Sigma DP2 Merrill – sharpest tool in the box?

Sigma DP2 Merrill – sharpest tool in the box?

dp2Sigma’s compact “DP” models pioneered the use of large, DSLR sensors in pocketable point-and-shoot style bodies, combining dedicated wide-angle and standard lenses with the Foveon image sensor to create a truly unique camera. Richard Kilpatrick takes a look

Now the new 46Mp “Direct Image Sensor” first seen in the SD1 last year has been integrated into a third-generation DP body. Compared with the DP1 and DP2, the DP2 Merrill is purified, simplified and refined – and the debut 30mm F2.8 lens has a real challenge with that super-critical sensor. Have Sigma made the third-generation DP the compact to beat in 2012?

DP2MFront

Body

The most obvious difference in the DP is the first one you see. The retracting lenses of the originals have been replaced with a fixed, but similarly compact design which sports a wide, ribbed manual focus control. The unusual little wheel with distance markings will be missed by some users, yet the intuitive and familiar collar design makes the DP2 Merrill more intuitive and provides a comfortable handhold.

The body has been freshened up and refined, with a single multi-purpose control wheel surrounding the shutter release and a MODE button replacing the fixed mode selection. Custom settings banks have been provided for specific situations, making it very easy to switch from outdoor, bright landscapes to street or indoor shooting.

The button layout has been improved, and feels of higher quality, and the power button has acquired a green illuminated ring to indicate power is on when the LCD is off. The flash hotshoe is a standard type and conforms to Sigma’s TTL standard, allowing use of the EF-140 and the larger models; the pop-up flash of the original model is gone.

DP2MRearOff

Dominating the rear panel, the new 3.0” VGA LCD display is a significant improvement. Sharp, responsive and with a mature and stylish user interface, the blend of simplicity and quality of graphics gives the DP2 Merrill a finished feel that the original models sometimes lacked. Display flexibility with grid, info and histogram options remains high.

The body is not significantly bulkier than the original models, despite packing dual processors and a 1.5x crop sensor rather than the original 1.7x crop. The pared-down features border on minimalist – only a single USB/AV port, behind a hinged plastic cover, disrupts the black aluminium sides. Underneath a tripod mount, central with the lens and focal plane, is usefully far from the latching battery and SD card storage door. A removable section allows for the use of a battery eliminator/AC adaptor.

Packaging

Sigma have slightly reduced the bundle you get with the DP2 Merrill. An attractive leather strap is included (the strap mounts are offset, which makes the camera particularly easy to carry across one shoulder as well as avoiding obstruction of the shutter release) along with the charger and AV lead and Sigma Photo Pro 5.3, and unusually two batteries are provided. No case is included, unlike the DP1x and 2x.

The battery is the BP-41 and the small dimensions, dictated by the body, limit the capacity to only 4.5Wh vs the SD1 Merrill’s 12Wh. With the drain of the LCD, this gives the DP2 Merrill an official spec of 97 shots per battery, with my initial charge allowing 119 raw+JPEG images (and one card format) before depletion. This is not quite the drawback it seems when you consider that like its SLR sibling, the DP2 Merrill is producing files up to 70MB in size – a 4GB SDHC card reports a capacity of just 56 images. Even with an 8GB card, you will run out of space around the same time as you will charge, so carrying a spare card and battery will become second nature.

Charging with the included mains charger is impressively fast, but when traveling you may want more batteries or an alternative charger – with the cutout for the battery eliminator it may be possible for power users to find external sources.

Software features

It’s rare for Sigma to move beyond the purely photographic, and the DP2 Merrill is no exception. The side effect of that VGA screen is that the stream from the Foveon sensor is now at a healthy VGA resolution, and the convenient benefit of video recording remains tied to that stream. It’s 4x the resolution of the original DP models, and is enough for good quality YouTube and basic DVD (it’s higher resolution than DV with a very impressive source) albeit short of even 720P. The Merrill’s close relationship to the SD1 does beg the question “where is live view on the SLR?” yet the real mystery is why the CMOS Foveon chip – developed to produce video before video was even a consideration in DSLRs – has still not been fully leveraged for just this market.

 

627293 10151328306037586 1527978204 o

The pixel-binning capability designed in from the beginning gives, with the 15.4Mp spatial resolution, an HD-beating 2,336 x 1,568 low resolution image – ideal for a 1920 x 1080 widescreen crop. As a street shooting stills camera few will miss the feature – but on paper and in the media, an HD-video Foveon would make such waves that  one has to assume there’s a serious technical barrier preventing it.

There are no scene modes, no silly effects – just some basic settings for colour rendering on the JPEG, and a selection of resolutions to balance storage and shooting speed with quality. Sigma’s ability to capture variable resolution raw files is unmatched, and allows high-quality, quick workflow 3.6Mp spatial resolution images for online media and small prints.

Interval shooting is carried over, along with a 3.5fps (for 7 frames at full resolution) mode and a low-res JPEG-only “Unlimited” shooting mode, which captures at roughly 1.5fps until the card is full or battery depleted at a resolution of 1632 x 1088.

The lens

DP2MFrontShade

On the face of it, a 30mm F2.8 is not something that makes headlines. With the exception of a certain German brand, few optics of such specification would merit a second glance. The DP2 Merrill’s lens is part of the package, and at £799 SRP, the package is fairly priced for a large sensor camera – yet many are chasing headlines with 24mm and F2-beating spec.

On the face of it…

The DP2 Merrill’s lens, however, turns preconceptions upside-down for a compact. The 30mm F2.8 – as with the previous DP models, a bespoke design for the camera – is unbelievably sharp. The higher pixel density, lack of anti-aliasing filter and lack of interpolation on the 15.4Mp sensor presents a real challenge to any lens, and the DP2 Merrill showcases exactly what this sensor can do with paired with near perfect optics.

The lens is sharp, corner to corner, edge to edge. The plane of focus is flat. The resolution and contrast play to the sensor’s advantages – at F5.6, zoom in to a 100% crop and you will see pixel-perfect rendering of the scene. No mush, no softness, here is the 3D look so many Foveon enthusiasts value.

 

This monochrome shot of a fairground ride operator, at web resolution, is not very revealing…

 

394550 10151351709057586 1670954642 n

Yet as a 100% crop, it reveals what he wanted for lunch. (Lower Right Corner). Open image in a new window for 1089 pixel wide.

 

257868 10151351710622586 1185964760 o

There’s the tiniest hint of chromatic aberration in the bokeh – as much a result of the sensor’s interaction with the lens as the lens itself, and far less than displayed by an SD1 with similar quality optics. It’s correctable with SPP’s new lens correction function.

 

622488 10151328290322586 718984807 o

The Standard and Vivid colour modes (standard used here) can be quite punchy – Neutral is generally highly accurate, and can sometimes lack appeal when an artistic feel is sought.

 

It’s not all roses for the end user, as this accurate and sharp setup will reveal the slightest shake, and the sensor’s limited ISO will ensure you rarely want to stray above 800. In camera JPEG performance is a big improvement on the DP1/2 and SD1, though the noise reduction falters above 800, being optimised to preserve detail. Colour and clarity below that – particularly at the base ISO of 200 – ensure you’ll be happy to shoot JPEG if you don’t plan for post processing.

 

Dp2Merrill

 

Compact Compromises

As with the original DP range the DP Merrill relies on the rear LCD, and therein lies the frustrating aspect of working with the 45mm DP2 Merrill in particular. This is a camera which wants light, lots of it – working in bright daylight it delivers images you really won’t see any other way. Yet unlike the wide-angle models, you need to frame with a degree of care, and being tied to an LCD without EVF option means battling glare and reflections.

 

Naturally the Ikodot doesn't work with very close subjects. The Green LED indicates the successful focus and at a normal distance with a typical portrait or landscape, the Ikodot matches with the centre AF point nicely.

The Ikodot wireframe viewfinder is a solution I’ve used since the original DP1, but an optical viewfinder matched to the 45mm frame would be a welcome addition. Sigma have even considered this – beside the hotshoe is an additional LED, which looks like it would once have served as a flash ready light. This cunning addition is an AF confirm LED – and is visible when holding the camera up with a viewfinder mounted. Unfortunately it can’t confirm manual focus, which is accomplished by a shimmery effect on the preview image (it looks like strong aliasing, rather than the white pixels commonly used on contrast peaking systems) and assisted though a rapid focus zoom – hold the shutter halfway and move the focus collar, and the image is zoomed on the focus point.

Greater Control

In addition to the new manual focus collar, a single wheel is an improvement over the DP’s buttons-only approach. In priority modes the wheel adjusts the selected feature, with the left and right d-pad buttons adjusting exposure compensation. In manual mode the wheel adjusts aperture by default, but extensive customisation is provided. Control directions can be reversed, and the function of buttons and wheel altered per mode, and saved in the three custom setting banks accessed via the top mode wheel. The AF/MF option allows the camera to autofocus, then focus-zoom and be fine-tuned.


A competitive alternative.

Sigma have refined and dramatically altered the DP model, without losing too much of the original’s character. The fixed focal length, LCD only body is clearly very precisely designed and assembled, and should remain free of dust thanks to the reduced lens movement (it moves the front element for focus, but no longer has to retract into the body). The sensor competes on spatial resolution with the strong competition offered by the Fuji x100 and Leica X2, delivering the full benefit of the Direct Image Sensor’s capture, and the lens is quite incredible.

 

279992 10151328287982586 2039098907 o

When comparing to the X2, Sigma have provided a higher resolution screen and the cost is much lower. Only the limited ISO and lack of HD movie recording really mark the DP2 Merrill out as anything different, technologically; the battery life is an inevitable consequence of running dual processors and a sensor which captures 46Mp from a cell designed for a compact body, and hopefully will be addressed with accessory grips from third parties for those users wishing to have greater autonomy.

At £799 SRP in the UK the DP2 Merrill is already a competitive product, and as a travel stock camera, as a landscape and portrait solution, it offers incredible resolution and clarity in a diminutive package. When the DP1 Merrill joins it with a wider angle lens, for the considered shooter who would consider working with a classic rangefinder system the DP Merrill series approaches the results associated with lenses costing twice as much.