Which DP Merrill camera is best?
After much deliberation, I decided to get both the Sigma DP1 Merrill and DP3 Merrill. They make a great combination.
The DP1m is a great walk-about camera if you’re prepared to compromise in order to get amazing image quality.
The DP3m offers medium-format beating photos for stationary subjects if you fuss about stitching images together.
Otherwise, get the Sigma DP2m as a compromise, or decide whether a wide-angle or short telephoto lens fits you best. The battery life on all the cameras is abysmal so you’ll need lots of spares.
You can download this full-resolution photograph and print it for your personal use to see what the fuss is about
Wide-angle lens DP1m
+ Much easier to frame images and wider depth of field
– A little more distortion and slightly softer corners
– Limited to 14.8 megapixels for most scenes
Standard lens DP2m
+ Matches the perspective of our eyes so ‘seeing’ is more intuitive
– The perspective can be a bit boring so it’s tricky to take interesting photos
– f2.8 is a slow aperture for a standard lens
Short telephoto lens DP3m
+ Effectively no distortion and incredible sharpness. Perfect for portraits
– A big too telephoto for most applications
– Camera shake more likely with the longer, unstabilised lens
The Sigma DP Merrill Series Camera Review and Comparison
Change a little, change a lot and so while the DP Merrill cameras are practically triplets bar their different focal length fixed lenses, they’re altogether different to shoot with.
All of these cameras share the X3 Foveon APSc sized sensor which Sigma first featured in their over-priced SD1 dSLR. They’d initially gone after the medium format market; and now this same sensor has had three compact bodies built around it.
They have boasting rights to 46 megapixels, but you’ll only get 14.85 megapixels to print. Red, green and blue are captured at three different layers, similar to film and unlike the Bayer sensors you’re probably used to.
In practice, this novel sensor gives incredible acutance (everything looks very clear when you zoom in) which gives a feeling of realism; a world away from the cartoonish airbrushed look many cameras have.
The colours look great too; more natural. They don’t have the hyper-real, overly saturated look. Rich colours look rich; and subdued colours look subdued. Skin tones look amazing, especially in ‘Neutral’ mode.
The design also means that the low-light capabilities aren’t competitive and you’ll be limited to ISO 200 for quality results. Higher ISO sensitivities lose detail and saturation; this is no Nikon D4 nor Fujifilm X-Pro1.
The bottom line is that while not full-frame, the Foveon sensor competes with everything up to medium format digital at ISO 100, especially if you fuss about and stitch multiple images together to increase the overall resolution. I’ve not seen any moire.
But, as Leica would claim after the disappointment of their M9’s DXOMark test, a sensor isn’t much without great lenses. Fortunately, the DP Merrill cameras are well provided for, and each lens is a true gem.
Moreover, they’re prime lenses matched to the camera they’re fixed to, allowing for phenomenal quality. If you associate Sigma lenses as being a cheap option, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Even though they’re tiny, there aren’t many lenses ever made that can match them.
Part of the reason that they’re able to be so small is that each lens has a maximum aperture of f2.8, which isn’t particularly fast nor competitive. They are sharp wide-open at f2.8 however, which helps. Each lens has a minimum aperture of f16.
The lenses have a tendency to introduce green and pink flare when the sun is included in the frame. Sure, this might allow for some serendipity in ‘Art’, but actually you’re better off to use a lens hood to mitigate this, at least a little.
So you have three options to choose from. A wide-angle, a standard lens and a short telephoto. Forget the model numbers or the release date; the latest DP3m is no better than the DP1m, it’s just different.
The Sigma DP1m has a 19mm lens, equivalent to a wide-angle ~28mm on full frame because of the 1.5x crop factor. The Sigma DP2m has a 30mm lens, which is equivalent to a standard 45mm. The Sigma DP3m has a 50mm lens, equivalent to a 75mm short telephoto lens.
None of the lenses are optically stabilised nor is image stabilisation available in-camera. You’ll have to be a lot more steady at shutter speeds below 1/80s with these cameras than with the Olympus OM-D, for example.
This fits the trend of poor performance in low light. Image quality up to ISO200 is breathtaking. Detail and saturation diminish quickly after ISO400 as noise increases. Noise is a little more ‘film-like’ than Bayer sensor cameras if you convert the photos to black and white; but it’s still very digital and not attractive.
I recommend using a tripod with the DP Merrill cameras to get the most out of them. ISO100, f8 and be there. There’s no remote release so you’ll need to use the self timer to avoid camera shake. There’s also no bulb mode, so shutter speeds are limited to thirty seconds. However, you’ll be able to use a much lighter carbon-fibre tripod because of the camera’s size; this makes a big practical difference as you’re more likely to use it.
DP Merrill Camera Features
The DP Merrill cameras all have fixed prime lenses, so they can’t zoom.
E.g. Leica M series, Fuji X-E1/X-Pro1, Sony’s NEX series, all dSLRs.
+ Access a wider range of different focal lengths with the same camera
+ A broken lens doesn’t mean a broken camera
– Dust ingress requires cleaning the sensor
– Bigger lenses
E.g. DP Merrill series, Sony’s RX1, Pentax MX1
+ Matched to the sensor for better image quality
+ Never have to clean the sensor
– Restricted by the focal length of the lens
– If the lens gets scratched, it can’t be easily replaced
It was restrictive to use only one focal length and not have the option to change lenses. That said, photographers have managed to create amazing photographs with these limitations. A lot of Leica M users stick to a favourite prime lens (35mm or 50mm perhaps) and use nothing else. I used the wide-angle DP1m and short telephoto DP3m together; they make a great combination at a still-reasonable price.
Other than the lenses, which features are worth mentioning? There’s some good news, some bad news and some you-decide news.
The good news is that the cameras use a leaf shutter. This means that taking the pictures is effectively silent; invaluable for many genres of photography. It also allows you to synchronise a flash at higher speeds. The Sigma DP Merrill cameras sync at 1/1250s at f2.8, 1/1600s at f4 and a rapid 1/2000s at f5.6! In practice, this means that you can easily darken the ambient light, use larger apertures and less flash power. Most pro dSLR cameras have a maximum sync speed of 1/250s.
The bad news is that the battery life is terrible. I’ve managed 125 Raw+Jpeg photos with one battery, but that’s exceptional. Sigma provides a spare, but you’ll need to get lots of batteries. Thankfully, they’re cheap and small. A power adaptor exists for studio use; so one would hope that some enterprising chap will create an external battery pack.
The you-decide news is how the camera looks and feels. It’s been built around the sensor and that shows. It looks like a compact digital camera from a decade ago; boxy and basic. I found myself explaining to clients, unasked, about the amazing image quality. If a camera is a fashion accessory, go with a Leica. If you want to look ‘pro’, get a Nikon D4 or Canon 1Dx. Otherwise, it’s a ‘secret’ weapon, able to get amazing quality photographs in a camera that looks amateur; this is huge for documentary photographers, for example.
The body is small and light, especially considering the APSc sensor. The DP3m’s lens is slightly larger so it’s less pocketable than the other two. All three DP Merrill cameras are made from aluminium – which weighs more than magnesium alloy, and is more liable to dent. The camera feels solid like it would survive a tumble; but it’s not weather-sealed so you’ll need to protect it in heavy storms.
The menus are essentially identical on all of the cameras. They’re well set up for photographers. I particularly liked the two ‘quick’ menus, which gave customisable access to the controls I’d need when photographing. The exposure modes are changed via a button on the top of the camera.
In Manual Exposure mode, you can set the top wheel to adjust either the shutter speed or aperture. This was very handy; I set it to change aperture when I was shooting with studio flashes, and shutter speed otherwise. Otherwise, the variables are controlled via the back buttons; which was okay but I’d prefer two wheels. The wheel on top feels precise but fluid and can be controlled with a finger or thumb.
In Aperture Mode the wheel controls the aperture or the exposure compensation. This allows you to set the aperture to the sharpest aperture for the lens (which differs between cameras but f6.3 will be great) then use the wheel to adjust exposure compensation. This is very quick in practice. The over/under-exposure is shown numerically, which I liked.
Metering is very good with a slight tendency to underexpose to preserve highlights. However, shadows lose a bit of saturation while highlights are well recoverable so you might want to over-expose by 0.3-0.7EV.
Wisely, Sigma saw fit to include full RGB histograms. These are all but essential for accurate exposure, especially with Jpegs (RAW files have a bit of latitude). This is just as well as judging exposure by screen brightness was hit or miss. ISO200 seems to have a bit more dynamic range.
You’ll also be doing all of your composition using the screen, which is three inches diagonally across and has almost a million pixels. It’s hard to see in very bright conditions and the picture gets desaturated and grainy when light levels are low. It also attracts smudgy fingerprints. It doesn’t tilt, which would be nice, but understandable given the camera’s size.
I didn’t particularly enjoy composing the image using the screen. It was easy to forget how shallow the depth of field can be at f2.8 on the Sigma DP3m’s 50mm lens and miss photographs. But this is for moving subjects. When I could use the manual focus with the ‘loupe’ at 12x magnification (variable), I enjoyed the precision.
The auto-focus, especially after the firmware update, was pretty snappy. However, coming from a pro dSLR it felt slow and liable to hunt in low light. Fans of the focus-and-recompose method will be pleased that the size of the focus points can be varied. I found pre-focussing all but essential for moving subjects.
The alternative is to use an after-market optical viewfinder mounted on the hotshoe. I’d be happy enough using the DP1 Merrill like this because of it’s wide-angle lens, and possibly the DP2m too. This also allows you to save battery life by not using the screen.
Composing with the screen also requires that you hold the camera in front of you like an Instagrammer. You’ll get more camera shake because you can’t brace the camera against your face and still frame accurately. Best to use a tripod or a monopod then.
There is a shutter delay on these cameras. It’s not enough to notice normally, but I did miss several shots because of it, even with manual focus/ manual exposure. This is a pain, as otherwise I’d whole-heartedly recommend the DP1m in particular as a street camera. As it is, you’ve got to anticipate by a split-second.
It’s been said that the Sigma DP Merrill cameras are slow. Those who use them will know that while it takes a while to write the large RAW photos to the card, they can manage 4 frames-per-second for 7 shots. This was normally more than enough to get the majority of photographs. Cartier-Bresson was the master of one shot to capture the ‘decisive moment’ – I like the motor-drive’s facility to get a quick shot after the first as a backup and in case the subject blinked. Writing the files to the card is quite slow however.
But then this is an unobtrusive camera, and for actual photography, that makes up for a lot. I could conceal any of the DP Merrill series in my hands, and that silent leaf shutter let me get close and not concern subjects. People were far less intimidated by these cameras than with the Pentax 645D, for example. Officious security guards also took less notice, and I imagine customs would be the same.
The importance of size and weight is often overlooked by those people looking at statistics and pixels. But it makes a difference; I’d be much more likely to carry this camera wherever I go, which I couldn’t say about a pro dSLR. You’ll get better photographs simply because the camera is with you when you see them.
The feature-set is pretty pared down. They’re obviously focussed on photographers, and photographers who know what they’re doing. A movie mode is available, but only at 480p resolution; one of the lowest out there. An interval timer does allow for timelapse photography however.
Here’s a 480p sample video from the Sigma DP1m with the X3 Foveon sensor, straight out of camera
Because of the innovative sensor, you’ll have to convert the RAW photographs in Sigma Photo Pro. It is anything but ‘pro’; buggy, slow and limited. Best to export the images as a ProPhoto or Adobe RGB profiled 16bit .TIFF file and work on them in another software. The Jpeg files are very usable straight from the camera if you set it up right, however.
So the features shared by the three cameras are similar (and similarly scarce). But I’ve said that they’re three very different cameras, and it’s true. The Sigma DP1m feels like a great travel camera. Its wide-angle lens allows you to capture a range of subjects, from travel photography through to landscapes. However, using a wide-angle lens for portraits is inadvisable and you’re effectively limited to 14.8 megapixels.
I’d consider the DP1m as a great everyday camera. It’s light enough to forget about when you’re carrying it, but the results are superb. Importantly, it’s a very small 28mm full-frame equivalent combination. It’s the sort of camera you can have for years and just mess about with, knowing that the results will make beautiful prints up to about A3.
The DP3 Merrill is a different beast however. Its longer 50mm (75mm equivalent) lens will probably be too long for everyday photography for the majority of people. However, it’s creates beautiful portraits, especially head-shots, and makes a great dedicated machine for that; and one that won’t intimidate subjects.
The DP3m is also designated as a macro camera, and while it doesn’t get as close as a true 1:1 ratio, the 1.5x crop on the sensor does get you very close so this could also be a great-value workhorse for product or food photography.
Be that as it may, the true strength of the DP3 Merrill is its ability to fit more images into a stitched panorama/mosaic. The 100% per-pixel acutance of the X3 Foveon sensor, in my opinion, beats pretty much all of the competition outside of medium-format digital. I also prefer the colour. However, for huge prints the D800e will beat it for dynamic range and by sheer force; double the megapixels.
But if you fuss about creating multiple exposure-bracketed HDR images to stitch together later, you can effectively create a medium format digital camera for a fraction of the price. Can you do this with other cameras? Sure, but the sharpness of the lens and excellence of the sensor gives the Sigma DP3m a huge advantage.
So effectively what you have, if you want to take the time and endure the hassle of taking and combining the images, is one of the best cameras on the market today for big prints of stationary scenes, bar none. You can capture a scene with multiples of the 14.8 megapixels to create huge files which will give splendid, enormous prints.
But realise what you’re getting. The Sigma DP3 Merrill pushes image quality forward by a couple of years. Doubtless in a decade the towering prints possible from multiple-stitched DP3m files will be achievable by your phone. If you want this image quality now without paying tens of thousands or carrying a huge, heavy body, then the Sigma DP3m, with all of its compromises, is your best option.
The DP1m will always give you amazing prints in any of the sizes you’re likely to need; books and magazines. But then so will a lot of cameras available today. Sure, the image quality won’t be quite the same unless you spend a lot more, but you’ll get far better high ISO performance and usability from a different camera. But then I like the way the DP1m handles, and especially how discreet it is.
And the Sigma DP2 Merrill? Well it’s something of a ‘Goldilocks’ camera. The lens isn’t too wide, nor is too telephoto; but then often it’s not wide nor long enough. It allows you to stitch a few images together for bigger files but not as many as the DP3m. However, doing so will give you a wider angle of view with less photos. It’s a nice compromise, and as the 30mm (45mm) lens is roughly equivalent to our own field of view, it’s very natural to carry around and shoot with.
Personally, I’m going to get one of the DP Merrill cameras. Which one? I wasn’t sure, hence this review and comparison. I’d not like to use any as my only camera; they’re not fast enough for action nor are the lenses long enough for a lot of work I do. However, their size, great value and amazing image quality makes them an obvious choice as a second camera.
I think the best decision would be both the Sigma DP1m and the DP3m. The DP1m as a carry-everywhere camera with incredible images, and the DP3m as a short telephoto companion, and occasional multiple-image champion when I need the best quality. If I couldn’t get both, I’d recommend the Sigma DP2m as a compromise, or choosing which of the DP1m and DP3m suits you best; have a look at your favourite photographs to check the focal length to be sure.
One thing’s for sure; they’re niche cameras. Most photographers won’t have the skill to get the most out of them but when you get them in the right zone, they are tremendous. I use them like a more convenient Hasselblad 500cm for meditative photography or like a quieter, cheaper Leica M for covert photography. However, you choose to use yours, enjoy the image quality and invest in plenty of batteries!
Enormous thanks to Jaume, Rui and Sandra at Sigma Photo ES for the loan of these three DP Merrill Cameras.