STOCK DIARIES - Does the Sigma Foveon Sensor work for Stock Photography?

Click on the image above for some new real world images of the Sigma sd Quattro and sd Quattro H. (It's exactly the same design for both cameras)

Incidentally, you might be interested in a previous post of mine -

In particular my open letter to Sigma. Now I'm not claiming and special influence here and I was just one of a number of people that expressed the same views. However, it would be nice to think that we all helped to demonstrate some enthusiasm (and a potential market) for what has now arrived.

Below is an image from the above link showing the size of the camera + an ART lens. As I suspected, it's not small!!

Above is the dp2 Quattro I had last year and my viewfinder 'solution' for it. Below are pictures from a stock shoot I did with it.

WHERE - Baddesley Clinton

WHEN - May 2015

WHAT - Sigma dp2 Quattro

HOW - Edited in Sigma PhotoPro6

The Foveon sensor with it's high-resolution ultra-sharp images would seem to be a likely candidate for shooting low ISO stock landscape / location / nature / travel material. And while that is certainly true, there are a few issues that make it less than ideal to use. Well, certainly up to now. Whether the new cameras make a difference (and there is going to be a long wait, particularly for the H 1.3x version) only time will tell. Below are the problems I encountered with the DP2 Quattro I used last year.

  • Anything other than base ISO is almost unusable. The Quattro was better than previous versions at high ISO's, but I would still only use the camera in light that allowed me to stick to ISO 100.
  • Even at that base level, the files still had more luminance noise than I would have liked. Particularly after editing the files in Photoshop.
  • Dynamic range is not so good as Bayer sensor cameras. Exposure has to be spot on. There is not a lot of 'rescue room' in the software.
  • I had to use Sigma PhotoPro6. There used to be other alternatives but with the new sensor that's now gone. It's slow software, even with the update that utilises computer ram to speed it up.
  • Battery life is awful, though compared with what else is happening these days with other cameras, maybe not as bad as it used to be. However, if you are planning to use one you will need spare batteries. (And a lot of them!)
  • No viewfinder. I ended up putting my Carry Speed video loupe on the camera (see above) it worked well and actually handled pretty well too, but it's not pretty! This is of course something that the new cameras have rectified.
  • The other thing the new cameras have rectified is the fixed lens issue. The Merrills and the Quattros have different cameras with different lenses which is far from ideal.
  • The DP1 and DP2 Sigma Foveon DSLR's have a reputation for attracting a lot of dust to the sensor. The new cameras need to address (and fix) this.
  • Foveon files look different. In the very conservative Bayer sensor dominated stock photography market, this can be a disadvantage. Personally I like 'Foveon Colour' but not everybody shares my preference.
  • The images can actually be TOO sharp. Ridiculous I know but they can look over sharpened which stock libraries don't like. I would often 'negative sharpen' my images. 

So a fairly long list. And many of these issues are operational and deal with the amount of time needed to process a file. They certainly took more time than the files from my other cameras. And there is another, very important issue. The Foveon sensor output (at low ISO's) is not so far out on it's own as it used to be. Certain cameras, including the Leica Q (Typ 116) and Sony A7r II that I own aren't that far away in terms of sharpness and resolution. Both cameras have Bayer sensors with all the advantages of that and both produce seriously sharp files. And with the latest Foveon sensors which have changed the ratios between the the three different layers to speed up processing, there seems to have been a slight loss in the colour edge separation which was what gave the earlier Foveons that amazing look. So, Bayer sensors have got closer to Foveon sensors and vice versa and the difference between them is less than it was.

But the new sd Quattro H has a trick up it's sleeve and that is the upsized 1.3x crop sensor. Will it make the same difference as the FF > APS-C comparison? The basic sd Quattro has the same pixel density as the DP Quattros and the H adds more surface area, without increasing that density. So, in theory, we should see improved noise performance and slightly better image quality from the H version, particularly as this is a new sensor.

However, on the negative side, as I suspected from the initial announcement, this is no shrinking violet of a camera. It's big. It's VERY big, particularly when paired with one of the Sigma FF ART lenses, which will give it the opportunity to really 'strut it's stuff!' Since many stock photographers like to (or have to!) work in situations where inconspicuous is the order of the day, I'm wondering just what kind of reaction it will get. Particularly since it will attract looks simply because of the fact that it is different. 

For me, with only the sketchiest detail available and no samples, the jury is out on new Sigma Foveon for stock currently. There is no doubt that I would like one of these, since I like the Foveon output very much and the new cameras address a lot of the failings of the DP's, the Merrills and the Quattro's, And the thought of those ART lenses in front of an improved sensor is one I would eagerly anticipate. But and it is a big BUT, I can't help thinking that the Sony A7r II I've just bought and one of those new f/2.8 zoom lenses, the samples from which seriously impressed me, is a better use of my cash and one that would work for me a lot better than the new Sigma. Especially since Sigma have now released an adapter that allows their Canon mount ART lenses to AF on the A7r II, something that isn't consistent across the range currently. (From what I read some lenses do AF with some adapters, some don't) This is another reason to consider my options.

The final doubt I have about Sigma Foveon and my Stock work is the fact that Sigma are up to their old tricks and announcing the camera well in advance of it actually appearing in the shops. This is the news that has emerged - 'The DP Quattro is likely to ship before summer. The SD Quattro H will launch before the end of the year.' 'Before the end of the year' is hardly encouraging, since it's only the end of February. Apart from anything else this means that I wouldn't have it for my busy period, whereas my Canon 5Ds, Sony A7r II and Leicas are sitting on the shelf ready to go. And that is an important element in stock photography, get your gear right for the seasons that earn you the most money. By the time March swings into April and Spring moves into summer, I'll be comfortable with my current high resolution cameras and be able to take advantage of them in the best months for the landscape / location / travel work that earns me my living. So Sigma have probably not got their timing right, Again!!

I'm hoping to have a really good look at the new Sigma's at the Photography show in Birmingham coming up soon. And I'm also hoping to get as much info. as I can from the reps. I'm particularly interested to know whether lenses like the 18-35mm f/1.8 APS-C lens cover the larger sensor, whether the fact that there is a battery slot in the main camera and two more in the battery grip means that I can go out with a camera fitted with three batteries on board and just exactly how big and heavy it is with an ART lens on the front of it. Then I may well be in a better position to wait for some image samples with some anticipation. (or not!!)