Sigma DP1 Merrill – Into the great wide open

Sigma DP1 Merrill – Into the great wide open

dpFirst things first – at the time of review, there remains little third party support for the 46Mp sensor’s files. That means the SD1, SD1 Merrill and DP Merrills are tied to Sigma Photo Pro for the majority of your workflow, though Iridient Raw Developer does support the new generation of cameras.

SPP’s latest version, 5.4.1, involves significant fixes and improvements to the newly introduced lens profile correction. The most notable improvement on our test system – an older 8-core Mac Pro under the most recent Mac OS version – is proper, full utilisation of the processors. Now all 8 are working when preview and adjustments are being processed. It remains an interruption in the natural workflow for many photographers, with no integration with third-party applications such as Photoshop or any cropping, rotation or sophisticated export tools. 5.4.1 is now adequate for quick exports, but faced with file sizes up to 70Mb it’s still a slow process when all you want is to put your Sigma images alongside the rest of your media in a single catalogue.
Having said that – it is now sufficiently stable for reliable pre-export exposure and sharpening adjustments, and it’s no great hardship to work with folders as a means of cataloguing.
Support in industry standard applications such as Capture One, Aperture, Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is badly needed for widespread acceptance of Sigma’s current range of bodies, and it’s frustrating that photographers will be discouraged from working with them due to this lack of support.
By the time you read this, Sigma Photo Pro 5.5 will be released or imminent, with new Monochrome processing and undoubtedly further improvements.
 
The Camera
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Physically the DP1 Merrill is almost identical to the DP2 Merrill. Aside from the necessarily different lens, the body and button layout is the same, unlike the originals where mid-production improvements were only applied to the DP1 late in the product’s lifecycle. With only weeks between their launches and availability, this bodes well for Sigma’s product cycle and production in the future; indeed the Sigma DP3 Merrill was announced at CP+ in January and is expected to ship at the end of February. The same hood fitting, 49mm filter thread and compact, non-retracting lens give the DP1 Merrill the same advantages over the original DP1 series its slightly older sibling introduced, most notably the ability to power it up without taking off the lens cap or filter (and the direct fitment of filters).
Battery type and life, shot to shot performance, screen quality and refresh are all the same as before – firmware improvements introduce slightly faster AF, slightly easier access to controls, but overall the DP Merrill range is mature and follows a consistent interface for Sigma users. The Quick Set menu interacts with the control wheel and presents the available options quickly, selecting AF points and Focus limiters (to avoid hunting in the close range and speed focus acquisition) is easy, and the “twist-zoom” manual focus magnification, combined with the crisp aliasing of in-focus areas on the high resolution LCD is a world apart from the original DP range.
ISO performance is, as with the DP2, a little behind the SD1. LiveView and a compact body – particularly one packing dual processors and enough memory to buffer 7 up to 70MB files – is always going to be a compromise between quality and cooling, and ISO 100 displays a very subtle grain the SD1 lacks. Higher ISO is increasingly grainy and desaturated, though with 15.4Mp of spatial resolution you can still make use of it for many output requirements. Sigma themselves have acknowledged this, and SPP’s Monochrome mode will assist with getting good, fine grained mono output from these high ISO impages.
Firmware updates have added a new mode, Foveon Blue, in an attempt to capture some of the feel that the early SD9/SD10 bodies delivered. At present, it’s a mixed blessing, undoubtedly bringing back those glorious skies but rendering reds and greens in a very peculiar way; red brick buildings in particular trip the mode up. Using it is non-destructive as long as you’re capturing raw files and I’ve found that making two exports, one natural or landscape/portrait to suit, and one Foveon Blue, can be a good route to creating a composite with natural colours and yet the almost unnatural, but idealistic sky the mode excels at.
Continued use of the DP1 suggests that the rating of 97 shots to one battery (two are supplied) is a little conservative, but it’s rare that you can crack 110 shots. Avoiding previewing, and working with an optical frame or finder, really helps; endlessly previewing images will wipe the battery out quickly.
Support for Flash is impressive, with full TTL support for the various Sigma flashes (from EF140 to 600 Super and older models) and if you choose to work with wireless triggering, the central shutter can allow flash up to around 1/1000th, depending on your triggers, flash tech and so forth. You don’t get focal-plane shutter vignetting/cut off images, but faster speeds may lot allow the flash duration to work for full illumination.
 
The Lens
 
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Let’s face it, there’s one defining feature behind any Sigma DP camera. From that first DP1 to the latest DP3 Merrill, they are dominated by the relationship of Sigma’s highest-quality optics and a fixed mount and sensor relationship. The F2.8 aperture of the 19mm (essentially a 28mm equivalent) is an improvement many adopters of the original DP1 requested, but there was little else to ask for in terms of optics; the DP1’s lens shone at launch and this new generation continues the tradition.
Similar in concept to the E and Micro Four-Thirds 19mm and 30mm, the DP’s dedicated lenses are not simply the same design bolted to a Sigma body, though those lenses do provide some context for where the DP Merrill now competes. On paper, the DP1’s 19mm utilises 9 elements in 8 groups, with a 9-blade diaphragm, rather than the EX DN model’s 8 elements in 6 groups and 7-blade unit. The Merrill’s filter thread of 49mm effectively includes a housing for the lens; the EX DN uses 46mm filters. In practice, the £799 (and street prices do not vary significantly) DP1 Merrill is carrying a lens that you would pay between £400-800 for alone, depending on the brand applied to it.
Being able to use filters directly is a real bonus over the original DP series. I have an inexpensive circular polariser fitted, for quick control of skies and reflections.
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DP1MChurchCrop

 
This was apparent with the original DP1, yet the 46Mp sensor’s unforgiving resolution and quality throws the clarity and accuracy of the Merrill’s lens into sharp relief. You may be forgiven for thinking provision of lens adjustments in SPP might have been to compensate for the lens and sensor combination you can guarantee to be seen, and yet the 19mm is so sharp distant powerlines in the edge of the frame are rendered with pixel preceision. There simply is nothing to fault in the DP1 Merrill’s optics; Sigma could probably have pushed the design for a faster aperture, a more ‘consumer friendly’ appearance in the comparison shopping lists, but there would be little to gain. It’s fast enough, and you can use it fully open all day if you wish.
 
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DP1 Merill, above, and DP2 Merill, below – both taken from the same position.
Colour differences are due to experimenting with treatments and the Foveon Blue mode.

DP2Church
Elsewhere…
 
The DP1 Merrill has not seen the sort of changes that differentiated the DP1 and DP2 – there’s no new processor, or revised layout, and that’s good. The DP Merrill family is well designed and specified for the price and the mature interface works well, particularly for users of the SD14, 15 or SD1. Touches like the AF confirm light that is visible on the edge of an optical finder suggest a significant amount of thought went into the design, and it doesn’t need tweaking later on.
Having said that, the DP Merrill range does lack a couple of convenience features. There is no longer a pop-up flash, so you may wish to acquire the compact EF-140, and there is no AF assist light. Relying on contrast detect for AF, the little camera can struggle in low light and I’ve attached one of those little keyring LEDs to the strap for use when appropriate.
The results, as with the DP2 Merrill, are astounding for a camera of this size and price. It’s an oft-repeated myth that the Merrill cameras “compete” with medium format, which neglects to mention many of the other factors defining the formats – what they truly do is unmatched by anything, at any price, when used in circumstances that suit the cameras – low ISO, good light, and no reliance on fast AF tracking. Even Leica have resorted to ticking specification boxes as the latest M ships with the same essential sensor tech you’ll find in a Sony or Nikon body. Sigma’s continued use of the Foveon Direct Image Sensor ensures the DP and SD ranges keep a unique selling point – though the DP1 and 2 Merrill lenses would give any compact, regardless of tecnnology, a reason to find buyers.