Sigma fp: The Specialist

 

The Sigma fp is currently the worlds smallest and lightest interchangeable lens mirrorless full frame. But this is quite a deceptive simplification, as K Madhavan Pillai discovers.

Trust Sigma to do things differently! Over the past decade, I have come to enjoy the company’s philosophy of designing and engineering cameras and lenses around specific, important functions, with the conviction to perhaps even sacrifice other aspects. The Sigma fp clearly follows this precept. I was fascinated to learn that the fp notation stands for ‘Fortissimo Pianissimo’— concepts from music theory, for powerful or loud (f), soft or subtle (p)—a reference to the capabilities—design, sensor, scalability and the colour science of the fp.

Features

The Sigma fp is the company’s first camera to move away from Foveon sensors, and use a back-illuminated 24.6MP Bayer sensor (allowing Sigma to develop the fp more conventionally, for speed, AF, and video). There is little that is conventional about the fp, though. Essentially, in my mind, there are three related sets of features of the fp that define the camera, and its potential user.

First, size, weight, modular design, and build. It is the smallest and lightest (422g with the battery) full frame body yet. Made of aluminium alloy for strength and heat conduction, the camera is highly weather resistant, and feels extremely sturdy. With appropriately weathersealed lenses, the camera can withstand shooting in light rain or sandstorms. A large heat sink with vents separates the body and the LCD panel, with a coating that aids heat conduction, for long continuous videos (up to two hours). The body of the fp acts to dissipate heat.

The Standard colour mode is quite accurate even with softer scenic palettes, and even somewhat subdued with more vibrant colours. I prefer dialling it down further to -1. Exposure: 1/100sec at f/8 (ISO 250) Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

The brick-like fp is also fantastically modular, with three tripod sockets (one on each side) on which screws the camera strap lugs, or dedicated accessories like the flash mount module (included with the camera), a variety of grips, the viewfinder (that fits over the fp’s LCD, cutting light and magnifying by 2.5x), along with a baseplate with a 3/8-inch thread (all made by Sigma), or a cine cage by independent manufacturers. This is a camera built for accessories.

Additionally available from Sigma is the PL-L adapter for cine lenses, or the EF-L for Canon’s EF-mount lenses to be converted to the native L-mount of the fp. The L-mount currently has 15 native lenses from Sigma, and 34 from both Leica and Panasonic.

In a departure from the other full frame cameras, the Sigma fp uses a full-time electronic shutter, and has no mechanical shutter at all. This serves to reduce a moving component in the camera, thereby eliminating viewing or shooting lag, camera shake because of shutter shock, and potential mechanical stress failure, improving overall reliability. Electronic shutters are also perfectly quiet.

There is a significant downside to this. The maximum flash sync speed is 1/30th sec (1/15th sec with 14-bit DNG), with the Sigma EF-630 flash, limiting its use in various conditions (within a studio, or as a fill in, or with people photography when ambient light needs to be factored in). And there is the potential for rolling shutter problems.

Many of the still photography features of the fp are not entirely remarkable, and are standard in other cameras. What is absolutely remarkable, though, is the fp’s professional video features, making it a unique, versatile cine camera.

To enable a thorough review of the Sigma fp for its video and filmmaking capabilities, Better Photography requested Santosh Thundiyil, a cinematographer with an extraordinary background, to use the fp for several weeks, along with a large number of accessories. Here are his personal views on the camera.

Control over colour, and tonal detail in highlights and shadows are easily accessible directly through dedicated buttons on the Sigma fp. Exposure: 1/13sec at f/8 (ISO 100) Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Handling

This brings me to the third set of features that critically defines this camera and the intended user. Ergonomics, menu systems, and functional usability. Building a camera ground-up takes courage, and has both pitfalls and advantages. It would have been easy for Sigma to emulate other successful cameras, but I am glad it did not. The fp is a refreshingly straightforward camera, and simple to operate, owing to its minimalistic control layout that is well thought through. Switching between stills and cine is seamless, and immediately changes the LCD info, menu systems and options, and also the options provided by the Quick Set button (also customisable). For more on the control layout and design, please see the ergonomics box.

The learning curve with the fp is more with the specific uses that is best suited for, and in the understanding of its colour science (which, in combination with its versatile sensor, is
excellent). Being small, light and sturdy opens up large range of possibilities, especially with handheld gimbals, drones, or as a field cine camera that can easily be operated handheld.

The extensive dynamic range at lower or base ISO settings ensures plenty of shadow and highlight recovery. Exposure: 1/100sec at f/9 (ISO 400) Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

As a still photography camera, I was initially at odds with the form factor. It is very small and blocky. Bigger lenses feel decidedly awkward on the fp. I was surprised how well the viewfinder (as an attachment over the main LCD) worked. I found myself forgetting the camera and concentrating on the moment—an indication that the camera gives itself easily to the process of photography, and is not in the way.

Performance

For still photographers, the highlight is the quality of the sensor and comprehensive control over colours and tones. JPEGs are clean of artifacts, and the DNG files hold plenty of information to enable excellent recovery of details. AF is slightly slower than other recent mirrorless cameras, more reminiscent with the previous generation of cameras, but except for slowing down in very low light, it locks decisively and reasonably quickly. Tracking capabilities are compromised because of the contrast detect AF, but Eye AF and Face Detection work well, just not as fast as the recent Sony cameras. Battery life is rated at 280 images per charge by CIPA, not one of the fp’s strong points .

Both the sensor and the controls over tone give in well to experimentation, both during exposure and with post processing. Exposure: 1/6sec at f/5.6 (ISO 64) Photograph/K Madhavan Pillai

Conclusion

During the past two months that I have had the Sigma fp, I did not miss the lack of a mechanical shutter or a conventional viewfinder. Neither did I find the battery a particular impediment, or the slightly slower AF, or the poor flash sync speed. Along with the Sigma 45mm Contemporary lens, I thoroughly enjoyed the form factor, controls, colours, and the quality of the sensor. I did not need to move away much from the way I shoot either. In fact, I ended up doing a lot more photography simply because I had this beautiful, tiny camera with me everyday, all the time. Yet, at its price of Rs. 1,99,000, the Sigma fp is certainly not for everyone. There are some basic features lacking. Especially for professionals involved with high speed shooting, action, studio or flash photography, who need that level of versatility, there are other options.

For serious video professionals and cinematographers, particularly those who use RAW workflows, the fp is unique. It is the only full frame to offer CinemaDNG recording incamera. Small, potent, highly scalable, robust, and most of all, extremely economical as a cine camera, the value delivered by the Sigma fp, simply stated, is undeniable.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Better Photography.

FINAL RATINGS
Features
Smallest, lightest, scalable mirrorless full frame, CinemaDNG, fully electronic shutter
13/15
Performance
Sensor & range, up to 2500mbps RAW video
41/45
Build Quality
Aluminium alloy, splash and dust proof
19/20
Ergonomics
Easy controls, and simplified, detailed menu
13/15
Warranty & Support
Two-year warranty, good service network
 4/5
MRP Rs 1,99,000 (body only)
OVERALL 90%
VALUE FOR MONEY 3.5/5
Who should buy it? High-end videographers and cinematographers, especially those who use RAW workflows, or photographers who like the tiny size and know its limits.
Why? The sensor and the colours are excellent. For cinema pros, the camera comes with a lot of unique features. It is superbly scalable and inexpensive for what it can deliver.

 

 

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