Thoughts on the Sigma/Foveon DSLR’s – Not an SD1 review!

With the recent release of the Sigma SD1, I thought it might be a good time to share my experience of Sigma DSLR’s for anyone who may be thinking of buying one or switching systems entirely.

I don’t own an SD1, nor have I tried one but in the past and this is not a review. However, I’ve owned pretty much all other Foevon sensored Sigma cameras from the SD9 & SD10 to the SD14 and the compact cameras DP1 and DP2; in fact, I still own and regularly use the Sigma DP1.

Briefly: I started out shooting with Nikon/Fuji bodies and then – when all my equipment was stolen – I did some research and decided to buy into the Sigma/Foveon/X3 system. Nowadays I use a Canon 5DMkII, having sold all my Sigma equipment. Below I’ll share my thoughts on the Sigma DSLR’s and the Foveon/X3 Sensor and the reasons why I switched to Canon after using them. I figure my experience with Nikon, Fuji and Canon – as well as Sigma, might count for something =D)

 

My Story

So, back in the days when people still used film, I was a Nikon shooter. When things went digital I first invested in a Fuji DSLR – The Fuji S3 – because it took Nikon lenses and was within my budget. I instantly fell in love with it; the colours were beautiful, skintones were rendered in nice pink hues and the dynamic range of the Fuji sensor was perfect for landscapes and cityscapes. Later I added a Nikon D200 to my camera bag and, to be honest, didn’t get much use out of it before all my kit was stolen but I definitely preferred the way the Fuji handled colours and dynamic range.

Skipping over the heartbreak of having all your equipment stolen (with a memory card full of pictures from a glamour shoot, which I will never get back), I decided to view this as an opportunity to investigate which digital camera outfit would be best for my needs. My passion is architectural and landscape photography and I also really enjoy doing glamour model shoots, so I was looking for a DSLR system that would be good at both of these.

Initial reseach leaned toward Canon, as Nikon systems seemed to be biased more towards sports shooters and suchlike (although, they’re both pretty good all round, I’m just a perfectionist) but then I discovered the Sigma DSLR’s and the Foveon sensor.

 

The Sigma System

I won’t go into too much detail about how the sensor works, because it seems like every review everywhere feels the need to explain it, so the information is easy to find but in short; the Foveon (now called X3 direct image) sensor stacks the Red, Green and Blue filters on top of each other so that each ‘photosite’ gets data from all three channels, whereas Canon, Nikon and Fuji use the Bayer array sensor which scatters red, Green and Blue filters in a mosaic pattern (biased toward Green, which takes up 50% of the sensor) and uses computer algorithms to decode the information and ‘guess’ what the rest of the data from other colour channels would have been (obvioulsy, its a very advanced, educated guess).

This excited me greatly because I value image quality over anything else. I shoot landscapes and architecture, both rich in detail and colour information and I want to produce the best quality images I can. The Sigma system promised true colour fidelity, no ‘guesswork’ regarding detail or colour information from any individual photosite and images that required little to no sharpening as a result of these factors (as well as the lack of anti-aliasing micro lenses).

On the down side, people were complaining that the cameras lacked functionality compared to others in the same price range, were clunky, old fashioned, difficult to master and that the RAW files could only be processed using Sigma’s own propriety RAW conversion software – which was similarly clunky, under-featured and difficult to use. By far the biggest sticking issue is that Sigma have designed the camera to use only their lens mounts, meaning you can’t keep your Canon or Nikon lenses; you have to commit to a change.

Incidentally, these pros and cons really haven’t changed to date. People are making the same complaints about the Sigma SD1 while others are lauding the same qualites. At the time, I decided that I didn’t mind the challenge of mastering a difficult camera/RAW conversion system and that most of the ‘lacking’ features (high speed shooting, low light performance and card read/write times) were not things I had to worry about given my shooting style and preferred subject matter. I also decided I would buy second hand equipment so that I wasn’t spending lots of money on such under-featured gear.

 

Taking the plunge

I started by buying an SD9 and SD10 with a bunch of lenses (a find on eBay). The two cameras are almost identical, with the SD10 being more of an update than an upgrade. The only noticeable difference was that the SD10 performed slightly better in low light while the SD9 produced slightly crisper images overall.

As predicted, they were awful machines when it came to using them. The viewing screen was tiny, the write speed was incredibly slow and you couldn’t access the (yes clunky, old fashioned) menus while wating for data to write to the card.

Having said that, the colours I got – especially from the SD9 – when shooting landscapes, were astounding: the skies were such a rich blue you would think I’d used a polariser and the greens were lush. I didn’t notice a fantastic increase in image quality, however, compared to the Fuji files I was used to (more on this later) and I still had to apply some sharpening, although in a different way.

After some time using the SD9 & SD10 I started to notice a greenish-yellow cast to the images, especially in skin tones. In anything other than glorious sunshine, the colours tended to drift toward yellow. I posted on the Sigma user forums and was met with three sorts of response: 1. ‘This yellow cast that people keep talking about is a myth spread by Sigma haters.’ 2. ‘The colours only drift to yellow if you don’t nail the exposure; learn how to use your camera before you post silly questions.’ and 3. ‘It’s to do with the coating Sigma put on their lenses, you can’t avoid it and have to fix it in post.’

I decided to develop Photoshop actions to correct for the greenish-yellow cast. Looking at old images now in Lightroom, they’re even easier to correct using the HSL sliders but suffice it to say, the colour cast is still there to be removed.

When the SD14 was released I got excited all over again. Here was a much more modern looking, ergonomic camera body with improved processing and greater resolution. I sold the SD10 and some of my lesser used lenses and bought an SD14 body.

It was a much nicer camera to use. The biggest improvement for me was the shutter/mirror sound. No more loud, clunky noises coming from the camera, this shutter just whispered. Also, the viewing screen was much bigger and some of the menu systems were easier to use. The colour rendition had changed too; skies were rendered more aqua than deep blue, reds were better rendered but the overall greenish-yellow bias was still there and constantly having to correct for it was getting annoying.

 

Artists tool or workhorse?

By this time I was getting more varied photography work; shooting conferences, nightclubs and festivals rather than landscapes and architecture. I also shot a few weddings with the the SD14. Big jobs like this, involving lots of images (and therefore lots of editing) really draw attention to the weaknesses of the system. Waiting for the camrea to write data to the card meant I was missing great shots, the poor low light performance was something I constantly had to fight against and the fact that the files need so much input in post processing dramatically increased my turnaround time.

By this point I was taking the image quality I was getting in landscape shoots for granted and complaining about the noise levels and colour casts I was getting on lifestyle shoots. Unfortunately, I wasn’t making any money from doing the stuff I loved and the camera was holding me back when it came to the paying jobs. Something had to give.

It was after shooting a wedding on a murky day in a church with virtually no natural light that I decided I had to get a camera that didn’t get in the way of my work. I was already borrowing a colleagues Canon 5D when shooting conferences and when the mkII came out I decided to get one. (Actually, it was between that and the Nikon D700. I prefer the way Nikon bodies work but the Canon system offered more bang for the buck so to speak – sometimes I still wish I’d gone with the Nikon but thats another story).

 

So, whats all this talk about Image Quality?

Now, the Canon 5D mkII is a 21megapixel camera capable of performing excellently at really high ISO and in low light situations. It writes data nice and fast and the colour rendition is accurate. In short, it doesn’t get in the way of the image I want to create, it does what its told, when its told to.

HOWEVER; while I took the image quality for granted when I was using the SD14, I now really miss it. I notice the inherent ‘mushiness’ of a bayer sensored, anti-aliasing micro-lensed camera. I feel like the images the 5DmkII produces are never quite sharp enough (and sharpening in post doesn’t help) and, when pixel peeping, there’s this weird cross-hatch effect that makes the image feel more like a painting than a photograph.

This comes down to me being a perfectionist again. Most people, certainly clients, would never notice any problems. The images from the Canon are perfectly servicable. Its just that the quality from the Sigma is… better!

How can I say that when I complain about colour casts and noise levels you ask? Good question!

Its hard to explain. Some people refer to a 3D effect of Sigma image files in an attemt to explain it but I think that is going too far. I think its something to do with the fact that the Sigma isn’t interpolating any chroma or luminance information; the micro-contrasts within the image, the way colours transition into eachother its all so much smoother and better and – most importantly – more realistic.

 

Conclusions

I can’t go back to a Sigma system right now, even with the improvements in high(er-ish) ISO that the SD1 promises. The reason is because I’m a ‘jobbing’ photographer and I now need a camera that can perform well in all sorts of varying situations. The Sigma/X3 system, to my mind, is an artists camera. It will excel in controlled studio conditions, it will deliver amazing images in just the right conditions for a photographer who is patient and masterful and has the time to absolutley nail the exposure and then spend the extra time needed with the RAW files to draw the best from the file.

Ideally I’d like an SD1 modified to take Canon L-series lenses, which I can use when I’m shooting for me; when I’m shooting landscapes, architecture or portraits and have the time to wait for or make sure the conditions are perfect.

I think thats why the Sigma SD1 has been released with such a high price tag. They’re aiming at those photographers who are at the top of their game and are searching for better image quality. They’re not trying to sell a consumer-grade product to a mass market and make a quick profit. If that is so, then I admire their business ethic and I hope that the top photogs take a punt and discover the magic of the Sigma system and the X3 direct image sensor. Unfortunately, its just not within my budget to own one – I guess I’ll just have to make the 5DmkII work harder and earn me some more money!

As for you, well you have to make up your own mind. I hope this post has been of some help =D)

 

 

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About theSubtleSensor

I am a freelance photographer based in newcastle upon Tyne and specialising in Corporate Events, Architectural and Model Portfolio photography. Please have a look around my website - I even provide links to other freelance professional Newcastle photographers.
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3 Responses to Thoughts on the Sigma/Foveon DSLR’s – Not an SD1 review!

  1. Matt Ethan says:

    Thanks for this, an interesting look into the system. I’ve never used sigma bodies, but have seen lots of talk around the sd1.

  2. Phil Lammi says:

    “The Sigma/X3 system, to my mind, is an artist’s camera. It will excel in controlled studio conditions, it will deliver amazing images in just the right conditions for a photographer who is patient and masterful and has the time to absolutely nail the exposure and then spend the extra time needed with the RAW files to draw the best from the file.”

    This is exactly what I found. If you have tons of time, it’s great. Anything dynamic (like birthday parties, studio shoots, sports events, etc,) forget it. You’ll miss the shots and annoy your subjects.

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