How the Sigma DP2 Quattro became the new King of the Compact Cameras

This is an article about a new camera — the Sigma DP2 Quattro — but I’m going to start by putting it in context by recollecting an older camera.

This older camera, which isn’t exactly an antique as it’s less than 20 years old, helped me to make photos so sharp that you can look at the transparencies with a loupe and lose yourself in the fantastic detail, falling into the scene with an almost 3D quality.

This was, of course, a film camera in those long ago pre-digital days of the mid- 1990s, but it wasn’t a 35mm SLR or even a Leica. It used medium-format film (120 or 220), and none of that paltry 6cm x 4.5cm format or even the classic 6 x 6, this one produced a mighty 6cm x 7cm (2¼ins x 2¾ins) piece of film for each shot you took.

All hail the Mamiya 7, one of the true greats of the camera world.

The Mamiya 7 was introduced in the mid-1990s as a successor to the Mamiya 6 (which produced 6cm x 6cm rather than 6 x 7). This medium-format rangefinder became, I consider, the world’s best camera. It was certainly the best quality you could get with a camera that could be handheld easily.

It was a simple camera, manual focus lenses only, a small battery to power the metering system, and a very quiet leaf-shutter lens system. The battery, by the way, lasted for years, no recharging needed after every shoot.

There was a range of only six lenses, four really, as you can discount the over-ambitious 210mm lens, and I also shunned the 150mm. What I did have was the ‘standard’ 80mm, which remains the sharpest lens I have ever used, the brilliant 65mm, and the superb 43mm wide-angle, which required an external viewfinder slotted into the hotshoe. There was also a 50mm lens but I never used one of those.

I mostly shot Fuji Velvia transparency film or black and white infra-red film, which were both difficult films to get the right exposure, but after a few rolls I was producing well-exposed transparencies and negatives, which was fortunate as you couldn’t rely on post-production in those days, and film and processing were expensive with only 10 6 x 7 shots per roll of 120 film.

I was very happy with my Mamiya 7 and I’m even happier that I had it with me on visits to such great places as Yosemite and the High Sierra. I can gaze at those transparencies and immerse myself in the wonder of Half Dome and Bodie, etc.

The dawn of digital

However, digital came along and broke up Mamiya and me. In 2000, Canon launched the D30 and I foolishly succumbed and forsook my Mamiya 7 and lenses for a DSLR with a 3.1-megapixel resolution. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, as I produced a lot of great pictures with the D30, but there was always a part of me that regretted ditching the 7.

All this is a preamble to introduce what I consider to be the sharpest camera/lens combo I’ve used since the Mamiya 7, and perhaps even sharper than the 7 — the Sigma DP2 Quattro.

As some of you may know, I like a sharp compact camera and I’ve reviewed the Ricoh GR and the Nikon Coolpix A on this website. Both of these superb cameras have the same size sensor (APS-C) as the Sigma DP2 Quattro and very sharp and fast lenses. I can’t really split the Ricoh GR and the Nikon Coolpix A in terms of sharpness, they both produce a distinctive look but it’s impossible for me to separate them on sharp shooting.

A league of its own

What I can say is the Sigma DP2 Quattro is a different league from the Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A. It simply outsharps both those cameras and pretty much everything else besides.

Confusingly, it’s the successor to a camera also called the Sigma DP2, although that went by the Merrill name, while this one has acquired the Quattro title. There is/was a range of three Merrill cameras, all fixed lenses, with a wide angle, a standard lens, and a short telephoto, and Sigma is launching the Quattro range one by one in exactly the same choice.

I never got round to using any of the Sigma Merrill cameras, mainly because I was put off by (substantiated) reports that the camera batteries lasted for only around 40 shots. The company seemed to acknowledge this by including two batteries in the box. However, the cameras nonetheless built up a devoted following due mainly to the sharpness and pictorial quality.

Now they’ve updated the series to the Quattro range. The first one launched was the DP2 Quattro, with a 30mm f2.8 lens which works out at a 45mm lens on a 35mm basis, what used to be called a ‘standard’ lens. Sigma have also now released the DP1 Quattro, which has an f2.8 wide-angle lens of 19mm (28mm in 35mm terms).

I am eagerly awaiting the introduction of the DP3 Quattro, which will have a 50mm f2.8 lens (75mm in 35mm terms) featuring a macro mode with 1:3 magnification, compared with 1:7.6 magnification for the DP2 Quattro.

The Sigma DP2 Quattro has an elongated shape that brings echoes of panoramic film cameras.

Sensor with a 3D look

It’s the Sigma DP2 Quattro I am reviewing here. It’s a very different style of camera, which reminds me a little of a panoramic camera, such as the Hasselblad X-Pan (another film classic from the fabled mid-1990s).

35mm film panoramic cameras such as the Hasselblad X-Pan needed to be wide to accommodate the film format.

At the risk of being boring, I feel I should point out a few technical details. Sigma introduced the Foveon sensor some time ago and it is a different sensor entirely from the usual Bayer CMOS sensors used by most other manufacturers.

The DP Merrill cameras also used a Foveon sensor which captured three layers of primary RGB colors. The Foveon sensor does not use a low-pass filter, which is used in most other sensors to remove moire, and this is one of the factors which brings a 3D feel to the Sigma output.

The DP2 Quattro uses a new version of the Foveon sensor and claims to hold twice as much resolution as conventional color sensors, equivalent to a resolution of 39 megapixels.

Primed for quality

The camera body is magnesium alloy and feels great in my hands, but you definitely can’t put this one in a shirt pocket, you really need a small bag.

The lens doesn’t move in or out, it’s a fixed prime lens and produces very high quality pictures. There’s even a quality lens cap, which is a rarity these days.

It should be quality, because it doesn’t come cheap. It costs $999 in the US and £899 in the UK, which is the usual inequitable way of applying the exchange rate (it should be about £700 if you used the prevailing £1=$1.50-ish rate).

I love the handling of this quirkily designed elongated camera. It’s easy to shoot horizontally or vertically with the reverse grip and I haven’t even bothered to put on a wrist strap, which I use all the time with smaller cameras such as the Ricoh GR or Nikon Coolpix A where I have concerns about the camera slipping out of my hands.

A tour of the Sigma DP2 Quattro

It has a beautifully minimalist layout. There’s virtually nothing on the front plate apart from a discreet ‘dp2’ in white type, a couple of dots for the microphone, and a small fingerpad.

On the top plate, there’s a hotshoe, which can be used for a viewfinder, an on/off button, a Mode button and two unmarked dials, with the front dial including the shutter release.

The back looks very exciting at first glance, with a large expanse of glass, but, in fact, the LCD monitor is no bigger than on other compacts, at only 3 inches and with a resolution of 900,000 pixels. There is a Review button and a row of four more buttons, including Display, which shows varying levels of information plus an electronic level.

The second button is marked QS for Quick Select and gives you easy access to all the settings you need, including ISO, metering (choice of three modes), single or continuous shooting, white balance, image quality (you can shoot RAW only, RAW plus Jpeg, or three levels of Jpeg), plus four different aspect ratios.

The AEL button is for AE lock, which will lock the exposure, and the button doubles up in Review mode as the Bin to delete unwanted pics.

The fourth button is Menu. which brings up the usual wide range of settings for shooting, review and set-up.

On the reverse grip, there is the OK button set in a pressable surround marked Focus above the button and with an icon below showing the possible focus points.

The bottom of the camera features an excellent battery compartment, which doesn’t require scratching about for access, and a very nice metal tripod socket.

But, unfortunately, the well-thought-out quality design comes to a juddering halt with the SD card slot on the left-hand side of the camera.

This rubber-covered card slot is poorly thought-out and is a scar on an otherwise well-designed camera.I don’t know what they were thinking when they put this in. It’s a bit of rubber slotted in to the side that takes a lot of digging out with a fingernail. It annoys me no end every time I want to take out an SD card to save it to my computer, which is very often as this camera generates massive files.

Even when you do manage to prise it open, the SD card slot is so close to the side it’s difficult to pop the card out.

All this horror is in the name of incorporating a USB port in the same area.

Sigma should have put in separate compartments, with a proper plastic door for the SD card, and another rubber cover for those folk who really want USB.

Apart from the card slot, the DP2 Quattro is a rather lovely camera that feels great to use.

Slow but very sure

However, while it’s a sharpshooter, it’s not very quick on the draw. It’s not the fastest for focusing  and takes a few seconds to write a picture to the card, depending on the image quality chosen.

Strangely though, I don’t find this a drawback as it has had the welcome outcome of making me slow down and take fewer pictures. This is another area where the DP2 Quattro is similar to medium-format cameras such as the Mamiya 7, which had manual focus and manual film advance, so you were never going to shoot action sequences, plus, with only 10 shots per roll of film, you had to make each one count.

With most digital cameras, it’s far too easy to fire off dozens of pictures of one subject and end up with a hard drive full of near-identical photos. Using the Sigma DP2 Quattro, I found I went back to considering potential pictures more before shooting, and, in many cases, deciding not to take a pic. You particularly consider whether it’s worth taking a picture when you realise that shooting a Jpeg and saving it as a Tiff will produce a file of around 78Mb.

Watch the battery

As well as the leisurely read to card, there are other factors that can make you slow down with the DP2 Quattro, particularly the fact that although battery life has been improved, you’ll still be lucky to get 100 shots on a fully charged battery, and probably more like 80 in most circumstances. Sigma includes two batteries in the box and they only take a couple of hours to charge.

I generally shoot in Aperture mode, but the DP2Q offers the usual selection of modes which are set using the Mode button on the top plate. The modes are: Manual, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program, where the camera will select aperture and shutter settings. There are also three Custom Modes which you can set yourself.

In Aperture mode, the aperture is set by using the front dial while the rear dial can be used for exposure compensation set in one-third stops.

Shoot straight to Jpeg

Apparently, the Merrill series of Sigma compacts did not produce good Jpegs out of the camera and the best results were achieved by processing RAW files. This has changed in the new Quattros, with Jpegs of superb quality. The RAW files are also superb but the drawback to shooting RAW is they have to be processed using the Sigma Photo Pro software, which is far from speedy. None of the usual software suspects has deigned to (or perhaps just can’t) produce a RAW developer plug-in for pics taken with Foveon sensors.

Colors are excellent out of the camera, but it is definitely a Sigma palette. I can spot the differences between pics taken with the Ricoh GR V, Nikon Coolpix A and the DP2 Quattro. There’s nothing unusual with this and I would liken it to the situation of different films having different looks.

There are several color modes that can be set using the Quick Set button: Standard, Vivid, Neutral, Portrait, Cinema (this isn’t video, this is a stills-only camera), Sunset Red, Forest Green, FOV Classic Blue, FOV Classic Yellow and Monochrome.

Shooting black and white with the Sigma Quattro DP2

The mode that really excites me is shooting black and white with the DP2Q. The Foveon sensor is very well suited to producing black and white shots of great subtlety and gradations.

It might seem like an expensive camera to use as a specialist black and white shooter but when you compare the cost and results with the Leica M Monochrom, which is designed to shoot only black and white images and costs around £5,000 for the body, plus another grand or so for a decent lens, the DP2Q looks like a real bargain.

You can shoot Monochrome RAW with the DP2 Quattro and a color version is also available using Sigma Photo Pro, but you can’t convert a Monochrome Jpeg into color.

Focal points

Focusing the lens using auto focus is fairly easy in good light but it’s not exactly snappy. Manual focusing is possible by pressing the Focus button on the back of the camera and turning the focus ring on the lens. You can also magnify the display to check your focus and there is a useful auto magnification function where, in manual focus mode, you press the shutter button halfway and turn the focus ring. This will magnify the display and it will return to normal after you’ve stopped rotating the focus ring.

Bokeh (out-of-focus area) is beautiful with the Sigma DP2 Quattro. I like shooting with the lens wide open at f2.8 and the in-focus subject has remarkable sharpness while the rest of the picture has a creamy out-of-focus quality.

Sigma has taken a big risk with the Quattro range. The firm has pumped cash into continuing to develop the Foveon sensor while producing a radical new camera design that splits opinion. The camera is slow between shots, devours battery power, and there’s only one confusing piece of software available to convert the RAW files.

However, the image quality that can be produced using the camera outweighs all those drawbacks. I still love using quality compacts such as the Ricoh GR and the Nikon Coolpix, but when it comes to serious shooting I now turn to the Sigma DP2 Quattro.

It’s been a long time coming, but using the DP2 Quattro makes me feel at last that I don’t miss my Mamiya 7 any more.