The Road Least Traveled — Sigma DP Quattro Design Study: Masterstroke or Failure?

If you were waiting like me for an update of Sigma’s outstanding DP Merrill compact cameras with Foveon sensor and fixed focal length equivalents of 28mm, 45mm and 75mm, then the wait is either over. Or you’re unspeakably disappointed. Not because the new dp1, dp2 and dp3 Quattro cameras will disappoint in performance. Used in the right conditions, these Sigmas give the look of medium format in a truly compact package. Potential downer of the Quattro update: chances are you don’t like the vanguard chocolate bar design with elongated body and angled grip.

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro

The first representative of the trinity, the dp2 Quattro, is certainly not your typical camera. Forget the design, show me the pictures! Well while it’s true that the photographer shall not get distracted by a cameras look’s, I’ll first have to get my head around the ergonomics. How to carry, how to hold this thing.

No clue what the Sigma engineers and designers were smoking. This is no more small compact camera. While Sigma processes it’s newly developed TRUE III image processing engine resulting in the ultrafast rendition of high definition, 3D-like photographs with outstandingly rich color detail, it’s certainly the world’s widest camera with 161mm…

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro

While I’d certainly welcome a less bizarre design, one must wonder what’t the reasoning behind this total departure from common camera design; camera design, BTW, that makes some strange inroads these days, just to mention the Pentax K-01 designed by Marc Newson who either created a masterpiece or one of the world’s ugliest cameras. Hasselblad’s latest Lunar creations are hot on the K-01’s heels. And now there’s a new contender for inglorious camera design. Or design doesn’t matter?

Not nice if you’re a lefty and doesn’t easily fit into any pocket. To one will have to show the thing off? The 500ml can of beer I’m drinking right now is 168mm tall, about the dp2’s length. Never imagined I’d carry that beer can in a pocket. A camera doesn’t have to fit in a pocket to be a compact camera, but with the predecessors being about half the size (see this comparison) with much less protruding lens, can we expect the Quattro will deliver double performance?!

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
That’s not how judging a camera works. Sigma has put thousands of hours into design and feasibility studies. Maybe they were split between a more conventional and a more revolutionary wing. In the end the revolutionaries mostly lose (often when it’s already too late). In this case it’s probably a case of total functionality above looks. But mostly the road less traveled is less traveled for a reason.

One has to take a leap of faith to like this Sigma. Accepting the Quattro shape requires breaking the mental barriers of the usual and expected. The rewards of stepping outside of one’s own boundaries can be deeply satisfying. Can be. But most likely Sigma could sell more cameras if they’d follow a more conventional path. Or do they need the extra body mass to hide all the electronics that power the processing of the rich and complex image data produced by the new Foveon X3 Quattro direct image sensor, world’s only image capture system to use vertical color separation technology, with each pixel being able to capture all three colors at once?

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro

While waiting for sample images, I might not be ready for this leap of faith. And a camera with a queer design that will undoubtedly attract attention is never the best of cameras. Attracting attention distracts. I prefer inconspicuous gear. But then again, if these Quattro deliver as suggested, difference shall not stand in the way.

For complete product information and specs visit Sigma dp Series.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Another new camera soon forgotten !

  • Zivko Radovanovich

    Awkward looking contraption, sorry but that’s just silly…regardless of how well the camera performs.

  • Ronaldo

    Why is it so long? Why is the Sigma CEO not willing to talk about why it is so long? (here: I love to buy things where I feel that a lot of thought has been put into something – if Sigma does not explain why it is so long, do I have to assume that Sigma has not put a lot of thought into this?

  • The tradeoff so far was poor high ISO performance. Maximum ISO is still 6,400, but who knows? Detail of these Foveon imagers are unmatched. I still trust Sigma knows what they’re doing and image quality for quality images will be outstanding. We’ll know soon!

  • Gorodish

    For once I have to disagree with you Dan. I may be the lone voice here, but I think the new design is a masterstroke. It differentiates from all the retro and “me-too” designs. The previous Merrills looked like a cheap point-and-shoot with a non-ergonomic grip-less bar of soap shape. This new shape I believe was the result of much research and I really like it. Thoroughly modern and avant garde.

    It may not be pocketable, but so what? This is not meant to be a snapshot take-anywhere camera like a RX100. Rather it should be looked at as a compact medium-format shooter, much smaller and lighter than either Phase One, Hasselblad or Pentax 645 cameras whose pixel acuity it comes close to matching.

    You mention it draws attention, but this is hardly a camera for incognito street photography. This camera is for serious, slow deliberate photography, likely on a tripod for best results. The shape reminds me of the dearly departed X-Pan. I only wish it had a lens wider than 28mm and a 16:9 or 21:9 sensor. :) This is definitely a niche camera that is not meant for the mass market, but to appeal to serious photographers for whom IQ is primary.

  • I think your comment nails the Quattro essence. I’m strangely fascinated by this vanguard concept, that’s why I posted the four product shots. But what if it could appeal to a wider audience. Can’t wait for samples and to get my hands on the 28mm equivalent. Let’s assume they have the predecessors’ price point, meaning about $2k for the three standard focal lengths covering about everything. It’s refreshing to see a camera maker giving a damn about “proven” camera design. They seem to know what they’re doing, so as always: in dubio pro reo.

  • Bengt Nyman

    A Bayer filter absorbs and looses much of the incoming light. The Foveon technology lacks the color filter and thereby avoids that reason for loss of light. Instead the Foveon sensor analyses the depth to which the light penetrates the sensor and separates the three primary colors this way.

    However, the Sigma dp2 Quattro APS-C sensor differs from earlier Foveon sensors in that it has 19.6 MP sensor sites only in the top layer of the sensor which reads blue light, whereas green and red pixel layers only feature one quarter, or 4.9 MP sensor sites. This is probably done to reduce the otherwise very processing intensive requirement of a Foveon sensor.

    Consequently the dp2 Quattro sensor becomes more like a Bayer sensor in that it features 19.6 MP of geometric detail resolution while the color resolution of green and red is reduced to 4.9 MP.

    The lack of light absorbing color filters suggests to give the Foveon sensor an advantage in light sensitivity. However that proves not to be the case. For whatever reason the dp2 Quattro sensor fizzles out at 6400 ISO.

    Maybe some finer points in color rendition will be unearthed in future tests of the Sigma dp2 Quattro. However, at this point the advantage and the appeal of this camera remain unclear.

    To compare this camera to a Medium Format camera appears to be based on initial enthusiasm. The mention of 3D is also left without support.

    However, the attempt to move away from a primitive and light absorbing Bayer filter is much appreciated and hopefully the future will bring success in this effort.

  • genotypewriter

    “This camera is for serious, slow deliberate photography…”

    Not with the awkward P&S controls and buttons, no it isn’t, sorry.

  • Gorodish

    I have not handled this camera, nor has anyone else yet, so I think it is premature to call the controls awkward. There are many DP Merrill users who found the previous controls quite sufficient to take excellent photographs. I await the first reviews of the dp2.

    I would not confuse cluttering a camera with an overabundance of buttons, dials and complexity as the hallmark of a serious camera. Leica for example has eschewed such dSLR complexity with a minimalist interface that many find preferable to menu diving and button pushing. Not that this camera is without flaws, but sometimes less is more.

  • George Hamilton

    I wouldn’t confuse Leica controls and buttons layout with the one that evokes buttons and controls usually found on point and shoot cameras…this DP2 comes with.

    No need for a review and in-the-hand first hand experience – it doesn’t take much to figure out the controls and handling will be far from professional one, on this camera.

  • MarcoSartoriPhoto

    When I saw the first pictures of it, my thought was “I hope they fixed higher ISO performance, I hope Sigma will work with Adobe to let its RAW file be used in Lightroom, I hope they’ll offer an EVF”. Because I leke this design and this sensor tech (with some restrictions) gives great performances.
    No EVF, just an Optical one to frame the scene. I think I can pass over it. Let’see other points.

  • Gorodish

    I guess it depends on your definition of a “professional” camera. This camera is clearly not for photojournalism, street photography, sports or weddings. It is targeted more towards an artistic approach to photography. In the hands of an artist, great photos can be taken with a point and shoot camera as well as an iPhone.

    Some of the best commentary on the virtues of the DP Merrills (as well as some of the harshest criticism) have come from Lloyd Chambers. He gets what this camera is capable of and its potential if the shortcomings can be addressed. It is not meant to compete with dSLRs or conventional pro cameras. It is best viewed as a specialized tool to be used as an adjunct to other more “professional” cameras.

  • amalric

    As I mentioned form might be dictated by the need of using a tripod mainly. High resolution needs high stability, and the camera might be intended for static tasks, like Landscape and Portrait. Don’t forget that the Merrills are often bough as second cameras. They are even second cameras to themselves :)

  • Bengt Nyman

    This is a 19.6 MP camera with green and red color resolution reduced to 4.9 MP. There is no reason why it should be regarded as a high resolution camera or be limited to tripod. If it turns out to offer any special characteristics it might be in its color rendition.

  • amalric

    However the resolution effect is higher than that isn’t it? Also, perhaps I am spoiled by my Oly but I wouldn’t dare to shoot a Panorama without some sort of stabilisation, hence the Tripod.

    It would be nice if it had wi fi control, bypassing need for tilt up screen.
    As for the shape it might even be a success. Remember that the American market was able to absorb absurd things like the Polaroid.

    In the end function primes everything. I love the separate focus button. That too point to tripod.

  • Bengt Nyman

    “However the resolution effect is higher than that isn’t it?”

    No! This is physics, not magic. Without micro-offset-multiple exposures or other sophisticated techniques a single exposure can not produce an image resolution any higher than the pixel resolution of the image sensor.

    In addition, this result is almost always further reduced by the resolution limitation of the lens used with the camera.

    In case of the Sigma DP Quattro expect a final image resolution in the order of 15 P-MP.

  • Gianluigi

    For sure it hasn’t been designed with the input of Steve Mc Curry

  • So, you know better than the various people who have actually used the DP Merrills and compared them to Bayer Matrix cameras, huh ? The consensus – at the low end – is of a resolution approximating that of a 24Mpix Bayer sensor. Oh, but you know PHYSICS! And you’ve got cowboy hat. And SHADES! How could you possibly be mistaken ?

  • Bengt Nyman

    Having a bad day David?
    Sorry about that.

  • Well I really shouldn’t care, but all this disinformation finally pi**es me off. Anybody who thinks the DPMs are user hostile has either never picked one up, or is just plain obtuse (I know you didn’t write that bit). And this denial of the effective resolution is about on the level of Creationism. Anybody who cares about photographic gear should applaud Sigma for bieing pretty much the only company still willing to take risks and push the envelope. It benefits the whole ecosystem, not just Sigma and their customers. So sniping about Sigma basically not making cameras that are clones of everybody elses and trying to belittle their real achievements strikes me as … (struggles to find a polite term) …unimaginative.

    But wtf. It’s only gear. And arguing about it on the interwebs is about as rewarding as pushing water uphill.

  • amalric

    I am not sure what this gentleman is about with his tantrums. Not having a Sigma camera I checked flickr for some images and although they have small Mpx resolution they have wonderful Per Pixel Resolution in Landscapes, which is indeed what matters.
    This in turn makes me think that a tripod might be needed to avoid handshake and keep the native sharpness, since there is no stabilisation in the camera.
    It’s just an opinion – let the boffins fume.

  • Detail the Merrills deliver is simply in another league. I can only second what Karel van Wolferen wrote in on THEME:

    These truly palm-sized beauties with their radically different Foveon X3 sensors produce image quality that only their users are fully aware of, sharp beyond anything produced by other APS-C format cameras. But more than that: something difficult to define and usually referred to by those in the know as three-dimensional. (…)

    Let us just fervently hope that the Sigma people will continue to develop the Foveon sensor to ever greater heights, and give us a larger one. They may well conquer the photographic world with such a thing.

  • Bengt Nyman

    Hi Dan and amalric,
    I think amalric is on to something with his expression “Per Pixel Resolution”. The inherent problem with a Bayer sensor is that even though the B&W light level resolution is defined by the sensor resolution, the color overlays are calculated and somewhat hit and miss. The end result is an “accurate” light level base with an “inaccurate” color overlay. For example in landscape greenery the color nuances can be as influential on overall accuracy as the light level tonality. Compare the case where an artist draws the outline of a flower in light pencil and then fills in the color nuances, but does not follow the pencil rendering. Since Bayer color is the result of three separate, calculated color overlays, all three have the potential to miss the detail outline to some extent.
    A 19 MP Foveon image with accurate color placement could therefore produce a more accurate image than a 24 MP Bayer image with inaccurate color placements. A 19 MP Foveon image will never exceed its 19 MP but a 24 MP Bayer image may very well present a color smear that makes the image compare unfavorably to a “lower resolution but more accurate” Foveon image.

  • amalric

    Whatever the reason, Van Wolferen showed here the comparative images of the Sony A7r and the Sigma foveon, and the Sigmas were actually sharper, despite being *nominally* smaller.
    So you must conventionally apply a 2X factor like Sigma does to compare to a Bayer sensor.
    Even I can get it :)

  • Bengt Nyman

    Karel van Wolferens samples would have offered a more telling comparison if there wasn’t such a big difference in exposure, contrast, high lights and shadows.
    The 2X Sigma claim is probably a stretch but I agree that getting away from the Bayer color guesswork would be a big step forward. It’s to bad that the three times more electrical connections required for each Foveon pixel limits how small they can make each pixel.
    Rumors have it that Canon has been working on a Foveon type image sensor

  • S.Yu

    It’s a tad too big but I really like the design otherwise, maybe 0.5cm shorter in height and 2cm shorter in width?Everything on the exterior still fits perfectly, don’t know how the interior layout would change though.

  • Lee Martin

    It would be a much better design to carry, as would several other cameras, if the designer put strap loops at the top and bottom of the grip end, so that when carried over one shoulder it would hang vertically and when the owner lowered his/her hand to reach for it, it would be easy to grip.

  • Scott Kennelly

    You obviously know nothing about photos produced with Foveon sensors.

  • Scott Kennelly

    The Sigma SD1 Merrill, a lower resolution camera than the new, smaller, Sigma DP2 Quattro, compares favorably against the Nikon D800E.

  • Scott Kennelly

    Yeah, Canon and everyone else:

    They’ll ALWAYS be “working on it” from what I can tell. A huge company like Canon files a patent in 2009, but still doesn’t have a camera with the technology working 5 years later, in 2014? Hmmm . . . makes me suspicious. Maybe it’s just a marketing ploy, to get people to stick with Canon or just choose Canon, because they have a big range of lenses and lots of different camera bodies to choose from. The implication – “Hey! Don’t bother looking at those cameras from that little company, because Canon’s coming out with a sensor just like that soon!”

  • Scott Kennelly

    ISO 6400 is the maximum setting on the Sigma cameras, but in reality most people who shoot with these cameras will only take them up to ISO 800 or ISO 1600. For some reason, when shooting B&W the higher ISO settings apparently work just fine, and the image quality is spectacular. For shooting color the ISO levels should be kept to “normal” levels for a typical landscape or portrait shooter, where most people shoot at least 90% of their photos. While the Foveon sensors are excellent for capturing high quality images, as with most medium format sensors, they are not good sensors for shooting high ISO in color. Ultimately, because of the three layers and the lack of colored filter arrays that block much of the light, it seems that there SHOULD be more light gathering happening with a Foveon sensor. As the technology progresses, high-ISO capabilities will improve. One thing to remember is that even though Foveon senors max out at APS-C size right now, they actually have about three times more light-gathering surface area (stacked in three layers of surface area) than the typical, CFA (color filter array), single-layer sensors have, and about 50% more light-gathering surface area than a typical full-frame sensor. Add this fact to the fact that there is no blocking of light happening in front of the whole sensor, like is happening in a typical CFA sensor, and you can imagine how far the technology might go. This could be why there are rumors of various other companies making three-layer sensors . . . because they really are working on such things. Sigma has had a working three-layer sensor for more than a decade. They are king of three-layer sensors. I just hope they make more DSLR camera bodies, introduce a new, full-frame Foveon sensor, and make a mirrorless camera over the next year or two.

  • Scott Kennelly

    They ARE willing to talk about why it is so long. They made it longer for many reasons. One reason is to make it thinner. Another is to dissipate heat better. Another is to keep the heat from the battery and processor away from the sensor. Another is to allow photographers to hold it better (more steadily). The grip is shaped as it is for a number of reasons too. One reason is because the camera needed a bigger battery. Another is they realized it makes more sense to put a bulge, to allow a person to grip the camera better. They put the bulge at the back of the camera for better hand position. They COULD have put it in the front, but they decided against that.

    To me the new DP Quattro series cameras look like Sigma consulted with Bang & Olufsen to help them with the design.