Sigma DP2s digital camera review

4 out of 5
£599.99

For

Good image quality, bags of detail, robust all-metal design, improved AF system, lens, powerful RAW processor included

Against

Limited sensitivity range, price, no optical viewfinder, underpowered flash, muted colour, quirky menu controls, sluggish handling

Sigma's DP2s is a high-end 14.6-megapixel compact aimed at the enthusiast and updates the original DP2. Improvements have been made but some quirks from its predecessor remain.

The Sigma DP2s has almost an identical spec to its forbear, the DP2, and it is almost identical to look at as well. Key features include a sensor unlike most others on the market in that it uses the Foveon X3 CMOS sensor more on which shortly. There's a crisp F/2.8 fixed focal length lens providing a 41mm (35mm format equiv.) focal length that offers a reasonable scope for general shooting.

A new nine-zone AF system has an improved algorithm to help speed up the AF system and while it is improved the AF is not by any means the speediest we've used on a compact. There's no image stabilisation and the movie mode is a basic 320 x 240-pixel resolution offering and looks very outdated compared with the HD video capabilities with stereo sound that are offered from both the Olympus Pen and Panasonic G interchangeable lens models now available and with which it is most likely to compete.

The Foveon sensor on offer is one of the first things that marks the DP2 from the crowd in that it captures light/colour in a totally different way to the usual CMOS or CCD Bayer filter sensors of other cameras. The latter use a matrix of red, green and blue squares to convert the light into colour in the image. The X3 sensor has photosites buried within the silicone at varying depth that allow the camera to capture red, green and blue at each pixel location. This (in theory) provides much improved colour fidelity but does mean the gross output resolution is 4.69-megapixels x3 colours giving you the 14.6-megapixel quoted resolution figures.

But the other asset on the X3 sensor is its size akin to an APS-C sized sensor of 20.7 x 13.8mm making the pixels very large compared with most "consumer oriented" compacts and so less prone to noise issues, and more on that later.

This means at first glance the camera's resolution looks very modest compared to the 12-megapixel competition on the market but it's not the whole story. The lens and sensor are capable of capturing a remarkable level of detail easily akin to, say, a 10-megapixel camera.

Some astute processing of the images - from the RAW files in the supplied and powerful Sigma Photo Pro 4.0 RAW processing package - can provide you with images easily as large in terms of pixel dimensions as the competition. A downside here is the fact you need to carry out the extra RAW processing on PC, so there's an extra level of work to do back home on PC, but the enthusiasts this camera is aimed at will almost certainly shoot RAW (or consider shooting RAW more often than not, depending on the subject) anyway so is perhaps a moot point?

Nevertheless, JPEG capture and RAW shooting is offered (but sadly not simultaneously) and there are a few JPEG image niggles. Colour is very muted from the camera by default (and even using its vivid mode) with the landscape shooting mode probably providing the best overall balance, if still quite muted. This is a surprise given the Foveon sensor and the colour capture it is capable of.

The white balance (WB) is a skewed so while the auto setting does well indoors in mixed lighting, outdoors it has a yellowy green tinge. Set the correct WB setting though and it's a little better but this adds to the overall flat looking capture on JPEG.

Shoot RAWs however and you can control all this stuff later on PC and so you can easily make adjustments that can get the colour and white balance settings exactly how you want them. The Photo Pro software has been improved in version 4.0 but still has a few oddities compared to more arguably mainstream packages such as Camera Raw.

Handling is good with the camera not quite as compact as you might think, but this just makes using it a little simpler as does the clearly marked button layout which includes a mode dial with dedicated setup position along with a full range of Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual settings with movie and audio capture bringing up the rear.

A power button and the shutter release sit either side. On the back a modest 230K-dot colour screen is a bit too reflective to use and in bright conditions it becomes very indistinct. An accessory viewfinder is available but then you loose the shooting information and it's an additional cost to boot.

A useful auto exposure lock button is great to have on hand and we used it a lot in my test as we found the metering could be a little wayward on some subjects. A small thumb wheel provides manual focusing control but it's not particularly great use as there's no view enlargement for fine assessment. A clever QD button provides a fast route to key shooting settings (otherwise stuck in menus) and although a little quirky to use (like most of the DP2s) it's actually quickly assimilated into the way the camera works.

A four-way jog button array helps you change and scroll in menus or the Quick Set (QS) button options that change depending on the menu or mode you're in. Again a little quirky but something you can quickly get the hang of. The Menu button activates the neat menus displayed as lists but here one of our main bugbears is the way the active menu option cannot be cancelled or dismissed by making the relevant selection, you have to press the display toggle button instead. That's odd to use and counter-intuitive - and frustrating - as it caught us out time and time again.

Playback image magnification is carried out with a dual button control that's akin to a lens zoom lever, which it is not, of course. When shooting the same buttons control aperture and shutter speeds for example so again, a slightly quirky control arrangement but one that's easy to get to grips with, just don't expect the lens to zoom!

In terms of overall performance, the camera is a study in methodically using the various settings and controls. While the AF is certainly no slouch and the shutter lag is not significantly worse than other compacts, compared to the Pen and G-Series models it's likely to compete with, it's nowhere near as good.

The flash, which pops-up by sliding a small lever across the top left of the display is rather modest and underpowered; it's a great fill-in not much more. The burst frame rate is limited to 3fps (JPEG and/or RAW) so again, modest compared to other cameras now on the market.

We believe this camera will be suited to those of a more pictorialist pent among you or those perhaps more likely to shoot landscapes than, say, undertake large street photography projects, although arguably the focal length may not lend itself to landscapes.

Image quality is extremely good with bags of detail, with the caveats on muted/flat colour as mentioned earlier. Processing the RAWs can get you a superbly colourful image, though please note that all the JPEG images used to illustrate this test have been made from unaltered RAWs or are straight JPEGs from the camera.

Metering while sometimes unreliable is good overall and the fast auto exposure lock control helps out here and while the white balance is certainly a little flaky, noise problems are very well controlled indeed, largely due to the comparatively large pixels. Noise is virtually non-existent at the top ISO 800 setting but there must be a reason for this somewhat restricted maximum sensitivity setting and we suspect above here things probably get a little dicey when shooting JPEGs so the sensitivity is capped at ISO 800.

Verdict

The Sigma DP2s provides a well made but quirky compact package for the enthusiast despite it being one that has some slight white balance issues that need addressing, perhaps by a firmware update in the near future?

But like Marmite, we suspect you'll either love or hate the DP2s. After playing with this camera now for over a week, it's starting to make a lot more sense from both the design and its quirkiness points, while some handling foibles are infuriating, you do get used to them.

You also get used to the (apparently small) gross pixel dimensions of the images, which are easily able to match a 10-megapixel model in terms of detail, detail that is best got out when playing in the Photo Pro RAW (or similar RAW processing) package, which quickly gets the most from the work you put into the camera when shooting.

The superbly sharp and distortion free lens combined with a direct image X3 sensor capable of capturing a stunning amount of detail means that while this camera may not be for everyone, has a few slight issues and looks quite pricey, those that do love it will be able to make it sing, particularly when shooting RAW.