The Sigma DP2x represents a modest update to the previous DP2s, itself a modest update to the DP2. At 4.5 x 2.3 x 2.2 inches, it is a compact camera even though it sports an APS-C sized Foveon sensor. It’s exterior is a little plain, but it is metal-clad and well built. Persistently presented by Sigma as a 14+ megapixel camera, it’s resolution is not in the same league as 14 Mp cameras from other manufacturers (more on that later). Not quite “pocketable,” in regular pants, it does fit comfortably in the pocket of, say, cargo shorts. It has a sharp, 24.2mm (41mm equivalent) lens that does not zoom. While it has a JPEG setting, this is really a camera for shooting RAW, and it comes packaged with Sigma’s own Photo Pro 5 software for converting those RAW files. While Lightroom 3 (and thus presumably Adobe Camera Raw) will perform conversions of X3F Raw files, they look horrible on files from this camera - apparently Sigma has changed the formula somehow (more on that later too).
Controls and Settings
The back of the Sigma DP2x has a good number of controls, allowing quick access to several standard features. In addition to the standard menu button, there is a “QS” button for “Quick” Selections. Press it once and you get quick access to such choices as ISO, white balance, etc. You can select one of 9 focal point for the auto-focus. There are actually 2 auto-focus choices, allowing for quicker focus on portraits and landscapes, and a bit slower focus for closer subjects - the point being to allow you to use the quick option most of the time. You can also choose manual focus and there is a handy dial in the upper left corner of the back of the camera just for manually focusing. There are 2 buttons for adjusting exposure - what they adjust depends on what mode you are shooting in. In Aperture Priorty mode (my customary mode), for example, it changes the aperture (as it should).
On top of the camera sits a flash shoe which can also be used to hold an optional Sigma viewfinder, the button to turn the camera on and off, the shutter release, and the dial for picking a shooting mode. There are no bells and whistles here, no fancy modes to automatically optimize the settings for portraits or landscapes, no fun settings to replicate the look of pinhole cameras, no black and white mode. You can choose from a Program mode (where the camera picks both aperture and shutter speed), Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual. You can also capture video in spectacular 320 x 240 mode. 320 x 240? My vote would have been to omit this along with all the other fluffery that was omitted but is packed into cameras these days. Which, by the way, it is. You can shoot JPEGs, but this beast in not about that, or any other easy options. No this is a machine for shooting RAW to capitalize on all the glory that is a Foveon sensor. This is a camera for purists.
In the Field
The Sigma DP2x performs well in the field - assuming the field is one in daylight, and assuming the daylight is not all that bright. One of the improvements over the DP2s is something Sigma calls “high speed auto-focus.” Okay. You are likely to call it something else. But, in decent lighting conditions, and based on my memory of the DP2s, the auto focus is faster than it was in the older camera. It is still a touch slow, even then, but it does indeed seem faster. It is not sufficiently faster that it will bring in new subject matter, but it will be a little less tedious to shoot rather sedentary subjects. The write time is still slow, but I suspect it would improve greatly with one of the newer, faster memory cards which I have not yet purchased. In low light, however, the auto-focus is as bad as in the DP2s - which is often just simply impossible. The handy manual focus wheel would come into play wonderfully here except that the LCD screen, already fairly low res at 230,000 pixels, gets awfully noisy in low light, making it hard to see well enough to focus. Speaking of the screen, in my opinion its worst feature hasn’t even been mentioned here yet, though it has been mentioned in probably every DP camera review ever written. While the auto-focus performs okay on a sunny day, the screen is a bit too dim, a bit too soft, and more than a bit too shiny to compose pictures effectively. All I could see was a reflection of the lower half of my face. I found it all a bit frustrating (the camera) and depressing (the chins).
Okay, now the good news. The good news is that we are almost finished with the bad news.
Oddly enough, I found the DP2s far less frustrating in the field than this newest camera. I have to think that this has more to do with me than with the camera. When I reviewed the s, I was coming off a stint of mostly shooting film in my Contax G1 camera - a quirky little beast but capable of fantastic pictures once one masters its quirks. The DP series are also quirky little cameras. Mostly they just require a bit more work than other digitals. And I have been spoiled of late doing reviews of two of the best compact cameras on the market - the Canon S95 and the Olympus XZ-1. Both of those cameras have far more intuitive (to me) buttons and menus. Both have useful zoom ranges and image stabilization. And both have that great ring around the lens that I love for changing aperture. Going back to pushing buttons on the back of the x camera to adjust aperture definitely seemed like a couple of steps backwards. But that is more me being spoiled by these state of the art, extremely user friendly cameras than a real knock against the Sigma. In short, while this camera and I got off to a rocky start, the more I used it the more sense it made and the better my pictures. As Wouter Brandsma once wrote of the Sigma DP1: “More than any other camera it is a camera to be mastered.” Those words really stuck in my head and apply, I think, to the DP2x and probably the whole DP line. With use and practice, this camera, just like the all manual film cameras of yore, can be mastered. But why bother?
Okay, to be honest, producing the best results once you get back from “the field” and are sitting at your computer, isn’t all that easy either. Not hard, mind you, but at present may require a few extra steps. Nothing like in the old days (he says with a crackling voice) when I had to unload my film from the camera; load it into a light-tight tank in total darkness; develop/stop/fix/wash/hang-to-dry the film; cut the film into strips of 6 negatives each; make a contact print of the entire film roll on 8x10 paper; develop/stop/fix/wash/dry the contact sheet; examine the tiny pictures on the contact sheet with a loupe; load a chosen negative into the carrier of enlarger; make a test strip; expose a sheet of photo paper; develop/stop/fix/examine the straight print; adjust the exposure, dodge and burn as needed and print the second (and hopefully “keeper”) print; develop/stop/fix/wash/tone/wash/dry/dry mount the print; and show my masterpiece to people who looked at if for a few seconds and said, “Nice,” before moving on (and that was if I were lucky). In other words, I feel a little bad bellyaching about this, but...
While Lightroom 3 feels confident tackling and converting the X3F files from this camera to DNG Raw files that it loves so much, LR3 has some misplaced confidence. Sigma has new software for converting its X3F files, Sigma Photo Pro 5. It is as slow and clunky as Sigma Photo Pro 4, although it gets the job done. The problem lies, I think, in an innovation that Sigma calls “Analog Front End.” This technology...
Now I don’t know what that means exactly, but I know this - when LR3 converts a Raw file from this camera to DNG it looks like this:"...converts the color data, which full-color captures systems record, to a digital signal. This enables the camera to reproduce high definition and richly colored images."
But if you use the Sigma Photo Pro 5 software, it looks like this:
In fact, the picture looks pretty much like the one from LR3 for a few seconds, then it is like a second layer of information is painted on top of that to create the better picture. Ah, that Foveon look! When you finally get to the end point of the pictures themselves, lots of sins can be forgiven.
Sigma takes a lot of abuse for maintaining that the Foveon sensor in the DP cameras have 14Mp. The sensor in fact has more like 4.5Mp but stacked 3 deep so that each site is sensitive to red, green and blue (RGB) colors. Of course, those criticizing Sigma’s advertising pretty much readily admit that the Foveon sensor resolves about as well as 9 Mp cameras from other manufacturers. While it can be argued that Sigma should not hold this sensor out as a 14Mp one as it does not resolve the same level of detail as 14Mp cameras with Bayer pattern sensors (that is, all other brands of cameras), no one ever seems to stop and think that perhaps it is a bit disingenuous for the other manufacturers to advertise their cameras as 9Mp (I know there aren’t any of those antiquated 9Mp cameras around these days) when there are cameras out there producing 2652 x 1768 files that resolve as well as those. The difference is that there are twice as many green as red or blue sensitive pixels in a Bayer pattern sensor, and so the color information has to be smeared around some (yeah, yeah, a simplification) and that cuts into resolution. The point being that you don’t end up with a distinct pixel of information for each of the 9 million pixels because the information has to be shared among he pixels. Frankly, I’m amazed they work as well as the do because the Bayer pattern cameras work remarkably well these days. Still, those pictures from the Foveon sensor, with each pixel standing on its own, tend to be sharper off the bat and make for some beautiful photos. Probably because this is more the way film works, pictures from Sigma cameras look a bit more like film than many other digital pictures.
So, when you get to the pictures, and see the technical quality - the accurate colors, the lack of noise in lower ISO shots, the acutance, the tonality - well, you either think this was all worth the effort or you don’t. But the quality can be jaw-dropping. Now with the resolution of a 9Mp or so camera, these may not make spectacularly huge enlargements, but they are otherwise great. Let me say this up front, before the pictures begin - I don’t usually take so many shots of flowers but, frankly, it has been a hot and humid July where I live and I haven’t strayed out of my own yard a whole lot.
I added some warmth to this one using the Sunlight filter in Nik’s Color Efex Pro 3.0:
I used both Nik’s Viveza 2 and Color Efex Pro 3.0 on this one:
I ramped up the saturation a bit on this one:
And I reduced the saturation a bit on this one:
And of course, I had to do some black and white conversions using Nik’s Silver Efex Pro 2:
Coming off the extremely user-friendly Canon S95 and Olympus XZ-1 cameras, I had a tough start with this Sigma. But once I settled into a routine of converting the X3F files using Sigma’s Photo Pro 5 software to create Tiffs (‘cause it won’t convert to DNG) that I then imported into Lightroom 3 for final tweaks (a somewhat slow and cumbersome process), and saw how great the pictures were, I rekindled some old love for the camera. I ended up with a good number of pictures I really like from just shooting the DP2x for a few weeks.
While auto-focusing is a little faster than the DP2s in good lighting, this is really a small improvement and if you have a DP2s I really don’t think it is worth the price to upgrade. However, if you have been thinking about getting a DP camera for a while and haven’t yet, this is no doubt the best DP2 yet. The lens is wonderfully sharp and I found the 41mm equivalent very usable. So if the lack of a zoom doesn’t bother you, you don’t need lightning fast auto-focus, f/2.8 is fast enough for your lens, you don’t take a lot of low light pictures, you are willing to work around the fact that the LCD isn’t great, and you don’t need to make huge enlargements, this may be a good camera for you.
All of that may sound negative, but it isn’t. This is a camera for a fairly small niche - people who love the Foveon look, want a small well-built camera, and who are willing to take the time to master a tool. All in all, it is still easier than shooting and developing your own film and printing it in a darkroom!
I have already made many comparisons of this camera to others. Compared to the DP2s, it is an incremental improvement but probably not worth buying if you already have the s version. I did not test the original DP2 so I can’t address that except to say that this apparently would represent a fair amount of improvement in the auto-focus, though you have probably already worked out your own strategy for dealing with that if you still shoot the original.
In comparing this camera to the Canon S95 and Olympus XZ-1, there really is no comparison. Those cameras blow this one away in usability, and this one blows them away in image quality. This camera fills a completely different niche in the market. So, you have to pick what is important to you. Frankly, I find all three quite tempting for different reasons - the S95 for its size/pocketability; the XZ-1 for its fast quality lens; and the DP2x for its incredible IQ.
Jeff Damron has been photographing since receiving a Minolta SLR and a basic darkroom setup in 1976. His favorite film camera is the Contax G1, which he considers his first "compact" camera. He writes about monochrome photography at his site, Better in Black and White. -Amin
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