Sigma DP3 Merrill

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Okay, but seriously…

The Long Version: The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a camera that puts the decimal point in the wrong place. My comfortable high-iso limit is iso640, it takes about 50 photos per battery, writing a burst of one raw file to a fast memory card takes 13 seconds. Even its memory cards hold just a fraction of the images its pixel count should suggest, and it needs clunky raw-processing software that predates the invention of 'workflow'. The DP3M could be from the dawn of consumer digital cameras.

The Merrill lacks basic abilities that are included in any half-decent point and shoot these days. No image stabilization, no flash, poor LCD quality, and no concessions to shapes that the human hand can hold. Forget about modern conveniences like viewfinders, tilting LCD screens, or remote shutter releases. Every nitpicking review and every negative word ever written about this camera has at least some truth to it, and often quite a lot.

And yet it doesn't matter. The Sigma DP3 Merrill is a magic camera.

Some equipment creates uncommonly compelling images in a way that has nothing to do with the users' skills. Of course this undefinable ability won't perform for every owner, or even consistently for the fortunate ones, but when it's right it's unmistakable. The DP3M has this magic.

The DP3 Merrill creates my favourite photos. It's neither my favourite nor my best camera, but I can lose track of time looking at images that should have been nothing but snapshots. I want to use it out of all proportion to its operational merits, and despite all of its shortcomings. It's capricious, but give it its due and it can be benevolent and gracious; treat it carelessly and suffer its anger and wrath.

Would you choose a flawed and frustrating camera if the results have the potential to be exceptional? That question can only have a personal answer. Most people, quite sensibly, will say no outright. There are plenty of really excellent cameras out there that don't carry the Sigma-Foveon baggage. A few will say “yes, sometimes” – this is the group that I find myself in. Some people, I suppose, will give an unqualified yes. There are certainly more difficult ways to make art, and creating art is the only purpose for a machine like this.

last updated 14 sept 2014


Sigma DP3 Merrill

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: They say to think of it as a film camera…

The Long Version: There's something really incredible about the Sigma DP3 Merrill. It's small, it's light, and it produces great photos. Normally we need to trade off quality in exchange for smaller size or more convenience, and accept smaller formats with lower resolving power and coarser tonalities. The Merrill upends all of our expectations.

The DP3 Merrill looks strikingly different from traditional compact cameras. From the front it's a slab-sided box dominated by a large off-centre lens, and most strikingly it doesn't have a viewfinder. This hints at the camera's true nature, because where the film door should be instead we find a large electronic viewing screen. Yes, this is a digital camera – but don't be intimidated, because the Merrill still fits in with film cameras and the new hybrid 'digital darkroom' perfectly.

Instead of taking film – whether in sheets, rolls, or cassettes – the Sigma DP3 Merrill takes batteries. While film rarely holds more than a few dozen photos, and typically only a third of that, the Merrill can manage as many as fifty exposures per battery. And changing batteries is far simpler than film – no more catching sprockets or switching rollers! It's even faster than swapping cassettes in Advanced Photo System cameras, because there's no time needed to rewind or advance the film. And best of all, each battery can be replenished and reused over and over again.

The Sigma DP3 Merrill fits perfectly into the new 'digital darkroom' that is increasingly popular with amateur and medium-format photographers alike. Typically we feed our developed film into scanners to digitize our captured photographs for electronic editing, but the Sigma DP Merrill has this ability built-in. This saves hours of work and the ongoing expense of chemicals or a professional lab. It's an amazing ability and one that will likely be incorporated into all cameras in the future.

Sigma provides the dedicated software that is needed to see the images as they are loaded into the computer. This is called "Sigma Photo Processor" and works very similarly to other scanning programs. Images are visible in an on-screen array that looks like a contact sheet, and then each selected image can be individually developed for best quality. You can even choose whether you want colour or black and white photographs after they're taken – or you can do both. Remarkable.

From a quality standpoint the Sigma DP3 Merrill easily matches a good 645 negative, and can rival larger film formats as well. The only major drawback is that the DP3 Merrill has the 3:2 aspect ratio of the 35mm format, not the paper-friendly 4:3 or 5:4 of larger professional cameras, so take that into consideration when planning your crops for printing.

The lens of the DP3 Merrill is a bright short telephoto with exceptional quality despite its small size. There's pleasant falloff and slight edge softness at f/2.8, giving the photographs a rich, painterly feel. Stopped down to f/4 the lens becomes much more incisive instrument with uniform sharpness and excellent descriptive power. Aperture can be set in thirds-stops, giving plenty of flexibility, and its leaf shutter is capable of astounding top shutter speeds of 1/1250-2000 depending on the aperture selected.

The Merrill is also exceedingly good throughout the standard sensitivity range, with minimal grain as high as ASA400. If you're printing black and white the camera can be pushed up to ASA1600 with reasonable tones and substantial, but not objectionable, grain. A tripod is always recommended, as benefits any high-quality camera, but if you're seduced into hand-holding the DP3 its lack of a reflex mirror and quiet leaf shutter will keep shutter shock to a minimum.

The Sigma Merrill DP3 is a rare and cutting-edge camera. Despite its occasionally awkward implementation of electronic capture technology the entire thing comes together very well. Don't abandon the habits that you have tuned through years of large and medium-format photography, and don't be tricked by its small size into thinking that it will work like some fixed-focus pocket camera. Remember to treat it exactly like your better film cameras, and you'll be rewarded with excellent images and surprising ease-of-use.

last updated 12 sept 2014


Fujifilm XQ1

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Small, quick, and good.

The Long Version: The Fujifilm XQ1 is an interesting camera.

Well, actually, that's not entirely true. It's a raw-shooting compact camera that's trying to make its way in a world of ubiquitous smart phones. There are similarly-sized but more expensive cameras that have much bigger sensors, and cheaper cameras that have similar features and more refined designs. My XQ1 was given to me as a gift, and so I've been trying to decide if, knowing what I know now, I would have bought one for myself.

The big deal about the XQ1 – its Unique Selling Feature – is that it's the cheapest and smallest camera with an X-Trans sensor. This is the same 2/3 size as the X20/X30 series, not the bigger 1.5x unit that goes in the X100 and X- cameras, but it's still a bit bigger than the ones that Canon or Panasonic use in their point and shoots. While I'm not convinced that size actually matters at this scale, the XQ1 does produce good images with lots of detail.

The main competition for any compact camera is the smart phone. This is an easy image quality comparison to make: the XQ1 beats my iPhone 5S quite handily. The XQ1 has wifi connectivity, so I've been using it for many of my social media endeavours. There's a distinct quality advantage even after the reduced-size 3MP images have been edited and fed through the spaghetti-shredder of online recompression and transmission. And that's even before things that used to be a photographic staple, like zoom lenses and low-light ability, come into consideration.

I suppose others might choose it for art-making, but I use the XQ1 almost exclusively for impromptu and record-keeping photos. Snapshots, twitter-fodder, chance encounters with mayoral candidates, and so on. It's nice to have a small and good camera for this, especially since it has a decent zoom lens. That lens, and the wifi connection, is why the XQ1 is the camera that I usually carry each day.

A little-known fact is that "WiFi" is actually short for "well, iffy". Linking the camera to a phone or tablet means going into playback mode, turning on wifi on the camera, selecting the camera wifi network on the phone, launching the Fuji app on the phone and hitting 'connect'. With luck the camera hasn't timed out, or had a button hit that would turn off its wifi broadcast and needed the whole routine to restart.

Once the iffy connection is made then the rest goes fairly easily. I prefer to just use the Fujifim "PhotoReceiver" app that has the camera choose which images to send, since the camera's LCD provides a bigger preview of the images to transfer. It means a bit more juggling devices than using the app that allows the phone/tablet to browse the images that are on the camera, but it's easier overall.

But of course using the XQ1 isn't as fast or easy as just using a phone to take a photo – and yes, I'm of an age where that still seems like an odd thing to say. My phone is always closer to hand, and I can have its camera up and running before the XQ1 powers on. So there's always a decision to make, to decide if it's worth using the bigger camera, but that's always the way.

I don't really have much to complain about with the XQ1, which is a little odd for me. I wish that it had a dual-axis level instead of single, and that the mode dial was firmer, since it tends to move all on its own when the camera isn't being observed. But the bigger control issue is the ring around the lens. There's a slight lag and no detents, so it's necessary to pay attention to the little numbers on the screen to use it. This means that the camera always needs to be supervised and can't be used intuitively. Often that's a critical flaw, but for a simple little compact camera maybe it's not that important.

The XQ1 also doesn't have any sort of 'safety' override on its exposure controls, and it's actually fairly easy to run out of shutter speed when leaving the lens wide open in bright light. This is a camera to set in Program mode and forget about any control beyond exposure compensation.

There are some other features that are fun to have. The sweep panorama mode works well, and I like the film-effects bracketing that can mimic different black and white contrast filters. Since I only use the XQ1 in jpeg mode – my generation of Lightroom can't handle its raw files – this has turned out to be quite handy. Once I accepted the XQ1 as a happysnaps point-and-shoot this camera has turned out to be a lot of fun.

The question remains: if I wasn't given this camera, would I buy one? I'm still not sure. The XQ1 takes better photos than the Canon S100 I owned a couple of years ago, even though the Canon had the advantage of being a more mature design. So when the time comes to replace my XQ1, I'll certainly look at what Fujifilm is offering – along with whichever Canon camera happens to be current that month – because the company is certainly showing real promise. And hopefully by then they'll include a bigger battery and a stand-alone charger, because this USB-only thing is the pits.

last updated 7 sept 2014

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