Reviewed by Mark Degner
“Really, a 46MP compact camera with no zoom lens?” That’s the first question that most photographers ask when they hear about the Sigma DP3 Merrill. Next comes, “It’s a compact camera, so the image quality can’t be that good, can it?” Well the answers are yes, it’s a 46MP compact camera with a fixed focal length lens and the image quality is excellent. Good things can come in small packages and the Sigma DP3 Merrill is a great example of that, but it’s not without its issues.
The Sigma DP3 Merrill (DP3M) is the newest and third compact camera in the Merrill line-up, joining the DP1 Merrill (DP1M) and DP2 Merrill (DP2M), but it isn’t a replacement model as all three cameras have different, non-interchangeable, fixed focal length lenses. The DP1M has a 19mm f/2.8 lens, the DP2M a 30mm f/2.8 lens, and the DP3M a 50mm f/2.8 macro lens. Since all three cameras have an APS-C type sensor their full-frame equivalences are 28.5mm, 45mm, and 75mm respectively.
The DP3M has a 46MP FOVEON X3 APS-C sized CMOS sensor, the same sensor used in both the DP1M and DP2M compact cameras and the Sigma SD1 Merrill DSLR. The Foveon X3 technology used in this sensor is quite different than that found in all other CCD and CMOS sensors, which use a Bayer Matrix. I don’t have the space to discuss the pros and cons of the two types of sensor technology; suffice to say that the Foveon X3 sensor in the DP3M is capable of producing images with outstanding resolution. However, it’s the Foveon technology that also creates one of the DP3M’s issues. There’s only one third-party RAW conversion program (Iridient Developer) that I’m aware of, and popular programs like Adobe Lightroom or Camera RAW and Apple Aperture can’t process the DP3M’s RAW files. In order to process the DP3M’s RAW files you have to use Sigma’s free Sigma Photo Pro. There’s nothing wrong with this program — it just means you have to learn how to use another software program.
The 50mm f/2.8 macro lens is a great match with the DP3M’s sensor. It has 10 elements in eight groups with special low dispersion glass accompanied by aspherical elements to compensate for a variety of aberrations and to allow for a more compact size. It has a minimum focusing distance of 22.6 cm and a magnification ratio of 1:3, making it great for close-up photography. From my test shots I found the lens produces images that have very good edge-to-edge sharpness and there’s almost no chromatic aberration. The lens has a seven-blade diaphragm that produces a pleasing bokeh.
The DP3M uses contrast detection auto focus and has nine focus points. Relative to other digital cameras, the auto focus is slow in low-light and low-contrast situations. The large focus ring on the lens rotates smoothly, making manual focusing easy and, combined with focus magnification, accurate. Surprisingly, there’s no built-in stabilization, either in the lens or body. This by itself is not necessarily a problem, but when combined with the fact that image quality falls off at higher ISOs (ISO 400 for JPEGs and ISO 800 for RAW files) means that the use of a tripod or monopod is needed to get the best quality images possible.
Although considered a compact camera, its non-retractable lens means that the DP3M won’t fit into your shirt pocket. It has a high-quality build and you can feel that quality when you hold it; it’s not a lightweight. It’s comfortable to hold and the controls are well laid out with a simple interface. It has a large, 3.0-inch, 920K pixel colour LCD monitor, but unfortunately it doesn’t tilt or swivel. I found that the DP3M’s Quick Preview (displaying the image on the LCD screen after it’s captured) was slow when taking RAW images (about 15 seconds), but a lot quicker with JPEGs (about one second). If you’re interested in doing video then the DP3M is not the camera for you; it does have video capability, but only a very basic 640×480 VGA quality. Battery life is surprisingly poor and it appears Sigma knows this as they include two batteries with the camera.
The Sigma DP3 Merrill, which retails for $799.99, doesn’t have all the features found on other cameras and it has some quirks, but it can produce superb quality images, especially at lower ISOs. If you can live with its shortcomings then you won’t be disappointed with its results.
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