An Open Letter to Sigma on the DP1 Merrill
The Sigma DP1 Merrill is an unusual offering, and one worthy of praise for the exceptional image sharpness it offers. Surely it has a place in the bag of many shooters who might not even be aware of it. With a 28mm option (DP1 Merrill) and 45mm option (DP2 Merrill), most photographer scenarios can be handled. The cost is quite reasonable for the image quality delivered by the camera, though I think the $799 price point would play much more favorably then the $999 price point, especially given that I would want both focal lengths (now that’s a bundle idea for Sigma).
Yet the Sigma DP1 Merrill design is off-putting in a number of ways, and is not gaining market traction. While marketing plays a large role, the fact is that the Sigma design is lacking in the minds of most users. It is not “sexy” by any stretch of the imagination, and even for those photographers looking strictly for an industrial tool, it is lacking key features.
What follows is not a complete list, but it captures much of what can and should be done to raise credibility.
What Sigma needs to do
Here are key items that Sigma should address which along with solid marketing surely could expand sales by appealing to both a more professional and more mainstream market.
The context here needs to be the 24-megapixel Sony RX1, which hits most of the “nails” here on the head. The Sony RX1 comes in at about $2700; this gives a ton of wiggle room to Sigma, and there is no reason that a full-frame ~20+ megapixel Sigma DPX-1 could not sell for a price in the $2000+ range, assuming the right features.
Sigma is just not going to get attention with 14 megapixels (the finished image size), though a vastly improved body would certainly help a great deal. As good as those pixels are, they put the DP1M squarely into 20-24-megapixel DSLR territory, which is not enough to make buyers sit up and pay attention, not with the blocky current DP1M body with its fixed lens, slow operation, lack of image stabilization, no EVF, etc.
A full-frame sensor is about 2.3 times as large in area as the APS-C sensor used in the DP1 Merrill. That means a potential for 32-megapixel finished images. But my suggestion to Sigma would be to go to 24 or 28 megapixels (finished RGB size), which would improve the noise and image quality by virtue of a larger photosite size, and also reduce demands on lens performance (versus 32 megapixels). I favor the 28 megapixel variant, because it clearly leapfrogs all (late 2012) DSLRs except the Nikon D800— a simple and direct marketing point, but with the in-your-face evidence of devastatingly sharper images.
A 28-megapixel full-frame Foveon sensor would be serious news (as the examples surely demonstrate), and it would surely compare match or surpass Nikon’s D800 sharpness. Of course, if the engineering demands for the sensor and optics could be met, a 32-megapixel sensor would easily surpass the sharpness possible with any existing DSLR (late 2012).
Make it compelling
Sigma products are not getting marketplace traction. Sigma did not help its case with the initial sky-high pricing on the Sigma SD1 Merrill DSLR, since toned down to about $2299. But people don’t want another brand DSLR with Sigma brand lenses; Nikon and Canon already serve that market better in so many ways.
And so $2299 would be fine with me for a “DP1X” Merrill if it had a 20+ megapixel sensor and some nifty new features (like an EVF or full-frame sensor). I would greatly prefer that; I don’t want another brand of DSLR. What I what is a hot little number capable of top image quality in a compact and friendly and fun package with a world-beating f/2 lens. Surely Sigma could manage that for $2299 instead of a DSLR form factor. That’s what Sony is trying for with the RX1 for $2800.
Embrace Micro Four Thirds
A Sigma Micro Four Thirds body with the Foveon sensor would garner attention by virtue of the huge momentum in this area. By interoperating with existing lenses, a major adoption hurdle is eliminated (I’d buy one sight unseen, simply because I already have a collection of MFT lenses, and they would interoperate).
It is not a business loss to Sigma to benefit from the huge variety of other MFT lenses already on the market, such as the lovely Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4; but it *is* a business loss to continue to not get attention in the marketplace.
Sigma need not offer a full lens line for MFT, but it could offer three really exceptional lenses designed to work optimally on its offering: 24mm f/2, 35mm f/2, and 58mm f/2 would be my choices.
The foregoing is not to say that Sigma should abandon the APS-C sensor size of full-frame projects, rather it would establish Sigma as a more serious player, which is essential to gaining market share, spreading the R&D costs over multiple product lines, etc.
Fix the software
The software (at least the OS X version) is a nightmare of bad design in so many ways, documented in my review in small part. Fix it, make it 64-bit, and offer Photoshop and Lightroom plugins. A company that wants to succeed should be smart enough to bow to the reality of how photographers actually work.
One cannot fully justify the Foveon true-color sensor unless the lens can deliver. And while the Sigma 19mm (28mm) lens on the DP1 Merrill is arguably as good as most every DSLR 28mm lens (and better than most every point and shoot), it is still not good enough to fully exploit the sensor. Not consistently over the entire frame.
If the camera has to cost $500 more to deliver a world-beating lens, then so be it; how one gets to final image quality depends on all factors in the system and the lens is critical.
A maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 is too dark for many types of shooting; the lens speed needs to be increased to ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/2, which is enough (ƒ/1.4 is appealing, but not necessary). I am content with a slightly larger camera if needed to accomplish these goals, so long as the lens is better or as good and faster, preferably both.
This is a lagging area for Sigma, the camera feels positively dated by comparison to other brands.
Since the camera has a true RGB sensor and Live View, why can’t it have an Expose to the Right (ETTR) mode that delivers the optimal signal to noise ratio, every time?
Camera RGB histogram
Too small, too hard to read, too inscrutable and downright misleading.
Sigma should follow Leica’s lead with the Leica M Monochrom and offer a full-screen-width true RAW histogram, so that one can check (for each color channel) whether the image is properly exposed and not blown-out. This seems like such a natural for a true-color sensor that it’s hard to understand why Sigma has not done this already.
As a consolation prize for not having a true RAW histogram, Sigma could at least document whether the histogram takes white balance and the color profile into account.
The lack of any EVF is a problem in bright conditions; the rear LCD quickly becomes a challenge to see with any nose-grease or sunblock on it. An optical viewfinder on the hot shoe is a non-solution to this problem.
A built-in EVF as per the Sony NEX-7, or at least an optional hot-shot EVF as with the Sony NEX-5 would do wonders both for usability in bright light as well as mass-coupling the camera to the body for low-light shooting— see How to Hold a Camera Steady in Making Sharp Images.
Olympus can do it, Sony Can do it, Ricoh, even Leica can do it, so why not Sigma?
There is one troublesome productivity problem in using the DP1 Merrill: the camera will not respond to the Play button while it is saving the image (once the preview disappears). Since saving can take up to 10 seconds, this is hyper annoying for a quick exposure check.
Camera-body image stabilization as per the Olympus OM-D E-M5 would be most welcome, given that higher ISO performance quickly becomes a noisy problem, and that my hit rate at 1/80 second and slower is very poor (which is not the case with the Olympus E-M5, I get another 2 shutter speeds or so, at least).
Optical image stabilization is not a winner (lens performance concerns), so I would want to see that avoided.
Go smaller, or go larger
The DP1 Merrill satisfies no one in size— it is too large for stuffing into most pockets, and too small to have the benefits of mass for shooting, or a larger and faster lens, handgrip/thumbgrip, etc.
Sigma needs to (somehow) shrink the DP1 Merrill size by 1/4 and drop the weight by 1/4, or go a slightly larger, doubling the battery size and adding a good thumb grip and faster lens.
No one really wants a DSLR any more (“no one” meaning the vast majority of the market). Everyone (“everyone”) wants a compact camera with a full frame sensor offering very high image quality with image stabilization and Live View.
Get a grip
The Sigma DP1 Merrill is awkward to hold; there is no grip. With the bulky rectangular body, there is no reason just not to mold in a decent thumbgrip or similar; it would scarcely change the effective form factor, which is already a blocky rectangular solid with protruding lens.
The need to carry 5 batteries for a day of shooting is a problem. This needs to be addressed by increasing the battery capacity or improving the camera efficiency. The constant pressure to turn the camera off knowing that the battery is quickly being sucked down really impedes my photographic freedom and means the camera is not ready when I want it to be. Five miles from my car down into a canyon, I can’t go recharge a battery, and carrying a handful of batteries is a hassle— and in late 2012, even finding spares to buy was a problem in late 2012.
Postscript: Sony’s Phil Molyneux was recently quoted over at dpreview in an interview:
We're being disruptive. Part of the appeal of being disruptive is that pros see that we're being innovative and want to explore what Sony has to offer.
Right on. Smart thinker. Every company needs a guy with some foresight like that.