Sigma DP3 Merrill Review

4.0
March 21, 2013 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a new serious compact camera for portraiture and macro photography, featuring an intriguing 46 megapixel APS-C sensor from Foveon and a fixed 75mm equivalent lens with a fast aperture of f/2.8 and maximum magnification of 1:3. Read our Sigma DP3 Merrill review to find out what this unique camera is capable of...

The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a compact camera with a large APS-C sized sensor, as used in larger and heavier compact system camera and DSLR models and therefore promising better image quality than other compacts. The DP3 Merrill has the same 46 megapixel Foveon X3 sensor as the flagship SD1 DSLR, a 50mm fixed lens with a fast aperture of f/2.8, Dual TRUE II image processing engine, 3-inch TFT colour monitor with 920,000 dots, full range of creative shooting modes, manual focus ring, external hotshoe, Quick Set button and RAW format support. The new generation name “Merrill” is a tribute to Foveon’s co-founder, the late Richard B. Merrill, who developed the original Foveon X3 Direct Image Sensor. Retailing for £799 / $999, the Sigma DP3 Merrill compact camera is certainly a serious investment - read our expert review to find out if it’s one worth making.

Ease of Use

The Sigma DP3 Merrill has a substantial, serious design that is very box-like but not altogether unattractive. Measuring 121.5mm(W) x 66.7mm(H) x 80.6mm(D) and weighing 400grams, it just fits into a coat pocket or small camera bag. It's too big and bulky for a trouser or shirt pocket though, primarily because of the lens housing which protrudes about 5.5cms out from the front of the camera body. The DP3 Merrill becomes even more cumbersome if you add the optional optical viewfinder or lens-hood.

Utilising an aluminium alloy body, the Sigma DP3 Merrill is an exceedingly well built camera, certainly up there with the best that the other manufacturers have to offer. The DP3 Merrill has an under-stated, all-black appearance, and together with the heavier weight this lends the camera a professional look and feel. The all-metal tripod mount directly inline with the centre of the lens is a giveaway sign that this is intended to be a serious camera (most compacts have a plastic mount squeezed into one of the corners).

The 50mm, F/2.8 lens dominates the front of the camera. Sigma, with its long history of making lenses for other manufacturers' cameras and more recently its own DSLRs, has developed this lens specifically for the DP3 Merrill. Offering a fixed-focal length, thankfully the lens no longer extends when the camera is turned on, as with previous DP cameras. The construction of the lens feels rock-solid with no play at all in the metal lens barrel. New to the DP3 Merrill is a tactile manual focus ring, which makes it much easier to operate the camera if you prefer that way of focusing. For the first time on a Sigma camera you can also over-ride the auto-focus mode by rotating the focus ring using the new AF+MF mode. T manual focus assist complete with on-screen magnification is also a nice touch.

Obviously the fixed-focal 50mm lens, equivalent to 75mm on a 35mm camera, will immediately put a lot of people off the DP3 Merrill. With no zoom lens model on the horizon, you're left with a choice of the DP3 Merrill or the wider-angle DP1 Merrill which has a an equivalent 28mm lens and the DP2 Merrill which has a 45mm lens. 75mm is a good focal length for portrait and macro photography. The maximum aperture of F/2.8 and the large APS-C sensor makes it easy to blur the background and importantly makes the camera more versatile in low-light.

Also on the front of the DP3 Merrill is a small dimpled area to the left of the lens (looking from the front) which helps you to keep a firm hold, replicated on the rear. The 3 inch LCD screen displays 100% of the image and the 920,000 pixel resolution is excellent, plus there are a couple of options for increasing or decreasing the brightness of the screen if you don't like the default setting.

If you'd prefer using an optical viewfinder to frame your images, Sigma offers the optional VF-21 viewfinder, which fits into the flash hotshoe on top of the camera (you can also use other third-party viewfinders with the DP3 Merrill). This system does give you a choice, but it comes at the cost of not being able to use the optical viewfinder and an external flashgun at the same time, and also the hefty literal cost of £120.

Sigma DP3 Merrill Sigma DP3 Merrill
Front Rear

As for performance, Sigma's viewfinder solution offers a large, bright view of the scene in front of you. On the other hand, it doesn't provide any feedback to the photographer, other than showing a thick white border which indicates very approximately what part of the scene the DP3 Merrill will capture. We found that the recorded image was quite a bit bigger than this border, and also that it disappeared against a bright background, effectively making framing your subject a point and hope experience. Also the only way of knowing that the camera has focused correctly is the small green LED above the LCD screen, which you can just see out of the corner of your right eye when looking through the optical viewfinder.

At the heart of the Sigma DP3 Merrill is an APS-C sized Foveon image sensor. The exact size of the image sensor used in the DP3 Merrill camera is 20.7mm x 13.8mm, which is approximately seven to twelve times larger than the 1/1.8inch to 1/2.5 inch image sensors used in other compact digital cameras. Sigma are the only manufacturer to use the Foveon X3 sensor, and as with the SD1 DSLR camera, they quote the resolution as a whopping 46 megapixels. Whilst this is technically true, in that there are 46 million pixels on the sensor, it's very difficult to compare it with a conventional Bayer CCD/CMOS sensor. This is because the Foveon solution uses 3 layers of 4800x3200 pixels, stacked on top of each other, with each photodiode capturing all of the RGB data. Sigma and Foveon claim that this results in better looking colour images straight out of the camera when compared to a CCD/CMOS sensor. Whilst this may be true, from the user's point of view the final image is 4800x3200 pixels in size, a little bigger than a 15 megapixel photo, which limits how big you can print or crop the native image without interpolating it in Adobe Photoshop or another application.

Just like a DSLR, the DP3 Merrill offers both JPEG and RAW recording formats, still one of only a handful of compact cameras to do so. There are 3 different JPEG compression levels, and a choice of four sizes including a 16:9 widescreen mode. The RAW files are saved in the Sigma X3F format, which can currently only be processed using the supplied Sigma Photo Pro RAW 5.5 image developer. Sigma Photo Pro is a simple and straight-forward application that doesn't compare that well with Lightroom or Photoshop in terms of features, but gets the job done and is free of charge. We really wish that Sigma would support the Adobe DNG format so that we could use our favourite processing software from day one.

The DP3 Merrill takes around 10 seconds to store RAW files, the first 4 seconds during which the camera can't be used. This isn't anywhere close to DSLR-like performance though, despite Sigma marketing the DP3 Merrill as a real DSLR alternative or backup camera. There's even a 1.5 second lockup when shooting in JPEG mode at full-size, so when you factor in the slow auto-focus system (more on this below) this makes the DP3 Merrill ill-suited to quick moving subjects.

The start-up time from turning the Sigma DP3 Merrill on to being ready to take a photo is quite slow at around 2 seconds. In the fastest Continuous mode the camera takes 4 frames per second for an unlimited number of images at the highest JPEG image quality, and commendably in RAW mode too, which is very good for this class of camera. Unfortunately, the DP3 Merrill locks up completely for around 10 seconds when shooting a burst of Fine JPEGs and even longer for RAW files, so while you can certainly capture 4 JPEGs or RAW files in a second, the camera is effectively out of action for the next 10-15 seconds.

The Sigma DP3 Merrill offers a full range of advanced exposure controls via the Mode button on top of the camera, including aperture-priority, shutter-priority, manual and manual focusing, with Auto and Program AE modes catering for the less experienced and three Custom modes so that you can save and recall your preferred settings. There are no auto-everything or scene modes on this camera, which is a veritable breath of fresh air at a time when most manufacturers are stuffing their cameras full of clever technologies that take control away from the user. The aperture or shutter speed are set by using the forefinger-operated control dial on top of the camera, with the left and right buttons on the navigation pad setting the aperture in the Manual shooting mode and exposure compensation in the other modes.

Sigma DP3 Merrill Sigma DP3 Merrill
Front Top

The DP3 Merrill has three metering modes, Evaluative Metering, Center Weighted Average Metering and Spot Metering. We found that the DP3 Merrill got exposures right 95% of the time when using the Evaluative Metering mode, with Spot Metering useful for the remaining 5%. Exposure compensation can be set in 1/3 stop increments from +3.0 to -3.0 stops and a simple auto bracketing function is also available.

Auto-focusing remains one of the weaker points of the DP3 Merrill, but there are few improvements on previous models. There are 9 focusing points to choose from, but you can only select one at a time, with no multi-AF point system that virtually all other cameras have. There's a dedicated button (down on the navigation pad) for choosing the focus point, but it's still easier and quicker to set the focus to the middle point, then focus by half-pressing the shutter button and recompose the frame for off-centre subjects. New to the DP3 Merrill is the Free Move mode, which allows you to more precisely set any focus point within about tow-thirds of the frame, and the Face Detection mode which prioritizes the focus on the face of the subject.

The DP3 Merrill offers four autofocus modes. The normal mode has a focusing distance from 1m to infinity, but it's also possible to shorten the minimum focusing distance to 35cm using the portrait mode. I didn't notice any speed difference between the two modes, so permanently set the DP3 Merrill to the 35cm short mode, and then used the new Macro mode for closer subjects, although that only allows you to get as close as 22.6cms with a maximum magnification ratio of 1:3. The DP3 Merrill's autofocus system still isn't exactly what you'd call snappy, especially in low-light. It usually locks onto the subject eventually, but there's a noticeable 0.5 second delay that doesn't make this camera particularly good for action photography. Note that the DP3 Merrill doesn't have a built-in focus assist lamp.

Manual Focus is also available, which obviously avoids the auto-focus lag and speeds up the camera. The DP3 Merrill has a dedicated manual focus ring on the lens barrel, rather than the previous dial that was located on the rear of the camera, a much more traditional and simply better system. It is possible to magnify the LCD display to check the focusing by pressing the Display button, although this doesn't provide enough magnification or clarity to ensure precise focus. The Sigma DP3 Merrill no longer has a built-in pop-flash unit, just an optional flashgun which fits in the external hotshoe directly above the lens. Sigma suggest that you use the optional EF-140 DG external flashgun with the DP-2, but again there are compatible third-party alternatives available.

A dedicated lens hood is the final optional accessory for the DP3 Merrill. This blocks out extraneous light and helps avoid flare, useful given the wide-angle nature of the lens, although unfortunately we didn't have one to test. The lens hood also includes a hood adapter which is designed to accept a 46mm lens filter, so you can add things like a polarizer, UV or close-up macro filter. The closest distance that you can focus on a subject is 22.6cms away from the camera when it's set to Macro mode, so you'll need to buy the lens hood and then fit a third-party close-up macro filter if you want to get really close to your subject.

Sigma DP3 Merrill Sigma DP3 Merrill
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

It's fair to say that movies aren't exactly the Sigma DP3 Merrill's strong point, only offering 640×480 pixel VG resolution at 30fps. The battery life is also appallingly bad, with a quoted life of just 97 shots - we managed 80 images before needing to recharge. It's so terrible that Sigma actually supply two batteries in the box, which goes some way to rectifying the situation, but it's hardly an ideal solution.

The main menu system on the Sigma DP3, accessed by pressing the Menu button above the navigation pad, is still rather rudimentary but simple to use. There are three tabs along the top, Camera, Play and Settings, subdivided into 4, 2 and 4 screens of options respectively. Due to the large LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to 5, the various options and icons are quite clear and legible, and each option uses a combination of text and helpful small icon.

The Quick Set menu is accessed via the QS button above the Menu button, as the name suggests providing quicker access to eight key features - ISO, Metering, Burst Mode, Flash, Image Size, White Balance, Colour Mode and Image Quality. There are four options on each of the two QS screens represented by icons, with the QS button toggling between the two. The navigation pad keys are then used to select the various options for each feature. It sounds complicated on paper, but quickly becomes second nature to use.

Once you have captured a photo, the Sigma DP3 Merrill has a rather limited range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (9 onscreen at once), zoom in and out up to 10x magnification, view slideshows with various configurable options, set the print order, record a soundclip, lock, mark, and rotate an image. The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there is a small histogram available during playback and also when taking a picture. You can also turn on the useful Exposure Warning which shows a flashing red area for any overexposed parts of a recorded image. When taking a photo, pressing the Display button toggles between the detailed information, the small histogram, no information and turning the LCD screen off.

In summary the Sigma DP3 Merrill is a no-frills camera that most people won't see the point of, but which a minority will be delighted by. It's still quite a slow, cumbersome camera that is best suited to slow-moving or stationary subjects, the real highlight being the combination of a sharp fixed-focal length lens and the unique Foveon X3 sensor, as you can see on the Image Quality and Sample Images pages.

Entry Tags

3 inch LCD, compact, review, lens, RAW, prosumer, prime, sigma, 50mm, fixed, 46 megapixel, merrill, 75mm, x3f, foveon, dp3, dp3 merrill, Sigma DP3 Merrill Review