Sigma DP2 Merrill

What´s a pixel, anyway?


Caution! Don´t you ever try a Sigma DP Merrill just for fun! Chances are you will never again be happy with the output of any other reasonably affordable light recording device again, be it digital or analog, short of large format film.


Two minutes before we went on a short vacation to the cute little North Sea island of Spiekeroog, the parcel service brought me the Sigma DP2 Merrill I got used from the auction site. The DP2M came with the ingenious Richard Franiec grip, the external optical viewfinder, the lens shade and 9 batteries. The guy who sold this camera must have really enjoyed it :-) . He sold it to fund a Leica M.

Here on the remote island I have to develop my digital files on an old netbook with one of the first Intel Atoms and a whopping 1 gigabyte of memory. As Sigma cameras record their RAW data in a somewhat cryptic own format called X3F, you first have to convert your files to TIFF with the Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) software. What´s pro with this software remains a mystery. Maybe it´s the resources this program demands? One single file conversion takes the best part of five minutes on my old netbook. OK, my netbook is not really supposed to work on today´s photographic data, but the subsequent workflow with Picture Window Pro is a breeze compared to SPP.

So what´s to say about the DP2M´s magical image quality? The web is packed with rave reports, while everybody seems to agree that the camera´s handling is not on par. In a sentence, both opinions seem reasonable to me.



This is one of my first DP2M shots. The image shows a church window serving as a resolution target. I took it without a tripod, and I think the result is pretty amazing. The only thing I had to do was to correct the perspective a bit, which is really easy with the Picture Window Pro WARP tool. I did not touch contrast, colour or luminance. And, most important, I did not apply any amount of sharpening. I cannot overstate it, with the exception of perspective, this is the original image right out of the box.



Detail from the middle of the frame, a good bit smaller than 1:1.



Another detail in 1:1 resolution (96 ppi). The complete image would be about 70x100 cm (28"x43").


I may be wrong, but I think you´re not supposed to see a sharp image like this at the actual pixel level with conventional sensors. I don´t see any hint of a pixel here, and anything I see is sharp. You can blow your image up to pixel level, and you won´t run out of detail. Yes, this is impressive.

To sum it up, my first impression with the DP2M from only a very few frames is that I get nearly perfect images with next to no manipulation right out of the box. The last time I saw anything comparable was when I scanned my first Kodak Ektar 100 negative taken with my Mamiya 6.


A few weeks later I have learned that, same as with my former DP1 and DP1x cameras, the DP2M is kind of erratic in delivering outstanding quality. But if it delivers, the technical image quality is simply breathtaking.



This is a 100% crop showing the actual pixel level @ 96 ppi. The complete image, featuring a lot more which I didn´t want to put on display here, would be 83 by 125 cm (44"x66"). But where are those pixels, you may wonder? Please note that I have only converted the original x3f file to TIFF with the Sigma Photo Pro software, cut out the shown details with Picture Window Pro and saved it as JPEG for the web. No further adjustments. No sharpening.

The truth is that I have never ever seen anything comparable before. It´s just plain scary.



Because I started this site related to my garden, I should certainly show some examples of flowers captured with the Sigma DP2M. Above you can see a 100% crop of a Blairii II rose, a spectacular old rose with perfectly formed flowers carrying a wonderful scent. Unfortunately, mildew is a big problem for this plant. In particularly bad years I have even seen the flowers being affected.

The 100% crop below shows the flower spike of Alaska lupins (Lupinus nootkatensis). Both flower examples are only converted to TIFF with Sigma Photo Pro, cropped and converted to JPEG with Picture Window Pro. No further adjustments. And certainly, no sharpening. Enjoy!



Though the Foveon sensor is known for poor high-iso performance, extended time shots in low light at base iso do deliver the goods. Below you can see a view over the downtown port of Kiel, Germany, followed by a few 100 per cent crops.






I took this picture from a hotel parking deck. At the back side of the the deck I took a picture of  the central station. As with the image above, I used a railing as a makeshift tripod.






The sheer amount of detail in iso 100 shots remains amazing even in low light, and the sharpness is still stunning as well.

In the process of developing the former pictures of Kiel at dawn I discovered that, as with many other digital image files and film scans, ColorPerfect yielded much better colours than the usual imaging software alone. Ditto for the following image of the Eurogate Container Terminal Wilhelmshaven, Germany.



I also added some kind of punch with the ingenious 3-Zone Adjustment tool of Picture Window Pro. While this procedure delivered the desired drama, it also caused an almost film-like grainy appearance of the sky and the clouds.




Here´s how the mighty Nikon D800 (remember? 36 MegaBytes!) compares to DP2M output on the screen.



The DP2M (right)  file at 1:1 is certainly smaller than the D800 (left) one, but every single little detail is sharper and clearer. It may not fill a billboard like the monster Nikon, but printed up to at least A3 the Sigma very clearly has an edge. Now that´s terrific! I bought the D800 to replace my Nikon D7000, but I certainly should have known better: the D800 has exactly the same pixel density. Its images are exactly the same quality as the D7000´s. Exactly the same! Just more of it. I had planned to sell my Mamiya 6 outfit to fund the D800, but this makes me think twice at least. I don´t print that many images at A3 size because I only have limited wall space to cover. Most of what I like is printed in A4 size or is even only viewed on screen. The D7000 delivers enough pixels for that by quite a large margin. I honestly don´t need more of its pixels. I need better pixels, which I get from the DP2M only.


Enter the war zone: film vs digital!

Lately, on a business trip to the astonishing city of Görlitz, I shot a quick & dirty comparison to medium format film. The following images show my very cute hotel Alte Herberge, which was awarded "Most Beautiful Youth Hostel of the German Democratic Republic" back in 1987. The first image of each pair was shot with the former world´s best camera, the Mamiya 6, and the 50 mm L Sekor, known as the sharpest lens of the universe. I used Kodak Ektar 100 colour negative film. Second of each pair, no surprise, Sigma DP2M. Have fun!




 Yes. Very different colours. The DP2M image seems more reasonable to me, but perhaps I´m already too biased. But wait. This is about resolution first. Let´s go! The following crops are 100% pixel level @ 96 ppi.





Stop! Wait a minute! I must be kidding! That´s not just another crappy film camera. That´s the one and only Mamiya 6! Left in the dust by a compact digital camera, and by such a distance! Blame my sloppy technique... really? Let´s see, I mounted both cameras on a Novoflex Triopod tripod with a Novoflex Ball 30 ball head. I used a cable release on the Mamiya and 10 seconds self-timer delay on the Sigma. Aperture in a range unsuspicious of diffractive degradation (f/8). I used the world´s finest grain colour negative film. I scanned it with a Nikon Super Coolscan LS-8000 ED dedicated medium format film scanner @ 4000 ppi. Not too sloppy altogether, eh?








That´s it, folks. You gotta see it to believe it. What´s been the world´s highest hand holdable image quality camera for decades doesn´t even come close to the Sigma DP2M. Repeat: Not even close! That´s a considerably hard blow, at least to me. I used to love film.

I must admit that I´ve been unfair to a degree. The DP2M image (like virtually all shown on this page) is built out of two separate files to cover more dynamic range. Bracketing is a breeze with digital, and I feel one should take advantage of that. Yes, bracketing is a breeze with film as well, but only until you try to merge several scanned files. That´s nearly impossible because the software has a very, very, very hard time to pick the corresponding pixels of two or more individually scanned files. If the needed pixels differ only a few microns in their relative position, the software instantly stops. One more reason for me to stick to digital. I hate to say that.