Let me start off with the conclusion: at its best, the Sigma SD1 is most surprising in the details it uncovers. When you shoot with the SD1 you have no idea where the images will take you. There is no way of knowing what you will find when you lift the camera to your eye. You enter the relationship with a vague idea of what you want to capture. You have a general notion. However, it is only after you take the shot, after you bring the image home, and after you develop that image is when you understand and appreciate the impact and value of the SD1.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with the SD1. Sigma let me borrow a copy to shoot with for a period of time. I had wanted to write down my thoughts about the camera earlier, but I decided to wait until I had a full and complete impression of the camera in my mind before I put down these words. I’ll try to related some of my thoughts on the camera itself and then its impact on me as a photographer.
My first digital “SLR” was the Sony DSC-D700. This was the first camera that gave me manual control over all of the aspects of the digital photographic process. You tweak the parameters and it shows you the final image on the LCD. While I had shot film since High School, nothing had me fall in love with photography again in quite the same way as the Sony did. It was the immediacy of the feedback from your actions coming to life within moments on the back of the camera. That was magic.
My days recently are filled with my work in the software development field. While I see myself as highly technical, my studies were largely in the visual and liberal arts throughout my formal education. I’ve always tinkered with technology from my humble beginnings with the very first personal computers to hit the market (TRS-80, Atari 800, etc.), but my main course of study in school took me from graphic design to foreign languages. When I graduated college I moved to Japan where I gravitated toward technology and translation. I later moved into IT and software. All throughout my technical day-to-day, I kept my love for art alive, and I’ve always kept a camera by my side.
When I think about photography, for me it has always been this marriage of technical know-how and creative expression. On the one hand you have to have a pretty deep technical knowledge to meld shutter speed, aperture, ISO, position, light, focal length, and timing together to make an image happen technically. On the other hand there’s a moment that is speaking to you. It whispers in your ear and you tune into that moment and place to make that capture. The capture that speaks to you and speaks to what you want to express.
I personally have this notion of my identity as someone who figures things out. So, for me, photography has fed and fueled this identity of myself. I embrace my photography and this identity as my own.
Over the years I’ve owned quite a few digital cameras. Not all of them were Sigma cameras, but some were. My first Sigma was the SD10 and then I went on to different bodies from then including the SD14. Each camera was an incremental improvement. I particularly enjoyed the buffer size and speed improvements Sigma brought in to create the SD15 and I was quite happily shooting with that until the SD1 arrived on my doorstep.
There has been a clarity to the image from the Sigma cameras that I’ve been noticing that was lacking from the other cameras I owned. I’ve found it hard to explain exactly what it is, so I’ve kept myself from trying to explain that quality to others and figure I’ll just let the images speak for themselves.
Sigma made quite a few improvements to the SD1 over its SD15. I’ll highlight some of the features I found particularly valuable to the way I shoot.
The Autofocus system improvements are a very important improvement to the camera. The new 11-point system was welcome as I like to set the focus point as I shoot.
The addition of the AF Lock button on the back of the camera was one of my favorite new features. I used that pretty exclusively as I don’t like to have focus so directly tied to the action of capturing the image. It is a bit odd that you have to keep the AF Lock button pressed down while the camera hunts for focus. It would be nice to be able to simply tap the button and have the camera work on focus on its own.
Overall AF accuracy seemed to be hit-and-miss, however. Luckily, the viewfinder makes it easy to tell when the subject is in focus and when it is not.
JPEG images right out of the camera are very usable, but you have to nail exposure as there’s very little latitude to fix the images later. JPEGs that show exposure warnings on the LCD preview are pretty much gone. You need to adjust exposure and reshoot.
The 5 frames / sec rate is very fast for a Sigma and in continuous mode you will fill up the small RAW buffer (7 frames in High resolution) very quickly.
I tried shooting Medium resolution RAW images, but it seemed to degrade overall image quality. Images seemed compressed as edges and lines seemed to show jaggies. I would just shoot at High resolution if at all possible.
The preview on the LCD often looks nothing like the resultant image you develop from the RAW file on your Mac. The LCD is a good general guideline and I had the camera show exposure warnings. This would help guide exposures as you shoot.
I was much happier with the camera when I picked up a 32GB CF card. Trying to get by a day of shooting around with a 4GB card was hopeless.
Getting a preview to show on the LCD on the back of the camera took a good handful of seconds. The time you need to wait is on par with the SD15. Overall a bit slow, but the camera is dealing with a lot of information. It makes sense, but it would be nicer if it were quicker.
I didn’t shoot much in low light, but I found that I would get some very nice images even at ISO 800, but not much higher than that. I wish there were some intermediate stops for ISO so I didn’t have to choose between 800 and 1600.
Auto ISO now shifts from ISO 100 to 800. The camera seems pretty eager to jump up to ISO 800 whenever things get a bit dark. I found that I would not rely on Auto ISO as the ramp up seemed pretty steep and fast.
Stabilized lenses seemed to work better with the SD1 than did my non-stabilized lenses. I’m not quite sure if this is due to the fact that the sensor being more dense tended to exacerbate camera shake. Having compensation on the lens really did seem to help. I used the Sigma 17-50mm f/2.8 EX DC OS almost exclusively with the SD1.
Color Modes in SPP seemed to subtly affect the rendering of colors produced by the SD1 images. Color Modes with the SD15 images, on the other hand, were not so subtle. With the SD15 I would almost exclusively use Neutral mode whereas with the SD1, I found that Landscape worked best for green foliage, and Standard mode looked good for other things.
I spend more time in SPP with the SD1 images than I ever remember doing with the SD15. This can be good and bad. Bad because the SD1 images are so large that SPP seemed to creak under their weight. I have an 27″ iMac at home and I never noticed it being slow until I had to start processing SD1 images.
I’ve had the tone-mapping bug as of late, and so I’ve used the auto-bracketing feature quite a bit. Generally I’ve found that three shots are sufficient to get the most range of a scene, but there were times when even with that I would have liked more gradations.
Highlights are surprisingly recoverable from SD1 RAW images.
Having a dedicated ISO, exposure compensation, and metering buttons were a very nice addition to the SD1.
Custom modes were very useful. I set one of the dial positions for continuous focus mode for action shots. Rotating that dial out of the custom mode, back to how I usually shoot is fast and easy.
The Depth to the Image
The technical details of the camera are important, but this is not what I found most impactful about the SD1. What matters most are results; the results of the images and the how the camera impacts me as a photographer.
As you look at images across the web that were taken with the SD1 you often see the images presented in a reduced representation of the file processed from the camera. You see an image that looks quite like what the photographer saw when they looked through the viewfinder. The small, small images you see on the web then is not what the photographer experienced when they open the file to full resolution on their computer for the first time.
At fist I had imagined I would share some images that showed a scaled-down scene of an image I captured with the SD1 along with a 100% crop to show the astonishing detail revealed by the camera. While these sorts of comparisons might potentially impress the viewer, it only scratches the surface as to what sort of impact the camera has had on me as a photographer.
The delight in the experience of using the SD1 not only comes from the dimensionality and depth of the images produced. As you continue to shoot with the SD1, as you become more experienced with the camera, as you see more and more images and are continually surprised and impressed by the beauty uncovered, you begin to notice something about yourself as a photographer that shifts.
As I discover new depth to the images that come out of the camera like the SD1 and the massive ability to resolve detail, the more I found the more I would look for more detail myself. The more that was uncovered, the more that drive to strive to continue that quest carried me through another day of shooting with the SD1. I noticed I would want to take the camera with me more often to capture more moments and explore more widely than I had before.
The nimbleness of the camera, its light weight and its ability to fire quickly would push me to try new angles and experiment to a greater degree than I had considered before.
While my time with the SD1 was limited, I have to thank the camera for opening my eyes to what can be possible with photography. I thank Sigma for the opportunity to explore the edges of this new horizon to my creative expression.