The Merrill Experiment: Finding Simple Beauty in the Sigma DP Merrill Cameras

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Flashback:  Its October, and I’m at the Photo Plus Expo, one of the must-see conventions in the photography world.  Staring at the tiny black box in my hand, the Sigma DP2 Merrill, I don’t fully comprehend its simplicity.  I admitted as much to the Sigma representative that was taking me on a tour.  A lot of new products were announced at the time, and some of them were available to view.  My appointment was to preview the new lenses and the new lens dock.  The DPx Merrills were a bit of a curve ball, something very different from what I would have expected.  But I am open minded.

The DP Merrill cameras are small point-and-shoot cameras, pocket cameras if you will, with a very simplistic feature set.  The entire line is capable of creating truly beautiful imagery.  At the heart is the widely acclaimed Faveon X3 46 megapixel full-framed sensor; that’s the same sensor you can find in Sigma’s flagship SLR.  A pocket camera with a full-framed sensor is, alone, part of the appeal of the camera – especially because it’s the Faveon X3, which boasts some of the best images and color rendering on the market.  But it’s a weird blend of features in what would otherwise seem to be a point-and-shoot style camera.  Each of the cameras in the line have a fixed focal length:  19mm for DP1 (equivalent to 35mm on an SLR), 30mm (45mm equivalent) for the DP2 and the DP3 – the camera I’ve been experimenting with these last several weeks – has a 50mm (75mm equivalent).  There’s also no viewfinder, you shoot from the back.  To me, the line was essentially a pro sensor with a consumer grade feature-set.  I just simply didn’t get it.  But I wasn’t willing to leave it there.

The Sigma DP3 with included camera strap.

The Sigma DP3 with included camera strap.

Months later, the DP3 is released to market and some of the problems with the older brothers have been tweaked with firmware updates.  Those that love them seem to really love having them.  I’ve heard the therm, Zen, thrown around quite a bit.  “It’s like a vacation from my work camera,” one photographer suggested.  He shoots with a PhaseOne camera system.  In my eyes, a mid-level SLR would be a vacation from that massive package.  But we shoot differently, I suppose, and he seems to love his DP2 Merrill.  His story isn’t uncommon.  It was time for me to try to understand.  And that’s how the concept of this experiment came about.

The experiment was simple:  I used the DP3 almost exclusively for about a month.  I used my own setup for a few specific paid assignments, but instead of carrying my own camera on a daily basis (which I habitually do), I carried the DP3.  One cannot debate the simple fact that the DP series puts out some truly stunning photographs.  Instead, I am going to focus on seeing if I – a photographer with 18 years of experience with an SLR – can embrace the simplicity of the DP series concept.  So this review is going to focus on form factor, usability and feature set.  I’ll touch photo quality, because I know you will want to know my opinion on that.  But the purpose is really to understand the form factor and the feature set.

My Initial Concerns

Depth of field performance is pretty good.

Depth of field performance is pretty good.

With the unopened box still sitting upon the table, waiting for my tinkering, I feel the need to touch on some of my thoughts leading up to the use of this camera.  My biggest concern about the DP line is that it’s a bit too minimalist.  I’m not concerned about the fixed focal length.  In fact it’s something I’m quite comfortable with as my first camera only had a 50mm, and I shot that for ten years.  It’s the viewfinder – or lack thereof – that had me nervous.  On the other hand, shooting from the back could improve composition because of the way you preview the shot.

The system raises a thought.  My brother and I are runners and so we were glued to the Olympic Coverage last summer.  Mo Farah took gold in both the 5 kilometer and 10 kilometer race, holding a pace in each that few people could meet running just a single kilometer.  Farah is described by my brother as nothing but lungs and legs.  Lungs and legs:  Only the most basic equipment needed to run such a race, the rest is just unnecessary weight.  I kind of think of the DP line in the same way.  Sigma stripped it down so that you are left with only the most essential gear.  Farah has lungs and lengs.  DP Merrill has a lens and an incredible sensor.  

Learning Curve

Fast forward several weeks:  I have now been using the camera for several weeks and I am able to look back at my experiences.  I was surprised to find that the learning curve wasn’t all that drastic.  The best way to test an interface – in my opinion – is to simply not read the manual.  I know that technical writers everywhere are cringing.  But if the interface is well designed, it should almost be intuitive to anyone with some basic knowledge of how a camera works.  I kept a copy of the manual with me as reference, but I didn’t find myself looking into it much.  There is a Quick Settings (QS) button on the back of the camera that cycles through two sets of the most common settings.  In there you can control things like ISO or image quality.  To change the focus, you push down on the multi-select pad and you can select between focusing modes or even change the placement of your focusing bracket.  So the interface was pretty intuitive and well thought out.  Where the Merrills stand above other pocket cameras would be the modes.  You do have full control of the camera:  Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, Manual a few program modes and of course automatic mode.  In a priority mode, there is a wheel surrounding the shutter button that can easily change shutter speeds or aperture with a forefinger – not unlike the interface of many SLRs.  In manual mode, you control the aperture with the wheel, but the shutter speed is controlled with the left and right buttons on the multi-pad on the back of the camera.  The shutter speed and aperture is clearly displayed at the bottom of the screen.

A shot taken with manual focus.

A shot taken with manual focus.

Manual focus is also possible.  I had to dig into the manual to figure out how to enable the feature, but once I figured that out, it was nice to have.  The manual focus ring is large, so it’s easy to use.  When manual focus engages, it makes a weird noise that I hadn’t anticipated.  Compared to the near silent act of actually taking the picture, thanks to the leaf shutter, the focus is quite loud.  But it’s probably not loud enough to disturb a candid subject.  Despite the noise, it is very smooth in it’s operation.

This amount of control had me immediately confident.  After years of working with an SLR, I don’t like to give up too much control.  A typical point-and-shoot strips all that out.  Or if it does give you control, it’s all set through menus three or four deep; by then you’ve missed the shot.  So the DP3 (and it’s brothers) makes it easy for me to set up the shot the way I want to take it with minimal effort and in the right amount of time.  Case and point:  I really didn’t use the automatic modes very much.  Instead, I used the priority modes much more often, affording me the control and speed that I wanted most often.

Sigma-DP3-13Shooting from the back is not something I’m truly comfortable with.  The screen is bright enough to frame the shot in broad daylight, but not bright enough to manual focus, nor is it bright enough to review your photos.  Ducking into the shade to check my shots became standard practice.  There is a rangefinder that is available for the Merrill cameras.  I wonder if perhaps that would make it a more enjoyable experience.  I did not have one during my month with the DP3, but I was able to try one out on one of it’s brothers back in October.  The Merrill rangefinder is a classic style:  It doesn’t have any intelligent feedback as you look through.  In fact, it’s nothing more than a simple box with a small lens matched to your focal length to get you in the ball park.  But I fear it is of little use in many cases.  You’re basically guessing what your camera is focusing on.  In face-recognition mode, this probably wouldn’t be a concern at all.  But when you want to shoot inanimate objects in complicated compositions with narrow depths of field, you’ll need to use the back of the camera.

More Comfort and a Little Frustration

After just a few weeks shooting every day, I grew to really love the fixed focal length.  I think the 50mm (75mm equivalent) is a bit longer then I would prefer for my style of photography.  But it’s a great focal length for street photography – it gives me a little bit of a buffer between me and my subject.  Personally, I think the DP2 is probably more my speed.  Shooting with a fixed focal length is quite appealing and it brought me back to my roots.  It was refreshing to have that kind of limitation again.  While I don’t believe in the zoom with your feet philosophy (for some very technical reasons), I do believe that such a restriction is a good challenge.  It’s good exercise for the brain and good practice for honing your skill set.  So I quickly became comfortable working within these restrictions.

This was a very difficult shot to get with the shutter lag, which was the reason I lost several shots.

This was a very difficult shot to get with the shutter lag, which was the reason I lost several shots.

Those of you used to the curtain shutter of an SLR will notice a bit of a lag after the button press.  It’s not dramatically slow, and it’s fairly consistent, so you can learn the timing and nail your shots.  But you’re going to miss some of the more candid moments.  I wonder if the size of the camera is imposing such limitations.  If the camera were a bit larger, would a better shutter design be more possible?  That begs the question of why the form and size of the camera was more important than such an important functionality.

Shooting from the back isn’t ideal for me.  But I acknowledge that is a matter of preference.  I don’t believe that it limited my abilities to take a good photograph; it’s just a different shooting style.  So I won’t dwell on that fact.  However, shooting from the back does have one major disadvantage:  It severely impacts the battery life.  LCD displays are battery hogs, so when you’re forced to use it as your only means to take a photograph, you can expect charging your batteries fairly often.  In my experience with the DP3, I was not getting more than 50-70 shots out of a battery (or about an hour and a half of time), depending on the type of shooting.  Sigma includes two batteries with the camera, but that’s a bandage covering a more serious problem.

Image Quality

This is a shot we used to test the image quality.  To see why we were impressed, see the 1:1 crop below.

This is a shot we used to test the image quality. To see why we were impressed, see the 1:1 crop below.

To be blunt, you’re going to be very hard pressed to find anything that comes close to rivaling the image quality of the DP lineup.  The Faveon X3 is a full-framed sensor that was developed for Sigma’s flagship SLR camera.  To compare to the mainstream, it was designed to strike fear into Canon’s 5D mkIII or Nikon’s D4.  And it’s earned a good deal of respect.  The Faveon technology is unique in that it works like three separate color-specific sensors layered on top of each other (though trust me, the technology is far more complicated than my brief explanation).  The data is then merged to create a single photo in a manner that no other sensor has yet rivaled.  It’s color rendering is unparalleled and at 46 megapixels, it’s starting to rival some of the medium format cameras.

And you have this fantastic Faveon X3 sensor in a small pocketable camera.

1:1 crop of the above photo.  Notice the wood grain in the paint.

1:1 crop of the above photo. Notice the wood grain in the paint.

A cool benefit of the 46 megapixel sensor is that you have plenty of room to play with when you wish to crop a shot.  Every time you crop a photograph, you can expect some degradation.  When you start with 10 megapixels, that might be a problem.  But when you start with 46 megapixels, you can shave off a few edges and no one will notice; not even you.

In fact the only drawback that I found with the images that come out of this camera is the file size.  Files can be quite large, often more than 10 megabytes in JPG or nearly four times that in RAW.  The camera can handle it and memory cards are cheap, so space isn’t an issue.  But editing can be slow and laggy on some moderate computers.  Of course at 46 megapixels, you have plenty of room in the quality ceiling to reduce the shooting quality and therefore reducing the file size.

Bottom line, the photos quality is incredible for any camera on the market.  It just so happens that this one is small enough to stick in your pocket.

Final Thoughts

It’s really difficult to pinpoint my exact feelings on the DP Merrill Cameras.  On one hand, you can’t argue with the absolute beauty of the photographs.  The detail is incredible, the colors are rich and accurate and you end up with shots that can be blown up for print as large as you could want.  At least there isn’t a wall in my home that would be a challenge for this sensor.  But there are a few details that just made it a little too imperfect.  Battery life is a big problem.  The shutter lag is another one.  Those two items are things I hope are on Sigma’s list of things to improve for the next revision.  I’d like an active (intelligent) rangefinder, even as an add-on.  But I could live without that if the battery life were a bit better.

For many, this will be a camera that offers that Zen experience you were looking for.  It’s a dream to use otherwise, and I got a ton of really great shots (as you can see).  So it’s not at all limiting like I had feared.  Does it need to be 46 megapixels?  Probably not; though Sigma surely made a statement with that.

Bottom line:  This is a camera that was designed for a very specific audience.  The DP Merrill cameras fill a void for those form whom it was designed.  For the rest, it’s not there…yet.  So it’s a line to watch.  You’ll want to keep a close eye on Sigma and this small body style camera.  I am confident that the next generation will have better battery life and the shutter lag issue will be improved.  I, for one, am looking forward to the next generation.

Even in low light, the 46 megapixel the Faveon X3 thrives.

Even in low light, the 46 megapixel the Faveon X3 thrives.

Things We Liked

  • Image quality is incredible:  Colors are spot on and images are sharp.
  • Full-frame sensor in a small form-factor.
  • Very intuitive interface:  I was able to learn most of my way around without even reading the manual.
  • Easy access to manual controls (priority and manual modes, manual focus, etc).
  • Fixed focal length introduces a welcome challenge to your shooting.

Things We Didn’t Like

  • Shutter lag, which shouldn’t exist in a camera of this caliber.
  • Poor battery life.  Despite the extra included battery, it puts a damper on your shooting.
  • Lack of viewfinder:  We don’t mind that the viewfinder is after-market, but we’d like it to at least be an active display.

Additional Sample Photographs

Sigma-DP3-15Sigma-DP3-11Sigma-DP3-10Sigma-DP3-9Sigma-DP3-7Sigma-DP3-6Sigma-DP3-5Sigma-DP3-4Sigma-DP3-3Sigma DP3 cu

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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