By Michael Reichmann & Kevin Raber
In late July Kevin lead a photographic expedition to the Norwegian Arctic. He had just received the Quattro DP2 for testing and it because his “always handy” camera, while he did his main wildlife and landscape shooting with a Nikon D800 outfit. Then, in early August Michael had an opportunity to spend some time with this new camera.
Here their two independent reviews, each taking a somewhat different tack on this unique new camera.
By Michael Reichmann
Reviewing a Sigma camera is a no-win situation. I’ll tell you why. The members of “the faithful” will crucify you if you say anything unfavourable about their deity, while others just don’t get the buzz, and figure you must be smoking those funny cigarettes to think that a Sigma camera, any Sigma camera, is anything but a pig with lipstick.
So let me piss everyone off with an opening statement. The Sigma DP2 Quarrto is not a very well designed camera, and its necessary SPP software is the work of the devil himself. But, if you can tolerate the camera’s flaws and limitations, and also put up with the mind-numbing slowness of DPP, you will be rewarded with some very sharp, high resolution, and finely colour differentiated images.
The Body – The Disappointments
When I first saw photographs of the DP2 I got excited. Wow, I thought, Sigma has produced a digital Xpan…a wide aspect ratio camera. But sadly, and notwithstanding its weird shape, this camera has an APS-C sized 3:2 format sensor. The sensor is special, and a visit to Sigma’s site will tell you about the new variation on Foveon technology that the DP2’s sensor uses.
Incidentally, the reason for the weird body design isn’t just to be an affront to the Bauhaus school of design (form follows function), but because the cameras new faster processing engine requires a lot more power. This means a larger battery (found in the grip) and more surface area for the electronics to dissipate heat. Even so, the body does get warm with continuous use.
The camera itself looks like it might be comfortable to hold, but this is not the case. The sharp edge at the back of the grip area digs into ones thumb joint something fierce. The shutter release is within reach with the forefinger of the right hand, as are the two thumb wheels, but the power switch and mode button are not, unless you are an orangutan. This means that you have to use your left hand for these controls. But since it will normally be found underneath the camera, this requires some hand shifting to accomplish. Not completely terrible, but not the best thought-out camera ergonomics that I’ve yet seen. Yes, I’ve seen the video where one of my esteemed colleagues shows how he holds the Quattro. Sorry, but the grip still digs a hole in my thumb crease, and the whole thing feels totally uncomfortably to shoot with and to carry. But, maybe that’s just me.
The rear LCD screen isn’t very good compared to the current competition. The problem is that it isn’t all that bright in sunlight, and in sunlight it is very prone to displaying reflective RGB stripes. It’s almost as if Sigma neglected to multicoat the screen. Distracting, but not the end of the world. The screen is also not articulated in any way, something increasingly common on most small high-end cameras these days.
There is no EVF and there is no option to mount one. An optional optical finder is available, and for street shooting this may be acceptable to some. But, of course it has no focus point indication or parallax compensation. There is a green focus confirmation light on the top panel that catches your eye when looking through the OVF. Good. But all it tells you is that “something” is in focus, not what and where. Frankly, this is more like what we expected from a 2004 camera rather than one from 2014.
I should point out as well that the OVF, which slides into the camera’s accessory shoe, does just that. It slides. It is definitely not snug, and I have no doubt the Sigma will do a good business in replacement OVFs as people walk round dropping them like dead flies attracted to flypaper (the ground). Try jamming it in with a thin piece of paper, but then it won’t be that easy to take on and off when stored in a bag. Sigma need to fix this, and a replacement eye piece mounting plate for all owners would be a good idea.
Another small quirk of the camera is that the SD card port is on the left side of the camera and sealed with a door that comes completely loose, but which is tethered by a piece of rubber. It works, but it’s hard to know if this might prove to be a design weak point or not. Only time will tell.
The 30mm f/2.8, which by the way is fantastic, comes with a huge lens shade. It’s hard to figure out the raison d’etre for this, though it does allow for filters (58mm) to be attached directly to the lens with the shade remaining in place. Let’s put it this way, the lens shade looks like its large enough to be used as a kitchen jar opener. This makes the total body size much larger than one would expect an APS-C sized sensor compact to be. This is a neck-strap camera, not even a coat-pocket camera.
My final disappointment is with the big well positioned AF button. It falls beautifully to hand (or, as it were, to thumb). But the problem is it isn’t an AF button. When the center is pressed it magnifies the image, and other touches change various AF parameters, but it doesn’t actually activate autofocus, the way every good well-behaved AF button should. What’s with that Sigma? Indeed there is no AF button function other than via the shutter release. Sigh.
Ok – this is where the photons hit the silicon, as it were. How is the image quality? It’s absolutely superb. At its lowest ISOs. Above ISO 400 things start to go wonky, both in terms of noise and colour accuracy. (Firmware 1.01). But at low ISOs IQ is brilliant…just brilliant.
How brilliant? (meant in the British sense, as in wow!). Well, it’s hard to say, and the reason is the Sigma software. At this time (and based on some inquiries, likely forever) Sigma Photo Pro 6 is the only software that can process Quattro raw files. And there’s the rub.
SPP is possibly the most frustrating software for raw processing known to mankind. The dreaded Silkypix looks like the second coming by comparison. From my perspective SPP verges on the unusable. Load a days shooting, maybe 200 images, and you may as well go for dinner before the thumbnails appear. Then when you finally click on one, and figure out how to activate the development controls, every control that you move, and every move that you make, no matter how large or how small, causes the entire image to have to be updated, as one watches a blue render bar creep across the screen.
Really Sigma? Really!? Does no one on your software team understand the concept of generating small preview files (proxy images) and then display these as processing controls are used? Then, when the user decides to export a file in a finishing format, take the time to render the original image. But to render the entire file each and every mouse move borders on the incomprehensible. The rest of the software industry figured this out more than a decade ago.
Life is simply too short for this. A 36MP or 51MP camera raw image file from a Sony A7r or Pentax 645z can be processed in real-time on my Mac, which happens to have a state-of-the-art processor, 16GB of RAM and a 500GB SSD drive. On this same computer, a Quattro raw file that might need 10-20 control movements and take a minute or so to accomplish in Lightroom would take more than a half hour with SPP.
Thus is why you don’t see any ISO comparisons, 100% enlargements or other test shots on this page. I gave up.I simply gave up. Life is too short to waste it waiting and watching render bars.
I did do some shooting using in-camera JPGs, and this allowed me to evaluate that the camera is capable of superb image quality, but I don’t regard in-camera JPGs as anything more than reference images. I always shoot raw.
Now, I suppose that some ardent hobbyists who love Foveon sensor image quality will tolerate SPP’s glacial image processing. Similarly I’m sure that there are still people who take 6 months to painstakingly build a ship in a bottle. I’m not one of them. I am interested in doing photography, and in producing images, not wasting my life in front of computer screen watching grass grow ( I mean – images render).
The Sigma DP2 Quattro is a quirky camera. It simultaneously looks like a camera from the future, yet responds like a camera from the past. Its Achilles Heel is its SPP software. A digital camera is half of the image equation… reliable, responsive and full featured raw image processing software is the other half. Regrettably no matter how good the potential image quality might be from the Quattro, the inadequacies of SPP make this moot.
On a scale of 1-5 I rate the Sigma DP2 Quarrto as follows…
The Camera: 3
Image Quality: 5
Raw Software: 1
Kevin’s Look At The Quattro DP2
By Kevin Raber
If there ever was a camera I wanted to like it was DP2 Quattro. I was fortunate enough to receive the test camera prior to my trip to the Arctic and looked forward to seeing how it performed. My excitement turned to frustration pretty quickly though.
The DP2 is a different camera to say the least. Featuring the next generation Foveon chip it promises a lot of potential and while winning on some fronts it looses big time on others. By now everyone is familiar with the Foveon approach of color layers vs. Bayer Pattern pixels. If not you can read about it HERE
So far Sigma has been the only company to adopt the Foveon chip and place it in their cameras. And, I have to give it to them, they certainly follow the old try and try again philosophy, and the DP2 Quattro is their latest entry with the newest Foveon X3 sensor. LuLa has reviewed several Sigma cameras in the past and in one review Michael openly wrote to the CEO of Sigma about where their system found its biggest weakness. Read the Sigma DP2 Merrill Field Report from September 2012. I guess they didn’t get this message.
In another article Michael does a lengthy review of the Sigma DP2 Merrill. He goes on in his review to discuss the differences of the Foveon sensor and gives some good comparisons to other popular cameras. So, this should provide some background for those that are interested in the evolution of the Sigma – Foveon line.
You would think after a few years they would have gotten all the things that were wrong corrected and introduce a camera that was a game changer. Well, they did introduce a game changing camera but they seemed to forget what needed to be fixed.
The Camera Arrives
The system I received came in a nice Pelican type case with 3 batteries, the camera, a slip on optical viewfinder and a small flash (which I never used). The first thing you notice is the camera design itself. It has got to be one of the oddest designs ever for a camera, and there must be some engineering reason the camera was designed like this. I will be blunt here and that after a few weeks of using the camera I still feel the same way. This is the most awkward feeling camera I have ever held in my hands. There is no comfortable way to hold it. Keep in mind there is no viewfinder and no swivel screen on the rear of the camera. So you have to grip this camera and hold it out in front of your face to see the screen and shoot an image. The corners are sharp and the right hand grip just feels terrible. My thumb continually hit the focus button and multi function button. Reaching for the shutter release button was completely unnatural.
The screen itself was hard to impossible to see in bright light so most of the time I ended up winging it when taking exposures. Now try to hold this camera in a vertical position. It was even more awkward. Especially, at a length far enough in front of you so that you could see the screen to compose the picture. There is no room on the left side of the camera to grasp the camera with your left hand. I have friends who have said they got comfortable with the feel of this camera after a while. Not me though. In today’s world there is no excuse for a camera with hard edges and no easy way to hold it.
When shooting outside with the DP2, since I couldn’t see the screen in bright light I did try the optical viewfinder. I gave up on that pretty quickly, saying to myself that if I was going to spend $1,000.00 USD on a camera I need a better option then an after-thought clip on viewfinder.
I won’t go into the details of the menu systems and such. They were pretty intuitive and are covered elsewhere on the internet. What I’d like to cover from this point on is my experience with the camera and some of the images I made.
Time For Some Serious Shooting
Leaving for three weeks in the Arctic to lead two back-to-back LuLa Photo Workshops, I packed the Sigma with my Nikon gear and lenses. Before I did I shot a few images. First some JPEGs, and I have to say I was impressed with what I saw. Then some raws. It was with the raws that things began to go downhill. The only raw processor that is able to process the Foveon files is the Sigma Photo Pro software. Using this software took me back to 1999 and I have to say the experience using this software was equivalent to having a cavity filled without Novocain. Loading files into this software was the most unintuitive experience I have ever had, and then once I got an image to appear in the preview window I tried to do adjustments. I would slide a slider to make an adjustment and had to wait sometimes over 10 seconds for the changes to become visible. I was at point where I didn’t think the slider was reacting and then all of a sudden the change would show up. As I first started using the software I thought I might be doing something wrong.To process one image and make all the typical adjustments rquired was so tedious that I could have fallen asleep at my keyboard waiting for adjustments to show up. Forget about making minor adjustments. It took minutes just to adjust color, exposure and contrast. Why a camera would be released with this kind of software being the only thing available is just ludicrous. The Foveon RAW files are not recognized by the Mac finder so you cannot see previews of files in any folder in the finder. That just makes things worse.
Before leaving on my trip I mentioned this to Sigma and was told to expect a software upgrade soon. So, with that I headed out to Svalbard and a great three week trip. I took the DP2 on a few excursions and took a good number of images with the camera. My big mistake is I should have shot raw + JPG. Because when I got home my real nightmare with this camera began.
Before I get into this let me share some experiences shooting in the Arctic with this camera. At the Arctic Circle there is 24 hours of sun during the summer months. And, the light is bright. Using the DP2 in this light, trying to shoot using the rear screen, was just impossible. Try using this camera with gloves on and it gets worse. This is not a cold weather camera. I know why they sent three batteries with the camera, as the batteries drained very quickly. It was not uncommon for me to use three batteries during a few hours of shooting in cold weather. I did not get anywhere near the 200 images per battery as stated in the specs.
Several times I thought I was on auto focus selection and found out that my thumb had hit the focus button and changed the camera to manual focus or even a different mode. Opps, a bunch of ruined images. The auto focus was slow compared to other cameras today. I was surprised at that, especially with a fixed lens. Not having a zoom lens (even a moderate one) meant I missed a lot of shots, especially since I was shooting from a Zodiac, or ship sometimes, and couldn’t walk up to the subject. Polar Bears don’t look too favorably on you if you try to get close to fill the frame. Oh, did I mention there is no stabilization? I am also the kind of shooter that likes to shoot fast. Once again the DP2 let me down in this department. There was a wait time between exposures that in this era of digital cameras is completely unacceptable.
During the trip, and experiencing the frustrations that I was, I thought I might have missed something, so I did sit and read the manual cover to cover. Turns out I hadn’t missed anything. What I kept asking myself was why were so many people say that this is such a great camera, and I was feeling the way I do? The answer is, most folks who are happy with this camera are shooting JPEGs. I haven’t shot JPG with a camera for like 15 years. Why would I start now? I shoot raw and that’s all there is to it. One of Adobe’s head engineers for Lightroom was on the Arctic trip and I showed him the Sigma Photo Pro software. He just looked at it with sad eyes. I asked him if Adobe had any plans to add the Foveon files to Lightroom and the answer was pretty much a NO. Same goes for Phase One’s Capture One when I inquired of them. I’ll have a bit more to say about all this further down.
I Return Home
On returning home I received an email from Sigma saying there was an upgrade to the software. I was impressed that in just a few weeks they could fix the software and send out an upgrade. NOT!!!! From this point on things got real bad. It was recommended that I upgrade the software and I did. Upon launching I kept getting the error message below.
Ok, I thought, I have worked with a lot of different image processing software before and I was pretty good at figuring out the steps to take to alleviate this error message. So, I did a restart of the computer and made sure no other programs were running. Just for the record I am running one of the latest MacBook Pros with 16 gigs or RAM and an SSD drive. Nope, that didn’t fix it. Same errors. So, I now went out and cleaned out the files in the Application Support folder of the Library and tried again. Nope the same message. No one should have to be put through this aggravation.
I fired off a lengthy e-mail to Sigma with a description of what I had tried and what was happening, as well as clearly expressing my frustration. I received an e-mail back that I would be getting a call from a Foveon rep. Shortly thereafter I did receive a call from Rudy at Foveon, who I have known for years. And, he pretty much admitted that the error I was seeing was a known issue with no immediate fix. He said he had a MAC with software that was working and he could get on a plane and come out to me to process my files. While that was a kind gesture it was out of the question, as I was prepping to leave to do another workshop. So, I said I would send him my files and he could process a few and send them back to me. Keep in mind I have several hundred RAW files.
I couldn’t select what raw files to send because there is no preview available at the finder level. What’s with that? So, I started several massive uploads of some of the files I made while in the Arctic. This took almost a half day on a very high speed connection to upload. Another major frustration.
It was about this time that I spoke with Michael and shared my experiences and I asked him if he would take a look at the camera. So, off it went to Canada while I waited for TIFF files to come back from Sigma. You can read Michael’s take on this camera above on this page. He very quickly reached similar conclusions to mine.
The TIFF Files Arrive
Okay, enough words, let’s get down to looking at images. A select number of files were returned to me from Sigma output to TIFFs. I’ll use a few of these below and talk about each. As of this writing I am told the software problem still exists. I hope maybe someday I’ll be able to look at the images I shot with the Sigma on this trip and process them my way. Keep in mind the images I’ll be showing below and talking about were processed by Sigma. I didn’t have an opportunity to Raberize them.
As you can see in the images above, TIFFs made from the RAWs by Sigma exhibited a color cast toward magenta on the bottom right of the frames. Since I have no way of processing RAW files myself I can only presume this is an issue from the RAW file or the processing. I have not seen a color cast on any of the images shot as JPEG straight from the camera.
There is a lot of talk on the web about the quality of the images made with the DP2. I’ll say this, that properly exposed images made between ISO 100-400 will yield a beautiful image. Anything else, as shown above, becomes questionable.
The Bottom Line
I have used hundreds of different cameras in my career. Some I have liked and some not so much. But, never have I had a camera that I was so uncomfortable with not to mention so frustrated with as I have been with this camera. I really wanted to like this camera. I tried real hard to like this camera. Sigma made a bold move with this camera by not only introducing a radical design with no thought to human ergonomics, but also by putting a Foveon Chip into it. Now add to that that it’s a fixed lens camera with an introductory price of $1,400 USD and you have to begin to wonder what they were thinking (or smoking). If you want any range of lens coverage you’ll have to purchase all three DP Quattro models.
In a time where Electronic Viewfinders are all the rage, and are actually quite good, it is hard to understand why the Sigma engineers choose to ignore adding one to this camera. The only way to compose an image with the DP2 is by using the rear screen or the after-thought optical viewfinder. The rear screen is useless in any kind of bright daylight. Just another frustration. Oh, I almost forgot about the cover for the SD card. On every camera I know of the SD card is well hidden behind a small door. On the DP2 it is hidden behind a rubber snap-in cover. Not easy to access or remove either. Yeah, that was smart thinking. With any kind of use that will break off and then the SD card and ports will be open to the elements.
I tried doing high ISO interior shots of family and such around the house. Forget about it. While I could finally see the screen and compose a picture, the high ISO performance above ISO 400 was useless. Plus it could hardly perform auto-focus in dim light. Auto focus was only marginally acceptable in speed in bright light. The little flash that came with the camera was a joke, so we won’t even go there.
Shooting speed was another issue for me. The time between taking an exposure, seeing it on the screen and being ready for another exposure was not immediate or close to it. Considering performances of other cameras on the market there is no reason this shouldn’t be a faster camera when it comes to frame rates.
Battery performance was also a disappointment and came no where near the advertised number of exposure per battery. To my surprise there are also none of the fancy features available on many of my cameras. For example, Art Filters – NO, Panorama shooting mode – NO, WIFI capability – NO. Lens Stabilization – NO. I think you get my point. I have known about Foveon from all the way back to 1999. Does anyone remember the Foveon Laptop with a lens that was going to revolutionize the portrait industry? The concept of the Foveon chip and using color layers instead of a Bayer patterned sensor array has always intrigued me. Throughout all these years the Foveon chip has gone through numerous iterations and even after all this time it is still flawed in many ways. Yes, it does an amazing job of producing a very high quality image under the right conditions. But that is where it ends. If you want to use high ISO, and have the use of zoom lenses than this camera will not be for you. I’ll give Sigma kudos for trying, but they may have backed the wrong pony on this one.
What bothers me the most is the fact that Foveon and Sigma have come so far yet they still fail miserably at the raw processing side of things. It is hard to believe that engineers could not have thought the whole processing workflow thing out. The Sigma raw processor is pure junk. To even release a camera and make photographers have to deal with this software is inexcusable. Why couldn’t they have done a DNG raw file so that it could easily be imported into Lightroom and Capture One? Better yet while they were developing the camera why couldn’t they have worked with Adobe or Phase One to have a raw processor that photographers use? These guys couldn’t be so disconnected from the world of photography so as not to know that this was going to be an issue.
I am sure my review will raise a few eyebrows. I am very well aware that there are a lot of folks out there that like the whole Foveon experience. To be frank, I wanted to be one of those. I have been in communication with a number of these folks. They have been attempting to get Adobe and others to develop a solution for handling the RAW files. I am not sure that is an easy task but we’ll have to see where it all goes. Photographers investing this kind of money in a camera system are for the most part raw shooters. It’s hard to beehive anyone would want to shoot JPEGs just so they can use this camera.
What I have shared here is my experience. The images from raw files shown above were processed by SIGMA, so they should have seen what I have shown in this review. In the end, this industry is moving very rapidly and I am sure we will see many changes and especially innovations in the coming months and years. The Sigma, Foveon concept could be one of those if they could just get these issues addressed.
When Sigma has a camera with interchangeable lenses and the feature set that most of todays cameras have with raw files that can be processed without turning me into a mental case then I would consider this as a serious camera. Until then, this is an interesting proof of concept camera that is lacking on many fronts. This is one camera that will not be in my camera bag and I really wanted it to be. Even, now that they have dropped the price by $400 USD.
Published September 1, 2014