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Review: Sigma DP3 Merrill

by Chris Gampat on 05/28/2013

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (1 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 2.0

Sigma’s DP line of point and shoots have never really caught on with the public. The cameras have always exhibited exceptional low ISO abilities and some extremely detailed and  chromatically-rich RAW files. But the high ISO performance has generally been deemed as unacceptable by many reviewers across the web. With that said though, one could probably think of the Sigma DP3 Merrlill as a medium format point and shoot with a smaller sensor–this is due to the high megapixel count with the Foveon sensor. Further, modern medium format cameras all do quite poorly at high ISOs and this end the images are often converted to black and white. Sigma very subtly encourages this with their new Monochrome mode in Sigma Photo Pro–the company’s software needed to edit the RAW files.

But then you consider the fact that the camera also has a fixed 50mm f2.8 lens–effectively rendering a 75mm field of view and then you say, “what?” The DP3 is meant to complement the DP1 and DP2 Merrill; and by itself it is a little bit out of place of the conventional thought of a high end point and shoot user.

Then who is it for?

 

Pros and Cons

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (3 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 3.2

Pros

- Excellent image quality at lower ISOs

- High ISO images switch over to black and white quite well

- Better high ISO image performance than previous cameras but still can’t keep up with most other modern sensors

- Solid build quality

- Simple interface

- Very sharp lens; we almost didn’t want to stop it down

Cons

- Slow autofocus

- Only a couple of focusing point near the center

- The lens makes the package quite big

- We really wish that Adobe Lightroom supported the RAW files

- Editing in Sigma Photo Pro is a bit slower than we’d like

- Poor battery performance

- A flash with a tilt-swivel head would be an excellent accessory for this camera if it were bundled

Gear Used

For this review we used the Sigma DP3 Merrill by itself most of the time. However, we also put a PocketWizard in the hot shoe and used it with a Yongnuo 560 II.

Tech Specs

Specs taken from the B&H Photo Video listing of the camera

  • 46MP Foveon X3 Direct Image Sensor
  • Dual TRUE II Image Processing Engine
  • 50mm f/2.8 Prime Lens
  • 75mm Focal Length in 35mm Format
  • 3.0″ High Resolution TFT Color LCD
  • Movie Mode
  • Advanced User Interface
  • Auto and Ring-controlled Manual Focus
  • RAW + JPEG Format Recording
  • 4 Frames Per Second in RAW Format

Ergonomics

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (2 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 3.2

The DP3 Merrill is really quite a beautiful camera with its almost boxy but sleek and modern look. Granted, it is quite big because of the massive 50mm f2.8 lens attached to the front, but it is also quite well thought out as far as the design is concerned.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (7 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 2.0

On the side of the camera is a USB/AV output. We barely used it at all and it is covered by a little door as it is. At first glance, you can completely miss it.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (6 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 5.6

The back of the camera has lots of controls such as a four way control switch that helps with selecting options and manually setting your shutter speed, playback, display, quick menu, normal menu and auto-exposure lock. But besides this, it is dominated by a giant LCD screen that is very sharp and extremely nice looking–except in bright sunlight.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (5 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 5.6

The top of the camera is where more controls lay. You’ll find an aperture dial here, shutter release, mode button, power on/off, and the hot shoe. In the hand, these feel really nice when using the camera.

The lens is a 50mm f2.8 fixed lens and there is a goliath focusing ring around it.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (4 of 8)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 3.2

And like many other Sigma DP cameras, the front is very plain and minimalistic. There are no controls at all on the front.

Build Quality

You can’t really complain about the build quality of the DP3 Merrill. It has a build that, dare we say, rivals the Fujifilm X100s due to the metal exterior. It feels extremely solid and we don’t really have much to complain about except for the size due to the fixed lens.

Autofocusing

Focusing with the DP3 Merrill will take a lot of patience. However, I went about using the camera almost as if I was using a medium format TLR or manual focus medium format SLR. The reason why was to not treat this camera like any other high end point and shoot that we would expect to be much faster. Instead, I took a painstaking amount of time in thought, composition and focusing. And when it came to focusing, the camera was slow at best in golden hour light. When it came to low light, you need to ensure that the focusing point is over a high contrast area.

Ease of Use

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (4 of 9)ISO 4001-250 sec at f - 4.0

This is a camera that we need to recommend for not only a high end user, but a medium format film user. The controls can be complicated for someone just picking this up and for the best experience we recommend shooting in manual mode. Additionally, this can’t be thought of as a point and shoot but instead as a fixed lens camera.

In practice though, we really wish that the screen flipped up and down–that would have made shooting an even bigger joy.

Our only major complaints are about the battery life and the post-production software: Sigma Photo Pro. The battery life was a bit too poor for our liking and after only a couple hours of use and perhaps about 87 photos. To try to maximize the battery life, I dimmed my screen and allowed the camera to sleep. Still, this performance in our eyes was unacceptable and Sigma sent us two batteries just in case of any issues.

Additionally, we used one of the latest SDXC cards to ensure that the processor didn’t drain the battery life too much. The camera also takes a while to write the images to the card.

On the other hand, Sigma Photo Pro is slow on my Macbook Pro that I purchased last year. It isn’t the most intuitive software to use either but once you get the hang of it, it becomes a very methodical and straightforward process.

Metering

The DP3 Merrill followed Sunny 16 standards perfectly. In a case like this though, we’re not sure how much that means since we really think that this is a point and shoot meant to be used in a studio type of environment.

Image Quality

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (16 of 20)ISO 4001-800 sec at f - 2.8

First off: CORGI!!!!

Alright, now that that’s out of our fur, Sigma’s absolutely strongest point is just how incredible the image quality is from the Foveon sensor. The RAW files that we shot generally were around the 45-56MB size, and there is loads and loads of information in those files. Generally, Sigma’s DP3 Merrill has terrific image quality up to 400 and at 800 you start to see a negligible amount of noise. Once you start heading above those numbers things get very noisy–and even more interesting to work with in the Sigma Photo Pro software.

Sigma’s colors are outstanding as is the sharpness rendered from the 50mm f2.8 lens attached to this camera. In many ways once again, this is a studio photographer’s point and shoot. The images are superbly sharp at f2.8 right out of the camera and in all honesty, we didn’t even want to stop the lens down and generalyl never went beyond f5.6.

RAW File Versatility

Original File

Original File

Details recovered

Details recovered

The RAW files of the Sigma DP3 has loads of details that can be recovered from both the highlights and the shadows. The image above was converted the black and white for the simple reason that I prefer the aesthetics.

As it stands though, Fujifilm and Sony’s sensors don’t have this much dynamic range or color depth. The files, generally from those large sensor cameras, are also quite good, and the versatility of the RAW files can’t touch Sigma’s and the company should be praised on this fact.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (13 of 20)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8To hit home harder on our belief that this is a studio camera, we did a couple of various setups involving the use of an off-camera flash, Pocket Wizards, and a Yongnuo 560 II. The Sigma DP3 Merrill, being a point and shoot camera, has a leaf shutter–which means that we can sync our flashes to much higher speeds than are typical of many other cameras. At f2.8, it will sync to 1/1250th of a second and you’ll need to stop down otherwise.

When we review cameras and use flashes, we try to give our images specular highlights to take full advantage of the sharpness of the lens. For the image to the left, I use Sigma’s built in meter to figure out the ambient exposure and then used my knowledge of lighting to add fill light with an off camera flash.

The result is an image that still retains some awesome color, lots of sharpness, and loads upon loads of details.

In Sigma Photo Pro, all that we did was added a tad of saturation and only a smidgen more sharpening for the web.

In a couple of other images, I blew out the highlights and I was able to pull them back for around 1.7 stops. That in and of itself is quite impressive without causing excessive darkening on the image.

Shooters on location can do something similar if they want to use a camera like this and utilize it like a medium format camera. The fixed 50mm f2.8 will give you around a 75mm field of view: which is great for portraits. However, we have to say that many users may not want to shoot using an LCD and instead may prefer a functional viewfinder or a a flip up LCD screen that can be used in a similar fashion to the way that a TLR is used.

With that said though, the LCD screen on this camera shows the images off quite gorgeously and when you decide to go in and pixel peep you can see a ridiculous amount of details.

High ISO Abilities

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (2 of 9)ISO 8001-30 sec at f - 2.8

 

The image above was shot at ISO 800 and converted straight over to black and white. There is some point around the top left corner but it is pleasing and looks really film-like. So at 800, we won’t really complain. But once you go above this, it’s time to abandon ship.

ISO 6400

ISO 6400

When processing the images in Sigma Photo Pro, the editor will automatically apply a noise reduction to the images–effectively smearing any details that we saw away. But when converted the monochrome, the noise came back for an film-like look. Trying to get rid of the noise reduction in color mode proved difficult to do as we needed to adjust the different factors controlling noise accordingly. For what it is worth, Sigma Photo Pro also only gives you three layers of noise control–and we really wish that we had more control.

Other ISOs above 800 aren’t too pretty either in color, and we believe that this is why Sigma added the Monochrome feature: because their images look wonderful when converted.

ISO 1600

ISO 1600

ISO 3200

ISO 3200

ISO 6400

ISO 6400

Extra Image Samples

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (2 of 20)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 4.0

 

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (1 of 9)ISO 4001-100 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (3 of 9)ISO 2001-1250 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (5 of 9)ISO 1001-400 sec at f - 4.0

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (6 of 9)ISO 1001-1250 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (7 of 9)ISO 4001-250 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (8 of 9)ISO 1001-200 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images (9 of 9)ISO 4001-6 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (20 of 20)ISO 4001-320 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (19 of 20)ISO 4001-1250 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (18 of 20)ISO 4001-1250 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (17 of 20)ISO 4001-1000 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (15 of 20)ISO 4001-1000 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (14 of 20)ISO 1001-1250 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (12 of 20)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (11 of 20)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (10 of 20)ISO 1001-320 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (8 of 20)ISO 4001-25 sec at f - 2.8

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 review images extras (3 of 20)ISO 4001-125 sec at f - 4.0

Conclusions

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Sigma DP3 product images (8 of 8)ISO 1001-60 sec at f - 2.0

The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a bit of an odd beast. It exhibits great image quality in the right conditions and has a heck of a build quality. On top of this the 50mm f2.8 lens attached to the body is spectacular. On the other hand, the high ISO image quality isn’t so pleasing unless you convert them to black and white, the fact that we need to work with Sigma Photo Pro is a bit awkward from our typical workflow, the autofocus is slow and the battery life is poor. But then you consider the fact that it performs very much like a medium format camera and in that case then you find yourself yearning for either a flip-up LCD screen or a real working viewfinder built in.

For the studio looking for medium format quality on the cheap and that may only stick to one lens (and there are very few of them) we can recommend this camera. Otherwise, it belongs in the hands of the most patient, skilled, and experienced of creatives.

When you start to look at the other options out there like the Fujifilm X100s, Ricoh GR and Nikon A, the DP3 Merrill isn’t looking so tempting except for the image quality. If you need the absolute premium in image quality, then this camera is the one to spring for. In fact, it can even outdo the Sony RX1 in some aspects–and that has a full frame sensor.

To that end, we haven’t even mentioned the video quality. And we really, really wish that it was at least 720p HD with full manual control.

In the end, if you’re looking for a medium format type of experience, this may the be option for you–sans the medium format sized sensor.

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