Sigma DP1 Merrill review continued (finally)

I had hoped to use this camera more and continue the review, but the weather has been terrible and I haven't had much opportunity to get outdoors.

The review is also somewhat difficult, in that its hard to think of new superlatives for the image quality. But before going into that there was something that occurred to me looking at what I shot today. Did digital photographic sensor production take a serious wrong turn a few years ago. Looking at the DP1 files I constantly think, 'Why don't all digital images look like this?' There is a huge difference between something like this and your average Bayer sensor camera. OK, its not very good at high ISO's and there are power consumption and speed problems. But what if Sony, Nikon, Canon et al had thrown money at Foveon technology or something similar in the early 2000's? Would we now have solved those problems and take for granted the kind of sumptious quality that this camera produces at ISO 100 at all settings?

Is there some law of Physics that prevents these three layer sensors ever being able to produce good quality high ISO files and fast operation or is it that Sigma and Frank Merrill just don't (didn't) have the resources to push the technology further? Because one thing is very clear, the DP Merrills blow everything else away and I mean everything. This is hyper reality, a level of detail you are never going to see with your eyes. Sharpness that is almost unnatural and colour separation at the pixel level that makes even the very best Bayer sensors look like someone has smeared vaseline on them.

The images I shot today with the DP1 are quite simple sensational. They are at their best at 100%. Thats when they you see the stunning definition in all its glory and it is absolutely wonderful. Every piece of grain in wood visible, every small detail in brickwork visible, every blade of grass totally separate, if you wanted you could probably count the pebbles in a gravel path. The images are that sharp, that defined. Look at one of these on a huge high quality monitor and it would seem that you could step into the reality beyond. People call it 3-D, but its not, its very firmly 2-D, but pretty much the best 2-D rendition of the world I've ever seen. Some people write articles about how sharpness is overated, they have obviously not looked at a Sigma DP Merrill file. Look at a well processed file from one of these cameras on a good monitor and I guarantee you will respond. Its difficult not too.

So what does this all mean? Well actually not much, because Foveon technology is going to reamain a niche product. The Sigma cameras that use it won't ever sell that many and like it or not we are stuck with the Bayer alternative for a long time. And those Bayer sensors end up being what most of us use most of the time by default. Nobody is going to pour millions into three-layer sensor research, no one who makes and sells cameras anyway, apart from Sigma. So its going to stay this peripheral technology, loved by a few, ignored by most. Landscapers will love it, patient studio still lifers will love it but anyone who makes a living from photography or who has aspirations to do so won't go near it, unless they shoot well-lit landscapes for a living. Anyone who doesn't shoot in good light or carry light around with them won't go near it. Anyone who wants a snapshot camera for all of lifes various situations won't go near it.

And I can't help thinking that this is all a bit of a shame. Are these ISO 100 files the only glimpse we get of what might have been? If these cameras and this sensor interests you, then prepare to be an outsider, on the margins. Be prepared to give up virtually everything you expect from the camera you own currently. Be prepared to stuff your pocket with batteries, to wait while the images process, to have to take three cameras with you if you want to use three lenses. But also be prepared to be amazed, to have your breath taken away and to pick your jaw off the floor. I'm kind of used to this by now, but when I was looking at what I shot today I kept shaking my head and repeating over and over again "Thats unbelievable' and indeed I do sometimes think what I'm looking at is unbelievable. Unbelievably sharp, unbelievably detailed and defined. I know I'm using something that I can only use under certain specific circumstances and certain weather conditions. These DPM's are not everyday cameras, they are limited, they restrict what I can do, what I can take pictures of. They are useless in almost every other way. But when the circumstances are right and the light is clear and bright and I have something well lit to put in front of them, God they are Glorious!!

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