Sigma DP2 Merrill: The 337MB Monster

 
Sigma DP2 Merrill

Sigma DP2 Merrill

K Madhavan Pillai grapples with the Sigma DP2 Merrill, only to find himself getting quite attached to this oddly brilliant advanced compact.

Just a few months ago, my editorial note spoke about my preference for using wide angle lenses as a means of capturing larger expanses of life within my frames. While I enjoy this, it comes a close second to my fascination for massive amounts of detail in my images, for allowing me to make perfect art prints of a minimum size of 20 x 30 inches. Of course, my equally huge problem was that the price tags for the cameras that could achieve this were simply out of my budget.

Sigma decided to change the game with the introduction of Merrill series of fixed lens advanced compact cameras. Featuring APS-C sized Foveon sensors, the DP1, DP2 and DP3 are the world’s first compacts to produce detail seen only with high resolution full frame cameras like the Nikon D800E, or by medium format sensors, at a fraction of their price.

We tested the 19mm f/2.8 (28mm equiv.) DP1 Merrill in the August 2013 issue of Better Photography, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite its quirks. The DP2 is all but identical to the DP1, except for its 30mm (45mm equiv.) lens, which is rated to be sharpest lens amongst the three cameras.

In this review, I shall not be dwelling on what has already been stated in the review of the DP1. In fact, the ratings are also identical, except for two additional points given for the 30mm lens of the DP2. If you would like to read my review of the DP1, click this link.

Features
The most significant feature is the Foveon sensor, which is the primary reason to buy this camera. The lens is the other reason. It is intended to pair perfectly with the sensor. Made up of 8 elements in 6 groups, it is built for exemplary sharpness, colour contrast and minimal aberrations.

The DP2 Merrill delivers extraordinary detail. This image can be offset printed at seven times this size, with the same level of quality. Exposure: 1/25sec at f/9 (ISO 100). Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

The DP2 Merrill delivers extraordinary detail. This image can be offset printed at seven times this size, with the same level of quality. Exposure: 1/25sec at f/9 (ISO 100). Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

It has a leaf shutter, which can sync with flash units up to 1/1250sec at f/2.8 (or 1/2000sec at f/5.6). This opens up some interesting creative possibilities.

The leaf shutter makes it difficult for Sigma to have apertures wider than f/2.8, because of its maximum shutterspeed limitation of 1/1250 sec. But considering the huge images possible with this camera, I wish the lens had a maximum aperture of f/1.4, even if it meant a maximum shutterspeed of just 1/250 sec.

Handling
The controls are simplistic, but well thought through and customisable to a large degree. Small, but important, functions like switching between AF and MF, magnification during MF, changing the size of the focus point, focus point selection, one button push 100 percent view for sharpness confirmation, ISO settings… are all wonderfully easy to access. With practice, every function can be accessed with one hand. The DP2 is too light to handhold at shutterspeeds slower than 1/20 sec. A tripod is an essential accessory.

Performance
The 337MB file size is a direct, doublesize 16-bit RGB TIFF converted from the RAW X3F file using Sigma Photo Pro. With some careful, minimal sharpening, images at that size are perfectly sharp for printing! In comparison with the D800E, I noticed slightly more tonal and textural surface details with the DP2. The RAWs have plenty of dynamic range.

The 30mm lens of the DP2 has practically no visible distortions, allowing very precise alignment of lines to the edges of the frame. Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

The 30mm lens of the DP2 has practically no visible distortions, allowing very precise alignment of lines to the edges of the frame. Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Of course, the usable ISO range for this level of detail is from ISO 100 to 400. ISO 800 produces nice, grainy B&Ws, but has too a lot of colour noise. ISO 1600 and above is best not used at all. Sigma’s RAW software is effective, but is irritatingly slow and needs improvement.

The 30mm lens pairs perfectly with the sensor. It is superbly sharp across apertures, matching up to the best DSLR glass I have seen. I especially loved the level of colour contrast and control over flare it displayed, even in the most challenging situations. This is the best sensor-lens combination I have come across since the Sony RX1 with its fixed 35mm Carl Zeiss lens.

Both in-camera saturation controls and RAW editing in Sigma Photo Pro can deliver bright, vivid colours with little or no posterising or colour banding. Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Both in-camera saturation controls and RAW editing in Sigma Photo Pro can deliver bright, vivid colours with little or no posterising or colour banding. Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Conclusion
You must have already decided by now if you need this camera. With its recent price drop to Rs. 36,000, it is a compelling buy. It is slow, works superbly well only at low ISO settings, and does not have many of the features that the most basic compacts have. However, I tend to rate perfection very highly, even if it is in just one area that matters. No other camera matches up with the DP2 Merrill, in that regard.

Final Ratings
Features
45mm equiv. extremely sharp lens, Foveon X3 sensor, few other significant features.
13/20

Performance
Slow, exemplary image quality at low ISO
34/40

Build Quality
Metal body, built like a tank
15/15

Ergonomics
Blocky, but good button layout, customisable
16/20

Warranty & Support
One-year warranty
3/5

OVERALL: 81%
Value For Money: 4.5/5

Who should buy it?
Advanced photographers who can be limited to certain subjects and to low ISO settings.

Why?
Sigma’s DP2 Merrill offers image quality never seen before with a smaller format sensor, or in a compact camera. It sets a new low ISO standard, even amongst DSLRs.

Tags: april 2014, K Madhavan Pillai, sigma dp1, sigma dp2 merrill, sigma dp2 price, sigma dp2 review