04 Jul 2011
Hands-on with Sigma's SD1
BJP's technical reviewer Richard Kilpatrick has been testing Sigma's 46-megapixel SD1 digital SLR. Ahead of the publication of his full review in August, he gives us his first impressions
Sigma's SD1 - announced at Photokina in 2010, and now shipping worldwide - has already proven to be unusual for the Japanese firm that perseveres with the Foveon X3 technology first adopted with the 2002 SD9.
This professional body brings Sigma's APS-C offering back into play against contemporary DSLRs, with an output file of 15Mp and a solid, professional quality construction. It's reached the market almost within the initial time estimates despite the tragic earthquake in March that affected many manufacturers and individuals, resulting in constrained stock and delays for many products announced at the end of last year; a sharp contrast with the wait for the previous models developed in tandem with Foveon.
The cost estimates are another matter. During Photokina, Sigma's COO Kazuto Yamaki is reputed to have offered an estimate of "a similar price to the 5D Mk II" which many pundits took to be around £1800. When the official pricing was announced, the PR own-goal resulting from an MSRP over 3x these estimates has left photographers baffled. Even Yamaki's Twitter feed has carried unprecedented amounts of humble justification, undermining the bold statement the SD1's launch made; if Sigma were truly confident in the SD1 there would be no need to justify the pricing. In the UK, the SD1's MSRP is £6199 including VAT - typically the street price is a little lower, though this megapixel-packing beast is still competing on price with Leica's M9-P and Nikon's D3X rather than the 5D Mk II or D3s (unless you're considering buying three of the former).
As with the SD9's launch, the SD1 is proving to be controversial whilst eluding any direct comparison; no other company is fielding an APS-C camera remotely close to this price point. Once we've got the system into the studio and out into the field, we'll be able to ascertain if the unique sensor justifies a £4500 price premium; early signs are that the distinctive look of Foveon images has been retained and improved upon with higher ISO and of course, a much greater resolution.
As such, whilst it's clear both from use and the spec that it's not going to be knocking the D3 and 1D systems out of the photojournalist and sports photographer's hands, it could well have a place in fine art and fashion photography; the latter could be swayed by retention of texture and detail in fabrics without the softness of a low pass filter, the false colour moiré of a Bayer without one, or the slow capture process of a multi-shot back. The 7 frame buffer will allow a two second burst at 3.5fps; it's not going to be a camera that can be wildly aimed and fired machine-gun style. Similarly despite the Foveon's undoubted advantages as a sensor for video, the SD1 features no Live View or video capability (not even the miniscule QVGA ability of the DP series) - perhaps because processing the data would require a lot more silicon, space and heat dissipation in that slim body.
Physically, the SD1 is a big improvement over previous Sigma SLRs, both in absolute and relative terms. A complete magnesium alloy shell with good weathersealing incorporates one of the most comfortable grips I have used in a long time - deep, chunky and yet somehow relatively slim, it's the shallow body proportion that makes it possible and reminiscent of a Minolta 7000.
Ergonomically Sigma has taken with one hand and given with the other, as the top-plate LCD disappears to be replaced with a second control wheel and more direct access controls for features like ISO and exposure compensation. The QS button - now a Sigma feature - remains. Disappointingly - though not of any relevance to the image quality - the 3.0 display does not hit the VGA resolution sported by most DSLRs (and many compacts) now. Custom functions make a welcome appearance alongside lens adjustments and the return of UDMA CompactFlash storage.
So far, then, the SD1's physical build is up there with mid-range DSLRs, a good £1300 body more likely to set you back £5700 or so for an otherwise unobtainable image rendering. All the work on the camera, bar the body engineering, has focused on the now in-house X3 chip and pipeline. Such purity comes with a high risk - without distracting features, all attention is focused squarely on that new, unique sensor; however Sigma's biggest hurdle may not be the technology. The quality, price and performance blend of cameras such as the M9 is rarely questioned despite the manual control and relatively low ISO - and the images created often justify the expense for those inclined.
Sigma's brand has been so strongly defined by offering lower cost lenses and the inevitable price cutting of past SD and DP models that no matter how good it is, some photographers are going to find it hard to swallow a Sigma that costs more than any APS-C DSLR.
BJP will present Kilpatrick's full review in its next print issue, out 03 August.
"The 'random objects on a table' studio test shot isn't my usual style, but it proves useful sometimes - even if the random objects are a touch childish."
"The Foveon sensor's unique quality is largely down to the lack of colour interpolation; not only does this mean that if the lens can resolve it, the sensor should see it, it also ensures different objects remain seperate with no adjacent pixels used in calculation of the final image. The fine detail and texture of the bear's paw is retained with the strands in front of the clock's foot clearly distinct. Such detail is rarely retained as clearly by Bayer-pattern cameras; meanwhile the screen print of the Matchbox car box (and cardboard fibres) are clearly visible. The colour reproduction is fantastic with studio lighting."
"A first for a Sigma X3 based DSLR - the Foveon® logo has gone. However, that useful, easily removed IR filter remains, positioning the SD1 as one of the easiest ways to get access to high resolution infra-red photography as well as keeping dust out."
"The SD1 retains the quick-access function introduced with the SD15 as well as the "QS" button first seen on the SD14, giving rapid (and duplicated, in some cases) access to commonly altered settings; despite so many direct buttons the rear panel looks uncluttered in an era of feature-packed cameras. The new upper limit of 6400 ISO is a first for any Sigma camera"
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