Noise was also a problem, starting off high and then blasting through the roof at the three highest ISO settings. While the fine-grained luminance noise translated well into black-and-white images, chroma noise severely limited the utility of ISO 800 and up for color photos.
When we reviewers talk about "enthusiast" cameras, we're usually talking about cameras that appeal primarily to advanced photographers, but could just as easily be used by beginners. A camera like the Nikon D7100 might be packed with features that will go over the heads of most newbies, but hey... it still has an auto mode.
The Sigma DP3 Merrill (MSRP $999) is something else entirely: an enthusiast-only camera. This is a machine that cannot conceivably be used as an all-around imaging device, a product that lacks many of the basic features we've come to expect from modern digital cameras. Need usable high-ISO images? Too bad. Feel like a thousand bucks ought to get you decent HD video? Sigma doesn't think so. How about quick autofocus and decent write speeds? Nah, you don't need that. What we have here is a camera that can only be useful to someone who already owns another, more well-rounded camera.
With its 50mm f/2.8 fixed-focal lens, unusual Foveon image sensor, and stripped down feature set, the DP3 Merrill has just one purpose: to capture the sharpest possible shots in good light. And in that, at least, it succeeds beautifully.
Prime lenses tend to produce higher resolution numbers than zooms, and fixed-lens prime cameras often do even better thanks to custom-built microlens arrays that work to get the most out of the lens/sensor pairing. The DP3 Merrill is a prime example (sorry, we couldn't help ourselves) of this phenomenon, as the camera posted some of the best results we've ever seen in our studio sharpness test.
Shooting wide open, we saw resolution figures of 1840 lw/ph at MTF50 at the edges of the frame, and as high as 2677 lw/ph at the center. Stopping down to f/5.6 brought corner and border sharpness up significantly, with numbers ranging from 2215 to 2670 lw/ph at MTF50. By f/11, diffraction began to take a toll on sharpness. The sharpest areas produced "only" 2188 lw/ph, but despite a 20% drop, that's still sharper than many cameras ever get (and it's extremely consistent across the frame).
The DP3's JPEG processing engine applies a moderate amount of undershoot edge enhancement to high-contrast subjects—a technique that increases apparent sharpness but also leaves an unsightly dark border around the subject's inner edge. It's an effect you won't notice unless you're zooming in to 100% magnification, and you can avoid it entirely by shooting RAW, but we're not sure why Sigma bothered with this kind of trickery. The lens/sensor combo is clearly bitingly sharp without it.
As we expected from a prime lens, distortion wasn't a problem. And while we detected some small hints of chromatic aberration in high-contrast backlit situations, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Vignetting was fairly heavy at f/2.8, but cleared up by f/4.
Minimalism without elegance
We'll give the DP3 Merrill one thing: it's built like a brick, um... outhouse. The all-metal body feels incredibly solid, and was clearly assembled with attention to detail. The various buttons and dials all provide great tactile response, and they're elevated well above the surface of the camera, making them easy to find without taking your eyes away from the scene. The relatively massive 50mm f/2.8 lens has a luxuriously smooth focus ring with just the right amount of rotational resistance—we kept handing it to co-workers, saying, "Doesn't it feel good?"
The smooth precision of that focus ring also makes the DP3 a fairly effective manual focus camera. While the DP3 doesn't have focus peaking or the Fujifilm X100s's nifty split-image focus assist, it does magnify the live view image (by about 10x) when you turn the focus ring while half-pressing the shutter. In practice, we found it was more than enough help to get sharp shots, and a great way to avoid our growing annoyance with the camera's slowpoke autofocus.
But that's where the superlatives end and our criticisms begin. The DP3 Merrill is certainly solid, but it's also just a brick with a big ol' lens slapped on the front. The body is almost perfectly rectangular, with only a slightly flared rear thumb grip spoiling the symmetry. There's no front grip; in its place is a grid of tiny, raised bumps that provide essentially zero added traction. (Luckily, a number of third parties make optional add-on grips, including Richard Franiec.)
Though it's classified as a compact camera, there's nothing compact about the DP3 Merrill. The camera's excellent lens is a real tradeoff, adding 47.6mm (1.875 inches) to the body depth. That not only means the DP3 will never be pocketable, but also makes it a definite two-hander. You can almost shoot one-handed, particularly if you don't need to navigate the Quick Settings menu with the four-way pad, but the off-axis weight of the lens makes that a risky proposition. But that's alright; the DP3 Merrill isn't exactly meant for run 'n' gun shooting, anyway, for reasons we'll explain later.
The control layout is adequate, but missing some features we'd expect from a camera of this caliber and price point. For instance, instead of a mode dial you've got a mode button alongside the power toggle. There's also only a single control dial, despite the wealth of empty space on the body. Thanks to the single-dial setup, the left and right keys on the directional pad are dedicated to either exposure compensation, aperture, or shutter speed, depending on the mode you've selected. The up and down keys access focus options (type and point). Everything else goes in the main or Quick Settings menus.
Sigma's menu system is surprisingly attractive and modern. The dark grey background and white text are easy to read even in bright light, the color-coded tabs are simple to understand, and navigation is pretty straightforward in general. It's not as snappy to page through as some menu systems we've used recently, but it's certainly fast enough. The QS menu provides easy access to eight vital shooting controls, which can be customized from a list of 14 choices.
Unlike most modern cameras, the DP3 Merrill does not provide users with any JPEG noise reduction options. In fact, looking at the results from our JPEG noise test, we were tempted to think that there wasn't much noise reduction going on at all.
Noise levels approached 1% at ISO 100, hit 2.75% at ISO 1600, skyrocketed to 6.03% at ISO 3200, and finished with a whopping 10.47% at ISO 6400. RAW noise is actually a bit lower at high ISOs, but we're betting that has something to do with the way Sigma Photo Pro converts the proprietary .X3F RAW files to TIFF.
Results at the top three sensitivities looked absolutely awful regardless of the file format, but the good news is that the DP3 produces very fine, film-like grain, and due to the extremely passive noise reduction there's still plenty of detail.
The upshot is that you can covert those high-ISO shots to black and white and still get some usably artistic results. On the other hand, the DP3's utility for color shooting is extremely limited. Color errors and banding crept in as low as ISO 800, and created real issues by ISO 1600.
Don't expect any extras and you won't be disappointed
The DP3 Merrill's entire reason for being is its absolutely gorgeous 50mm f/2.8 lens, which provides a 75mm field of view on the camera's APS-C image sensor. It's perfect for studio portraits and some types of street shooting, though many potential users would undoubtedly prefer a larger maximum aperture, particularly for portraits.
The lens is paired with Sigma's "46-megapixel" Foveon imaging chip, which is actually three layered red, green, and blue sensors that combine to output 15.36-megapixel images. While the Foveon technology allows for truly astounding sharpness, there's a catch. Light has to pass through all three silicon layers, which leads to some serious image noise at higher sensitivities.
We've already talked about the stripped-down control scheme, but it's worth reiterating. Compared to the competition, the DP3 comes up short virtually everywhere you look. The physical shortcomings are obvious: no grip, no viewfinder, no tilting screen, no touchscreen, no mode dial, no HDMI out (though you don't exactly need it), no flash (either onboard or in the box), and only one control dial. The LCD, while large and relatively high-res, shows tons of ugly aliasing and rolling shutter in live view. There's no image stabilization, either—something that would have been particularly useful given the DP3's longer focal length.
The software deficiencies are all variations on a single theme: If a feature doesn't help you take an unadulterated still image, the DP3 doesn't have it. No picture effects, no scene modes, no panoramas, no collages, no dynamic range compensation, and no HDR capture. It's kind of surprising that this camera even deigns to capture JPEGs, but you'll probably be glad it does—you have no choice but to process RAWs with the bundled Sigma Photo Pro software, which is shockingly slow and unintuitive to use. That might be in part due to the massive .X3F files the Foveon sensor spits out (35-42MB each), but our gut feeling is that it's simply underdeveloped.
Despite the DP3's relatively modern innards, Sigma has seen fit to give the camera only the most rudimentary of video modes. You get VGA (640 x 480px) capture at 30 frames per second. There are no video controls. None. Videos look awful, regardless of lighting conditions. And that's all we have to say about that.
Some advanced users will cheer at the absence of these features. Finally, a pure photographer's camera! But they certainly won't be happy about the DP3 Merrill's battery life, which is absolutely abysmal. The 1250mAh lithium-ion pack (also used in the Pentax MX-1 and Ricoh GR, among others) is rated for just 97 shots on a charge. 97! In an apparent mea culpa, Sigma has included a second battery pack. That'll get you to 194 shots, but it's still not enough for a full day of shooting.
At ISO 100, where dynamic range should be at its peak, the DP3 Merrill returned surprisingly poor results. We saw about 10 total stops of DR at this setting, while we've seen up to 11.5 from the best traditional (Bayer) APS-C sensors, like the one in the Pentax K-5 II.
We tested both RAW and JPEG output and found that Sigma's in-camera JPEG processing produced extremely strange, unpredictable results. If you want to get the most out of your shots, we recommend shooting RAW—just hold on to hope that Sigma will improve the usability of its Photo Pro processing software.
Real-world results were perfectly acceptable when we shot at or close to base ISO. The truth is that most modern sensors produce very good dynamic range at their native sensitivity (even many point-and-shoot sensors); while the DP3's is far from the best we've seen, you probably won't have any significant problems shooting with it in the field.
The real issue is the drastic jump in noise at moderate and high sensitivities, which has a correspondingly destructive effect on dynamic range. If you venture above ISO 800, you effectively lose any hope of useful DR.
Sharp shots, but a dullard in every other metric
When the light is right, and when you have time to wait for it to focus, the Sigma DP3 Merrill is capable of truly stunning image quality. Finding good light wasn't an issue in Austin, Texas, where we shot most of our sample photos, but there's a good reason why every single one of them was taken outdoors.
We said earlier that the DP3 produces serious image noise at higher sensitivities, but we should clarify: This camera's idea of "higher sensitivities" is straight out of 1999. The DP3's ISO range maxes out at ISO 6400, but you'll run into serious image quality issues long before you get there. Banding is visible as low as ISO 800, and noise is already getting out of control at ISO 1600. Color errors multiply the higher you push the ISO, and saturation drops precipitously.
If you're shooting in color, we'd suggest keeping your Auto-ISO range at 100-400, leaving 800 as a last resort. If you prefer black and white, you can go quite a bit higher, since desaturating the image effectively masks the color issues. The noise the DP3 produces is extremely fine-grained and film-like, and doesn't destroy as much detail as you might expect.
Interestingly, the DP3 Merrill's most accurate color mode is Vivid, not Standard. This mode produces a chroma-corrected color error of 2.84—a very respectable result—and saturation just a touch above perfect (104.6%). By far the biggest color errors occurred in red and orange areas, with virtually all other hues being close to ideal.
Sharpness results in the lab were totally off the charts. The only other fixed-lens camera that's in the same league as the DP3 is the full-frame Sony RX1, though that camera smokes the Sigma in all other performance metrics. The DP3 shows a slight weakness near the edges at f/2.8 (relative to the phenomenal center resolution), but it's razor sharp everywhere by f/4 and stays that way until well past the diffraction limit.
Autofocus speed is on the marginal side of acceptable in good light, and truly atrocious in dim light. There's no autofocus assist lamp, either, so you're out of luck if you find yourself in a truly dark environment—not that you'd want to be shooting there with this camera, anyway.
We'd be remiss if we didn't also mention the DP3's horrendously slow write speeds. The camera took nearly 10 seconds to record a single JPEG to memory. A single RAW took about 17 seconds. The DP3's stated burst speed is only 4 frames per second (we actually clocked it at 3.85), but if you fill the buffer (with all of 7 shots) it'll take between 35 seconds and a full minute to clear, depending on file type. You can take additional shots and navigate the menu while files are being written, but you can't go into playback.
And video? Well...
Color accuracy from the DP3 Merrill was solid at base ISO, with a ∆C 00 chroma corrected color error of 2.86, but became increasingly unreliable as sensitivity increased. Oddly, the camera's Vivid color mode was far more accurate than the Standard and Neutral modes (color errors of 3.35 and 4.33, respectively). Saturation was just 5% above ideal when shooting with the Vivid color mode, so we recommend using it as your daily driver.
Color errors quickly spiral out of control as you raise the camera's ISO setting, and saturation plummets. If you want reasonably accurate and vibrant colors, you need to limit sensitivity to ISO 800 and lower.
White balance performance was a mixed bag. Taking a custom white balance reading results in nearly perfect whites, regardless of lighting type. Average errors ranged from 28 to 82 K.
The DP3's automatic white balance system was decidedly less impressive. Under incandescents, the camera was off by about 1978 K on average—no worse than many consumer models do. But under compact white fluorescents and simulated daylight—scenarios many cameras ace—the DP3 was still off by 858 and 362 K, respectively. Using AWB under those lighting conditions, you're likely to get slightly warm whites with a yellowy tint.
Speed limits strictly enforced
When we spoke to them at CES earlier this year, Sigma PR reps made a point of saying that the DP3 Merrill is not an easy camera to shoot with. It takes patience, they said, and conscious engagement with the photographic process. Having used it for a few months now, we realize that disclaimer—while refreshingly candid—was an understatement. More importantly, it's a diversion from the real issue: There's not really any justification for buying this camera.
Yes, slowing down your shooting process can lead to increased engagement with your surroundings and your subject, more thoughtful framing, and thus better images. But the DP3 doesn't just slow you down, it stomps on the brake pedal and screeches to a halt. Autofocus is slow, write speeds are slow, and you can only get usable color images at "slow" ISOs.
The DP3 can pump out absolutely gorgeous images, but its window of opportunity is prohibitively small. Because of the way color distorts, saturation drops off, and noise jumps at even moderate ISOs, you can really only get acceptable results from the camera between ISO 100 and 400. That means good light outdoors or bright studio illumination. And it's not like there are a lot of extras to make up for the DP3's absurdly limited range. No HD video, no creative shooting modes, no nothing. The camera isn't even comfortable to hold.
So, what we have here is a $1,000 piece of gear that can't be used in poor light, can't shoot worthwhile video, and can't zoom (or change lenses). True, it's probably the cheapest route to capture top-flight studio portraits, but if that's your game you probably have the budget for a decent DSLR or mirrorless model and some choice Zeiss lenses. Why limit yourself?
Sigma has had a big year. Where giants like Canon and Nikon have been content to play it safe, Sigma has pushed ahead with groundbreaking lens designs, a USB dock that can calibrate lenses at home, and an innovative mount conversion service. But as much as we love what the company is doing with its lens business, we can't recommend Sigma's compact camera series. Though brilliant in the right context, the DP3 Merrill is simply too limited to justify its cost.
Meet the tester
Ben is an experienced industry journalist who formerly served as Senior Editor of News and Features at Reviewed. He now contributes as a freelance writer and editor. Most recently hailing from the vast wilds of the American southwest, he is an avid photographer who is deeply disturbed by the lack of wide open landscapes in Boston.
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