Sigma SD Quattro H

THE CAMERA

As you can see, the Sigma SD Quattro H isn't exactly small and light! In fact as a mirrorless camera it's bigger and heavier than a lot of DSLR's I've owned. However, I think Sigma have got the balance right here. The lens mount is Sigmas DSLR mount. They made the decision, again I think rightly, to let the camera access their superb range of lenses, including the ART series. That's why the camera looks like it's got an adapter built in. I've always thought that manufacturers set up problems for the future by not taking advantage of what they already have. Sony used the e-mount designed for APS-C compact cameras rather than the a-mount for their FF A7 range. I guess this was so they could claim reduced size and weight as a virtue. However this has resulted in a lens / body mismatch and for me, a very poor handling experience. 

Leica with the SL (Typ 601) and now Sigma with the SD Quattros have taken a different direction with mirrorless. Larger heavier cameras and the ability to use existing lens ranges (in Leicas case via adapters). It's obvious from sales of DSLR's that not everybody is obsessed with small cameras and any advantage they might have is eroded by smartphones, with their small footprint and evolving image quality, anyway. I've always believed that in a depressed market the more new products look like 'real cameras' and therefore something completely different to smartphones, the better. And certainly the SD Quattros don't even try to look like the expectations of what a mirrorless camera should look like. And for me I think that's a wise decision. 

 

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

You will read reviews that the Sigma SD Quattro H is poor at high(er) ISO settings. And yes it is. But who on earth would want to shoot with this camera at anything other than it's base ISO (100)? Because when you do that and attach one of the Sigma ART lenses to the lens mount you will create images that are almost unbelievable in terms of sharpness and colour. 

Sigma SD Quattro H - Sigma 24-105 ART zoom lens. This is a straight out of the camera 50MP S-Hi jpg. No retouching, no Photoshop work. 

This camera has been a long time coming with it's unusual 1.3 x cropped sensor. And for those wondering whether Sigma APS-C lenses will cover it, the good news is yes they probably will. The 35mm f/1.4 'kit' lens has no problems and the 8-16mm at 8mm zoom would cover it completely if it wasn't for the lens hood. So, the choice of lenses is pretty extensive and when you read articles like this - https://www.dpreview.com/news/4310712992/sigma-85mm-f1-4-art-dxo-results-a-new-king-is-crowned where DxO say that the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART lens has received their highest ever score for a lens, then you get some idea of what you can expect from the Foveon sensor and some of the best still camera lenses ever made.

The 'H' is a step up from previous Sigma Foveon sensor cameras, but it's certainly not perfect. The AF is slowish but reliable, battery life is better than before but still not great and it's a heavy bulky beast, particularly with one of those ART lenses in front of it. But make no mistake the images this thing produces are simply jaw dropping and as I've indicated before if you are contemplating paying 6x as much for the Fuji 'Medium Format' camera to shoot landscape, architecture or anything else that doesn't require speed and good low light performance then as far as I'm concerned you are wasting your money. The 'H' turns out the best jpgs. I've ever seen and to be honest, I didn't believe this kind of .jpg quality was possible. It will shoot .DNG raw files which can be processed in Photoshop, but I've tried them and I still like the OOC jpgs. better. 

The 'H' isn't for everyone and it certainly won't cover everything I want a camera to do, but for my good light, scenic / landscape / travel stock work, I can't think of anything to beat it. For me it's pretty much like having a (genuine) MF (or even large format) camera that works like a DSLR. Now I could pretty much superglue the 100 ISO setting (if it had a manual control setting for that) because I'm not planning to use anything else. If there isn't enough light then unless I use a tripod, there is no point in taking it out. Because anything other than those ISO 100 images will be a disappointment. 

In the past I've always been frustrated by most of the cameras that Sigma have housed their Foveon sensor inside, but not this time. As I indicated, it's no speed merchant and for those who fancy themselves as some kind of combination fashion / sports / action photographer then it won't do that job, but I spent this afternoon walking around a local town photographing street markets and various other sites for a couple of hours and didn't feel frustrated by the camera once. i do actually like using it and while I'm no fan of the weight of the 'H' + battery grip + two extra batteries + the 24-105mm f/4, I actually do like the 'big camera feel' and the squared off industrial look. And the fact it's not a 'hampster finger' mirrorless knobfest endears it to me all the more. It is actually 'Leica minimal' in it's layout and while the EVF is pretty poor for these days, it does it's job. 

I've already got the 'plain' SD Quattro and I'm keeping that as well, because that produces superb images too and I'll get a bit more length from my lenses from that with it's 1.5 x crop. And I imagine that the next time I go off for a trip photographing somewhere scenic, then those are the two camera I will take. Because even though I love my Leicas, none of them have this extraordinary resolution and indeed I doubt any other camera has it either. The Sigma SD Quattro H produces genuinely beautiful images and a look that you can't (and won't) get with any other camera. I will make a LOT of money with this camera and being able to produce images that are just under 3 feet x 2 feet at 300 ppi, with razor sharp definition is a pretty exciting prospect.

For me this camera puts every other mirrorless camera in the shade, because when used as it is intended to produce stunning still images at low ISO's (it doesn't shoot video) then it's the ultimate tool for me to produce the kind of images that I wanted to when I started in photography and still do. The idea of shooting mountain ranges, lakes and the coastline in warm evening light with this camera makes me quite excited, because I know that finally I have a camera that will do justice to the wonders of the natural world. And I know of no higher accolade I can give any camera. 

WHO IS IT FOR AND WHO MIGHT BUY IT.

Much as I love this camera I am under no illusions that it is a camera that will fly off the shelves. I suspect that, as with all Sigma / Foveon cameras it will very much remain a niche product. Plus in comparison with all the attention that Fuji GFX is getting, it very much looks like the SD Quattros have slipped out almost unnoticed. There aren't many reviews and most of those seem to completely misunderstand the concept anyway. All those insightful (NOT!) comments about the poor high ISO performance and lack of speed really do miss the point. That these are cameras designed to produce, under the right circumstances, the best quality image files that digital capture is capable of.  And when you factor in that with three sensor layers everything is bound to take longer anyway, there is little possibility of the SD Quattros ever being used as sports / action cameras. It would be nice if they could handle that, but because of the nature of the sensor(s) that may well be impossible.

So who exactly would benefit from a camera such as this and who might buy it? Well in order to attempt to answer that I've included below my 'contact sheet' from yesterday.

And this is the kind of photography where the SDH comes into it's own. I was under no pressure to get the shots and the light was good and continuous. The other area it would shine is in a studio. And not just for still life or product shots. It could easily be used to shoot portraits or fashion. With a decent flash unit it could even be used to shoot a wedding, though I wonder just how many brides and grooms would appreciate the sharpness and resolution, there really is nowhere to hide the fact that none of us is perfect with images from the SDH!

A real problem for Sigma is that the SD and SDH can't be seen as all round cameras. High ISO performance is poor, the camera is relatively slow to respond (compared to many DSLR and mirrorless cameras), you really need the battery grip and 3 batteries to even contemplate a days shooting and there are the issues about what the camera offers in terms of files, i.e. if you shoot either the S-HI jpgs or raw .DNG files you cannot shoot anything else. It's only if you shoot the Sigma X3F files that you can get a raw file AND a jpg. And for that you need the somewhat pedestrian Sigma Photo Pro. It is quicker than it was and you can now start using your computers memory and graphics card to speed it up, but it's not the fastest out there. Having to process three sensor layers worth of information isn't going to quick anyway. 

Fortunately the .DNG files work very well with Photoshop and are just as quick to work with as any other file, but Sigma have issued a warning that these .DNG files may not work with all software and indeed Iridient developer won't recognise them unless I use Adobe DNG converter to change them into 'conventional' .DNG files. Make no mistake these files processed in Photoshop are very impressive and are capable of being upsized to get that 50MP detail, but all of this makes working with the camera less straightforward than other cameras. As with the SD I use the S-Hi option, which I believe uses the in camera raw processing, which probably explains why you can't have a raw + jpg.option. For me these files are just as sharp as any raw conversion I might make and any tweaking I might want to do can be done in Photoshop anyway. Two things reinforce this, firstly the metering from the SD and SDH is absolutely spot on and I get perfect exposures almost 100% of the time and secondly these are far and away the best jpgs. I've ever seen. These (presumably) in camera raw conversions are spectacularly sharp and have excellent colour and dynamic range, which is very different to what most cameras produce, i.e. heavily noise reduced, 'warmed up' softish images. And all of the above means that the SD and SDH become even more specialist cameras than other alternatives.

Now would I choose this camera if I could have only one? Well the answer to that is no, it's just not versatile enough. Yes the majority of my stock work would be handled by the SDH, but not everything. And I've yet to take it out for a really long walk. The above images were shot during a stroll around a town for about one and a half miles, which was fine, but for some of my longer (and uphill) excursions, I may well choose another (lighter) camera. So, I'm glad that I am able to have it as an addition to what I have already.

CONCLUSION

Despite all the caveats I've included above the Sigma SD Quattro H is a remarkable camera and produces remarkable files. And since we are judged as photographers by the results we produce rather than the degree of difficulty it requires to get them, the low ISO images from this camera are pretty much second to none. And of course it is still easier, faster and lighter to use than the Medium Format film cameras I used to use. I will sometime soon post some raw and .jpg fies from the SDH so you can judge for yourselves just how good the image quality.

As to whether the H is worth getting over the 'ordinary' SD I think yes it is for the extra size of the images and for the fact that wide angle lenses aren't cropped as much. I get just over 10mm (*in terms of 35mm 'equivalence') from my 8-16mm zoom rather than 12mm and at those widths those 2mm mean something. It also means that my 24-105mm zoom becomes a 32-136 (*approx.) rather than a 36mm-157mm (*approx.) which for what I shoot is much more useful. The .DNG option is also useful and hopefully that will be available via firmware updates for other Sigma Foveon sensor cameras.

And I really can't stress enough just how good the images the SDH produces are. Certainly the best I've ever produced in terms of clarity, sharpness and resolution. It was interesting that Dpreview have produced some sample images raw and jpg. taken with the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 ART lens on a Sony A7r II. I had a look at the raw samples and I have to say they weren't even close to the images I'm producing on my SDQ in terms of sharpness. Now that lens in front of a Foveon sensor might be another story. I've also looked at file samples from the Fuji and Hassleblad 50MP 'medium format' cameras and again (while admitting that at any ISO other than 100 the Sigma looses out) at base ISO the Sigma once again produces sharper images, even when the output is 50MP. So since the vast majority of what I shoot is at the lowest possible ISO, the SDH is clearly giving me the best images I've ever produced. They are so good that I'm even going to be using my SD cameras to produce digitised versions of my film archive. I borrowed a Sigma macro lens from a friend and I was blown away by how my 35mm and MF transparencies looked compared to film scans. Plus since it's a much quicker process, even allowing for the fact that I have to remove dust spots etc, myself I will probably be selling my scanner. This does solve my problem of what to do if and when my Nikon LS-9000 packs up, because there is no way it seems I can get it repaired or replaced for a price I can afford.

Now I'm not prepared to really recommend either way as to whether you should consider getting the SDH. It depends whether Image quality is your priority as it is with me and whether the limitations of the camera (though much improved from previous Sigma models) are important to what you take pictures of. I am however prepared to say that if you already use Sigma Foveon sensor cameras, you will love the SDH. I feel I have gained a lot in image quality with the extra resolution and the camera (as with the 'plain' SD) is much easier and much faster to use. I've described it as a MF camera that works like a DSLR and I stand by that. I doubt whether the Foveon sensor technology will ever let any Sigma camera work like a pro DSLR, but then Pro DSLR's can't even come close to the image quality that the SDH can produce and it is that comparison that will ultimately decide whether the SDH is for you.

It is absolutely for me and I'm looking forward to the Spring and Summer and (hopefully) better light when I really let it 'do it's thing'. And it's difficult to not get enthusiastic over a camera that produces images on my screen which get sharper the more I enlarge them until at 100% my jaw drops yet again. I remember the late Michael Reichmann of Luminous Landscape writing about a previous Sigma Foveon camera and saying that he wanted to go out and take pictures with it just to see those magical images on his screen. And this is hyper reality, since the SDQ will show you things you couldn't possibly see in real life. I would go so far as to say that Sigma SD Quattro H files at ISO 100 are things of beauty and pretty much the ultimate of what digital photography (at least affordable digital photography) is capable of. It is to be hoped that the late Richard B Merrill, the creator of the Foveon sensor had some idea of where his technology would lead and the results it is capable of with the SDH. It will be barely noticed in the chattering, brand obsessed time wasting that constitutes the photographic internet, but Sigma just gave digital capture photography a significant push forward and I for one am very appreciative that they continue to support Foveon technology. Because without it photography would be the poorer.