I was asked about my Sigma camera with the FOVEON sensor, something I mentioned here yesterday. I have the Sigma DP1 (aka DP-1) and its viewfinder in very good condition. Technical details, of why the big SRL-sized FOVEON sensors are better for rich colours, and give better tonality in b&w, are easily found elsewhere. But here are some general thoughts and tips on this Japanese camera and its use.
* Always having an SLR-quality sensor with you in a pocket or bag. This is the smallest, lightest and most compact Sigma FOVEON-sensor camera they’ve made, even today.
* Looking fab. It looks kind of like a retro camera from 1976. Actually, it’s from 2008/9.
* Avoiding the dangers (hassle, muggers, paranoid security guards) that a big ‘pro’ SLR camera can attract.
* Being low-cost, as they can now be had relatively cheaply (maybe £150 or so for a complete box with standard in-box accessories, SD card and good battery).
The pop-up flash block, see here “up”, can be pressed down.
* General outdoors pictures.
* Wide-angle landscapes and skies.
* Large gardens, parks and trees.
* Well-lit still-life.
* Shallow depth-of-field (manual focus, great for optically blurred backgrounds).
* Slow-moving street and middle-distance reportage (outdoors with daylight).
* Architecture and large outdoors machinery/infrastructure (the lens is especially well suited for these).
Also b&w for all these, as the stacked sensor gives a somewhat wider tonal range.
* Night / tunnel work. This is surprising, as it’s so bad in low-light. But you have total manual control, so long-exposure night photography is possible (with a tripod). Exposure times can go to 15 seconds. This feature, and its pocket-size and great colours, may make it suitable for urban explorers who do long exposures with a Gorillapod tripod.
* Rough field interviews. All the reviews ignore this… but it has a microphone and records .WAV audio files as long as you want, and still leaves plenty of room for pictures on a 4Gb SD card. 2Gb = 11 hours of audio recordings.
Close-in ‘straight’ portraiture. This is due to the wide-angle lens type.
Not at all suitable for:
* Artificial light or even subdued-natural light indoors (though there is a pop-up flash, seen in the picture above).
* Pointing toward very bright light sources (bright street lamps, the sun, brilliant security lights etc), as the sensor is just not designed for that.
* Kids / fast moving wildlife / action photography.
* Product or archival photography (where you need 100% accurate colours).
And anywhere you need zoom (there’s no zoom, you have to use your legs and get closer). As you can see, it’s not a standard consumer pocket auto-digi-cam for the masses. It’s for people who want specific types of pictures, and who know how to work an old-school camera.
Tips for general daylight:
* Keep it on “Daylight” white balance, even in cloudy weather.
* Keep it on ISO 400, always. You’ll hardly notice the difference, and it’ll be faster. ISO 400 also gives you significantly better range if you ever suddenly need the flash (an extra three feet of reach, maybe 9ft in total).
* Just ignore the LCD preview screen except for information, as it’s a very poor reflection of your RAW pictures.
* Always be set to shoot RAW, three-picture burst mode (i.e. max. three pictures in one second, called “Continuous” mode). Yes, you then have a 9-second ‘write to the card’ wait. Yes, you will fill your card faster. But you may get a shot otherwise missed. If in a more relaxed situation (landscape/cloudscape, still-life), it’s easy to switch back to single-shot for the duration.
* Those aiming for richly tonal b&w landscapes or worried about exposure can also dial in the “Continuous” burst of three-shots + some mild exposure bracketing.
* Set the in-camera sharpening low in the camera settings, and do it in post where you have finer control.
Focus and framing:
* Use the optical viewfinder, which comes in the box. It helps stablise the camera against your head. There is no auto-stabilise.
* Forget the slow autofocus. Dial in the “A” (fixed aperture) mode on the top dial, then dial the small “F8” aperture. Set the focus to manual, then dial it to a fixed 1.5m (5ft) for street photography, and 2.5m (8ft) for general “most things in focus” pictures.
* Camera distances are in Euro metres rather than Imperial (feet and yards). The camera is not that old-school, regrettably.
* There’s no “I can photograph an insect’s eye” type of macro, but it can copy an A4 sheet of text or an open book well enough for “visual note taking” and later reading. This needs to be done in manual focus rather than auto-focus, and even then 30cm (12 inches) is as close as you’ll get. Just turn the manual focus dial all the way down, and get within 12 inches of the paper. You may have to hold the camera very steady in low indoors light, but it should be readable enough to later extract the information.
For best battery life:
* Set the LCD to go off “after 1 minute”, but have the camera power be “always on”. The LCD can also be turned off via a physical button.
* Having auto-focus off and relying on manual or a fixed focus may also help battery life.
* The user should be able to fill a 4Gb card with 260 RAW images, before the battery is drained. Even with 3x burst mode that gives around 84 pictures, enough for users who only photograph for a few hours and who don’t just snap wildly at anything.
* If you want spare batteries in your pocket, BP-31 are the official batteries and SLB-1237 are the generic replacements. Still widely available. The slight differences are:
Original: BP-31 (3.6v 1230mAh)
Generic: SLB-1237 (3.7v 1200mAh)
* Always remove the battery when not in use.
* The slot-on viewfinder (VF-11) is “a must” for the daylight photography that the camera was made for, and using it helps you steady the camera against your head. It comes in the box, and if buying second-hand then be sure it’s still in there. Easy to slot on, far more difficult to get off.
* The strap is also a “must-fit” for reportage, because you can then have the camera carried chest-high and forward-facing for more stable and discreet location photography. No need to have it always waving around in a sweaty hand, or buried down in a pocket. It’s always easily accessible, and both hands are free when it’s hanging.
* There’s no SD card in the box. Get a fast one. Some early reviewers of the DP1 were using slow cards, and complain of 15 second write-times in 3x burst-mode. That should be down to 9 seconds with a better card.
* If buying used from the UK, be aware that here in the UK we have has three-prong wall-plugs for electricity. The battery charger may differ if coming from the continent.
* Firmware update? Yes, there’s a 2.0 firmware update that adds a levelling grid on the LCD, and one or two other changes. Some say it speeds the slow autofocus time a bit?
First use the free official Sigma Photo Pro 6.x software (latest version works fine back to Windows 7, at January 2023). It can recover detail in shadows, and damp the highlights, far better than Adobe Lightroom. Once you have a good base .TIF from Sigma Photo Pro, it can go to software such a RawTherapee etc, or just to Photoshop (since you may not actually have much postwork to do).
There’s also a lens hood in the box, though keeping it fitted destroys the pocket-ability or even the bag-ability of the camera. The optical viewfinder doesn’t have that problem, and slips in the velvet drawstring bag nicely, along with the removed battery. Also fits in a belt-pouch (see below).
For summer strolling you don’t want to stuff a trouser pocket with a strange huge bulge. And you may not have a jacket or an encumbering bag with you. In that case you’ll need a pouch that has a good belt-loop at the back. The nylon shower-proof and dust-proof Lowepro Rezo 30 fits the camera nicely, a bit of a tight-fit with viewfinder / lens-cap / strap, but it fits. The battery goes in a smaller pocket under the front flap, with space for a couple more and an SD card.
A tiny pot of black enamel ‘toy soldiers’ paint from Games Workshop etc, to make the camera less noticeable. Use it to paint out the bright white “X” logo on the front, after first de-greasing and thoroughly drying it.
Yes. Here’s the original accessories preview from Japan, with part-numbers…
No plastic gumminess after 15 years. Some plastic grips and parts on pocket digi-cams start to decay and become nastily sticky after a decade or so. That’s not the case here, as the grip surfaces are built into the metal casing as fields of raised dots. The pure rubber bend-back door over the PC cable-connector slot has however become just a little loose and perhaps slightly dry. Treat this with great care.
The non-nylon part of the original strap (the bit that contacts the neck) will be decayed after 15 years, and could well be shedding very fine granular bits — not good if they shed into the case and then get into the mechanism! The solution is simple. Take a very sharp fine craft knife, and cut the stitching at both of the narrow ends. With a firm grip you should be then able to peel back and tear off the offending fabric strip from the nylon, with the help of a bit of extra fine cutting. Do the same with the Sigma patch on the other side, which is made of the same material. The nylon strap underneath should still be perfectly good for another 15 years — some plastic is more wonderful than others!
Since 2009, we now have AI software such as AI Gigapixel and others. Thus the 4.7 megapixel output from a DP1 is no longer so scary, for those who think 48 megapixels is a must-have.
Since 2009, we now have good quick / free / desktop photo-stitching software such as Microsoft ICE. So provided you have a static subject, take nine pictures and stitch for medium-format resolution.
Since 2009, we of course have bigger and cheaper SD cards. Perhaps also faster, though that can be limited by the camera.
A further Sigma DP1x was produced in 2010, with the only changes touted being ISO up to 3200, the LCD grid overlay (achievable in the original DP1 via firmware), and a possibly-useful “save and recall three settings” preset option. If you won’t use any of those, then get the original and save some cash.
There was later a Sigma DP1s model which was exactly the same except for…
* added a new QS (Quick Set) function to the digital zoom buttons, for quicker manual focus-checking.
* claimed “better pictures of backlit subjects”.
* sensitivity to red light toned down a bit.
* the optional optical viewfinder was renamed from VF-11 to VF-21, though still offered only a plain view with a frame but no grid.
* the latest firmware (again, it puts a grid on the LCD).
There was also a later Sigma DP2, with the only real further change being a faster F2.8 lens (against an F4) paired with a faster processing chip, and a wider ISO range (though in practice you won’t want to go beyond ISO 800, which the DP1 can do anyway).
The later DP1 Merrill and DP1 Quatro are very different beasts, less pocket-able and producing different sorts of pictures. Also a lot more expensive.