Product Review: Sigma SD1 and 120–300mm F/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM lens

November 15, 2011

By Dan Havlik

And the winner for most controversial camera release of the year goes to: the Sigma SD1! Yes, if you’ve managed to stick your head above your Canon and Nikon digital SLRs and lenses for a few seconds this year, you may have heard about the SD1, a purported 46-megapixel DSLR that uses a three-layered, APS-C-size, Foveon X3 sensor.

The SD1 is Sigma’s new flagship camera and the company has clearly been hoping to offer it as a smaller and more agile alternative to medium-format digital systems, which freely push the megapixel envelope above 40 megapixels and beyond.

But the biggest part of the controversy does not lie with the Sigma camera or the Foveon chip that’s housed inside—both of which have their devotees and detractors. It’s the price. The SD1 sells for a head turning manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $9,700 (though street price is more like $6,900). That’s some mucho dinero, dude, as Jeff Spicoli might say, for a camera with an imaging sensor essentially the same size as what’s in an entry-level DSLR. Though if you consider the SD1 and its unique Foveon chip a rival to medium- format cameras such as the 40 megapixel Pentax 645D or Hasselblad H4D-40, it sounds like more of a bargain.

Let’s back up a second. There’s a chance you might not be very familiar with Sigma’s DSLRs to begin with, knowing the company more as a manufacturer of lower-priced but good-quality “third party” lenses such as the Sigma 85mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM, which I gave a positive review to back in February. If that’s the case, you may have looked past the SD1 camera release to a serious piece of glass released earlier this year by Sigma: the new 120–300mm f/2.8 DG OS APO HSM.

As luck and loans would have it, I happened to get my hands on both Sigma’s SD1 and a Sigma-mount 120–300mm f/2.8 lens (the lens also comes in Canon and Nikon mounts) and put them through their paces recently. In addition to shooting sports with the SD1/120–300mm combo, I hooked the camera up with a Sigma 17–50mm f/2.8 lens and worked with it in the studio to see if it stacks up to a medium-format system.

Well Made

Say what you want about the performance of Sigma’s cameras—and I’ve given its compact cameras and DSLRs mixed reviews over the years—they are well made imaging products. The Sigma SD1 is no exception and, in some ways, I prefer the design of this new camera to many of its rivals. (In other ways, though, not so much.)
The SD1’s generous handgrip, with the slotted spot for your middle finger to nuzzle into, is a nice touch. Along with the comfy rubberized grip, the SD1 has a solid magnesium alloy body with a balanced build, weighing in at 24.7 ounces, with dimensions of 5.7 x 4.5 x 3.1 inches. There’s significant weather sealing on the camera, with rubberized O-rings on the body’s knobs and buttons to protect against moisture and dust.

Indeed, hide the Sigma nameplate on front of the discreet pop-up flash, and you could easily mistake the SD1 for a pro body from any one of Sigma’s better-known competitors. While this is all well and good—and shows that Sigma’s camera designers have done a thoughtful job of updating its SD-series DSLRs over the years—at the price this camera is being offered, you might expect more.

I, for one, missed not having a monochrome LCD top panel on the SD1 to let me see and adjust essential settings such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, etc. A lot of beginner-focused DSLRs have done away with the panel so as “not to confuse” novice photographers with too much information, but it makes little sense on a DSLR of this caliber. Instead, you have to fumble through menus including a somewhat awkward Quick Set function that requires too many button pushes on the four-way controller on the back of the SD1 to make basic adjustments.

Part of my frustration resulted from fiddling with Sigma’s unfamiliar control configuration—it’s been a number of years since I’ve looked at the company’s DSLRs—and while I got faster with changing settings as testing went on, there are still some irritating flaws. For one, by putting the Exposure Compensation button right by the shutter, it required me to take my finger off the shutter to make the adjustment. The button is also not “sticky” by default, requiring you to keep you finger pressed down to change exposure.

The SD1’s 3-inch LCD screen is also a disappointment. While the size is nice, it’s only stocked with 460,000 pixels of resolution, and images looked slightly fuzzy and discolored in playback, so it was difficult to judge image sharpness on the display. It also tended to wash out in bright sunlight. And since you cannot tether the SD1 to a computer and there is no Live View feature, you are pretty much stuck with reviewing images on a subpar screen and hoping for the best.

Despite the quirks and minor irritations of the SD1’s design, I grew to like the look and feel of the camera the more I shot with it, especially when attached to the impressive 120–300mm f/2.8 lens. The one thing I never got used to, though, was the disconcertingly slow speed with which it took the SD1 to write the images to the CompactFlash (CF) card. More about this below.

The Waiting Game
First, let me say that since that 120–300mm f/2.8 is an ideal zoom range and aperture for shooting unpredictable action sports such as soccer or basketball, that’s what I used the SD1 for initially. But while the lens shined in this scenario (and actually became a 180–450mm lens because of the APS-C-size sensor’s 1.5x magnification factor), sports photography is clearly not the camera’s strong suit.

The problem is not entirely the SD1’s maximum burst rate, which, at five frames per second, is average for a prosumer DSLR but slow for a professional sports camera. Personally, I find that 10+ fps machine-gun bursts from cameras such as the Canon 1D Mark IV or Nikon D3s can be overkill in a lot of situations.

The problem with the SD1 for sports or, really, for any type of photojournalism where you want to be able to continue to shoot without having to wait for your camera to catch up, is the SD1’s seemingly non-existent buffering capabilities. Working in RAW+JPEG mode while shooting with a 16GB SanDisk Extreme IV CF card, it took only a few five-frame bursts to lock the camera up. During these hang-ups, I could neither shoot further nor adjust camera settings as the red light on back of the camera blinked to indicate images were being written to the card. Also, I could only see a few periodic images appear in playback on the screen while this was happening. In RAW+JPEG mode it would take, on average, about two minutes for the process to end. In JPEG-only shooting (the camera’s default setting), it would take about a minute for file writing to finish and the camera to unfreeze.

So while it was my choice to use the Sigma 120–300mm f/2.8 with the SD1—I was also offered a loaner lens in Canon and Nikon mounts—it’s not really a good combo. The only circumstance in which I could see this long-range zoom working with the SD1 would be photographing wildlife where there’s a lot of waiting involved, such as capturing lions or hippos on an African veldt.

In studio use, while shooting with the 17–50mm f/2.8, the slowness was less of an issue. There were times when I had to wait for the camera to catch up during a shoot with a live model, but I found it less distracting. While photographing product and still-life studies, which is a much more methodical process, it wasn’t a distraction at all.

Sensor Sandwich
Vast treatises have been written on the Internet (and elsewhere) about the pluses and minuses of Foveon’s sensors, so I’m not going to go into deep detail again. Here’s a quick refresher: A Foveon X3 sensor is designed to mimic the look of film by directly capturing three layers of red, green and blue light at each point in an image during exposure. A “Bayer-pattern” sensor such as a typical CMOS or a CCD captures red, green and blue separately at different photo sites, which are then reconstructed through interpolation to create color.

While Foveon X3 sensors and the Sigma cameras that use them have a small but devoted following, they’re not without their controversies. In particular, there’s an ongoing dispute over how to rate the resolution on these unique sensor sandwiches. Foveon and Sigma triple the amount of pixels on their chips—because of the three Red, Green and Blue layers—turning a presumably 15.1 megapixel camera such as the SD1 into a 46 megapixel camera.

I was never very good at math, but I am a good judge of digital image quality (occupational hazard), so I compared image files I shot with the SD1 to those from the 40 megapixel Hasselblad H4D-40 medium-format camera ($17,995). I also put them up against images from a 24.5 megapixel Nikon D3x ($7,995), which seems more of a direct competitor to the SD1. The H4D-40 has a 44x33mm CCD sensor and the D3x has a “full-frame” 35.9x24mm sensor. The SD1’s APC-C sensor at 24x16mm, is small by comparison. To paraphrase Sean Connery in The Untouchables, it was like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

It’s not that there’s anything fundamentally wrong with the SD1’s images. Some of my shots, particularly those of the model and the still-life images, had impressive sharpness and looked exceedingly life-like. (Some photographers claim images shot with Foveon X3 sensors have a 3D quality to them.) Part of this, as others have noted, could be derived from the fact that like many medium-format systems, the SD1 does not use an anti-aliasing filter to combat moiré. While this helps make images look razor sharp—especially with the excellent pair of Sigma lenses I used—I’ve found it makes digital photos more susceptible to noise. Indeed, SD1 images I shot at above ISO 800 had higher incidences of both chroma and luminance noise than the D3x, a camera I already found struggles at high ISOs. However, it was on par, noise-wise, with the H4D-40.

In terms of sheer resolving power, the Hasselblad and the Nikon blew the SD1 away, making me feel the SD1 really is more in the 15–20 megapixel range, than 46 megapixels. If you want a camera that can produce images that can be enlarged to fit a billboard, this isn’t it. It does a fine job though at 13×19-inches and produced acceptable results for 17×22-inch prints.

Something also must be said about the Sigma Photo Pro 5.x software for processing the SD1’s RAW files. It’s received many complaints over the years for its slow performance and creaky operability, and I’m sad to say I saw very little improvement in the latest version I tried, which was 5.1. Even on the fastest computer in my office, it still felt like I was editing RAW files in a sea of warm sludge.

The Bottom Line
So while I really can’t recommend the SD1 at its current street price, I would like to give a big thumbs-up to the Sigma 120–300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM. At $3,180, the lens is an expensive product but several thousand dollars cheaper than fixed 300mm f/2.8 telephoto models from Canon and Nikon. Though it may not have as many bells and whistles as competing lenses from the big boys, as I mentioned earlier, the variable focal length is extremely handy for photographing sports, such as soccer, basketball or hockey where it’s tough to predict the action. Though it wasn’t as fast a focuser compared to Canon and Nikon’s models, it produced excellent sharpness when shot wide open. Focusing was quite quiet as well thanks to the lens’s Hyper-Sonic Motor (HSM). The lens also allows you full-time manual focus override for nailing precise shots. Sigma’s Optical Stabilizer system did a very good job of keeping photos steady when handholding the lens; it’s quite a serious beast. There’s no actual fluorite in this lens, but Sigma’s new “F” Low Dispersion (FLD) glass helped prevent ghosting and flare and reduced chromatic aberrations in shots with high contrast. It’s a sturdy, splash-proof lens with O-ring seals to keep out dust and moisture—and at a good price. If possible though, I’d use it with a Canon or Nikon camera.

Pros: SD1 capable of producing exceedingly sharp, high-quality, life-like images; professional camera design and build with significant weather sealing and a comfortable grip; versatile focal range and constant f/2.8 aperture of zoom lens makes it ideal for nature, wildlife, and sports photography; lens is priced several thousand dollars lower than fixed 300mm f/2.8 lenses from Canon and Nikon.

Cons: SD1 can’t shoot video, has no Live View and no tethering; subpar LCD screen; frustratingly slow write-image times and minimal buffering means you have to wait a few minutes between bursts to shoot again; SD1 priced way too high for what’s offered; Sigma’s RAW software is slow and unwieldy to use; 46 megapixels is a questionable spec for this camera, more like a 15-18 megapixel DSLR; lens focuses slightly slower than the competition.

Price: SD1, $9,700 ($6, 900 street price); 120–300mm f/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM, $4,700 ($3,180 street price);