Have Sigma finally got the Foveon Sensor right with the DP2 Quattro?

Now I really wasn't planning to get one of these. After my experiences with The DP Merrills which despite their extraordinary image quality were 'difficult' cameras to use. (To say the least!) I had written Sigma / Foveon off as an interesting footnote in camera development, but one that wasn't going to be for me anymore.

I was persuaded otherwise by a friend who bought one and implored me to go and give it a try. I used it for a few hours and took some pictures with it. On returning I looked at the pictures on my screen and promptly ordered one there and then. Because in terms of both the image quality (expected) and the handling and redesign (unexpected) this is a very impressive camera.

But before I go into specifics, I need to comment on the poor reviewing and disinformation on this camera. There have been reviews and reports that say:-

'Holding on to this camera is like gripping onto a sea-urchin tightly. It's absolutely horrible'

'This camera needs a tripod. It doesn't shoot sharp hand held........ and the shutters got a good thwack to it....'

Above from a certain bearded self ego inflated Canadian shop assistant.

'You need to use raw, the jpgs. are terrible...' From many reviews.

Now none of the above is true. The camera IS unusual, but I found it very comfortable to carry hold and shoot with, it DOES shoot sharp pictures hand held, the shutter release is almost inaudible and the jpgs. (Like the Merrills) are very good.

There is also a terribly misjudged and patronising video by the normally excellent Imaging Resource founder and publisher Dave Etchells, telling us idiots how we should hold the camera. This is an insult to all our intelligences.

Now none of this particularly surprises me. This dismal analysing and reviewing of something outside the mainstream is typical of much of what passes for serious photo internet journalism these days. After reading what I have to say (which is after all one opinion) I would, as ever, urge you to go and try it for yourself.

THE GOOD

As is usual with Foveon sensor cameras, there is a remarkable colour depth and resolution. However the different sensor configuration - still using three layers to detect color information but now capturing its full, 19.6 million pixel resolution in the top layer, with lower two layers capturing 4.9MP of information each, means this produces different looking files to the DP Merrills. The images seem to be denser than previous renditions and the saturation and colour depth also seem to have increased. The images are also not quite so clean at base ISO (100) with some digital 'grain' visible, but higher ISO performance is also improved, somewhat surprisingly considering that. The camera is now usable up to ISO 800 and 1600 if you really must, which isn't saying much in terms of other cameras, but is a significant advantage over previous Foveons.

In terms of what is better, the camera is a lot faster to use and starts up instantly. Battery life is apparently better though I haven't really had a chance to really test that out. AF seems about the same, which is slow by todays standards and write times to the SD card are still slow, but you can carry on shooting. All of this is of course caused by the complicated sensor configuration and the time it takes the camera to sort this out. The jpgs. are very good, but so were the DP Merrill's as well. You may well read that this cameras jpgs. are not very good and that really surprises me. They look great to me and I don't understand how anyone could think otherwise. 

Layout and menus are straightforward. There is a nice virtual spirit level, a short cut menu for often changed parameters. The extensive real estate of the back of the camera means that there is plenty of room to engage the controls. Oh and it has a virtually silent leaf shutter release. 

The screen looks good but I've yet to test it bright sunlight so I'll reserve judgement on that.

No video. Which if you have ever seen any DP Merrill footage is a really good thing!!!

THE BAD

Sigma Photo Pro software. It's SO slow. I timed how long it takes to save an image on my i7 Mac laptop running no other other software. 1 minute 35 seconds. Now that's ridiculous, even allowing for all that processing of the multi layered sensor. 

The SD card slot has a ridiculous rubber cover. You know the ones that are attached to the camera. Really annoying and it WILL break.

It may be me, but others have mentioned it too, I keep changing the focus AF / MF control when I hold the camera, because it's stuck up at the top on the right just where I grip. 

No EVF. Is it really too much ask that this camera has an EVF? There is an optical viewfinder, but if you've seen the size of the lens hood (not supplied which is cheapskate) then you'll see the problem. 

Should give a really good view of the top of the hood!! Incidentally the hood on the pictures at the top of the page is a metal one I have already. Works very nicely.

And in terms of a viewfinder, I do have this!!

THE UGLY

I've called this section THE UGLY because it's about the design. And yes it is somewhat tongue in cheek because I don't think it's ugly at all, even though many do. I also think it handles really well.(apart from the focus button)

It is VERY different to other cameras. It's wider than virtually anything else I've used and though the pictures I took of the camera with my 10-18mm lens fitted to my Sony A7s have exaggerated the perspective it is an odd looking camera. But any notion that it's a problem to hand hold it is just plain ridiculous. Are people really that inept? The simplest way to hold it is like a camera phone. In fact it reminds me very much of my Nokia 1020 and I had no problem using it when I was out shooting. I also carried it around while shooting with no strap and didn't encounter any problems. My plan is to use it with my smart phones / camera such as my 1020 and Samsung 2 Galaxy camera. I tested it out with my winter jacket and I had no problem storing it in one of my jacket pockets when I was using one of the others. 

Design is brutal industrial. It has no soft curvy edges. It feels very solid and it's covered in some kind of grippy material. I don't find the grip uncomfortable at all and I'm astonished that people do. It's way easier to hold and use than those micro compact cameras and camera like the Panasonic GM1 and others of that size which are little rectangles with no grip. How people can use those and complain about the Quattro is beyond me. 

So in answer to the question have Sigma finally got the Foveon Sensor right with the DP2 Quattro? my answer would be no, but they are getting there. It's certainly a more usable camera than the DP Merrills with far less compromises to endure. And I think that there are many things that can't be improved much, because of the complications, power drainage and time that the sensor configuration requires. But how much you are prepared to put up with the cameras 'quirks' depends on how much you like the cameras output.

And that output is different. The files are like nothing else. For me I fell in love with the camera the moment I processed my first file. That super saturated colour 'pop' is just what I like. Not to everybody's taste I'm sure, but regular readers will know how I process files and won't be at all surprised by how much I like the look. 

I'll do a separate post on image quality, but there are a couple of things I should mention. Dynamic range with the Foveon sensor isn't great and it HATES overexposure, so if you like HDR type images with a lot of shadow detail then it's probably not for you. But the colour is so intense that I found I can expose for the highlights quite nicely and the images still work. 

The second thing is something I need to investigate further and it's the fact that you can turn off the creation of raw files and instead choose to have the camera produce a 39MP jpg. This has the obvious advantage that you bypass the seriously slow Photo Pro software and I've found that by running those jpgs. through Adobe Camera Raw I can get rid of the luminance noise and produce a wonderfully smooth, still ultra sharp, highly saturated file that jumps off the screen. (At low ISO settings of course) As I said I'll go into that in more detail in further posts.

I must give a thank you to my friend for persuading me to have a serious look at this camera, because if she hadn't then I wouldn't have bought one. And I'm glad I did because I'm going to create some amazing images with this camera. It also fits in with the way I want to work these days. I've written before how much I like using my Nokia 1020 phone and that it's my favourite way of shooting pictures these day. The Quattro isn't really that different, apart from the Nokia screen is better and despite it's radical shape and design it doesn't look that different to using a small tablet or large phone to shoot pictures with as far as anyone else is concerned. 

Yesterday I was in a huge electronics store and shot some pictures. Nobody took any notice as it probably would have looked like I was using a phone. And more and more, this is what I want. Because apart from anything else I seem to take more interesting (to me at least) pictures this way. Probably contrary to most of the photographic internet I actually don't want to look like a photographer. The reason I feel that way is that looking like a photographer, with the big camera, the lenses, the flashguns and the tripod actually changes what happens in front of the camera. People DO react to what they perceive to be serious gear and while it doesn't matter when I'm out in the countryside with no one around, I do shoot a lot more 'urban' photography these days than I used to. 

The Quattro will fit right in with this. As I said it's virtually silent and it's only when viewed close up that it looks different.

There is no doubt that the Sigma DP2 Quattro is radically different from the bulk of what's out there currently. Sigma have chosen to emphasise that difference with a remarkable design that seems to provoke different reactions. For my part it's the images I can create with it that is the main attraction and from these first impressions I doubt that I will find it as frustrating at the DP Merrills I owned. I have to say that I'm looking forward to doing some serious work more than any camera I've bought since....... well since my last Sigma Foveon Camera in fact. It's good to see that Sigma haven't given up on the concept and that they are prepared to work to overcome the inherent difficulties of getting this technology in an easy to use compact style camera. Interesting I guess that no new Foveon DSLR seems to be in the works, so It seems this Foveon 'look' is going to be available in this type of camera only. 

It does open up all sorts of creative possibilities and the opportunity to use an amazing sensor and of course a very good lens as well. I doubt this is going to sell by the container load, but there will, as ever, be a lot of interest in it. It's unique, it's odd, it's sublime in some ways and awful in others, but one thing you can be certain of, buy one of these, use it and your photographic excursions will certainly not be boring!!

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Many Thanks

David Taylor-Hughes