Sigma is best known among photography enthusiasts for its third party lenses and accessories, principally for Canon and Nikon digital SLRs, and competently made and fairly priced they are too. Back in 2002, however, it decided that it wanted to produce its very own DSLR. This venture has been less successful. 6 years down the line, three previous attempts, and 2 years after it was originally announced, the 14-megapixel SD15 finally arrives in the Pocket-lint test dungeon.
It has a robust semi-professional feel and hard armoured personnel carrier-like edges. Weight is 680g body-only, with beefy dimensions of 144 x 107.3 x 80.5mm. We were also supplied with two competent lenses in the Sigma 24-70mm F/2.8 macro and a 70-300mm F/4-5.6, available from around £300 and £400 respectively, the latter image stabilised to avoid blur at longer focal lengths. Attached via dust-protected mount (which can be removed should one actually need to clean the sensor behind), together they’re conceivably the only optics a keen amateur may require. Yet you’ll be looking at a total outlay of £1500 for the privilege, with street prices for the body-only around £800 at the time of writing.
The SD15 needs such outer protection not just to fend off glancing knocks in the heat of photographic action, but also critical barbs. Previous SD iterations have been as divisive as Marmite or the Iraq War. It seems that being pro Sigma DSLRs puts you in a small, select group, and a particularly passionate one at that. It does however find you at odds with the majority that are happy to stick with the conventional, rather than risking something new.
The “new” - well, new back in 2002 - is Sigma’s insistence in using a triple-layered Foveon sensor, here the “X3” generation chip, at the heart of its cameras. The three layers are said to capture light, and in particular colour information, in a different way to conventional sensors, with one layer each for red, green and blue. The result, Sigma has maintained, is a more life-like rendering. So life-like in fact that the manufacturer has dared to suggest an almost three-dimensional quality to its images. Without the need for headache-inducing glasses when viewing them.
Of course, this is slightly over stating the case. And yet the SD15, despite its flaws that we’ll come to, is the company’s best effort yet. The fact that it’s released under the auspice of a lens manufacturer also means there are 40+ lenses and accessories at the SD15’s disposal. Not bad for a still relatively untried and untested DSLR system.
For a “new” product the SD15 in some respects comes across as eccentrically old fashioned. Sensor aside, it’s not exactly crammed with the sort of cutting edge specification we’ve come to expect from a £900 body-only asking price. So for example there’s no Live View facility - whereby the rear LCD can be used for shot composition as well as review - no video recording capability, nor HDMI output. While there is, as expected, both RAW and JPEG capture capability, you can’t shoot both simultaneously. Furthermore the camera deploys a modest, entry-level like 5-point AF system. More positively screen size is a respectably clear 3-inches with a resolution of 460k dots, so there’s no problem when checking detail on the back of the camera.
Like the old Roberts radio owned by your grandparents, there are not one but two tuner-like dials atop the SD15. The first is a shooting mode dial containing just program, shutter priority, aperture priority or manual setting - no “auto everything” option here - plus, at the opposite side of the camera’s top plate, we find a second “drive” dial. A twist of the latter reveals that it doubles up as the camera’s on/off switch; the camera powering up for action in around 2 seconds. The rest of the second dial is taken up with single shot or 3fps continuous capture options, self-timer options (2 or 10 seconds), shake reducing mirror up, plus auto bracketing option. As neither dial is as crammed with features as its competitors, viewed individually both look a little basic, unfinished even.
Some concessions to modernity come in Sigma’s adoption of SD and SDHC as storage media, and the fact that the user interface has been overhauled since the SD14 to make it friendlier. Like the dedicated Quick Menu on Panasonic Lumix compacts, Sigma has instigated its own time saver in a QS (“quick set”) button. This calls up a pared-down cross keys-like menu display on screen that allows JPEG compression levels or RAW capture options to be selected, and colour modes, white balance plus picture settings to be adjusted on the fly. This avoids the need to delve into the admittedly cleanly laid out main menus, so proves a godsend for day-to-day use.
In practice we found that busier scenes could befuddle the camera’s AF system, with focus being deferred to the background rather than intended subject. Switch to manual then for more consistent results; though we missed being able to use Live View as an aid to check critical focus on a larger scale than that offered via the camera’s optical viewfinder.
But perhaps the Sigma’s biggest quirk is that, despite its 14-megapixel headline resolution, open an image in Photoshop, check File Info and you’ll be told the individual image size is just 4.6 megapixels; basically the sensor size divided by each of its three layers. More colour information or not, and with a decent lens such as the ones we were supplied with producing an image that, for detail at least, is comparable to results from an 8MP or 10MP model, there will be those who feel short changed. Best then to shoot RAW and preserve as much information as possible.
Playing to its strengths when shooting portraits - the subtleties of skin tones brought to the fore - and still life set ups, the most obvious audience for the SD15, as with its predecessors, is the fine art photographer after a different look and feel to their images, and not just the best value all round DSLR for the money; which this Sigma cannot claim to be.
Though we got some good results shooting with available light, this isn’t the best choice for shooting in low light. In fact its performance at higher ISOs (ISO 800 and above) is pretty terrible, introducing noise with a sandstorm-like appearance. Though the Sigma’s range can be expanded to ISO 50 (from ISO 100) at the lower end, and from ISO 1600 to ISO 3200 at the higher, the temptation therefore is not to bother.
The SD15 is a tricky camera to review - its images don’t look like any we’re used to seeing from a digital camera and require a fair amount of Photoshop work to pull the best out of them. However, put in the effort and you may be pleasantly surprised.
Although we did not get as many colour cast/white balance issues shooting with the SD15 as previous iterations - and in that respect it’s an improvement - noise is still a bugbear, intruding into shadow detail even when seemingly shooting under plenty of available light. Fine artists and photographers may welcome, even embrace a bit of grain, but those who prefer their images both sharp and clean will want to look elsewhere.
So is this Sigma the camera for you? If you’ve enough money to take a punt and don’t mind wrestling with each and every image to get the best out of it - indeed, relish it - then perhaps. But most of us will prefer easier lives and therefore safer options when it comes to choosing a DSLR.