Sigma DP3 Merrill – Getting Closer

Sigma DP3 Merrill – Getting Closer

dp3.Sigma’s intent to make the DP compacts into a series has been executed quickly and efficiently with the Merrill generation. Following swiftly from the DP1 and DP2 models, the 50mm F2.8 Macro equipped DP3 Merrill adds a telephoto variant to the wide and standard options previously offered.

Gradual firmware changes and adjustments have occurred over the Merrill’s lifespan, and whilst a new model with the most up to date raft of features the DP3 has not superceded the technology in the previous versions. Rather, the DP1 and DP2 have received firmware updates to bring the same capabilities, including face detection, Foveon Blue and Monochrome raw capture modes as well as AF speed and other enhancements.
As such, much of the operation of the DP3 applies equally to the other models. Slight variations reflect the differing optics, with the DP3 offering more control over focus limit and macro modes; menu layout and shooting features are identical. Battery life is also unchanged, and for users working with all three cameras you find a pool of six batteries all interchangeable can be quite useful.
Reviewing a DP is inevitably a slightly tricky affair, because Sigma’s efforts with the optics since the very first DP1 launched over 4 years ago have been exemplary. The 50mm is already leaning towards a slightly easier area of lens design than wide angles, and Sigma have chosen to allow the DP3 to be a bit bulkier to accommodate a high quality and uncompromised lens.
There are only so many ways of describing lenses which are on the whole technically as good as science allows, and each successive DP body has delivered without fail. The 50mm maintains that strength, pairing with the Direct Image Sensor to deliver stunningly sharp results even when pushing diffraction and shooting at F16, without the interference of colour interpolation to exacerbate the effects. The bokeh is smooth, almost too perfect, and delightfully accessible thanks to the close focus of 22.6cm, giving a 1:3 reproduction ratio and exceptional subject separation from the background. For users migrating from small-sensor compacts, this is another world.
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With the new lens, more movement for focus is required. Sigma have added to the AF/MF mode with both a preset quick-access Macro function and a custom setting, which can be set in ranges to suit (22.6 to 27cm & 2m-∞ being the extremes of narrow-range available, though the range is flexible). Focus points can be set from 9 preset positions, free position within those boundaries and varied in size; face detection is also provided which works well for portrait compositions, but is less successful with group shots of many people or crowds. It’s a feature ticked on the comparison boxes, yet something that many DP users will be well versed in working without and may find superfluous.
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Manual focus has a pleasing control, the collar on the lens taking full advantage of the additional size (and the DP3 features a larger thread mount for filters at 52mm) – as before, turning the collar whilst holding the shutter in AF position zooms to the current focus point. Depth of field for a given aperture is displayed as a green bar on the manual focus scale.
Sigma have steadily refined the user interface on the LCD-heavy DP range, and the DP Merrill sports one of the nicest blends of manual control and menu reliance you’ll find in a body this efficiently designed. The large display is competitive for the sector at 3″, VGA resolution, and the Quick Set menu has been improved with an attractive list of available options for the given selection and wheel icons to remind the user that the multi-function control wheel can be used for selection, rather than multiple taps of the D-pad button. The menus are also now customisable, so if you’re prone to switching colour modes more often than you are metering for example, you can move that to the first press.
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Handling as it does, near 70MB files in some circumstances, the DP3 Merrill has not improved on the existing models for file writing or battery life. These are simply a side effect of the unique sensor technology, and without greater processing power, a bigger body and so forth, there is little that can be done to improve them. For many uses dropping to the lowest resolution will provide a large enough image with exceptional clarity, boosting shot to shot, write and processing times later, so it’s worth remembering that you don’t always need to capture a 46Mp file.
With the new colour modes and firmware changes, JPEG previews look more natural and correct, and the Black and White feature is particularly impressive, retaining full raw data for later processing in Sigma Photo Pro with subtle tonal adjustments with the colour wheel. Aside from the still relatively low ISO, the panchromatic, uninterpolated capture would rival Leica’s iconic M-Monochrom for quality – and that won’t let you capture colour at all.
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Priced at £799, the DP3 Merrill is of course, a unique offering – no other large-sensor compact has opted for this focal length, no other manufacturer has gone for a 3-prime range of bodies otherwise identical, and no other firms use the Foveon technology. Working within the limitations of the ISO and writing speeds, it is exceptionally good; long exposures are clean and low noise, the resolution of the sensor and lens complement each other perfectly. Inevitably, the continued lack of third-party support for the substantial files may put non-Sigma camera users off, yet SPP continues to improve and evolve with faster processing on multi-core systems and better previews. Adding rotation, cropping and freely selectable export sizes would suffice for most workflows.
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For any DP1 or DP2 user, the DP3 provides instant familiarity with an exciting and surprisingly versatile lens. As an introduction to Foveon, it’s hampered only by the need to learn a new application – each firmware version makes the cameras better, more intuitive and responsive. As always, the results are worth the effort, and for the outlay to own all three cameras you’d struggle to get a similarly equipped DSLR & lenses that could touch the best results from the Merrills – and all in a pocket-sized package that borders on classical minimalist functionality.