Magazine Article


Sigma & Foveon: A Hollywood Marriage?

You can't export a raw Sigma file into Photoshop. But you can save it as a 16-bit (per color) .tif that will open in Photoshop. So if the vast and elaborate universe of Photoshop is where to roam, you can do so with the single most valuable attribute of the raw file intact. Again, before you can post the picture on the web, send it to a printer or printing press, you've got to dumb it down to 8 bits per color (24-bit color). But they're presumably the best 24 bits out of 48. It takes two clicks in Photoshop.

As a camera, independent of the gizmo recording the pictures, the SD9 compares nicely with its closest rivals, the Nikon D100 and the Fujifilm FinePix S2 (the Nikon D1s are in a different league). It handles nicely, the controls are well laid-out, clearly marked and easy to handle. The menu is straightforward, and simple to navigate. The D100 and the S2 both have built-in speedlights, which the SD-9 does not (although its 35mm counterpart, the Sigma SA-9, does). This feature has more value than some manufacturers credit, even for the pro.

The autofocus system did seem weird at times, sometimes failing to latch onto objects that should have been easyand which, at other moments, were easy with this camera after all. Something needs work there, though we found the inconsistencies to be the vast minority. All AF systems fail occasionallythis one a little more.

More than the others we've worked with, the SD9 is power-hungry. We've had freshly charged sets go dead after only a few dozen pictures. The best advice to SD9 users is, bring plenty of AAs.

The Jury Votes (For Now)

At the base of all the curiosity and speculation is that old question, "how well." Our reply: Very well. Mostly.

Don Sutherland has sold cameras across the counter, shot with them as a pro, and written about them for more than 30 years. His first article predicting the future of digital photography (1976) is becoming truer and truer. Don is a photo historian as well as futurist, and is author of the immortal slogan, "If you have one foot in the future and one in the past, you understand the present perfectly."

We found a tendency toward linear aliasing in one picture, where it showed up in one of out shots of a suspension bridge. The vertical cables that hold up the roadway are perfectly straight in real lifebut turned out "broken" in points along the way in our picture. How troublesome this is depends on how many perfectly straight verticals or horizontals come into your pictures. They're more frequent in architectural photography than in portraiture. In our tests, it did not recur even in shots of the same subject taken at the same timeapparently, it's influenced by focal length and the angle at which the camera is held, both affecting the relationship between the size of the lines and the pixels on the chip.

Linear aliasing is a potential liability of all camera imaging chips. Most cameras correct it, using blurring filters or other techniques in effect to "redraw" the affected areas. Fuji claims that their Super CCD minimizes the problem, by rearranging the pattern of the diodes. No matter how you slice it, everyone faces the issue.

Foveon's trade-off was sharpness for in-camera aliasing correction. Is it a good trade-off? We can't advise others. We can say only that all of our few thousand pictures were sharp, and one showed signs of aliasing.

During nighttime exposures, at one to three seconds, we got nice, clean resultssometimes. Strong lights at these exposure settings did, in fact, turn out excessively yellow. And small light points frequently lost their color altogethercame out plain white. The SD9 might not be the best choice for time-exposure situations.

But the rest of the time, the performance was spectacular. The sharpness is astounding. Distant details that come out as smudges with other cameras are clearly defined in the SD9 pictures. That is, items that consumed only a relatively few pixels had great detail. Pixel for pixel, we'd call this the sharpest imager we've ever seen.

As sharp as a 7-megapixel camera? We still haven't tested side-by-side. And since Sigma sells the same lenses in Nikon and Canon mounts as in SD9 mounts, this is a rare situation where head-on comparisons of imager performance can be made, discounting differences in the lens. It will have to wait for another time, though.

We can say that the lenses we used (15-30mm, 24-85mm, 170-500mm) must be sharp lenses. Because we got blazingly sharp photos.

All digital cameras have their weak points, their compromises, their trade-offs, their failures. We know no exceptions. But most of those shortcomings are common to all, hence taken for granted and practically ignored. The SD9's shortcomings are distinct to that camera, and seem to stand out that much more. Add to that the fact people are scrutinizing this new breed of imager in much closer detail than most others, and any flaws are bound to be magnified in the reviews. Fujifilm faced the same situation, when the Super CCD first came out. Meantime, sharpness does count. What's our advice? Well, Mr. and Mrs. Angelina Jolie make such an interesting couple, you should have them over for dinner. Get to know them better.ptn