Gear Sigma SD1
Sigma SD1 Gear
The Sigma SD1
Sigma has been producing DSLRs aimed at the professional market for
several years now, and its latest model ups the ante still further with
more resolution than ever and a hefty £6000+ price tag
WordS & PICTURES Dave Wall
et’s face it, I have the best job in the
world. I get to take photographs all
day (which I still love doing) and,
thanks to the editor letting me loose on
test equipment, I get to try out the latest
kit pretty much before anyone else gets
their hands on it. Kid and sweetie shop
springs to mind! Occasionally, and only
occasionally, this can get even better. Like
being one of the first people in the UK to
get their hands on the new Sigma SD1 for
review! Result! The timing couldn’t be
better either, and with a studio full of sexy
product just begging to be photographed
and a model shoot on the horizon, the SD1
should feel right at home.
Now all of us have heard of Sigma,
and while this is a company with a huge
reputation for the quality of the lenses
it produces, it is far less well known for
its cameras, especially those that are
pitched at the pro arena. Sigma is hoping
that all this is about to change however.
Its new SD1 flagship has been specifically
designed to offer what is described as
medium-format quality in a DSLR body,
and it does this with the aid of the largest
Foveon sensor ever made. Impressively this
has the capacity to deliver a reputed 46MP
(albeit in APS-C format), which should help
to sort the men from the boys...
The camera in action
So, what do you get for £6199.99 body
only? A lightweight weather-sealed
magnesium body, 77 segment metering
system, 11 point cross hair focus sensors,
internal dust filter, 3in 460,000 pixel LCD
screen and, of course, that tantalising
promise of ‘medium-format quality’.
Using the SD1
for fashion
shoots can be
very rewarding
in terms of
image quality.
The detail is
excellent but
performance is
let down by a
small internal
buffer causing
very slow
Such a shame
as the quality
of images in
this type of
is as good as
it gets from a
First impressions of the SD1 are a
welcome surprise to be honest. Sigma isn’t
renowned for making pretty cameras, and
indeed the SD1 wouldn’t win any beauty
prizes, but in my opinion it is by far the best
looking camera Sigma has ever produced.
Its sculpted grip is a pleasure to hold and
the non-stick coating on the camera is
second to none. It feels well built (as most
Sigma cameras do) and should be able to
take the rigours of a pro life very well.
The 3in LCD screen is good (if rather
blue) and most of the button placement
has been very well thought through, the
exposure compensation button being the
exception. Who thought of putting it right
next to the shutter button? Don’t get me
wrong, it doesn’t get in the way, but take a
look at the product shots and see what you
think. To me it just looks plain odd!
Sigma SD1
Price: £6199.99
Storage: Compact Flash
Lens Mount: Sigma SA bayonet mount
Lens Magnification: Approx 1.5x
Image Sensor: X3 direct image sensor (CMOS)
Effective Pixels 46MP (3 layers)
Aspect Ratio 3:2
Viewfinder Frame Coverage: 98% vertical, 98% horizontal
Auto Focus: Type TTL phase difference detection system
AF Point: 11 points twin cross sensor
AF Point Selection: Automatic Selection, Manual Selection
Active AF point indicator: Superimposed in viewfinder
Built-in Flash: Manual Pop-up
Flash Synch Speed: 1/180sec
LCD Monitor: TFT 3in LCD
Dimensions 145.5mm x 112.5mm x 80mm
Weight: 700g
80 September 2011 Taking your photography to the next level
Taking your photography to the next level September 2011 81
Gear Sigma SD1
Sigma SD1 Gear
“Outside the studio
the SD1 proved
to be a capable
performer but not
outstanding ”
With the SD1 Sigma is clearly going
for the studio market and the company
seems to be aiming higher than rivals such
as Canon, Nikon and Sony if the price is
anything to go by. So what better way to
test out the camera than to spend ten days
putting it through its paces in my busy
studio on a real job? A real baptism of fire
that I wouldn’t wish on any new model!
Now let me say at the outset that I
expect a great deal from my kit and I am
very fussy when it comes to image quality
and usability, especially when working in
a very dark studio, under pressure with
demanding clients on site. Getting to grips
with any new camera system is always a
learning curve and the SD1 proved to be no
exception. As always (because I am a man)
I bumbled around the menu systems for a
while and then resorted to the instructions
for the final pieces of the jigsaw. To be
honest it was all quite straightforward, and
I encountered no more than a couple of
areas of uncertainty, which is a testament to
Sigma. The instruction manual also proved
to be well written on the odd occasion when
I simply had to admit defeat.
The main menu system on the camera is
quite utilitarian but functional none the less,
and the Quick Selection menu is nice and
easy to use and allows you to make most
of the regular adjustments you are likely to
need. Being a commercial shooter the fact
that the ‘mirror-up’ control is located on the
main control dial is a joy to behold (Canon
please take note; it isn’t rocket science)
and everything else fell into the hand very
easily. Even in the dark I was able to navigate
around the body very easily after a couple of
hours. So much so that it felt strange going
back to my Canon, where I achieved lots
of wrong button pushes! Battery life I also
found was excellent over the period of the
test, and this appears to be at least as good
as anything else out there on the market at
the moment. A small point but important.
All that said there are a number of
omissions and some quite serious usability
issues when using the SD1. There is no Live
View for example, which makes critical
focus on small/medium products extremely
difficult and a rather hit and miss affair. With
the entire current crop of high-end DSLRs
having this function right now, and seeing
the kind of market Sigma is aiming at, it
seems a strange and unforgivable omission.
Trying to remedy this omission by using
the new autofocus system doesn’t help
too much either as the SD1 has a tendency
to hunt in low light levels. In a commercial
environment colour is everything and
although the SD1 does allow for custom
white-balancing it does not allow the user to
dial in specific Kelvin values. This may seem
minor but when shooting low-key product
with anything but flash, getting a correct
custom white-balance isn’t always possible.
If, however, you know the colour of your
lights this function is invaluable and the fact
is that it is readily available on other camera
systems aimed at a much lower section of
the market, and really should be found here.
On the subject of colour the SD1 does err
a little on the magenta side of things but
no more than other systems, but the blue
bias offered by the LCD is quite off-putting.
82 September 2011 Taking your photography to the next level
The Foveon
chip really
does produce
smooth and
silky images
with both
highlight and
shadow detail.
The tonality
from the SD1
images is
excellent and
requires less
than its
This however is just a characteristic of the
screen itself and the images themselves are
actually fine when you pull them up.
The main problem I encountered while
giving the SD1 a thorough workout, and
this in my opinion is the camera’s Achilles
heel, is its internal buffer. Even using top
spec Compact Flash cards, the average time
from shutter release to being able to view
and zoom in on an image – to check focus
for example – is 15 seconds for a Raw image!
This time is further increased when long
exposures are taken. This may not seem
much but, by comparison, my 5D Mark II
takes just two seconds. Even on a still life
shoot this is an age, and if you happen to
be working on a portrait or fashion shoot
it quickly becomes unworkable. When
shooting a model portfolio for a prospective
model I ended up using JPEG capture when
shooting to speed things up. Don’t get me
wrong, the JPEGs were excellent but I would
have infinitely preferred Raw. Another area
where the SD1 misses out, and again this
may increasingly be an issue for some, is in
the fact that there is no provision for video
capture. It doesn’t happen to be an issue for
me but at this price bracket adding a pop up
flash while missing out the new buzz toy
seems like a strange decision.
Image quality
From what I saw there is no doubt that the
SD1 can produce superb results in the studio.
Is it medium-format quality? Unfortunately
I would say not. Image quality is comparable
to my Canon 5D Mark II – which is no mean
feat – but rendered no more detail when you
examined files side by side.
Although there is plenty of detail in the
images, where the SD1 lags behind – even
to sub £1000 DSLRs – is when it comes to
ISO performance. The Foveon chip does
not have a great reputation for even mild
ISO levels and, unfortunately, the SD1 still
suffers from this design trait, something
that is clearly visible from the inset images.
The SD1 introduces high levels of noise from
ISO 800 upwards and colour saturation all
but disappears at anything from ISO 1600
and above. In the studio this wouldn’t matter
too much, and there are lots of good noise
reduction software packages available,
but at this price bracket I am sure most
purchasers would require more.
Once I took the SD1 outside the studio it
proved itself to be a capable performer but
not outstanding. Again the level of detail in
the images is excellent, but the metering is
a little erratic and, although the autofocus is
On this image
of fresh Sushi
the SD1 really
shows its
pedigree. With
a little coaxing
and good
glass the level
of detail is
very good, in bright light at least, it is not as
good as high-end Canons or Nikons.
I have in the past raved about the Foveon
sensor and landscapes and the SD1 takes
this to another level completely with smooth
tones, vibrant colours, and a whole new level
of detail. In addition to this a fantastic selling
point of Sigma cameras, and indeed the
whole Foveon sensor line-up, is the ability to
take out the dust filter to allow the camera
to become fully infrared. Being this user
friendly and easy to achieve means the SD1
can handle both full visible spectrum and
infrared pretty much at will, so no need for
two camera bodies in the future!
Back at the computer, processing of the
SD1 files is undertaken, for the time being
at least, by Sigma’s own Raw processing
software, Photo Pro 5. This turned out to be
nicely designed and surprisingly efficient.
Taking your photography to the next level September 2011 83
Gear Sigma SD1
“The biggest
problem of all
is that the SD1
doesn’t really fall
into any category ”
On reflection I have to say that Sigma
should be applauded for taking on the big
boys and tackling a market sector they
seem very keen to conquer. The SD1 is
by far the best camera that Sigma has
produced to date by a long, long way;
however, this alone may not be enough.
The SD1 produces files that are as good
as those from Canon and Nikon’s finest,
but at a high cost: nearly three times as
much as a 5D Mark II for example. I feel
the biggest problem of all is that the SD1
doesn’t really fall into any category. It isn’t
a pure studio camera due to some of the
issues outlined.
It also suffers, in my opinion, from the
fact that it features a Sigma-only lens
mount, which means, for example, that
you don’t have access to any tilt and shift
lenses, which are a must for commercial
product photographers. This really could be
a sticking point for some purchasers.
It isn’t a studio fashion camera either,
due to the poor write speed issues;
however if this were to be addressed then
it easily could be great for this kind of work.
Outdoors the poor ISO performance is a real
problem for the SD1 compared to pretty
much all of its competitors.
The biggest issue I think the SD1 will
encounter is its price, especially in the
current global economic climate. Too
much for too little I fear. With all of these
reservations, will the camera be a game
changer for Sigma? Only time will tell, but I
would have to say it will face a struggle.
As can be seen
from these
sample images
high ISO isn’t
the SD1’s
strong point.
Noise is edging
in as low as
800 ISO and
the images
from just 1600
upwards are all
but unusable
with grain and
very prevalent.
At this price
point this is
a worrying
ISO Comparison
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
Build quality: 5/5 Superbly
built with little to fault.
Ease of use: 3/5
Easy to use from the outset but
slow write speeds really hinder
the camera’s usability.
Image quality: 4/5
Image quality is good but in my
opinion isn’t really up to the
medium-format promise
Thanks go out
to both Sigma
for such a long
loan period
and to Georgia
(the model) for
allowing me
to use images
from her very
first shoot
84 September 2011 Taking your photography to the next level