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Digital Deal
SIGMA SD14: Two Faces of


These images reflect fairly spectacular camera performance, from the standpoint of lighting contrasts and EVs. Handheld at 175mm and 126mm, respectively, at 1/80 sec. without image stabilization. Trapeze performer, ISO 400; ring mistress, ISO 800.
An aerial view of a salvage job, easy stuff (ISO 200) for the industrial-strength Sigma.
Queen Victoria arriving on maiden visit (ISO 400)

As we write, the 2008 photokina show is just over a month away, and, of course, the rumors are flying already. In an age when having information first is a status symbol--regardless of whether that information is important, relevant, germane, or even correct--there are plenty of folks who've claimed to have insights into the "next" Sigma DSLR. Sigma's Tom Sobey acknowledges that Japan seems to be thinking of developing a Sigma DSLR line, meaning that the current products may continue to be with us while newer ones are added. The nature of the newer ones? Stay tuned--it's all scuttlebutt now.

While we're waiting, we can consider the current Sigma products, what they contribute to the market's composition, and exactly why they've sometimes been a little demanding when it comes to closing the sale.

The legend and lore of the Sigma cameras is predicated on their being different. Really different. Not just superficially different in styling and doodads and details, but fundamentally different--in a sense, a reinvention of the technology of digital photography. It's all based upon their exclusive use of Foveon imagers.

Where most imagers have their photosites--in slang, we call ‘em pixels--all lined up in a single layer of rows, the Foveon remake has its rows stacked in three layers. Each layer is translucent so that light from the upper layers can reach the lower ones, and each responds to one of the primary colors--red, green, blue. That much is known, understood, and accepted pretty widely by now. After that, when discussion turns to what being different really means for a Foveon imager, all heck breaks loose.

Being different has its advantages, from a marketing point of view. Look what it did for Apple Computer. Way back in the early days, Steve Jobs was quoted as saying that Apples were as different from MS-DOS computers as they could possibly be made, even to the point of being different for difference's sake. Inscribing the keyboard with Italic letters didn't make them work better, but it was different, and that was good enough. Apple computers also have their legend and lore.

Where relatively few observers were critical of Apple computer architecture, Foveon's architecture has been both praised as a revelation and dismissed as a hoax, with practically every possible opinion in between.
So where Apple's difference was a statement of independence, Sigma's difference is a source of debate. This does not simplify a sales demonstration.

EVERYBODY LIKES THE LITTLE GUY?

The two cameras in the current Sigma line are the DP1, a nonzooming point-and-shoot, compact camera, and the SD14, the flagship DSLR that was first seen at the last photokina. The bodies are entirely different, but they share the imager--one that, as the DSLR's numerology suggests, is rated at 14 megapixels.

Of course, that figure is where the controversies begin, for what exactly is a pixel, let alone 14 megas of ‘em? In the Foveon imager, is each stack of three color receptors one pixel, or is it three? That's been raging since the first Sigma DSLR, the SD9, came out in 2002, and as far as we know, the debate continues to rage.

The public response to the DP1 is therefore a bit surprising. The reviews it's received have been quite praiseful of a compact camera that uses a large imager and 14 million pixels (maybe). Perhaps because the camera itself is so simple, and its customer less technically inclined, the debates surrounding the DSLR don't really arise. What reviewers and customers are left to talk about is the result of that camera, the pictures it takes. And no matter where commentators have stood on the nature and significance of Foveon imagers, they seem pretty united on the quality of its output. The pictures can be spectacular.

DSLRs generally make terrific pictures anyway, but in the context of compact cameras, where miniaturization takes its toll in the form of noise and other resolution-reducing factors, a camera that takes spectacular pictures is really a standout. Buyers and users of DSLRs are more technocratically inclined and sometimes like to show how smart they are. So the big Sigmas, the DSLRs, come with enough controversy attached that maybe some potential buyers get a little nervous. That's where you come in.

YESTERDAY'S NEW?

While the Foveon imager draws most of the controversy, the part of the camera that's actually made by Sigma is the camera that surrounds it. Though better-known as a lens maker, Sigma has been in the camera business since 35mm days. And the body of the SD14 shows an intelligence of design that suggests the makers were paying attention. It is everything you'd expect a good camera from 2002 to be.

It's 2008 now, of course, which means that about six years of development have not found their way into the Sigma machine. We've lavished great praise on such features as dust reduction, in-camera image stabilization, and live-view monitors with articulated screens, none of which are present in the SD14. We'd like to see them added, and maybe forthcoming models will fulfill our wishes, or at least a couple of them.

The SD14 doesn't have a dust-reduction system that automatically sheds dust from the imager (per Canon, Olympus, Pentax, etc.), but its Foveon unit is housed under glass--safe to clean the old-fashioned way, nearly as easy as the newfangled way.

In-camera image stabilization via an oscillating imager? We know no technical reason why Sigma couldn't add it to a future DSLR, but that would compete with their own line of image-stabilized lenses. It would not be impossible, but it would be surprising, just as in-body IS systems would be surprising in Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Those companies sell image-stabilized lenses, too.

Can you do live view with a Foveon imager? It took awhile to surmount certain hurdles, such as heat buildup, in conventional imagers, and we don't know the prognosis in this case.

If it turned out, for technical reasons or for marketing ones, that none of the "hot new" features would work with a Sigma DSLR, does their absence militate against the success of the camera? We'll put it to you like this: Nikon was the last major manufacturer to adopt any of these three features, yet they seem pretty pleased with their sales.

Sigma may be no newcomer, but Nikon still has greater stature as a camera maker--they've always offered a line of models such as Sigma, scuttlebutt tells us, may be just aspiring to. So you couldn't say that Sigma will gain market share just because it lacks what Nikon lacks. But you could say that lack of those features does not doom a camera or a line, as Nikon has shown.

For there are other factors to consider.

THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING

Like any individual camera, the Sigma SD14 has a few things to love, and a few things to hate. It's an annoyance, for example, that when changing the ISO equivalency for a picture, you can scroll only upward on the menu--you can't scroll down. So if you're set at 200 speed and want to cut back to 100, you have to scroll all the way up to 800 and beyond, whereupon ISO 100 cycles back into view. It's not a huge hassle, but it slows operations by a smidgen and just makes you wish they'd done it differently.

A larger concern in the rat-tat-tat age of picture-taking is the SD14's buffer. It seems to have room for just five pictures and takes its time doing whatever it does to write them to memory (CF cards). This comes as a surprise, as the proprietary, resident file format of the Foveon imager is a raw format (termed X3F). Being raw, or nearly raw (some processing has to be done somewhere to display the thumbnail images on the camera screen), you'd think writing the files would proceed more quickly.

Once the file is written, there's a big surprise--it measures 2640x1760 pixels. If this is a 14-megapixel camera, how come its pictures don't measure 4672x3104, like the pix from the Pentax 14-megapixel camera do?

That's where the controversies reach their screechingest pitch. And most of it's in Latin. The gurus of high tech can resurrect the question of "what is a pixel" and toss-in some hocus-pocus about interpolation. For if you really think about a Bayer-pattern imager (such as the Pentax), it doesn't really make sense that a 14MP picture should measure 4672x3104, either.

The illuminati of the chat rooms, fundamentalists and libertarians alike, have argued the questions to smithereens, if not sub-smithereens. The fact that there are such questions at all is off-putting to some. What's a person to say to reassure the customer?

LOOK AT THE PICTURE!

We don't know how bumblebees fly, either, but they still bring us a lot of honey. The SD14's honey is its picture. At its best, it's startlingly sharp, and its colors are breathtaking. There are technical reasons--and more debates to go with them--for why these traits are so typical of the Sigma camera, but hey, let's get out of our heads for a minute, and into our eyes. Extremely fine detail-resolution and lush, voluptuous color are what to expect from the Sigma DSLR. It happens over and over again.

And while some theorists like to cite the Foveon architecture as the source of this resplendence, Sigma's own contributions are considerable, too. One day at the circus, we took telephoto shots of the performers, spotlighted against vast black backgrounds. It's the type of lighting that sends most AE systems into despair, but without special attention, the SD14's AE was perfect--plenty of detail in both highlights and shadows.

We were hand-holding, by the way, at pretty long focal lengths--up to nearly 300mm "equivalent"--and a shutter speed of 1/80 sec. No image stabilization? We love that feature but also can sometimes live without it. We used ISO 400 and 800 equivalencies and did find some noise at the higher speed. But a little work in software brought it under control--quite an accomplishment, considering those vast black backgrounds.

It would be a mistake to call the Sigma SD14 an "artist's camera," because its quality of output serves plenty of purposes in the commercial world, too.

It would be correct to call it a camera for people who really care about pictures--people less concerned with rat-tat-tat than setting up an outstanding photograph. There's something exceptional in the resolution of this camera, and it's hard not to notice. It speaks of superior, no-expense-spared quality (even though the camera is now selling for around $850, about half its intro price). This is the camera you use to photograph the president, the Rolls-Royce, the world's most beautiful landscape. Let the squabblers squabble--however it's done, the SD14 is the best kind of different, reducing all controversy to a single short syllable: "Wow."


   







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