Camera preview: Sigma SD14 DSLR

I’m intrigued by the new DSLR from Sigma, the SD14. It’s a 14-megapixel camera that uses a direct image sensor capable of detecting red, green and blue light at every pixel. The product brochure states:

The elements of this 14-megapixel sensor are arranged in three colorsensing layers, comparable to the three layers of emulsion in photographic film.”

Sure enough, the photos they show on their site and in their brochures are stunning. The level of detail and sharpness are fantastic. Were they taken with the SD14? I don’t know, but my interest is certainly piqued. The camera isn’t in stores yet. It’s going to launch early this year. It looks like the retail price will be around $1,600. In this review, I want to have a closer look at the specs of this beautiful camera, and see how they compare to other mid-level DSLRs. See my analysis below.

➡ Updated 10/29/07: Although the advertised resolution for this camera is 14 megapixels, and additively speaking, it’s correct, the actual resolution is about 5 megapixels. That’s because each sensor layer (there are three) has 4.7 megapixels. Added together, that makes 14 megapixels, but we have to remember that the layers are stacked on top of each other. Even though the pixel data corresponds to 14 megapixels, the printable resolution is still only around 5 megapixels, which is markedly lower than that offered by other DSLRs in that same price range. As some people have pointed out, you can safely increase the resolution of the photos in post-processing, but the camera will still only give you 5 megapixels per photo when you press the shutter button.

Sigma SD14 DSLR

First and foremost, there’s the sensor. It’s a newly developed Foveon X3. Here’s what Foveon says about their new sensor:

Similar to the layers of chemical emulsion used in color film, Foveon X3 image sensors have three layers of pixels. The layers of pixels are embedded in silicon to take advantage of the fact that red, green, and blue light penetrate silicon to different depths – forming the first and only image sensor that captures full color at every point in the captured image.”

So it looks like this sensor is groundbreaking, much more so than any other currently on the market. But is it unique to Sigma? Isn’t it found in Canon and Nikon cameras? We need look no further than the Foveon site, which lists the cameras currently using this sensor as the Sigma SD9, Sigma SD10, Polaroid x530, Hanvision HVDUO-5M and Hanvision HVDUO-10M.

It turns out the Sigma SD14 not only uses a pretty unique sensor, but it uses the latest and greatest version as well, the Fx17-78-F13D, which isn’t yet used in any other camera on the market. As you can see, none of the other cameras that use Foveon can boast 14-megapixels. It’s also reassuring to know this is a third generation sensor, so most of the kinks should have been worked out by now.

Furthemore, it looks like just about any camera on the market that uses regular CCD sensors is inferior to the Sigma, simply because of the Foveon sensor’s capability to reproduce color more faithfully. Instead of having to manipulate the image through computations in order to render proper color, the Sigma can just rely on natural color capture through the Foveon sensor, which I’m pretty sure is a great advantage if it works as advertised.

From what I’ve seen in the brochures, I like the controls. As Sigma says, they’ve simplified them and eliminated extraneous functions. All I see on the mode dial is P (point and shoot), A (aperture priority), S (shutter priority) and M (full manual). The on/off dial turns easily for burst, timer and long exposure settings. I like the shape and size of the camera. The hold is rubberized, and the camera’s exterior is clean and simple.

The simplicity of design is exemplified in the accessories as well. There aren’t a ridiculous number of them. You’ve got the nice battery pack that holds two batteries and screws onto the tripod mount, a remote and cable release, two flash guns, one more advanced yet both featuring a bounce head, and an AC adapter. The standard accessories are what one would expect with a camera: battery, charger, USB cable, strap, caps, software and the product manual.

The built-in flash is a good idea. While an external flash is better, a built-in flash is good for fill-in light during daytime shots, and will also do acceptably for indoor shots when nothing else is available. External flash is the way to go if you’re serious about lighting, but it’s not always convenient to pull it out of the bag and mount it on the camera.

As I talk about the rest of the SD14’s specs, I’m going to compare it with Canon EOS 5D and the Nikon D200, which are my favorite DSLRs and are also cameras that have set new standards in the field of digital photography. (I own a Canon 5D.)

The SD14 is supplied by default with a dust protector that is “put in place with a single action“. I’m not quite sure what that means, but I assume a button on the camera or in the central menu controls it. This is good. Anything that camera manufacturers can do to minimize dust gathering on the sensor is a good thing. It’s interesting that the camera only has a 5-point distance measurement for autofocus. Certainly Sigma has plenty of experience with AF, having designed lenses for a long time. But the Canon EOS 5D has a 9-point AF with 6 supplemental points, while the Nikon D200 has an 11-area AF. Are 5 points enough? I guess we’ll find out when the SD14 comes to the market.

SD14’s pentaprism is rated at 98%x98%, while the Canon has theirs at 96%x96%. The Nikon D200 doesn’t list this info in their specs, though I’d venture to guess they’re in the ballpark. The LCD monitor is at 2.5 inches and 150,000 pixels, which is the same size as on the Canon 5D and Nikon D200, but lower in resolution than theirs, which are both rated at 230,000 pixels. Coverage for the SD14 and 5D is listed at 100%, while it’s only at 95% for the Nikon. Most of the other specs match the EOS 5D and Nikon D200, so I’ll only note the differences.

The SD14’s ISO sensitivity only goes up to 800, although 1600 is listed in Extended Mode. Both the Canon 5D and Nikon D200 go up to ISO 1600, and the 5D even goes up to 3200 in Expansion Mode, which I assume is similar to the SD14’s Extended Mode. I wonder why the SD14 doesn’t go up to 1600 ISO naturally, and my guess is that it’s a limitation of this generation of Foveon sensors. The sensitivity will likely be extended with the next-generation sensors. I also have to wonder how an ISO800 photo on the SD14 compares to an ISO800 photo on the Canon or Nikon. How does it fare in low light? Will there be noise, or will the photos come out clear and beautiful, like they should? Even better, will its light sensitivity trump that of the Canon and Nikon, even if they do go up to 1600? I’d love to find out for myself.

I also need to point out that the top shutter speed, at 1/4000th of a second, is also only half that of the 5D or D200, which both go up to 1/8000th of a second. I’d venture to guess the sensor is the limiting factor here as well, though I can’t elaborate on that. This also promises to be the compensating factor. If the image quality is as good as promised, I won’t care that it can’t go up to 1/8000th of a second.

Since geotagging photos has become so mainstream nowadays, it would have been nice to see some sort of GPS functionality on the SD14, perhaps like the one on the Nikon D200, which allows the photographer to connect a GPS device to the camera and record coordinates to the EXIF data for every photo.

The dimensions and weight of the SD14 are similar to those of the EOS 5D and Nikon D200. The SD14 is 144mm wide, slightly less than the D200 at 147mm or the EOS 5D at 152mm. It’s also slightly shorter, at 107.3mm, than the D200 and EOS 5D, both of which are 113mm tall. It is, however, thicker, which I like, because there’s more to hold and that tends to stabilize the shots. It’s 80.5 mm deep, whereas the D200 is 74mm and the EOS 5D is 75mm. It’s also lighter than the other two. At 700g for the body, it’s 130 grams lighter than the D200, and 110 grams lighter than the EOS 5D. I welcome that, because when you add an external flash or battery pack to a serious DSLR, it gets so heavy you might as well use it for weightlifting. Any weight that gets trimmed off is okay by me.

Battery life is somewhat lower than that of either the EOS 5D and the Nikon D200. The SD14 can take approximately 500 shots on a single battery charge at normal temperatures, and 400 shots at near zero-degree temperatures. The EOS 5D can take approximately 800 and 400 shots at normal and low temperatures, respectively. The Nikon D200 can take up to 1,800 shots per charge at normal operating temperatures; no stats are quoted for low temperatures on their site. Again, to be fair, I think this has to do with the Foveon sensor. Instead of a single layer that must be kept charged, it has three separate layers. I haven’t dug deeply into the Foveon X3 specs, but I gather the sensor probably uses more power than a regular single-layer sensor. (Someone correct me if I’m wrong on this.)

It looks like the SD14 is a natural, unstrained progression for Sigma. After making lenses, then film SLRs, then 1st and 2nd generation DSLRs using the Foveon sensor, they’ve graduated to the SD14, which looks to be a beauty of a camera. If you’d like more information about the SD14, you can access the brochures easily. Click on each link to download a PDF in English: Concept, Product and Major Specifications, or just visit the Sigma SD14 website.

To sum up, the Sigma SD14’s main strength is its groundbreaking Foveon X3 sensor, which introduces a new and different way of thinking about image processing and color reproduction in digital cameras. I’m impressed with this camera, and plan on having a closer look at it as soon as I can get my hands on one.


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