Reviews

The Sigma sd Quattro

The Sigma sd Quattro is the camera that helped me understand and come to terms with Sigma’s mission as a camera manufacturer. I’ve railed against what I perceived as the faults of Sigma’s cameras in the past (see here and here) and now I have come full circle in my stance on their cameras. It is time for me to apologize for my criticisms. Sigma, please accept my apologies. I didn’t fully understand your mission and your cameras. I now have a better understanding of the situation.

I always thought the Foveon sensor was unique and that it brought a set of features that made it stand out. Where I didn’t “get it” in the past, was in trying to compare Sigma cameras, apples to apples, with other cameras on the market. You can’t do that, because Sigma’s cameras are specialized. When you consider them, the questions you have to ask yourself as a photographer are (1) how important is image quality to you and (2) what are you willing to give up in other areas in order to get that image quality? Once you have that mindset, you can begin to consider the benefits of their cameras.

It must be acknowledged here that the path Sigma has chosen to take is quite different from market trends and consumer expectations. In a world obsessed with resolution and the do-it-all camera that takes photographs and also shoots video, Sigma has chosen to focus most of their attention on the quality of the photographs produced by their cameras, to the detriment of other characteristics that are appealing to consumers. They can afford to do that because they have a thriving lens business, and that’s a beautiful luxury. They don’t have to deal with the pressure of selling as many units of their cameras as possible and they can take their time with their sensor R&D.

It is my belief that with the sd Quattro, Sigma has reached that point where their message is getting across and more people are starting to take notice. I certainly took notice. Just because I criticized them in the past doesn’t mean I didn’t follow their developments. What they have now with the sd Quattro, particularly with the sd Quattro H, is plenty of resolution, an interesting and appealing design and an irresistible price point. Also worthy of mention is the design of the power grip, which makes the camera look even better and extends the battery life by a much-needed 300%.

I invite you to have a look at their website. Also look at their sample photographs and download them so you can appreciate them at full resolution. There are five separate sections with sample photos: for the sd Quattro you have parts one, two and three, for the sd Quattro H you have part one and then there are the general sample photos.

You should know that this camera almost requires a tripod. There will be situations when you won’t need one, but given that the sensor gives you the best quality at low ISO, it’s best to have one with you. I would reiterate what I said above about Sigma cameras being specialized. This is a camera best used in the studio or for landscape photography. You’ll also need plenty of batteries. I understand you get about 100-150 shots per battery. The AF system is fairly slow, so you’ll need to plan each shot carefully and check the focus. The camera also does not shoot video. If you’re thinking about getting it, I highly encourage you to check the specs, read and watch various reviews, and generally speaking, make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you care about accurate (I would even say amazing) color reproduction and you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of the other amenities we’ve come to expect from modern photographic equipment, then you’ll love this camera.

I’ll leave you with several images of the camera itself.

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Reviews

My thoughts on Sigma DSLRs

I made a video follow-up to my past articles on Sigma DSLRs (see this and this), where I talk about where Sigma is today and why I think they’re lagging behind the market by 2-3 years.

Sigma’s R&D has not developed new DSLRs fast enough to keep up with market demands and the wonderful capabilities of the Foveon sensor are not put to proper use.

The Foveon sensor is remarkable in that it captures RGB color at each pixel due to its three plates (vs. a single plate in regular sensors). It is supposed to give much more accurate color reproduction than regular sensors.

Unfortunately, because Sigma has not worked fast enough to create DSLRs that can truly compete with those made by more popular camera makers such as Canon and Nikon at all leves (including, but not limited to low light performance and HD video), its DSLR arm now finds itself in a terrible slump.

Their latest offerings, the SD15 and the SD1 have not sold well, and I hope they do something soon in order to catch up with consumer expectations.

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Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro
Reviews

What happened to Sigma and FujiFilm DSLRs?

A few years ago, there were two companies which had some interesting opportunities ahead of them: Sigma with its revolutionary Foveon sensor and lens-making know-how, and FujiFilm with its remarkable Super CCD SR sensor and long-term experience with professional lens-making.

They didn’t stay on course. Sigma’s continued development of the sensor has been much too slow to keep up with the market, and FujiFilm seems to have dropped out of the DSLR game altogether.

Back in January of 2007, I wrote about the Sigma SD14, a camera I thought was revolutionary because of its capability of capturing every color (Red, Green or Blue) at every pixel, due to its layered Foveon sensor. This was something no other camera on the market had.

The megapixel game isn’t everything and I was willing to believe so in the case of the SD14. Its advertised resolution was 14 megapixels, but its true resolution was about 5 megapixels. That’s because each layer of its Foveon sensor (there are three layers, one for each color) only captured 5 megapixels. When you looked up the photos resolution in the EXIF data, it came out to 5 megapixels. When you zoomed in at 1:1, the photo still only covered a 5 megapixel area. People pointed out that you could safely increase the resolution of processed images to 12 or 14 megapixels and they would still have the quality you need but in my book, 5 megapixels is still 5 megapixels even if you can multiply it by 3 and get 14 megapixels.

Regardless of my disappointment with the camera’s real resolution, I still thought Sigma had a gorgeous sensor on their hands. The ability to capture color accurately at every pixel is something other sensor manufacturers only dream about. Their sensors don’t do that. Instead, they spread Red, Green and Blue pixels around the entire sensor area using a mathematical algorithm called Bayer interpolation, then they do some very serious calculations to de-mosaic the resulting image, make out the right colors, and give you as accurate a color reproduction as they can give you. The Foveon sensor didn’t have to do all that complicated stuff. Supposedly, it already knew which color belonged at each pixel, because it captured said color from the get-go. Wasn’t that an amazing capability?

Look what’s happened in the 3½ years since I wrote about the SD14… Sigma launched the SD15 only a few months ago, and guess what its resolution is? It’s the same 14 megapixels if you play their multiplication game or 5 megapixels if you go by the book. Sure, they upped the ISO sensitivity to 1600 from 800 (3200 in extended mode), which is okay, but the AF is slow and the max shutter speed is still only 1/4000 sec when other cameras in the same category offer 1/8000 sec. And there’s no video, HD or otherwise.

In case you aren’t already thinking it, let me sum it up for you: Sigma’s product offerings have fallen behind the times by at least a couple of years, if not more. Some might say they came out with the DP1 and the DP2, and those cameras are interesting in their niches of the market, but they still offer subpar performance in low light and they still don’t record video (unless you count tiny 320×240 video as real video).

I’d like to ask the folks at Sigma this question: What have you been doing these last few years? You had an amazing sensor in your hands, but you didn’t develop it while others took their Bayer pattern sensors to incredible heights of performance. Your Foveon sensor ought to develop 14 or 16 real megapixels now, on each of its three layers. It should go to 6400 ISO or 12800 ISO natively. Then it’d be competitive in today’s marketplace. Instead, it’s the same sensor I saw more than three years ago, installed in a new camera body.

 

In early 2007, FujiFilm also launched a new DSLR. That camera was pretty amazing in its own right, like the SD14, except the FujiFilm FinePix S5 Pro actually met the demands of the marketplace of its time.

It had a wonderful resolution of 12.34 megapixels, an 11-point, 7-area AF system, a 14-bit A/D converter (most DSLRs at the time were still at 12-bit), ISO sensitivity that went all the way up to 3200 ISO natively, and 1/8000 sec max shutter speed.

Most of all, it had a revolutionary sensor developed in-house by FujiFilm. Here’s what they said about it in the S5 Pro press release:

“Fujifilm’s Super CCD SR II will be updated to the new Super CCD SR Pro. Using a unique layout of twelve million paired photodiodes (6.17 million larger ‘S’ photodiodes for main image information, combined with 6.17 million smaller ‘R’ photodiodes for bright area information), the S5 Pro will deliver improvements in noise, dynamic range, colour and tonality. Further improving the capability of the sensor, a new, improved low-pass filter will ensure that moiré and noise are kept to an absolute minimum. Fujifilm believes improvements in these key areas will be of more true value to professional photographers – the challenge is quality of information, not quantity of information.”

In layman’s terms, it had both large and small photodiodes, clustered together in a beautiful geometric pattern, to capture as much image information as a single-layer sensor could capture, and a powerful engine to analyze that information and turn it into beautiful photographs.

People who used the S5 Pro loved its image quality. And even now (in 2010) when you look on Flickr you see that people are using it and the quality of the images they post very good.

So what has happened since 2007? It looks like FujiFilm dropped out of the DSLR market altogether. The S5 Pro is listed as discontinued on their website and there’s no other model to take its place. None. Instead, FujiFilm is focusing on regular digicams, and seems to be leaning toward cameras that exploit the higher end of the focal range (15-30x zooms).That’s a losing battle as far as I’m concerned. High zooms suffer by default of aberration and other artifacts as one gets above 15x. And in order to get the proper magnification in a smaller camera body, the sensor needs to be made really small — so small that you run into significant noise issues and photo quality suffers even at low ISO and at close range.

What FujiFilm did makes no sense to me. They have incredible know-how in the production of professional, high quality lenses. Their Fujinon lenses are used in satellites, in high end telescopes and in broadcast-quality TV cameras and camcorders. They have the know-how to design really nice camera bodies. I used the FinePix S9100 and I loved its body design. And you only need to look at their current digicam models (S200EXR or HS10), at they way the controls are positioned and the grips are designed, to realize that Fuji knows a lot about camera body design.

When it came to digicam design, they also had what was a big plus over other camera manufacturers. Most of their zoom cameras had manual zoom and focus, and the ability to use regular AA batteries. A manual zoom is just nicer than a servo zoom. It’s more responsive, more controllable, doesn’t eat into the battery life, and it’s more reliable over time. And isn’t it nice when you’re in the field and your camera runs out of juice, that you can just pop in a couple of AA batteries and keep on going? That’s such a practical design aspect, but people tend to forget it when they focus purely on battery life.

Now you look at their line-up, and only two cameras still offer manual zoom: the S200EXR which B&H Photo says was discontinued by the manufacturer even though it’s still listed as an active camera on the FujiFilm website, and the HS10. The rest all offer electronic zooms, which I don’t like.

Keep in mind all the good things I told you about FujiFilm’s know-how, and let’s look at the S5 Pro again. The sensor and the engine was clearly Fuji’s. But the body design was similar to Nikon’s body design. The camera was made to work with Nikon’s lenses. It’s as if FujiFilm didn’t want to own the very camera it made, the camera which contained its revolutionary sensor. This makes no sense to me. They knew how to make fantastic lenses, but didn’t make them for their own flagship DSLR. They knew how to make fantastic camera bodies, but didn’t make one for their own flagship DSLR. Does that make sense to you?

I wrote to FujiFilm PR in January and March of 2007, asking for a review unit. They were willing to send me one, but they didn’t have any lenses to loan me. I needed to supply my own Nikon lenses for the camera, and since all my equipment was Canon, that was no good. I gave up on reviewing the camera. And I bet you I wasn’t the only reviewer who would have liked to write about the S5 Pro but was turned off by the lens issue.

I’m really sorry to see that today, FujiFilm isn’t even developing their revolutionary sensor any more. Sure, they’re using a variant of it in some of their point-and-shoots, but that’s like saying your lawnmower has a Lamborghini engine inside. You can’t get the performance of a true Lamborghini engine from a tiny, cramped 2-cycle engine made to cut grass, and in much the same way, one can’t expect to get the true performance of the large sensor found in the S5 Pro from a tiny 1/1.6-inch sensor.

Don’t tell me CCD sensors are inferior to CMOS. They each have their pluses and minuses. CMOS sensors were thought to be inferior to CCD just a few years ago, but there was a real R&D push to make them better, and look at them today — they’re incredibly good. Don’t tell me you can’t get great video from CCD sensors. Professional camcorders use either CMOS or CCD sensors to record full HD video, depending on the model and brand, so I know that’s possible.

I know that with continued R&D effort, both the Super CCD SR Pro sensor and the Foveon X3 sensor could have been improved greatly, making them competitive and even dominant by today’s standards.

I feel bad for FujiFilm and for Sigma. Perhaps FujiFilm feels the market is already too competitive and has enough business from its other sectors. And it could be that Sigma is focused on its lenses and is satisfied with only a niche of the DSLR market. I don’t know, but I would like to find out more. If anyone has any additional information, please chime in.

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Reviews

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 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.

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 Foveon X3 sensor. 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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