Sigma DP3 wishlist – DP2 review
Many street photographers dream of a perfect large sensor compact camera that they could carry along everywhere. Over the last three years, manufacturers such as Olympus, Panasonic or Leica all came up with their iteration of the product. Some focusing on design (Olympus), others on ergonomics (Panasonic) and on image quality (Leica). Nevertheless, I feel that none have yet designed a perfect compact camera for street (or travel) photography.
Sigma on its side, got the medal for being the first manufacturer to come to the market with a compact camera hosting a reflex sized sensor, which was the DP1 at the time. I initially thought about acquiring it but held off because of the wide focal (28mm) and slow lens (F4). This initial model had also a very slow shot to shot processing time which made it inconvenient for street photography. So when Sigma revisited the concept and launched the DP2 (which is now the DP2s), I instantly jumped on it and it has now been the companion of my digital Leica M’s for the last 18 months.
Sigma DP2 at F2.8, 1/1600, ISO100
Indeed, my need for a compact camera is several fold. First, it is a substitute to the Leica M9 when going in zones wheretheft or violence could be an issue. I much rather have a compact camera stolen then the M9 & lenses, even if insured. Also, the size of the DP2 being very small, it will be even less obtrusive then a Leica M, and therefore will probably bring less unwanted attention on you. Yet more importantly, a compact camera of the DP2 size is absolutely wonderful as a go anywhere camera. Be it on business trips, to the supermarket or to a wedding wearing a suit, there is always room for you to squeeze that little DP2 in a pocket. Indeed, while the Leica M’s are not big cameras per say, they won’t fit in a pocket, especially when fitted with high speed lenses.
Based on my experiences with the DP2, I therefore built a wish list of what I would like to see in a DP3, or in my perfect world compact camera.
Features to retain from DP2
- The 40mm focal length. After the initial DP1 and its 28mm wide angle lens, Sigma opted for a more classic 41mm full frame equivalent on the DP2. I usually shoot 35mm and 60mm on full frame but I find 40mm to be a versatile focal that can easily carry you through a whole day (or trip) of shooting. Indeed, it is still wide enough to get most street scenes in the frame and at the same time, it will also do the job for portraits. In that case, you will have to get closer a bit closer to your subjects than with the typical 50mm focal, but it can definitely be done. Add to that that the minimum focus distance is very short, you’ll be able to get much higher magnification ratios then let’s say a Leica M with a 50mm lens. All in all, a wise choice by Sigma to go with a 40mm focal (which is also Panasonic’s choice with its great 40mm F1.7 pancake), and I hope it will remain so in a future DP3.
Sigma DP2 at F4.0, 1/100, ISO100
Foveon sensor. This is obvious since Sigma own the technology but I find the quality and colors of the Foveon sensor to be exceptional at low ISO’s. I have had absolutely no after thoughts to use the DP2 as Leica M9 substitute on a sunny day. Sharpness is excellent, and colors have something very special. Dynamic range is good as I can recover burnt highlights in most situations, which cannot be said of most competing micro 4/3rds cameras.
- Lens quality : The 24.2mm lens (40mm full frame equivalent) is also quite an achievement by Sigma. At F2.8, it is already close to its best, resolution being slightly lower than the one reached at F3.5. Yet overall, the lens provides great sharpness over the full field and a smooth bokeh that I find gorgeous. Definitely a masterpiece lens by Sigma.
- The form factor : let’s not dream yet, the time of a full frame sensor in such a tiny camera has not arrived. I feel Sigma came up with quite an achievement to fit a F2.8 lens on a 1.7x sensor in quite a small body. Moreover, a camera must have a size which makes it comfortable to use and I have large hands. Therefore I think that the DP2 is just fine like it is and I don’t think a smaller camera would be a useful improvement. Some weight is needed for better stability and one must be able to hold it without the constant fear that it will squeeze out of his fingers. As for the overall look of the camera, I feel it is great. All black makes it less obstructive and I even find it is quite stylish with the 40mm external viewfinder mounted on it. Finally, the DP2 fits in a jacket pocket or a large pants pocket. This is not the case of any of the other large sensor compact cameras. I did even take it on a few business trip inside my suit pocket, so definitely a great advantage.
- Distance focus dial : let’s be straight about it. I will not buy any compact camera that does not have a ring or dial to set focus distance manually. In that respect, the DP1/2 distance dial was innovative and one of the main reason why I own this camera. Currently, I believe there is no compact camera with an autofocus performance that is fast and reliable enough. Keep in mind that I shoot mostly wide open, which means that if the autofocus picks up the wrong focus point, my shot will be most probably out of focus. With the DP2, I can operate similarly to a Leica M, that is I pre focus my camera using the distance dial, mainly at 2 meters when walking down the streets. It is true that other compact cameras such as the Leica X1 or Panasonic GF1 have a system where a ring brings up a scale on the LCD screen. Yet, there are three problems with that, first you usually don’t have time to look at your screen in street photography and secondly distance markings are not precise and the focus throw is way too long.
Features to modify / improve
- Make it a F2.0 lens : or even F1.7 to bring it to the level of the current champion, that is the Panasonic GF1. There are two reasons for that request : I shoot wide open and like to throw background off focus. With the current F2.8 lens, moderate out of focus can be achieved when the subject is located between 1 and 2 meters of the camera. A F2.0 lens would allow to increase the blur at a given distance and probably extend the maximum focus distance where blur can be perceived (3 meters ?). Obviously, it will never be able to match a full frame camera with a F1.4 lens (or even F1.0) in terms of depth of field, but still, F2.0 would already be great. The second reason is obviously low light performance. Currently, given the quite poor High ISO performance of the DP2 and the slow lens, the camera becomes unusable in low light, which leads me to the following point.
- Improve high ISO performance. As said above, performance at low ISO’s is absolutely stunning. Yet starting from ISO400, the DP2 start to lag behind newer competitors. The decrease of performance shows mainly in loss of saturation and colors shifts. ISO800 is usable but it is not up to the standards for quality A3 prints, unless you like grain or shoot mainly B&W. So that basically leaves us with a F2.8, ISO400 low light capability which does not compare favorably to the F1.7 and ISO800 of the GF1. This is indeed a more than 3 stops difference between the two cameras and a at least 5 stops difference with top notch full frame cameras. So if you intend is two stride along dark streets at night, the DP2 in its current form is definitely not for you.
- Increase the pixel count. Sigma currently advertises the DP2 as a 14 mega pixels camera, though it is really a 3 layers 4.7mp camera (each layer picks up a different color signal). In my experience, it will be fine for un-cropped prints of up to A3 size, which might be enough for a lot of users. For internet blogging or Blurb books, it is far more than enough. Now, if you are a heavy cropper or use the files for pro publishing or printing, that will probably not be enough. To remediate this issue, Sigma recently announced a new sensor to be mounted in its future flagship reflex camera, that is the SD1. The new camera will boast a 3 layers 46 megapixels sensor, which will correspond roughly to a 15 megapixel in other competitors terminology. This sensor will be a true APS-C one, which corresponds to a slight increase of size compared to the current DP2 sensor. No full frame yet, but it would be already an amazing achievement to have it included in the future DP3, especially if high ISO performance is significantly improved.
- External viewfinder frame lines. This is my rant paragraph over Sigma. How can designers come up with such terrible frame lines in a viewfinder ? The finder itself is of good quality and small size but the frame lines delimiting the 40mm field of view are way to approximative. In fact, they match more the field of view of a 45mm lens then a true 40mm. These designers at Sigma should understand that most pictures are taken at distances of 1.5 meters and above, and should therefore make the frame lines accurate for these distances.
Sigma DP2 at F4.0, 1/40, ISO100
- Get rid of the clunky noises. The camera makes simply too much noise. The shutter itself is silent, which is great, yet the power on mechanism makes a lot of noise. I always get the impression that the camera is about to break since scary metallic noises can be heard as the lens extends to shooting position.
- Speed up power on : It is currently way to slow for street photography, therefore I have to keep it on most of the time. This obviously translates in batteries draining out much faster.
- Improve battery performance : the DP2 batteries drain very fast, making it sometimes difficult to reach 100 shots with moderate LCD usage. It should be better. I always carry 3 batteries with me and I am not always sure it will get me through a day’s shooting. Part of the issue is the slow power on which forces the user to leave the camera always on.
- Simplify the menu system : look at what Leica is doing. Too many buttons, too many menus and an interface that is not intuitive enough.
- Add exposure settings dials : The basics parameters of exposure should be simple to adjust, so add dedicated dials or buttons for aperture, speed and ISO’s. I feel the design implemented by Leica on the X1 for speed and aperture (dials) is great. It would be wonderful to have it on the DP3, together with an improved focus distance dial (more precise and steadier).
Sigma DP2 at F2.8, 1/2000, ISO100
- Upgrade the screen : obviously, a DP3 would probably come with an up to date screen which should easily outperform the current one. While shooting, the LCD is not too important, yet reviewing pictures on the DP2 gives very little idea of the true output of the files.
- Speed up the autofocus : I had decided not to talk about this point since I mostly use the DP2 in manual focus mode, but autofocus is too slow. It did improve a lot with the latest firmwares. Nevertheless when facing scenes with moving subjects, it is still too slow to pick up instant focus and record that decisive moment we all search for. Its competitors are doing a bit better, but I think that none are currently good enough to do all street photography in autofocus mode. I’d much rather have Sigma work on an improved focus distance dial (lens ring …) then a slightly better autofocus that I would not use.
- HD video : let’s face it, it is convenient to have video capability in a compact camera, especially with a large sensor such as the Foveon. The DP2′s video quality is lousy, get us HD (720p is enough) and I’ll be more than happy..
Sigma DP2 at F7.1, 1/320, ISO100
By looking at the points above, one can obviously conclude is that Sigma is not quite there yet with its DP series. It is true, the camera is far from perfect as too many quirks riddle it, especially on an operation point of view. The DP2 body is now almost three years old, so is the screen and ISO performance. Sigma must improve these points for the DP3 to become more versatile and not only a bright light camera. Add to that, a slow power on, a lousy battery performance, an unintuitive interface, and some other minor quirks, and there is definitely a lot of room for improvement for Sigma to work on.
Yet, the good news for Sigma is that none of its competitor has come up with a perfect product for street photography. Sigma got it right in terms of IQ, especially at low ISO. The form factor and lens quality are also spot on and I simply love the files extracted from my DP2, which I find very close to the ones of the Leica M8/9′s. The new Foveon sensor, if included in a future DP3, brings promises of exceptional image quality, let’s wish it will also be part of the package. Finally, add to that an improved high ISO performance, exposure dials, and a F2.0 lens in a body of similar size to the current one, and Sigma will definitely have a winner with the DP3.
Meanwhile, you can still get the Sigma DP2S online from Amazon. Click on the link below and support this site.
Sigma DP2S 14MP X3 FOVEON CMOS Digital Camera with 24.2mm f/2.8 and 2.5 inch LCD