Just some stuff about photography

INDEX

Sigma DP0 Firmware 2.0

old toy becomes new toy

in Sigma , Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The recent very welcome and generous firmware update (2.0.1) for Sigma’s DP Quattro cameras has added several new dimensions to working with the output. The update brings two major new features:

  • DNG Output
  • SFD (Super Fine Definition mode)

Of the two, DNG is probably the most significant: it means that it is no longer necessary to use Sigma Photo Pro to process raw images.  They can now be opened directly in various DNG compatible applications. I’ve tried Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Photo Mechanic, Alien Skin Exposure, Iridient Developer. They all work fine. This is a huge boost to workflow, and opens up Sigma Quattro cameras to all those put off by having to use Sigma Photo Pro (which, by the way, is actually nowhere as awful as the internet echo chamber would have you believe).

On top of this, you can now use software such as XRite ColorChecker to create customer camera profiles to use in compatible applications.

SFD is a bit more esoteric. SFD mode combines 7 standard frames automatically shot at different exposures to obtain a single file with extended shadow and highlight detail, and lower noise. Basically an auto-HDR, but thankfully without the kitsch. Unlike, say, Olympus in-camera HDR, here all individual frames are saved as RAW and can be selected, discarded, or individually edited in Sigma Photo Pro, if you wish to go too that level of detail (no DNG here).  I’d read some pretty negative opinions of SFD from Sigma SD Quattro owners, so I was curious but not all that excited.

So, yesterday evening I went out to grab a few shows to try all this stuff out. Please note this was just a “kick the tyres” sort of thing, in a context of taking photos that I might actually be interested in, not “testing”, taking a million shots of the pot plant, brick wall, or cat nearest to the couch.

DNG output

The addition of DNG output makes a huge potential difference to workflow enhancement. The question is, what, if anything, are we losing? There are a lot of drawbacks to using Sigma Foveon cameras, but there are also two big plusses, resolution, and colour character. Compromising on either of those arguably makes using the cameras pointless. So, using a frame which is not far off a torture test, with deep shadow and bright highlights, not to mention abundant, potentially troublesome green tones, let’s dive in.

I’ve taken two identical shots, one recorded to X3F file, and the other to DNG. I have processed the X3F file in Sigma Photo Pro (SPP) using “Auto” settings - I don’t usually use Auto, but here it seemed to make sense, as I assume something similar must happen internally in-camera to create RGB data for the DNG file. I’ve opened the DNG file in Lightroom, on default settings, but changed the camera profile to Standard to match SPP. Here are the full frames, compared in Lightroom Library module.

Sd0 dng compare 1

X3F on the left, DNG on the right

Ok, you’re not going to be able to tell much from these, but the idea is to get an overall feel. The colour in the DNG file seems a little muted compared to the X3F. We’ll look at that a bit later.

The top left corner of the shot is a bit troublesome - again, we’ll look at this when discussing the SFD mode, but let’s see how X3F and DNG compare.

Dp0 compare dng tl

Top left crop, DNG version

Dp0 compare x3f tl

Top left crop, X3F version

Well, there are some minor differences, but nothing I’d personally lose sleep over. What gets interesting is looking at the potential for colour calibration.  Using the XRite Colorchecker Passport, a made a quick Lightroom profile for the SD0.

Sd0 dng colour profile

Left, custom profile, right, Sigma standard

The difference there is quite clear. I’m not yet entirely sure I prefer the custom profile version, but I think it is probably more accurate. Personally I actually like the somewhat muted saturation that the Sigma standard profile gives, but well, it’s certainly opening up a whole new dimension. It will be interesting to compare a Sigma custom profiled shot of an identical scene shot with another camera.

Lightroom actually has all the built-in SPP colour modes as profiles under calibration. I assume these come in with the DNG. If Adobe had actually put some effort into actively supporting Sigma Quattro cameras, I think we’d have heard about it.

As I said above, I’m not all that unenthusiastic about SPP, but even so, there are a lot of good arguments for using DNG, and so far, I don’t see any significant drawbacks. The out of camera DNGs are huge - about 110Mb to the 60-ish Mb of a corresponding X3F, but apparently running them through Adobe DNG converter shrinks them with no adverse side effects. I haven’t tried it yet.

SFD Mode

A couple of shots here demonstrate the usefulness of SFD mode. Unfortunately I was in a bit of a hurry, and the location I was shooting from was a bit precarious, so I wasn’t very careful about details and the non-SFD version is shot a f/4.5, so the background is not sharp.  Note that this sort of shot, where there is moving water, is not supposed to work in SFD mode.  I found it to work fairly well. The significant thing here is the highlights, in the patches of bright water. The SFD mode has yielded a lot more highlight detail.

DP0Q0671 x3i 2 full

Full scene, SFD mode

Now, two close ups of the two modes.

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0669

Close up, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0671 x3i crop

Close up, SFD mode

Note, the white balance is different in SFD mode. It was actually much cooler, but I made a rough adjustment in Photoshop. The differences in sharpness are irrelevant, as mentioned above, they are down to to wide an aperture on the non-SFD shot. However, what is significant is the extra detail in the bright water patches in the SFD shot. In the non-SFD shot they are completely blown.  Also, note, from this example, the SFD rendering of blurred water is comparable to the non-SFD. However, at the edge of the full frame, there was some minor leaf movement, and there artefacts do show up. Sometimes they will be acceptable, sometimes not. Indeed, I took a different SFD shot with moving water, and in that case some of the patterns were a bit weird.  But it looks like it could be useful, in some situations.

Note, I didn’t encounter any of the processing time nightmares broadcast on the forums. On my computer, Sigma Photo Pro 6.5.3 took under 2 minutes to process an SFD set (.XFI file). That seems reasonable to me.

A second example was aimed more at shadow detail. The full frame is below (in this case I was more interested in shadow detail).

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658

Looking in detail at the debris in shadow in the lower left:

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658 crop

Close up, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0659 X3i crop

Close up, SFD mode

I would say that is pretty conclusive.

However, the highlights (sky patches, top left) are blown in both cases. The sky was completely overcast, so that is fine, however the loss of detail in the foliage isn’t so impressive. Here the SFD version does a better job, but neither is brilliant. An extreme case, maybe, but also just one of the Foveon sensor’s weak points.

Drm SIGMA dp0 Quattro DP0Q0658 tr2

Close up, top left, standard mode (auto exposure)

DP0Q0659 X3i tl

Close up, top left, SFD mode

I’m not sure how much I might end up using SFD mode. I would imagine it is more generally useful for static subjects in controlled, indoor conditions, but from this very brief trial, it does seem more useful for outdoors photography than I expected. Anyway, I’m certainly not going to complain.

Thanks very much to Sigma for this update - they don’t really get a lot of publicity, but I doubt there is a company today more dedicated to making great photography equipment at reasonable prices. And they just keep improving.

 

 

The Digital XPan, by Sigma

Well, close enough

in Sigma , Wednesday, March 09, 2016

I bought my first Hasselblad XPan in 2000, and in the following 15+ years, I’ve accumulated a large shelf full of binders of negatives and (mainly) slides. I bought it because I liked the widescreen format, and I still do. Although a niche camera, the XPan was pretty popular, initially principally with landscape photographers, many of whom used one alongside an SLR. For me, it was the other way around - the SLR was the “second camera”. The XPan started to fade from view with the advent of DSLRs, and Hasselblad/Fuji stopped producing it in 2006, citing some story about a circuit board not being compliant with some convenient European regulations on lead content.

In recent years it has seen something of a revival, and secondhand prices for good copies have risen higher than the original retail. It seems to be riding a lot on the “back to film” movement, and the accompanying mystique. But there do not seem to be many people around who, like me, bought one back near the release date and never stopped using it.  And even fewer people who shoot slide film (still). It seems to be quite popular nowadays for “street” photography, where the unusual frame gives a novelty effect that compensates for many a shortcoming in the photograph. However, with the lenses having a maximum aperture of f/4, and rangefinder focusing, I’m not personally convinced it is that ideal for street. But I’m no authority on the matter.

For me the biggest frustration with the XPan has nothing directly to do with the camera, but with the rapidly shrinking availability of slide film.  My favourites, Kodak E100G and Fuji Velvia 100F (nothing like the infamous Velvia 50 by the way) have long since departed, Fuji Provia 400X is more or less gone, and the only serious choice left is Fuji Provia 100F, which I never much liked. The revival of Ferrania Film is, so far, inconclusive - initial batches of new film are close to a year overdue. Of course the choices in negative film are a little wider. I like Kodak Porta 400, but it only really suits brightly lit urban scenes. Kodak Ektar 100 is ghastly. And I’m a colour photographer by instinct, not black & white. On top of all of this, the bottom has fallen out of both semi-pro E6 processing, and of the semi-pro film scanner market.  So not only is the writing on the wall, but it’s on every wall in every direction.

So, there’s been a lot of calls, directed mainly at Fuji and Hasselblad, to produce a “Digital XPan”. There’s a snag there, though, because a digital sensor covering the full 65x24 XPan format - two “full frame” sensors side by side -  would be horrendously expensive, even though this seems to be what people want. So the question arises, what do we actually mean by “Digital XPan” ? What are the key features ? Would everybody agree? The answer to the last question is obviously a resounding “no”.

The key features of the XPan, technical and otherwise, are:

  • Native “panoramic” double-frame format
  • On-the-fly selectable standard 35mm frame format
  • Rangefinder manual focussing
  • TTL electronic metering
  • Offbeat, unusual camera
  • Built like a tank
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Very high quality - and expensive - glass
  • Oh yeah… film

Personally, the key feature is the first: a camera which records what-you-see-is-what-you-get panoramic format with a dedicated panoramic viewfinder. In-camera composition is very important to my way of doing and enjoying photography, and for me cropping in Photoshop as some kind of afterthought rarely produces a strong, satisfying image. I emphasise, for me: clearly other people have different opinions. As for film, I’ll fall back again on a quote from one of my heroes of panoramic photography, Stuart Klipper, who when asked why he (still) uses film, replied “because that’s what the Linhof takes”.

So, yes, you can certainly obtain a panoramic frame from any digital camera through post-processing. Many compact cameras also have a 16:9 framing option which you can squint at while holding the camera at arms length in front of your face. But this is simply not the “XPan experience” for me. It doesn’t inspire me, and it doesn’t give me the thrill that seeing the world through the XPan rangefinder does.

And that’s a good time to introduce you to the other camera on the stage here, the Sigma DP0.

P3091492

Sigma DP0 with viewfinder, and Hasselblad XPan

I’ve been using Sigma cameras with their unique Foveon sensor since the 50mm-equivalent DP2 Merrill. As I, and many others have written, when these cameras get their ducks in a row, they are truly fabulous. The rest of the time they’re a disaster area. A while back, Sigma introduced a new lineup, using the revised Quattro sensor. They also introduced what would be politely described as an unusual body design. A lot of people were aghast at this. I thought it was fantastic. But I didn’t buy one at the time, as the DP2M & DP3M I already owned were quite enough.  But then came the announcement of the DP0 ultra wide (21mm equivalent), and buried deep down in the specification, the 21:9 framing option. It seemed that somebody in Japan was thinking along the same lines as me.

P3091494

The DP0 21:9 aspect ratio

So eventually, after a lot of indecision, I got one, along with the hood viewfinder attachment which allows eye-level composition, which as I have said is a must-have for me, and has the additional benefit of making an already strange looking device look downright weird. It’s certainly a conversation starter.

The 21:9 aspect ratio is a bit deeper than the XPan. It is about halfway between the standard 6x12 and 6x17 ratios - the XPan is slightly taller than 6x17. This is actually fine by me. I often found the XPan format a smidgen too wide, and I’ve always pined for a 612 camera. The resolution of the 21:9 DP0 image (5424 x 2324) is approximately half that of an XPan frame scanned at 4000dpi (around 12200 x 4700), but of course the two are not directly comparable. The actual information content is very similar. Of course, the DP0 has a fixed lens, whereas the XPan has three native lenses to choose from (as well as some other fairly dodgy choices via adaptor). The DP0’s 21mm equivalent lens gives a field of view roughly equivalent to the XPan 45mm lens. And they’re both f/4. And both extremely good quality lenses.

Anyway, that’s an awful lot of babble before getting on to the core of the matter: how do they actually compare ? Well, I don’t do “tests” as such, I really cannot be bothered. But recently I took the DP0 to make a few photos in the nearby Golle della Breggia, in a location I remembered shooting with the XPan a few years back.

xpan_ticino11_03_1_09.jpg

XPan, 45mm lens, Kodak E100G, scanned on Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro

drm__20160221_DP0Q0200.jpg

Sigma DP0, processed in Sigma Photo Pro v6.3.2

Of course, these photos are taken at different times of the year, different times of the day, and with different framing, never mind with completely different technology. The only common factor was the photographer. Given that, to my eyes at least they have a quite remarkably similar rendering of colour and tonality. The Minolta scanner, which I have now replaced, also developed a tendency to exaggerate red in the midtowns, which I clearly did not sufficiently correct here. I could certainly get the two photos to look very close in rendition with a few minutes work, but that isn’t the point: what I’m looking to decide is if the DP0 can assume the role of the XPan for me, and I’m tending to believe it can, so far.

It is also interesting to compare resolution. Here again, there is a degree of subjectivity, as the scan is not necessarily optimum, and here no sharpening has been applied (although Sigma Photo Pro allegedly always applies some sharpening). I’ve tried to match two roughly similar areas of the photos, with the DP0 crop at 1:1, and the XPan reduced more or less to match.

DP0

Sigma DP0

XPAN

XPan

So, very, very subjective, but it does look like the Sigma’s Quattro sensor is a match for 4000dpi scanned 35mm Kodak E100G. Not actually a big surprise, although it is probable that with a bit of work I could extract a little more detail from the film.

The XPan still has at least two advantages - the 30mm and 90mm lenses. But in terms of overall end to end user experience, there is a remarkable similarity between the two cameras. Indeed, it can be as time consuming to extract a processed file from Sigma Photo Pro as it is to make a good film scan…

One are where the DP0 wins outright, however, is low light photography. You can do long exposures on film, but dealing with reciprocity failure is painful, especially with slide film. The DP0, on the other hand, will cheerfully make an exposure up to 30 seconds (but no more, let’s not carried away here).  Also, I really like the way the Foveon sensors (both Merrill and Quattro) render tungsten lighting. So to wrap up here are a few shots from my first major outing with the DP0 in Venice.

drm_20151215_DP0Q0035.jpg
drm_20151215_DP0Q0053.jpg
drm_20151215_DP0Q0034.jpg
drm_20151215_DP0Q0058.jpg

It is tempting to draw a conclusion from the fact that since I’ve owned the DP0, the XPan has sat on the shelf. But it is early days yet, and there haven’t really been many opportunities to use it recently. I certainly wasn’t going to take it to Colombia. There are also some situations in which I don’t really trust the Sigmas, in particular snow and ice.  And although the Quattro has much better battery life than the Merrill, it’s still pushing it to reach 100 shots.  Then again, processing 100 shots in Sigma Photo Pro takes roughly a decade, so perhaps it’s just as well.

But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the Sigma DP0, with the LCD viewfinder, set at 21:9, is the closest digital camera I’ve found so far in terms of handling and user experience to the Hasselblad XPan. And it’s a great camera in its own right, fun to use and with devastatingly high quality output.

 

 

Film, or Foveon ?

fish, or fowl?

in Sigma , Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Ah, the eternal quandary of the dilettante art photographer: film, or digital ? And if digital, which kind of digital ?  For many, the ultimate expression of film in these End Days is Kodak Portra 400, with its oh so aesthetic transparent, lucid, indeed filmic quality. Or to put it another way, washed out. And that description is not exactly unreminiscent of the way Sigma Foveon digital sensors paint the world. So, which is “better” ? The two examples here offer no conclusion, are not a test, and make nothing other than an observation.  And they’re taken with completely different lenses, so obviously the framing and viewpoint are quite different (the sign on the wall at the left of the second photo can be seen on the right of the first, beneath the stairs).  But the scene, lighting and time of day are the same.

The first, on Portra 400 120 roll film, was taken using my Voigtländer Bessa III (aka Fuji GF670). It has an 80mm lens, so near enough 50mm in old money equivalence. It’s probably the last (serious) medium format film camera ever to be designed, and it’s probably the best fixed lens MF rangefinder ever. The rendering of the Porta 400 film was entrusted to Silverfast’s NegaFix tool, scanned at 5300dpi on the OpticFilm, which at this setting easily resolves grain.

drm_B667_Dec15_12_07.jpg

The second was taken using the quite remarkable (in several senses of the word) Sigma DP0 Quattro.  This has a Foveon Quattro sensor producing a file roughly equivalent, so they say, to a standard 39Mpix sensor. Which is quite big enough. More to the point, it produces absolutely gorgeous, natural, transparent, lucid, indeed filmic colours. In my opinion, anyway. In this case the lens is a highly corrected, good enough for architecture, 14mm, which is near enough to 21mm in old money.

drm_20151216_DP0Q0093.jpg

So which is best ? I don’t know. I’m happy with both. They don’t call me Indecisive Dave for nothing, you know. One might expect digital to be more convenient than film, but Sigma levelled that one with a (ahem) fabulous piece of mandatory software called Sigma Photo Pro. Of course, I could also have compare with my standard, sensible Olympus digital camera. But there’s no fun in being sensible.

 

 

The Digital XPan ?

it just could be…

in Sigma , Thursday, December 03, 2015

Well, it’s here. The (maybe, possibly) “Digital XPan”. As I mentioned yesterday, I found that Amazon Germany was selling the Sigma DP0 Viewfinder kit for €780, if I followed an advertising link on an external site.  Going direct to Amazon, it was listed at €1000. Very strange, but I grabbed the opportunity, and they delivered. And it arrived this afternoon, and as soon as I could charge up the battery, I managed to escape from work for 15 minutes and took a couple of test shots, using the 21:9 aspect ratio.

drm_dp0q_20151204_0005
drm_dp0q_20151204_0007
drm_dp0q_20151204_0009

The camera has a very unusual shape, but I find it quite nice to hold. It’s built like a tank, like the Merrills, but perhaps with a touch more elegance. The manual is totally unnecessary: the controls and menu on the Sigma are second to none, and the QS “Quick Select” button brings up a page which is even improved on the Merrill version.  I accidentally shot at ISO800, which would have been a disaster on the Merrills, but it’s ok here. The Foveon colours are as delicate and realistic as ever.

So, is it an approximation to a digital XPan? My very, very, first impression is that it might just be.

The Margin

avoiding the easy option

in Sigma , Thursday, November 19, 2015

This is a bit of a geeky post, but whatever. I’ve always been attracted to the more marginal aspects of whatever topic I pursue. Probably because the margins are less crowded, and I don’t have to talk to people. Photography is no exception. I’ve never owned a Nikon or Canon DSLR, although my earliest film SLRs were Canons, initially “borrowed” from my father. In the digital world I backed the Olympus horse early on, and have only ever owned Olympus interchangeable lens cameras. These days they’re getting uncomfortably popular, but I found the solution to that by settling on the black sheep PEN E-P5 rather than the much more popular (rightly so) OM-D series. Oh, I can rationalise my choices, no problem.

drm_dp3m_20151115_0012_2.jpg

But my choice of the less popular range of what is still a marginal brand is totally overshadowed by what could really be my favourite cameras ever - and due to a eccentric decision by an eccentric, loss making wing of an eccentric company, it is cameras, plural - the Sigma Merrills. I’ve got two of these fantastic (in every sense of the word) devices, the DP2M and DP3M, with, respectively, equivalent 50mm and 75mm lenses. These cameras are the essence of the best in Japanese culture, but they also exhibit some of the weaknesses of small companies. Sigma is a private company run by enthusiasts for the love of photography and fine optical craftsmanship. They manage to turn a profit, too, and recently some of their lenses have been favourably compared to the best of Zeiss, and under a quarter of the price.  The lenses which are bolted on the front of these strange little “Merrill” boxes are exquisite. As, in my opinion, are the boxes.

dp2m_20151115_0017.jpg

The Merrill cameras (there are 3, but I don’t own the 28mm DP1) produce absolutely stunning output. The colour, the liquidity, the depth, the detail all remind me of the very best of slide film, only without the ultra narrow dynamic range and total lack of exposure latitude. Unfortunately, they also share the dislike of slide film of anything over 400 ASA (on a good day).

The handling is a mix of excellent and appalling. The excellent part is the electronic and physical control: the buttons, dials and menu work together to produce the smoothest, most intuitive user interface I’ve ever encountered on a camera, or indeed any other device. But then comes the rest: the camera itself is basically a rectangular box with a lens bolted on the front. It’s a very solidly constructed box, but it’s not terribly comfortable to hold. In particular the DP3M feels very unbalanced, with its relatively large, heavy lens. But the worst part is the viewfinder, or rather the lack of one. Sigma do sell optical viewfinders. I have one on the DP2M, and a Voigtlander viewfinder on the DP3M. But both offer approximate framing, and of course no readout or preview of any kind. The focus acquisition light is visible while looking through the viewfinder, but you have no idea what it has locked on to. But anyway, since there are only 9 AF points, all quite closely clustered in the middle of the frame, so actually it doesn’t much matter.

drm_dp3m_20151115_0006.jpg

The LCD is ok, quite good actually, but my eyesight, while ok, is no longer good enough at close range to use a screen for focussing without glasses, and since I only use glasses for reading, it gets really, really awkward. Fine on a tripod, of course, but otherwise a total pain. Also, for me accurate framing is important - composition is maybe one thing I’m not too bad at, and for me it’s a very instinctive thing. Getting the framing right in camera is a major contribution to my enjoyment of photography - it’s a subconscious thing, I don’t make a big deal out of it, but when I can’t quite get connected in that way it’s very frustrating. And the Merrills really, really get in my way in that respect.

dp2m_20151115_0023.jpg

Which, ultimately, is why they spend a lot of time on the shelf.  But when I do decide to take them out, and they get all their many, chaotic ducks in a row, and they don’t decide to produce totally haywire, irrecoverable white balance interpretations, they astonish and delight me every time.  When the time finally comes to drop film, they’ll be waiting.

dp2m_20151115_0025.jpg

All photos from a wander last weekend around the area of the Lucomagno Pass, Ticino.