Sigma DP1
The first compact with DSLR sensor

The Sigma DP1 is a very special digital compact camera. Other people do great reviews of the technical abilities of cameras. I'm mainly interested in what I can get from a camera, considering my specific situation, i.e., my nature photography, taking into account my other equipment. I believe, however, that my situation is not uncommon. So read on.

Digital compacts are interesting because you don't always want to carry bulky equipment with you. Sometimes it's very liberating. Some compacts can do things that big machines can't. Sometimes you just want some snapshots. Many more reasons... I need one in addition to my 35mm DSLRs, not to mention the medium and large format stuff.

To wet your appetite

some low res samples...

Go here to see some samples in full resolution and some comparisons!

The DP1 is the only compact which uses a DSLR's sensor, not the usual tiny speck of a sensor (it's about the size of the Four-Thirds format (it's 20.7 x 13.8 mm exactly) as opposed to the usual 1/1.8"). In fact the sensor is the same one as in Sigma's SD14 DSLR. In other words, it's also a Foveon X3 sensor that captures all the colors (RGB) at each pixel site, like traditional film, instead of capturing R,G and B in adjacent sites and then interpolating later (mosaic capture in a Bayer pattern). There are religious wars over Foveon vs. mosaic. I don't know and don't really care if the quality of the output is good for my specific purpose. To make images for the web or for emailing almost any camera will do, for printing it all depends on the size of the prints. Sigma has very high claims for the DP1 so I'll look a bit closer here. The DP1 has 5 MP resolution but produces excellent detail. Sigma counts the sensor as a 14 MP sensor, though: 3 X 2652 X 1768. So be it. Makes sense to me.

Sigma was quite overwhelmed by the success of the camera so far. Among others, it got the TIPA award "Best Prestige Camera in Europe 2008". Who cares but the sales people. Maybe it's more it's simplicity: No smile detection, not even image stabilization. Maybe a "poor" man's Leica?

What made it interesting to me as a nature photographer:

It shoots RAW (more exposure headroom and possibility of image adjustments without image degradation).

It offers Adobe RGB color space (better than sRGB for nature photos and for printing).

It has an external optional optical viewfinder (important for viewing in bright light and to be able to properly support the camera when shooting handheld).

Firmware 1.03 added a low sensitivity mode of ISO 50, allowing for even better detail (at decreased dynamic range). See examples to come.

Fully manual exposure mode.

(28 mm) prime lens.

RGB-mode histogram (not just luminosity).

Great image quality.

All this in a very lightweight, no-nonsense digital compact of good build quality.

What I found:

The built-in flash is one of the weakest I've ever seen. Also the external optional flash is too weak to be useful for me (see image examples).

I didn't like the external optical viewfinder: It's frame doesn't coincide very well with the captured image, the hood is in the way, I miss the shooting data (time, aperture, histogram, ...) Of course the picture is very bright and sharp. The Ricoh GX100's electronic viewfinder has terrible image quality but it coincides and shows shooting data and setting parameters. This IS an issue because you don't want to always have to glare at the LCD to see this stuff. So the combination optical viewfinder - digital compact is unfortunate.

Auto white balance wasn't always convincing but who cares when shooting RAW. But this was a real problem: My son came out terribly sun-burnt (red)! I suspect this is a sensor issue. There are some known issues with red channel clipping. See my examples at my smugmug site.

The longest exposure time is 15 secs - too short for star trails... see example to come. The noise is very low, especially when compared to my GX100... But I got a few hot (= live) pixels!! They can be easily healed though. For more on noise see dpreview and my example comparison here.

It's really too slow, even for contemplated landscape shots - you want to be able to check exposure and make a corrected image within reasonable time even in "static" situations!

The histogram is shown in RGB-mode (not just luminosity) but only after the fact: You have to manually replay the image! There is no live histogram at all. This makes shooting even slower.

The menu-structure is simple and clear.

The 28 mm prime lens is often not wide enough for landscape and too wide for (my) people photography or closer things (minimum focussing distance is 30 cm!). There are no conversion lenses available. Update: There is a macro-conversion lens now, the AML-1, which reduces the minimum focussing distance to 20 cm... not very impressive. Polarizers etc. can be screwed into the optional lens hood HA-11 (46 mm). If you get this camera, get the lens hood as well, besides reducing glare it also protects the lens mechanically.

There are extra buttons for exposure compensation, AEL/AFL which is useful. I liked the manual focus dial much better than the usual wobbly buttons!

The DP1s RAW format is currently only supported by Sigma's own Sigma Photo Pro software. This will probably change soon but I liked the Sigma converter anyway. It produces good quality and is also simple, straight-forward. The software easily introduces color inaccuracies, however, sometimes giving the images the look of HDR-blends/mappings, e.g., white sky turns a muddy grey. This mainly happens when adding "X3 fill light" and needs manual correction. Generally, however, the image quality is much better than in-camera jpegs! See full-res example here

What is great:

The camera is an ideal HDR-machine: It will automatically expose three images with up to +- 3(!) stops (exposure bracketing, also in RAW mode)! You need to release the shutter only once (additionally using the 2 or 10 sec self-timer). Great. Full-res.

Usually "compact camera = huge DOF" at whatever aperture, because of the tiny sensor. Well, the DP1 has a "large" sensor! This means, creative use of depth of field is possible. With my first shots with this camera, I was still in "huge DOF" mode and was surprised by the results... This is also unique for a digital compact! Full-res.


This camera can produce excellent image quality, under the right conditions the quality seems superior to many entry-level DSLRs. I congratulate Sigma on making this camera. And I like it. But it is not versatile enough for me, especially at the price. For superb quality I have the big cameras. I want a compact that I can use when I'm tired of handling the big stuff and when I run into something unexpected. Rarely would the situation arise that I need DSLR quality but can't take a DSLR. Thus, I will not change from my Ricoh GX100 which cannot compete with the image quality of the DP1 but which is really versatile (e.g., extreme wide angle macro capability, electronic viewfinder, 19mm wide conversion lens, ...). I have a dream, though: Put the DP1 sensor into the Ricoh or something similar... Maybe the GX200 or the Panasonic LX3 are in that direction. We'll see.

Christian Goltz, August 2008.

Questions, comments? Here.

Panasonic DMC-G1
I like the red one

Update Sept 10, 2008: Panasonic has just announced the LUMIX DMC-G1. This is something completely new, like a DSLR without the R: It's the first non-reflex interchangeable lens camera. It's therefore very small (we're talking about compact cameras here!) but has the advantage of being able to change the (Leica/Leitz) lenses (which are also very small due to the new micro four thirds standard). Very interesting - check it out (dpreview preview).

Printable Version

Panorama Photography