suddenly become unsatisfactory. Not in terms of what is in the picture but how that picture is recorded and presented to the viewer. I do in fact want to go back and take everything again with this camera! Not possible of course, but if I go out with another camera in the future I will always be thinking, how would this look on the DP2M? I did feel that way with my Leica M9, but this is even more so the case with the Sigma.

So where can Sigma go with this Foveon technology? There has been a long wait to get a sensor that produces a reasonably sized file. Can they get this bigger? Can they improve the high ISO performance? Can they also make it less power hungry and need less storage space with faster write times? Well I guess if people buy enough of this current crop of cameras they might be inclined to try. It seems that there are limitations to just what you can do with a camera that essentially takes three pictures on three different sensor layers and combines them together. This may not be 48MP in terms of eventual image size, but its certainly 48MP of image data that it processes whenever the shutter gets pressed. To a certain extent it can be seen as an impressive achievement to get all this in a camera as small and light as the DP2M. For myself, I'll be interested in future developments, but for the time being I'm just going to concentrate on creating images with what I have now.

So, I've spent a lot of time and words on this camera after initially being somewhat reluctant to jump straight in and start feeding back my impressions. Its certainly different and is and will remain, I'm sure, a left field niche product. It will probably generate polarised opinion and its certainly unlikely to have much impact on CaNikon man and woman. It won't make passers by see you as a serious snapper, other photographers won't go green with envy when they see you using it and its some way from the prettiest camera ever made. But if you are out shooting with one, you can indulge yourself with an inner smile of smug satisfaction, knowing that all those DSLR, CSC and other camera users that you pass won't be able to match what you have just shot in terms of image quality, no matter how big, how new, how attractively retro the cameras they use are. And thats something that Sigma and the late Richard Merrill can be justifiably proud of. 

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