Sigma DP3 review

The Sigma DP3 Merrill isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to deal with its quirks and older tech, they’re rewarded with sharp photos that are like full-frame quality.
The Sigma DP3 Merrill isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to deal with its quirks and older tech, they’re rewarded with sharp photos that are like full-frame quality.
The Sigma DP3 Merrill isn’t for everyone, but for those willing to deal with its quirks and older tech, they’re rewarded with sharp photos that are like full-frame quality.

Highs

  • Great, sharp pictures – almost full-frame quality
  • Sigma lens
  • 46-megapixel sensor

Lows

  • Poor battery life
  • Agonizingly slow
  • Laughable movie quality
  • Second-rate LCD display

DT Editors' Rating

Sigma has a great rep for lenses. Cameras? Not so much, since they march to a very different drummer, targeting a slim sliver of serious shooters who tend to rave about the cameras. Are these fans just members of a brainwashed cult or are they onto something special?

Features and design

The Sigma DP3 Merrill ($999) is one of the growing class of fixed focus, large-sensor cameras such as the Fujifilm X100S, Nikon Coolpix A, Sony Cyber-shot RX1, and Ricoh GR. Along with those two key attributes, the cameras cost about a grand, so they’re for serious shutterbugs who want tremendous quality in a compact. What sets the DP3 apart is the fact it uses a 46-megapixel Foveon X3 CMOS chip. Before you say OMG, the 46MP is not the same as a medium-format Hasselblad or even a full-frame DSLR. Foveon uses a triple-layer sensor system (4800 x 3200 x 3) and the chip is almost the dimensions of the more common APS-C format. The Web is loaded with debates and white papers re: Foveon vs. APS-C so we won’t rehash this decidedly dreary conversation. Just realize this is not a true 46 megapixels in the classic sense but you’re still getting a ton – and for us the only thing that really matters are the images captured compared to the competition.

Speaking of competition, the DP3 falls completely flat on its face when it comes to video. Here you get a laughable 640 x 480 VGA clip. This is so far behind the times the company should have completely eliminated it like the new Nikon Df instead of offering something so lame. But still photography is supposedly the raison d’etre of this camera so we won’t kick Sigma while they’re down.

The DP3 has an extremely clean look with a classic black body measuring 4.8 x 2.6 x 3.2 inches; it weighs slightly less than a pound (fully loaded) so it’s easy to carry around. The key feature on the front is a protruding 50mm f/2.8 Sigma lens with a manual focus ring (the lens looks like it’d be interchangeable, but it’s not); you definitely won’t put this one in your pocket. Given the 1.5x digital factor, the glass equals 75mm, close to a classic 85mm portrait lens. There’s really nothing else here – no AF Assist lamp, no flash – just a pinhole mono mic and few raised dots that slightly help you keep a grip on the camera. And you better keep it steady since there’s no built-in stabilization of any sort.

The DP3 is like having a Ferrari engine inside a Yugo body.

On the top deck is a hot shoe for the optional flash, Power and Mode buttons, as well as a jog wheel surrounding the shutter. There is no classic mode dial. Here you tap the Mode button and you have access to Movie, Manual, Shutter- and Aperture Priority, as well as Program AE and three custom options. Similar to the X100S, the Sigma DP3 is geared for advanced photographers who really want to methodically compose their shots, adjust the settings, and fire away – no Auto or scene modes here.

A 3-inch LCD monitor rated 920K dots dominates the back. Without a doubt, despite the high-res spec, it is one of the worst displays we’ve encountered in several years. You can practically count the dots, has major reflectivity issues in sunlight, and feels like it was taken out of a reject bin. We’re not exaggerating, folks.

Also on the back are AEL/Delete, QS (Quick Set), Menu, Playback, and Display buttons. Four keys surround a center OK button that offer access to Focus and Metering type, as well as Exposure Compensation up/down. On the right side is a USB/AV out, the left has a mono speaker, while the bottom has the battery/card compartment. The power source is another bummer – you know you’re in for trouble when you find two batteries in the carton. The small BP-41 battery has a CIPA rating of 97 shots but in real life it’s much worse. You can feel the camera heat up as you work with it and know this is just sucking the life out of it. Given our real-world results, three or more batteries should be in the box.

sigma dp3 merill review shutter release

As for Wi-Fi and NFC connectivity, you needn’t ask with an AVI movie-level camera – there is nothing modern here other than taking the card out and transferring the images to your PC. And if you’re using RAW – which Sigma recommends – you should download the Sigma Photo Pro software for best results. We have Lightroom on our computer but Adobe doesn’t support RAW for the DP3 – at least not at this time.

What’s in the box

You get the body, two batteries, wall charger, strap, and USB cable. Also supplied is a 130-page User’s Manual that’s fairly comprehensive and straightforward.

Performance and use

For our testing, the camera was set to top still resolution – RAW+JPEG – which translates to huge 45MB files. Sigma claims a burst mode of 4 frames per second, for up to seven RAW frames using the Dual True II processor, but we didn’t get close. The camera takes such huge files it seemingly takes forever saving them to the card; get used to watching the flashing red busy light with this one. The poor quality LCD also makes it difficult to frame and focus in on your subjects, although there is a built-in magnifier to help.

It delivers exceptional still photo quality that comes close to full-frame.

We’ve used many fast-focusing cameras over the past few months, but, sadly, the Sigma DP3 is not one of them. It only has nine AF points (which are adjustable) compared to dozens on other cameras. It uses the contrast detect system so it also has issues with low-contrast images.

Now, at this point, you may be asking, why continue with the review given all the negatives? We thought the same thing too, and then we opened the files on our PC using the Sigma Photo Pro software. We were ready to quickly give the DP3 Merrill a failing grade since it’s so frustrating to use but then we started pixel peeping on a 27-inch monitor. The photos were absolutely outstanding, with a richness we had only seen on full-frame cameras; they are easily comparable to those from many high-megapixel APS-C DSLRs and CSCs. In fact, the shots were better in some ways than the X100S and Coolpix A. They even give the RX1 a run for the money – and that one costs three times as much.

One of the great things about the DP3 is the Sigma glass. The 10-element, 8-group lens really delivers the bokeh, those nicely blurred backgrounds with wide-open apertures. When you everything to work, the camera really delivers, but the user experience is bad and the unit itself is several generations behind current technology.

We hate to pile on but where the DP3 fails again is ISO capability. It has a range of 100-6,400, which is far behind the 25,600 of most high-end 2013 cameras. In our recent reviews, such as the Canon EOS 70D, we could even use 25,600 for a small image. With the DP3, ISO results are solid to 800, then falling off as you increase it. Of course, you can eliminate a lot of the noise using the Sigma Photo Pro software during post-processing if you are saving RAW files.

Given the woeful camera features surrounding the great Foveon chip and the all-important Sigma glass, it’s like the DP3 has a Ferrari engine in a Yugo body. If the Sigma had a beefier, more efficient processor to speed things along, had a better LCD display, hybrid AF, a 21-st century movie mode, and so on, this could be an absolutely fabulous camera. But it doesn’t, so it relegates the DP3 Merrill to cult status. It’s for the photographer who doesn’t mind carrying around a tripod and just loves deliberately setting up their shots, then tweaking the RAW output. Most of us aren’t part of that crowd, but we can definitely appreciate the camera’s capabilities.

Conclusion

The Sigma DP3 Merrill is totally schizoid. On one hand you have exceptional still photo quality that comes close to full-frame editions. On the other you have a frustratingly slow, poorly featured camera that only a select group of photographers could love. The vast, vast majority of shooters should pass this $1,000 digicam – they’re not Sigma’s target buyer, anyway – but for those who don’t mind taking their time, the payoff is well worth it. Sigma is a great lens maker, but if it chooses to continue with camera making, let’s hope it makes the DP4 is a stunner.

Highs

  • Great, sharp pictures – almost full-frame quality
  • Sigma lens
  • 46-megapixel sensor

Lows

  • Poor battery life
  • Agonizingly slow
  • Laughable movie quality
  • Second-rate LCD display
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