Sigma SD1 Merrill Review

December 11, 2012 | Mark Goldstein | Rating star Rating star Rating star Rating star


The Sigma SD1 Merrill DSLR is the flagship camera of the well-known Japanese lens manufacturer, renamed from just "SD1" in honour of Foveon’s founding father, Richard B. Merrill. It features a huge 46 megapixel APS-C X3 sensor, dual TRUE II processors, 11 AF cross points, magnesium body with O-ring weather sealing, ISO 100-6400 and a 3 inch screen on the back. On the surface the Sigma SD1 Merrill looks like it can compete with the big boys, especially with a revised price of £1,840 / $1,900, which is much, much lower than the SD1 originally sold for at launch.

Ease of Use

Because of the status that the new Sigma SD1 Merrill has carried with it since it was unveiled last year, it's easy to get lost in the hype of the Foveon sensor technology, so let's cover it first to get it out of the way. Anyone interested in buying this camera will likely know how the Foveon sensor works. However, there will be a few who don't so for their benefit, we'll try to relay it in layman's terms.

The X3 sensor essentially has 15 megapixels. However, it's how the sensor is constructed that gives it the higher megapixel reading. You see, on a typical sensor, the pixels are laid out side by side and each pixel is responsive to a certain primary colour; red, green or blue. The pattern they follow is a row of red/green, a row of blue/green then it's cycled. The reason for more green is that the human eye is more receptive to this colour.

Sigma SD1 Merrill Sigma SD1 Merrill
Front Rear

What Foveon do differently is stack the sensor in colour responsive layers meaning that each photosite is responsive to any of the three colours. Sigma and Foveon (as well as die hard Sigma fans) say that this means that the resolution can be  multiplied by three because - in a nutshell - each pixel has three pixels (if you were to compare it to a typical sensor). Many people argue this and it's an argument that's been going on for a long time. But surely, as long as it gives a sharp, well exposed, detailed picture, does it really matter? Shouldn't the end justify the means?

Every manufacturer has a dedicated image processor to fit to their cameras and usually one will suffice. Sigma have fitted two TRUE (Three layer Responsive Ultimate Engine) II processors to deal with the vast amounts of information that will be channeling onto the memory cards, of which you can only use Compactflash Type II or UDMA enabled cards. Given that a typical RAW image will output up to 45Mb, both of those TRUE II image processors are more than welcome.

Mirror vibration seems to have been a big thing for Sigma in the development of the SD1 Merrill. It features two separate motors, one dealing with the shutter and one with the mirror. This means less vibration as the mirror is actuated. There's also a mirror lock-up facility on the left command dial so you can get it out of the way before exposing. Should you activate it accidentally while changing lenses, the SD1 Merrill has a dust cover sat in front of the mirror chamber which will keep dust away from that area. It's fully removable for cleaning and also acts as the camera's IR filter. Removing it will help nicely for taking infra-red pictures.

Sigma SD1 Merrill Sigma SD1 Merrill
Front Side

Stripping away the controversy over the sensor, what you have is a well-built picture taking machine. There are two command dials on the top of the camera; one for selecting drive modes and the other for selecting shooting modes. Despite the SD1 Merrill being the top model, it features a pop-up flash just in front of the hotshoe. This isn't a bad thing - Olympus and Pentax do the same - it's just that stereotypically, built-in flash is seen on lower grade cameras and it seems unusual to have it on a camera that's so expensive.

Focusing is good on the Sigma SD1 Merrill. There's single or continuous AF found in the QS menu. Pressing the button on the top right shoulder allows you to select an individual focus point which is good for off-centre subjects. The camera does have a depth of field preview button on the front. Scrolling through the focus options will bring it back to all points where the camera will choose the best option. It's accurate and using an HSM lens, it's fast enough.

There are lots of dedicated buttons for changing features that will get a lot of use out of a professional photographer such as ISO, metering, exposure compensation, AF and AEL. If you can never remember where these buttons are, there's another way of changing things by pressing the QS button in the top right corner of the screen. There are 2 QS screens and you toggle them by pressing the QS button. It dedicates the navigation buttons to different tasks depending on the screen you're currently on. However, choosing an option from here, you have to keep pressing the same button to scroll through them instead of a simple left/right display. If you miss the option you want (as we did) then you have to scroll through again although there is a small counter alongside the selection you're scrolling through. It's akin to the Canon function menu or the Panasonic Q-menu which could be confusing to anyone currently using those brands because there's also a function button on the SD1 Merrill.

Sigma SD1 Merrill Sigma SD1 Merrill
Pop-up Flash Top

However, the SD1 Merrill function button brings up the full set of options on screen, kind of like when playing back the images and you press the info button on the left of the screen. This is where it gets a bit tricky: to choose the AF points, you need to press the OK button in the centre of the navigation pad but for the rest of this function menu, you need to press left or right. Pressing up or down will scroll through the options within the setting you're currently on. You got that? Pressing function will bring you out of the function menu, not pressing the shutter release button half way as you'd expect.

There are some features which are lacking on the SD1 Merrill which is disappointing. There's no live view which is a staple requirement of DSLR cameras these days, especially as the camera has a mirror lock up feature so it's possible to integrate it. There's also no video mode which is surprising because it's still a feature that people want to see on DSLR cameras, despite the uproar when it first got fitted. We first got confused when we saw the video output option in the main menu but quickly realised that this is for viewing still images on a television.

The SD1 Merrill's body is made of magnesium alloy for rigidity and it's good to see a camera made of sturdy stuff. It's also weather sealed for protection against rain. The grip has a sharp inward curve on the front but this fits the creases of your fingers nicely. The top command dials are tough to move, but that's OK because it means that they won't fall out of place or get knocked. We like the use of Compactflash II and the UDMA enabled cards. Frankly, the faster you can get a write speed, the better because these file sizes are huge.

Sigma SD1 Merrill Sigma SD1 Merrill
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

From switching on to actually focusing and taking a picture took us around 2.5 seconds. Shutter lag with focusing takes around 0.07 seconds while focusing then shooting takes 0.60 seconds. In the burst test, we managed to get 11 fine JPEGs in ten seconds. This gives an average of 1.1 fps although the drive mode is much faster until the buffer fills up. In the drive mode test, the first shot we took was at 00.00.44 seconds and the fifth picture was 00.01.44 seconds. With this information and taking human reaction times into consideration, we're happy to agree that the camera can take 5fps as per Sigma's specification. The SD1 Merrill utilises DDR III technology to buffer the imaging information. We switched the camera into RAW and managed to get 7 images in a row in just over 1.5 seconds before the buffer filled up and the camera simply stopped taking pictures.

So far, so good. The SD1 Merrill looks like a perfectly capable camera. There's plenty to do and a lot of features for professionals and semi-pros. We like the flash sync socket but not the lack of tethering. We like the large LCD screen but not the low resolution. It makes thumbnails look like badly taken pictures and it's not until you zoom into them that you see just how sharp they are. But then it's easy to argue Canon's previous point that the screen isn't for pixel peeping, it's for basic preview and histogram checks. Proper viewing should be done on a computer or printed out.

We downloaded the software on the enclosed CD which is Sigma Photo Pro 5. It took around 30 seconds to prepare the installation and full installation takes another minute or so. We've excluded the time it takes to read all the terms and conditions (because everyone does that, right?). Converting the RAW images is a simple task, simply open the correct folder on Photo Pro 5 and go to Save Images As. You can choose all the pictures, just one or if you've selected any, it will default to the selected images option. You can choose JPEG, 8-bit TIFF or 16-bit TIFF files. We converted 1 picture to 16-bit TIFF which took us just over 1 minute and converting the set of sample images to 16-bit TIFF took around 45 minutes. Still, that's what happens when you choose a camera that can produce RAW files that are 45Mb in size. It's a lovely piece of software and our favourite we've seen from a CD with a camera.

Image Quality

All of the sample images in this review were taken using the 46 megapixel High JPEG setting, which gives an average image size of around 7Mb.

It's fair to say that the screen simply doesn't do the camera justice. When we took the SD1 Merrill out of the box, we excitedly started using it and were dismayed by the picture quality. But then we put the battery on charge and started looking at the specifications. So here's the weird thing: the screen resolution looks distinctly lower than rival cameras which state 921,000 dots. These dots have to be divided by three to get the pixel count because the dots are the RGB dots and three make a pixel. This comes to 307,000 pixels. Sigma say that the screen resolution is 430,000 pixels. We think they mean dots and CIPA regulations now say that dots and pixels are acceptable and can mean the same thing. However, we think that Sigma mean 430,000 dots which equates to 143,333 pixels, less than half the rival manufacturers and certainly explaining our initial horror.

Colour rendition is great on the Sigma SD1 Merrill. Primary colours are punchy but retain realism. We love the bright reds of post or telephone boxes and when the sky is blue, the camera picks it up nicely. More subtle colours are dealt with sympathetically. There's no bleeding with mixed colours.

Metering can be an issue. There are 77 segments in the multi-metering which is good but with a landscape, we found the camera got confused by too much sky and totally silhouetted the ground. It also can't cope with direct light. Shooting into the sun blows the whole photograph. This happens more at dusk or sunrise.

We don't consider the SD1 Merrill to have a very wide dynamic range. We got a lot of burn out on highlights in strong or low sunlight. We lost our decent weather though so couldn't test it more fully, it is winter in the UK after all. This would be a good reason to break out the tripod and try some HDR photography.

All pictures were taken in RAW & JPEG at the finest quality unless stated. A fine JPEG file size can start from under 5Mb and go as high as more than 8Mb. RAW files can be as much as 56Mb and converting them to TIFF boosted that up to 80Mb.


Noise simply doesn't exist at ISO 100. Pictures are smooth, detailed where they need to be and three dimensional in appearance. We started to see minor amounts of noise at ISO 400 but it's most certainly manageable. It becomes more of a problem at ISO 800 with a degree of salt and pepper noise aggravating edge detail.

ISO 1600 sees a slight cast appear with purple and green colour invading the mid-tones and swarming the low key areas. Noise is definitely visible at ISO 3200 with edges becoming blurry and all but high key areas losing a lot of image quality. Still the Sigma climbs the scale and at ISO 6400 all hope is lost. Texture, image detail, edge definition are all gone.

It's this poor performance in noise that recalls the Nikon D3x. That was a camera priced at a ridiculous amount of money but the ISO performance was poor. We're happy to say that the SD1 Merrill has a better performance but the argument is this: if you're going to pay all this money for a camera, wouldn't you want it to have excellent noise performance at all settings?

Of course, an argument could be that you wouldn't buy a Lambourghini and complain about its off-road capability. This is a studio camera primarily and as such will be used in controlled lighting at low ISO. Fair enough, so why put up to ISO 6400 on it? If I bought a Lambourghini that had an off-road setting but was rubbish then yes, I would complain. Similarly the SD1 Merrill has high ISO and is rubbish at it.

ISO 100 (100% Crop)

ISO 200 (100% Crop)


ISO 400 (100% Crop)

ISO 800 (100% Crop)


ISO 1600 (100% Crop)

ISO 3200 (100% Crop)


ISO 6400 (100% Crop)



Despite being extremely impressed with the sharpness of the 18-50mm lens we used for the test and the amount of detail that the camera can record, we still think it benefited from a small boost in sharpening in Adobe Photoshop.

Original (100% Crop)

Sharpened (100% Crop)


File Quality

The Sigma SD1 Merrill has 3 different image quality settings available, with Fine being the highest quality option. Here are some 100% crops which show the quality of the various options, with the file size shown in brackets.

46M Fine (6.97Mb) (100% Crop) 46M Normal (2.94Mb) (100% Crop)
46M Low (1.90Mb) (100% Crop)  


We found the SD1 Merrill's flash a little hit and miss. It certainly doesn't have the intelligence seen in built-in flash units these days that have auto illuminance correction for more balanced shots. It means that pictures we would expect to be balanced came out harsh and over exposed. There's slight vignetting in the corners of the frame at 18mm but by 50mm this has disappeared so if you're shooting portraits, it's not going to be an issue.

Off - Wide Angle (18mm)

On - Wide Angle (18mm)

ISO 64 ISO 64

Off - Telephoto (50mm)

On - Telephoto (50mm)

ISO 64 ISO 64

And here are some portrait shots. As you can see, neither the Flash On or the Red-eye Reduction settings caused any red-eye.


On (100% Crop)

Red-eye Reduction

Red-eye Reduction (100% Crop)


The Sigma SD1 Merrill's maximum shutter speed is 30 seconds and there's also a Bulb mode for even longer exposures up to 2 minutes, which is excellent news if you're seriously interested in night photography. The shot below was taken using a shutter speed of 3 seconds at ISO 100.

Night Shot

100% Crop

Sample Images

This is a selection of sample images from the Sigma SD1 Merrill camera, which were all taken using the 46 megapixel Fine JPEG setting. The thumbnails below link to the full-sized versions, which have not been altered in any way.

Sample RAW Images

The Sigma SD1 Merrill enables users to capture RAW and JPEG format files. We've provided some Sigma RAW (X3F samples for you to download (thumbnail images shown below are not 100% representative).

Sample Movie & Video

Product Images

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Front of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Front of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Front of the Camera / Flash Raised

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Isometric View

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Isometric View

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Isometric View

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Isometric View

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera / Image Displayed


Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera /Info Screen

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera / Quick Menu

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera / Quick Menu

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera / Main Menu

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Rear of the Camera / Info Screen

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Top of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Bottom of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Side of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Side of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Front of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Front of the Camera

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Memory Card Slot

Sigma SD1 Merrill

Battery Compartment


We were really excited to get hold of the Sigma SD1 Merrill, it's a lovely camera to hold and you can feel the workmanship that's gone into it. The magnesium alloy body ensures rigidity and the weather sealing means you don't have to rush out of the rain. We like the colour rendition of the sensor and can't fault the low ISO images for smoothness, sharpness and - frankly - noise free performance. Given the right lens, we think that the SD1 Merrill would be able to pick out every pore on a model's face and get the colours and contours of the skin bang on.

There are a few underlying issues with the SD1 Merrill that we're disappointed with. The lack of live view was an issue when we were photographing the cars. We wanted a low angle but couldn't get our eye to the viewfinder comfortably and it shows. Live view would have helped us get the framing spot on.

We would love to see what the video capability of the new Foveon sensor is like but alas, the SD1 Merrill doesn't feature it. Our curiosity aside, more and more photographers, especially fashion photographers, are using video to bolster their portfolio of skill. Wedding photographers are also using video on a DSLR because it's convenient and the depth of field from the larger sensor is sublime. Sigma have missed a trick by not including it. It's also a shame that the sensor isn't full frame. However, we love the inclusion of a flash sync socket, it's a rarity these days and we also like the small interior technological advantages, namely the twin motors for the mirror and shutter curtain.

It's much easier to recommend the SD1 Merrill now that it has a realistic price tag - £1,840 / $1,900 undercuts its main rivals and the Foveon sensor is intriguing enough to justify consideration over Canon, Nikon et al. As it's a Sigma fit and there are currently no SAF adapters, anyone on another brand will have to buy all new glass, so that may sway you to stick with your current system if you;'ve already made investment. However, looking past the negatives, we would recommend it because it's a good camera that gives very good results.

If you're a studio photographer looking for mind bogglingly big files from a DSLR, you want a decent build, good colour performance, and you're not tied to a brand, then take a hard look at the Sigma SD1 Merrill. The pictures are very good after all and ultimately that's what's important, especially now that it won't (almost literally) break the bank.

4 stars

Ratings (out of 5)
Design 4
Features 4
Ease-of-use 4
Image quality 4.5
Value for money 4

Review Roundup

Reviews of the Sigma SD1 Merrill from around the web. »

The SD1 created a huge amount of interest when it was announced at Photokina 2010. Having used Foveon's original 4.7x3MP sensor in its SD and DP series of cameras, Sigma bought the sensor company in 2008 and instructed it to focus its efforts on high quality stills photography. The result was a 15x3MP sensor of the standard APS-C size (approx. 24 x 16mm, slightly larger than Foveon's previous designs), and it's around this that the SD1 is built.
Read the full review » »

We're guessing that the positive answers didn't exactly flood in, because 12 months later Sigma released a rebranded version: the SD1 Merrill. It's a rebadged version of the same camera, offering identical performance but at a new, more sensible price. Cheaper manufacturing bills mean Sigma can offer the SD1 Merrill at the much sweeter cost of £1,840/$1,900.
Read the full review » »

The Sigma SD1 is Sigma's update to their DSLR line and rather than a direct follow on from the SD14 / SD15, this camera has an all new 15.6 megapixel Foveon sensor. Each pixel records Red Green and Blue* and therefore Sigma call it a 46 megapixel sensor (15.6x3). The Sigma SD1 was first shown at Photokina 2010 (Oct) and then wasn't available to purchase till June/July 2011. The camera also had an RRP of £6199 including VAT making it quite an expensive investment! Over time, this price dropped to £4999 including VAT. More recently the price has been dramatically cut with the renaming of the camera as the Sigma SD1 Merrill, UK pricing is yet to be confirmed.
Read the full review » »

The Sigma SD-1 Merrill is an APS-C DSLR camera that sports a different type of sensor. Sigma, in an attempt to set themselves apart from the pack, chose the Foveon X3 sensor which captures light in a different way than a standard Bayer pattern sensor. What happens when this newer technology meets a company that traditionally has produced lenses for various camera manufacturers? Keep reading for a full review.
Read the full review »


Format Interchangeable lens SLR camera
Compatible Lenses SIGMA SA mount interchangeable lenses
Lens Mount SIGMA SA bayonet mount
Angle of View Equivalent to approx. 1.5 times the focal length of the lens (for 35mm cameras)
Image Sensor FOVEON X3® Direct Image Sensor (CMOS)
Image Sensor Size 23.5 x 15.7mm (0.9 inch x 0.6 inch)
Number of Pixels Total Pixels 48MP
Effective Pixels 46MP (4,800x3,200x3 layers)
Aspect Ratio 3:2
Storage Media CompactFlash (Type I,UDMA compatible)
Still Image Format Exif 2.3, DCF 2.0
Recording Mode Lossless compression RAW data (12-bit,High,Medium,Low), JPEG (High,Medium,Low)
Color Mode 7 types (Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Landscape, B&W, Sepia)
Number of Pixels (File Size) RAW High 4,704 x 3,136 x 3 (Approx. 45 MB)
Medium 3,264 x 2,176 x 3 (Approx. 24 MB)
Low 2,336 x 1,568 x 3 (Approx. 12 MB)
JPEG High Fine 4,704 x 3,136 (Approx. 10 MB)
Normal 4,704 x 3,136 (Approx. 5.6 MB)
Basic 4,704 x 3,136 (Approx. 4.2 MB)
Medium Fine 3,264 x 2,176 (Approx 5 MB)
Normal 3,264 x 2,176 (Approx 2.7 MB)
Basic 3,264 x 2,176 (Approx 2 MB)
Low Fine 2,336 x 1,568 (Approx 2.5 MB)
Normal 2,336 x 1,568 (Approx 1.4 MB)
Basic 2,336 x 1,568 (Approx 1 MB)
White Balance 8 types (Auto, Daylight, Shade, Overcast, Incandescent, Fluorescent, Flash and Custom)
Viewfinder Type Pentaprism SLR viewfinder
Viewfinder Frame Coverage 98% vertical, 98% horizontal
Viewfinder Magnification 0.95x (50mmF1.4 - ∞)
Eye point 18mm
Diopter Adjustment Range -3.0 dpt - +1.5 dpt
Focusing Screen Fixed, all matt screen
Mirror Quick return
Depth of Field Preview Depth of field preview button
Auto Focus Type TTL phase difference detection system
AF Point 11 points twin cross sensor
AF Operating Range EV -1 to +18 (ISO100)
Focus Mode Single AF, Continuous AF (with AF motion prediction function), Manual
AF Point Selection Automatic Selection, Manual Selection
Active AF point indicator Superimposed in viewfinder
AF Assist Light Orange Color AF Assist Light
Focus Lock AF button is pressed or shutter release button is pressed halfway.
Metering Systems 77 segment Evaluative Metering, Spot Metering, Center Area Metering, Center-Weighted Average Metering
Metering Range EV 1 to 20 (50mm F1.4?ISO100)
Exposure Control System (P) Program AE (Program Shift is possible), (S) Shutter Speed Priority AE, (A) Aperture Priority AE, (M) Manual
ISO Sensitivity ISO 100-6400
Exposure Compensation ±3EV (in 1/3 stop increments)
AE Lock AE lock button is pressed or shutter release button is pressed halfway
Auto Bracketing Three or Five frames (in 1/3 steps,Appropriate Exposure-Under Exposure-Over Exposure)
Shutter Type Electronically Controlled Focal Plane Shutter
Shutter Speed 1/8000 - 30 sec., Bulb (up to 30 sec. With Extended Mode : 2 min.)
External Flash Sync. X-Sync(1/180)
Flash Type Manual Pop-up Built-in flash
Built-in Flash Guide Number GN11
Built-in Flash Coverage Range 17mm lens angle covered
Flash Metering System S-TTL Auto Flash
Flash Compensation ±3EV(1/3 stop increments)
Compatible Flashguns EF-610 DG SUPER, EF-610 DG ST, EM-140DG
Sync Terminal Available
Connectivity Hot shoe (contact X synchronization at 1/180 sec. or less, with dedicated flash linking contact)
Drive Modes [1]Single, [2]Continuous, [3]Self-timer (2 sec./10 sec.), [4]Mirror Lock-up
Continuous shooting speed High 5 frames per sec.
Medium 6 frames per sec.
Low 6 frames per sec.
Continuous buffer High Max. 7 frames
Medium Max. 14 frames
Low Max. 14 frames
LCD Monitor Type TFT Color LCD Monitor
Monitor Size 3.0"
LCD Pixels Approx. 460,000
Coverage 100%
Reviewing Images Single frame display, Multi display [9 frames], Zoom, Slide Show
Highlight Display Available
Histogram Available
LCD Monitor Language English/Japanese/German/French/Spanish/Italian/Chinese (Simplified)/ Korean/ Russian
Interfaces USB (USB2.0), Video Out (NTSC/PAL)
Battery Li-ion Battery Pack BP-21, Battery Charger BC-21, AC adapter SAC-4(optional)
Dimensions 145.5 mm/5.7" (W) x 113.5 mm/4.4"(H) x 80.0 mm/3.1"(D)
Weight 700g/ 25oz
Operating Temperature 0 - +40?
Operating Hunidity Range 85% or lower
Accessories Li-ion Battery Pack BP-21, Battery charger BC-21, USB Cable, Video Cable, Neck Strap, Eye Cap, Body Cap, Eyepiece Cap, SIGMA Photo Pro Disc, SD1 Merrill Instruction Manual
Optional Accessories AC Adapter?SAC-4
Remote Controller?RS-31
Cable Release Switch?CR-21
Electronic Flash?EF-610 DG SUPER, EF-610 DG ST, EM-140 DG

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