As I confessed a little while back, I failed to resist the temptation to buy yet another camera. But the Sigma DP2 Merrill seemed irresistible, especially given that its cantankerous and awkward nature dovetails so closely with mine. I managed to convince myself that, potentially, it could be a fantastic tool to use in Antarctica. So, here are some thoughts on how it worked out.
First of all, it would have been a lot easier if some low-life scumbag had not stolen my shoulder bag in Buenos Aires, which at the time contained my 3 spare batteries for the Sigma, and its lens cap. And a few other things, but of no value whatsoever to the aforementioned scumbag (note, this is just part of life in Buenos Aires. Thievery is rampant. But 99.99% of the people are great).
This setback led to me using the Sigma a lot less, since one battery gives, at best, 70 shots. Had I used it more, I might have got more familiar with it, which might have altered my experience with in in Antarctica. But I’m not sure of that.
My DP2M is equipped with an optical viewfinder, lens hood and JM combo grip. All three were very useful.
The DP2M is actually quite well designed. The menu system is clear and well laid out, and the various buttons are fairly obvious. In calm conditions, with plenty of time to think, it’s fine. However, in a Zodiac, in snow, wind and rain, it is a bit of a handful. The main problem lies with focussing and composing, which is a bit crucial, really. To focus, you need to use the rear screen, and unfortunately, in most conditions I find it quite hard to do this without reading glasses. I’m not getting any younger. You can of course get a focus confirm light close enough to see when looking through the optical viewfinder, but that doesn’t tell you what you’re focussing on. One way to work was to take a quick glance at the screen first to see where the chosen focus was looking, roughly, then compose through the viewfinder. This worked ok sometimes, obviously better for distant subjects. Another method is to use manual focus, but that requires glasses to work well. Or to use autofocus on a blurry object on the screen, matching this up with what I could actually see in front of me. All in all it’s a miracle that anything was in focus.
Another associated problem involves the shutter button. It is far to sensitive, especially for the focus and recompose, or focus-on-point-that-penguin-is-heading-for method. The difference between a half press and a full press is marginal, and the lightest pressure will trigger the shutter. This is even trickier when wearing gloves.
Finally, one has to pay careful attention when moving the focus point around in case by mistake you’re altering the exposure compensation. Or vice-versa. Oh, and the focus mode button can trip you up to, especially if you accidentally leave it in “limiter” mode, and then try to work out why you can’t focus on anything close.
All of these issues don’t really arise on a pleasant sunny day when you have all the time in the world, but photography from a moving platform in cold, damp and windy conditions is another matter altogether.
So what about the results ? Well, one thing I might have discovered if I’d used it more is that the DP2M underexposes drastically in snowy conditions, by around and sometimes over 2 stops. The histogram on the back of the camera is near-useless, so it isn’t until getting into post-processing that this becomes really noticeable. And I didn’t have much time to dive into Sigma Photo Pro onboard ship. Speaking of post-processing, I was pleased to find that Iridient Developer 2.0 was released while I was away, and it supports the Sigma Merrill files. However, having run a whole series through it, I discovered it has some serious issues dealing with less than perfectly exposed files. Most of my Antarctic shots feature grey skies, and in the Iridient interpretations of these there is often drastic variation of colour balance across the width, with nasty green tinging on both edges. This was … disappointing. However, Sigma Photo Pro actually works some magic which removes this effect pretty much altogether. Iridient is much easier to use, and more sophisticated, and I love its split toning sliders, but for now with these images the only solution is SPP + Photoshop.
In conclusion, I’m tempted to say that it really wasn’t a very successful experiment. However, there was a degree of operator inexperience involved, and the totally abysmal weather didn’t help either. Probably I wasn’t committed enough either, as I had two other cameras with me! Half of me feels like strongly advising against using this camera in such conditions, but the other half feels that there was a lot of lost opportunity.
Here’s a few initial stabs at processed photos. Maybe it wasn’t a complete disaster…