Sigma DP2 Merrill Review: Medium Format Photo Quality in a Small Package

In brief

  • Sigma DP2 Merrill is is a fixed-lens camera launched by Sigma Corporation in 2012
  • Sigma DP2 Merrill comes with a revolutionary Foveon X3 sensor which allows it to capture all colours of the RGB (red, green and blue) at each image location
  • Sigma DP2 Merrill is a wonderful camera for landscape, nature and street photography
  • The images recorded by the Foveon X3 sensor are unique in the richness of their colour

Info box: What is the Foveon X3 Image Sensor >>

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

If you’re looking for medium format photo quality in a small, affordable package, look no further than Sigma’s Merrill cameras. The Merrill series cameras are named after Dick Merrill, the inventor of Foveon sensor utilised by all of them and they are manufactured by the veteran camera and lens maker Sigma.

Sigma has released three Merrill cameras. They all have an APS-C-sized Foveon sensor. The Sigma DP1 comes with a 19mm lens which is 28mm on a full frame system. The DP2 Merrill has a 30mm lens (45mm on full frame). The Sigma DP3 Merrill, with the longest focal length of the series, has a 50mm lens (75mm on a full frame camera). The lenses on all three cameras have an aperture range of f2.8 to f16.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

The one thing going for all these cameras is their sensor. The photographs produced by the Foveon X3 sensor are wonderfully rich in colour and full of detail. In fact, they are unlike anything you can get in the price range of these cameras – and you’d be hard-pressed to beat their image quality even on the much more expensive cameras.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

The form factor of the Sigma Merrill cameras is that of a point-and-shoot which means that their lenses are not interchangeable. The sensor on these cameras is shared with the Sigma SD1 Merrill, a 15 megapixel APS-C sensor DSLR which at the time of its release in 2012 sold for about $10,000, and which is an interchangeable lens camera.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

If you don’t need to change lenses while shooting, the Sigma DP Merrill cameras are a better option than Sigma SD1 Merrill, in my opinion. They are cheaper and also much smaller. Three of them fits into jacket pockets easily, and with the range of focal lengths from 19mm to 50mm you’re covered for most situations, barring perhaps wildlife photography, that these cameras are not suited for, anyway.

Sigma DP2 Merrill: All-Around Camera That’s Built Like a Tank

This review is about my experiences with the Sigma DP2 Merrill camera which I’ve had for about a year and a half now. I also own the DP3 Merrill and am planning to write a separate article on that camera, too. As a comparison, however, the DP2 has a wider lens and is suited for more varied shooting than the DP3. Sigma DP3 Merrill is a semi-specialist camera that will give beautiful results when photographing portraits or, for example, architectural detail shots.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

Sigma DP2 Merrill, on the other hand, is a wonderful all-around camera. I’ve used it for doing street photography, as well as for architecture and nature. For all these purposes, the camera is a really handy shooter. It weighs 330 gm and has a size of 122 x 67 x 59 mm. In other words, it is a small and light camera that’s easy to carry with you, in your hand or around your neck, hanging from a strap. The bulky lens protruding from the body is also useful as it gives your fingers a place to hold the camera in a sturdy grip while taking photos. The bulk of the lens means that the camera will not fit into your jeans pocket – a small price to pay for the comfort of shooting and the image quality.

The camera body is made out of aluminium and feels strong as a tank. I’ve dropped mine on stony ground while juggling the camera in my right hand and holding a dog leash in the left while being pulled by the bigger one of my dogs whose leash was attached to my belt on one of our bush walks. My heart did jump in my chest and possibly skipped a beat when I felt the camera slip from my fingers but luckily it survived with just a dent to one of its corners. While I might have lost some of the resale value of the camera, it’s functionality didn’t suffer in the fall at all. I still don’t recommend taking photos while walking your dogs. I’m probably too old to change my habits but you might still have hope. In any case, you are being warned.

What’s Wrong, What’s Right

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

All Sigma DP Merrill cameras came out in 2012. In an industry where new models of cameras are released every year a six-year old camera is ancient. It is true that in some respect the Merrills are pretty much obsolete. Their video recording capabilities, as an example, are limited to VGA quality or 640×480 resolution.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

The Merrill cameras don’t have any kind of image stabilisation. There is no built-in flash or an electronic viewfinder (EVF). The LCD screen used for composing images doesn’t articulate in any direction. The camera writes image files on the memory card very slowly. It may take 20 seconds to finish saving one image.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

This would all be tolerable if it wasn’t for a couple of other drawbacks. What’s affected my experience with Sigma DP3 Merrill negatively the most, is the poor battery life. A battery may last me an hour if I’m shooting conservatively. If I really go snap happy it won’t last even that long.

Another major limiting factor is the degraded image quality at higher ISOs than 400. For decent photos, you will have to be photographing in good light, which makes Sigma DP2 Merrill a daytime camera only.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

Actually, I take it back. None of these weaknesses have stopped me from enjoying this camera. Except once when I ran out of battery midway a beach walk with truly beautiful views. That experience was saved by the fact that I had another camera in my pocket, an old favourite, Ricoh GR. It also reinforced the need to carry more than one battery with you and make sure that they are all fully charged.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

As to the less-than-optimal ISO quality, I mostly photograph during the day anyway. If I do need a higher ISO I’ll just use some other camera or, if I’m working professionally, resort to external or on-camera flashes.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

The truth is that Sigma DP2 Merrill is perfect for what it’s meant for: thoughtful, slow photography that will produce images that bring tears to your eyes – that’s how magnificent they look on the screen, once you get home from your walk and have had time to transfer them on your computer.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

One cool thing you’ll find out about the images shot with Sigma DP2 Merrill is when you put them on the computer and view them in Photoshop at 100 percent, 200 percent, 300 percent… The photographs looks just as detailed magnified as they do when viewed at a smaller magnification. And that is really mind-blowing. It’s almost like these photos are vector graphics. That’s how scalable they seem.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

For me, this camera shines at landscape and nature photography. Most of the time there’s no rush when you’re out in the field (an exception being sunsets when you do have to work quickly), and I actually like that the camera is slow. It gives me time to think, and to look around me. I shoot mainly in colour even when I’m composing on the street. I know, however, that the native black and white conversion on Sigma cameras is state-of-the-art. When I do decide to use it I’m always very happy with what I see.

Sigma DP2 Merrill Sample Images

Finally, there’s is one aspect of the camera that I genuinely don’t like. Often the images from Sigma DP2 Merrill seem to have an ugly green colour cast. I don’t know where it comes from or how to avoid it when photographing. A good thing is that it doesn’t occur all the time but when it does happen it’s quite annoying. I can normally get rid of it in the post by lowering the brightness of the greens in the curve tool. If this or any other gimmick doesn’t work there’s always black and white which, as we know, is not bad on Sigma DP2 Merrill.

So, all in all, my experience with Sigma DP2 Merrill has been nothing but positive. If you have the patience, and you can live without decent video or the latest technological innovations, this camera might just be for you.

What is the Foveon X3 Image Sensor

Foveon X3 is an image sensor produced by Sigma Corporation and used by Sigma in consumer cameras and by Toshiba in an industrial camera. There is also one Polaroid camera utilising a Foveon X3 sensor.

Because of the way Foveon sensors gather and record light the images that they produce are quite unlike anything produced by any other types of sensors.

Foveon sensor has separate photodiodes for red, green and blue colours (RGB). Each of the RGB colours are captured at “each point in an image during a single exposure.” (1)

This means that the colour-capturing method that Foveon sensors uses resembles directly that of the photographic film which utilises three different layers of emulsion for recording red, green and blue light. Like film, Foveon X3 sensor has “three layers of pixels” (1) to render light into an electrical current.

Normal digital image sensors – which come in two varieties, the Charged Couple Device (CCD) type and the more common Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) – only capture one colour at each image location.

The resulting digital images, at least in the past, used to lack the rich tonality and saturation that we traditionally associate with film, and now with Foveon. Today, the final look of the image is largely created utilising computer algorithms in-camera or in a post processing software, such as Lightroom, Affinity Photo or DxO PhotoLab. If the photographer so wishes, he can make his digital images virtually indistinguishable from analogue photos.

What the digital images captured by CCD and CMOS sensors lack, though, is the amount of detail and the near scalability that Foveon images possess.

It is true, however, that the playing field has been levelled to an extent. Choosing a camera with a Foveon sensor over any other kind of camera – or film over digital in general – will not necessarily give you an edge in terms of the looks.

The lure of film photography for many hobbyists is somewhere else: in the hands-on experience of dealing with film, having to wait before seeing the images and, for some, developing the film in the dark room. And it may be that a Foveon camera attracts the same kind of people that are interested in film photography: despite being very high-tech, Foveon will force you to go slow. Foveon can also be irresistible for photographers who care for ultimate image quality above convenience.

What the film, and the Foveon sensor, offers a photographer is great colour right out of the box. The level of detail on the Foveon, as mentioned, is also amazing. Technically, the size of the sensor on all the Merrill-cameras is only 15 megapixels but Sigma advertises them as having a 46 megapixel sensor because they record images the size of 4800 x 3200 in three layers. The 15 megapixel image is created in-camera via interpolation using colour information from the all three image layers.. The resolution of the final image will always be 15 megapixels, at maximum.

List of Cameras Using the Foveon X3 Sensor

      Sigma SD9 (a DSLR camera launched in 2002)

        Sigma SD10 (DSLR, 2003)

          Polaroid x530 (Point-and-shoot camera with a zoom lens launched in 2004)

            Sigma SD14 (DSLR, 2006)

              Toshiba Teli CSF5M7C3L18NR (Industrial camera used for microscopy, machine vision and other medical and industrial imaging applications. Launched in 2007)

                Sigma DP1 Merrill (Fixed-lens camera with a 19mm lens, launched in 2012)

                  Sigma DP2 Merrill (Fixed-lens camera with a 30mm lens, launched in 2012)

                    Sigma DP3 Merrill (Fixed-lens camera with a 50mm lens, launched in 2012)

                      Sigma DP0 Quattro (Fixed-lens camera with a 14mm lens, launched in 2015)

                        Sigma DP1 Quattro (Fixed-lens camera with a 19mm lens, launched in 2015)

                          Sigma DP2 Quattro (Fixed-lens camera with a 30mm lens, launched in 2015)

                            Sigma DP3 Quattro (Fixed-lens camera with a 50mm lens, launched in 2015)

                              Sigma SD Quattro (Mirrorless interchangeable lens camera launched in 2016)

                                Sigma SD Quattro H (Mirrorless, 2016)


                                (1) X3 TECHNOLOGY: DIRECT IMAGE SENSORS – An entirely new way to capture color:

                                All photos copyright Markus Jaaskelainen 2018.

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