The Sigma DP1: Back to the Future

Let’s get this established from the start: this set of first impressions is NOT about image quality (IQ). The jury is no longer out when it comes to the quality of images produced by the DP1 – the world’s first “pocketable” digital camera to include a sensor the size of those found in DSLRs (Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras: you know, the ones that have interchangeable lenses and where you use a viewfinder that shows you the actual image as it is seen looking through the lens). The images from the DP1 may be prone under some circumstances to having magenta or green color casts, they may occasionally exhibit moiré artifacts, but there is little doubt that the DP1 is capable of producing the best image quality in its class. In good light and with appropriate post-processing, images shot in RAW stand up well against those coming from 8-10 megapixel DSLRs. In some areas, such as the extent of its dynamic range (which is a measure of the ability to retain details in the shadows and highlights), the little DP1 may even trump its bigger brethren.

So – this is not about images, then, but how the Sigma DP1 is as a camera.

The first thing I noticed when taking the DP1 out of its box is that it’s rather big. It is literally a stretch to make it “pocketable”. It has often been likened to a Leica D-Lux 3 (or the equivalent Panasonic LX2): but the Leica looks and feels decidedly svelte by comparison – sort of like comparing Kate Moss to Pamela Anderson. It’s not like Pamela’s unattractive, just bigger, if you know what I mean. But that is the extent that one can continue the analogy: whereas Pamela is all curves, the DP1 has the ergonomics and styling of a brick. Whoever had responsibility at Sigma for designing the body of the DP1 seems to have spent no longer than his first lunchtime considering it. He really should have taken notes from Pamela’s body: the DP1 is about as tactilely rewarding to hold as a tin of mints. I seriously doubt you’ll ever see Tommy Lee lusting after a DP1.

Not only that, the polished metal of its non-sculptured sides make the DP1 rather slippery to hold. There are some dimples for the fingertips of the right hand to gain some traction – but these are so perfunctory as to be next to useless. Hand-holdability is not anathema to diminutive cameras: Ricoh has managed to engineer great bodies in such small sizes and all other camera manufacturers would do well to take a leaf out of Ricoh’s book.

A bit of bulk and a bland body are certainly not deal-breakers on a camera. You don’t notice the real tragedy of the DP1 until you turn it on: the LCD is God-awful, a disgrace; inexcusable on a $200 point-and-shoot in this day and age let alone one costing $800 USD. But it gets worse: take a photo and, as focus is achieved, the LCD goes to black for a second or so, and then you are left watching one of those egg timers while the image is written to the card – a process that will take several seconds. All the while the camera is paralyzed, useless for capturing moments that pass you by. It reminds me of nothing so much as my first digital camera, a Canon Pro70. Glacial. But the world of digital photography has come along way since the turn of the millennium when the Pro70 was at the digital frontierland – now it is to photography what cave paintings are to Picasso.

Ergonomically, the DP1 does have one cool new feature unseen before in a camera of this type: a focus dial for focussing manually. Except that like much else about this camera, it’s one step forward followed by one step back. The LCD is too poor, even when the image is magnified, to use this function quickly with any real degree of confidence. There are no depth of field ranges provided on the display (à la the D-Lux 3) that would make zone focussing easier. The accessory viewfinder, which fits into the proprietary hot-shoe, is pitiful – perhaps allowing you to frame shots when sunlight takes using the LCD from aggravating to impossible – but no help at all for determining focus. And I won’t even mention the unforgivable omission of a live histogram.

Many of the criticisms that have been levelled at the DP1 from other quarters are unwarranted: that its widest aperture is only f4, that it has no zoom, that it has no macro, that it has no image stabalization (IS), that it only goes to ISO 800. Those are not faults but design constraints, the consequences of trying to put a big sensor in a small body. I can gladly live with them if that is what it takes to get DSLR-like image quality in such a small package. But the compromised functionality of the DP1 that results from tortoise-slow focus, an abysmal LCD display, the absence of a live histogram, the lack of a buffer and write times on a par with how long it took Tolstoy to produce War and Peace – those are not design elements inherently related to the sensor size, they are just examples of bloody poor design.

Whichever way you dress it up, it is not acceptable that a pro-orientated camera in 2008 should be presented with such handicaps. Sure, the Sigma fan-boys are quick to defend any assaults such as this on the value of their beloved DP1 as if you were questioning the very existence of God – pointing out that there are work-arounds that can make the camera more responsive, such as not focussing at all. Set the camera, they say, to its hyperfocal length, which maintains sharpness from infinity to as near to the camera as is possible for a given aperture: but isn’t one reason for using a larger sensor so you can take advantage of the shallower depths of field, thereby allowing separation of subject matter from backgrounds? And anyway, WHY SHOULD YOU HAVE TO USE WORK-AROUNDS? Sigma deserves kudos for being the first manufacturer to put a large sensor in a compact camera; they deserve huge kudos for the quality of the images that are possible…but let’s not beat about the bush, the implementation of the camera design is terrible. A real tragedy.

Sigma have indicated that they are going to introduce two further cameras based upon the DP1 design in 2008. One is suggested to be a zoom, the other a fixed focal length closer to a normal lens (the DP1 is the equivalent of a wide angle 28mm on a full-frame camera). Let’s hope that Sigma don’t just change the glass on the front of the camera, but use the opportunity to address the shortcomings apparent in the design of the DP1. A large sensor can be likened to a large brain and it’s great to see them entering the realm of the truly portable camera. If Sigma could just put the photographic equivalent of Hillary Clinton’s brain into Pamela Anderson’s body – now, that really would be a winner!