With the sensor of a DSLR in a compact body, is this the ultimate compact camera we've been waiting for?
It’s rare nowadays for a digital compact camera to stir up much interest, with keen photographers far more enthusiastic about the latest DSLR announcements. So what’s the deal with the DP1? Well for one thing, it’s been a long time coming, originally announced at Photokina in 2006 as being in development, and reviewed by us in June 2008.
The real reason it’s caused such a fuss though is its sensor; not only is it the controversial Foveon X3 sensor offering 14MP, but is also the first time an APS-C sized sensor – more commonly found in the majority of DSLRs – has been used in a compact. Though it’s worth remembering that most compact cameras of just a few years ago took the same 35mm film as SLRs.
The aforementioned sensor was last seen in the Sigma SD14 DSLR, which has aroused some criticism because of the way the image is formed over three layers of photosites buried within the silicon. The silicon absorbs red, green and blue light at different depths, where CCD or CMOS sensors have the photosites on top of the chip, and use a filter to separate the different colours, known as a Bayer type sensor. This has led critics of the Foveon chip to claim that it’s a lower resolution sensor of 4.7MP (each over the three RGB layers).
Whatever your stance, I’ll leave the controversy at the door (or in the internet forums) and accept that the images produced are 14MP, even though the final image size is 4.7MP or 2640 x 1760 pixels. The final image produced is around 15MB when open, so about the same as a 4.7MP sensor using a Bayer pattern. You could take the stance that it contains 14MP but just uses 4.7 million of them to record the colour, though.
Sigma has developed a new processor, the Three-layer Responsive Ultimate Engine, or TRUE, which is designed specifically to deal with the files from the sensor and handle JPEG conversion. The other major feature of the DP1 is the lens. This is a fixed focal length 16.6mm f/4, giving a 35mm equivalent focal length of 28mm. Sigma offers an optional lens hood which I recommend highly, not only to reduce flare, but for the aesthetic quality it lends to the camera, giving it more of a traditional rangefinder look.
In terms of control, the camera is aimed at the enthusiast. There’s a lack of scene modes and instead the DP1 offers PASM control, along with a movie mode. There’s a pop-up flash, as well as a hotshoe which accepts a small dedicated flash unit. The hotshoe will also accept an optical viewfinder, as the camera doesn’t have a built-in viewfinder. The main reason this has been omitted is that the large 2.5in LCD screen dominates the back of the camera.
There’s the usual array of metering modes, including evaluative, spot and centreweighted, along with ±3 stops of exposure compensation and bracketing. The autofocus, meanwhile, uses nine points across the frame which are individually selectable. There’s also a manual focus mode, using a dial on the back of the camera and an enlarged view of the scene on the LCD. The AF points and manual focus do not display in the viewfinder, though.
I like the basic design of the camera. It’s small enough to fit in the pocket and has a traditional look and solid feel. It’s very much a purist’s camera, with few bells and whistles, but everything you’d need to take pictures.
The option of the viewfinder is good, but I’d prefer one built into the body of the camera itself. However, this would necessitate either a smaller LCD screen or a larger camera, so we have to accept some design compromise.
In low light I found it difficult to find the right buttons – the black engraving on black buttons may look elegant, but it’s hard to see their functions. Even in better lighting I had to tilt the camera to the light to find the button I needed.
My last word is on the lens cap, which is fiddly to replace back onto the lens.
Other than the engraving problem above, the camera feels very nice indeed, but in use it displays other problems. For example, low light slows the autofocus down, and the camera appears to lock up occasionally. I was trying to focus the camera at a dimly-lit Dr Who exhibition, shaking it in bewilderment, while other people happily snapped away with their mobile phones. The images I managed to produce were either blurred, over-flashed or both, and it didn’t help that I couldn’t read the functions of the buttons.
Similarly the LCD screen suffers in low light, with lots of noise visible, while the screen is rather draggy when trying to follow a subject. Most of the camera functions are basic, with more options in the simple, list-like menu. Like the rest of the camera, the menu follows a straightforward, almost austere design, a far cry from the consumer compacts’ design ethos.
In bright sunlight, the LCD is difficult to see, but the AF does work better and the camera generally performs faster. Writing to the card isn’t too speedy though, and the large files take a few seconds before appearing on the LCD. Once saved to the card, though, scrolling through the images is much faster.
While the SD14 was highly criticised for its image quality, the DP1 seems to be much improved, possibly due to the new processor. The new JPEGs are certainly as good as most produced by a 6MP DSLR and a definite improvement on most compacts.
Generally the DP1 hits the spot where exposure is concerned, with few badly exposed images in most conditions. Where this isn’t the case is more to down to the built-in flash which I found inconsistent. High contrast subjects proved to be tricky, with the camera occasionally struggling to decide to save the highlights or the shadows, resulting in different exposures of the same subject.
There’s a richness to the colour of the images from the DP1 and this is one area that’s caused contention among reviewers and users of the previous Sigma cameras. Personally I like the general look of the images produced. I wouldn’t say they are wrong, just different. However, there are times when it gets it wrong, and colour and lack of detail combine to produce blobby, fuzzy detail. As for white balance I found no problems to speak of.
The 16.6mm lens is a cracker and, combined with the larger sensor, does produce the goods in terms of both detail and sharpness, though when used at high ISOs, the noise reduction can reduce this. Also bear in the mind the comments above about colour.
At ISO 100 and 200, images display low levels of noise, with a very smooth structure. Unfortunately this doesn’t last and at ISO 400 noise becomes apparent, while by the time we reach the top mark of ISO 800, noise is more obtrusive and ugly, with a grid-like pattern. The noise reduction also produces softer and lower contrast images.
Value For Money
This is an unusual camera with no real competition and £600 is a lot of money for a little compact. There are other cameras with similar handling, but the sensor size is sure to appeal to a certain type of photographer. However it’s more expensive than many DSLRs which have a greater range of features, and so is comparatively pricey.
The DP1 is not without flaws, but it also has certain charms. Minor adjustments to the design of the camera would certainly make it more usable, and Sigma needs to look at the built-in flash for any subsequent models. I refuse to get drawn into the sensor debate, but I can say that the files from the DP1 are on the whole pretty good – it‘s just the consistency that lets it down.To the purist it’s bound to appeal, with a great build quality and nice usabilty for the most part. The additional viewfinder is highly recommended if you’re not a fan of monitor-based viewing.