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A Preliminary Look at the Sigma SD14

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I'm intrigued by the new DSLR from Sigma, the SD14. It's a 14-megapixel camera that uses a direct image sensor capable of detecting red, green and blue light at every pixel. The product brochure states: "The elements of this 14-megapixel sensor are arranged in three colorsensing layers, comparable to the three layers of emulsion in photographic film." Sure enough, the photos they show on their site and in their brochures are stunning. The level of detail and sharpness are fantastic. Were they taken with the SD14? I don't know, but my interest is certainly piqued.

The camera isn't in stores yet; it's going to launch early this year. It looks like the retail price will be around $1,600. In this preview, I want to have a closer look at the specs of this beautiful camera, and see how they compare to other mid-level DSLRs.

Sigma SD14First and foremost, there's the sensor. It's a newly developed Foveon X3. Here's what Foveon says about their new sensor: "Similar to the layers of chemical emulsion used in color film, Foveon X3 image sensors have three layers of pixels. The layers of pixels are embedded in silicon to take advantage of the fact that red, green, and blue light penetrate silicon to different depths – forming the first and only image sensor that captures full color at every point in the captured image."

So, it looks like this sensor is groundbreaking, much more so than any other currently on the market. But is it unique to Sigma? Isn't it found in Canon and Nikon cameras? We need look no further than the Foveon site, which lists the cameras currently using this sensor as the Sigma SD9, Sigma SD10, Polaroid x530, Hanvision HVDUO-5M and Hanvision HVDUO-10M. It turns out the Sigma SD14 not only uses a pretty unique sensor, but it uses the latest and greatest version as well, the Fx17-78-F13D, which isn't yet used in any other camera on the market.

As you can see, none of the other cameras that use Foveon can boast 14-megapixels. It's also reassuring to know this is a third generation sensor, so most of the kinks should have been worked out by now. Furthermore, it looks like just about any camera on the market that uses regular CCD sensors is inferior to the Sigma, simply because of the Foveon sensor's capability to reproduce color more faithfully. Instead of having to manipulate the image through computations in order to render proper color, the Sigma can just rely on natural color capture through the Foveon sensor, which I'm pretty sure is a great advantage if it works as advertised.

From what I've seen in the brochures, I like the controls. As Sigma says, they've simplified them and eliminated extraneous functions. All I see on the mode dial is P, A, S and M. The on/off dial turns easily for burst, timer and long exposure settings. I like the shape and size of the camera as well. The simplicity of design is exemplified in the accessories.

There aren't a ridiculous number of them. You've got the nice battery pack that holds two batteries and screws onto the tripod mount, a remote and cable release, two flash guns, one more advanced yet both featuring a bounce head (which is something I don't see on all Canon and Nikon flashes), and an AC adapter. The standard accessories are what one would expect with a camera: battery, charger, USB cable, strap, caps, software and the product manual. I like the built-in flash as well. Yes, I know, an external flash is better, but let's face it: a built-in flash works great for fill-in light during daytime shots, and also works well for indoor shots at close range. External flash is the way to go if you're serious about lighting, but it's not always convenient to pull it out of the bag and mount it on the camera.

As I talk about the rest of the SD14's specs, I'm going to compare it with Canon EOS 5D and the Nikon D200, which are my favorite DSLRs and are also cameras that have set new standards in the field of digital photography. The SD14 is supplied by default with a dust protector that is "put in place with a single action". I'm not quite sure what that means, but I assume a button on the camera or in the central menu controls it. This is good. Anything that camera manufacturers can do to minimize dust gathering on the sensor is a good thing.

It's interesting that the camera only has a 5-point distance measurement for autofocus. Certainly Sigma has plenty of experience with AF, having designed lenses for a long time. But the Canon EOS 5D has a 9-point AF with 6 supplemental points, while the Nikon D200 has an 11-area AF. Are 5 points enough? I guess we'll find out when the SD14 comes to the market.

SD14's pentaprism looks to be better than that of the EOS 5D. It's rated at 98%x98%, while the Canon has theirs at 96%x96%. The Nikon D200 doesn't list this info in their specs, though I'd venture to guess they're in the ballpark. The LCD monitor is at 2.5 inches and 150,000 pixels, which is the same size as on the Canon 5D and Nikon D200, but lower in resolution than theirs, which are both rated at 230,000 pixels. To be fair, coverage for the SD14 and 5D is listed at 100%, while it's only at 95% for the Nikon.

The mirror lockup function, which minimizes vibration and reduces camera shake, seems to be unique to the SD14. I didn't find it in the specs for either Canon or Nikon. The DOF (Depth of Field) preview is standard on the SD14, and it's also found on the higher-end Canon and Nikon cameras. As for the other specs, they pretty much match the EOS 5D and Nikon D200, so I'll only note the differences.

The SD14's ISO sensitivity only goes up to 800, although 1600 is listed in Extended Mode. Both the Canon 5D and Nikon D200 go up to ISO 1600, and the 5D even goes up to 3200 in Expansion Mode, which I assume is similar to the SD14's Extended Mode. I wonder why the SD14 doesn't go up to 1600 naturally, and my guess is that it's a limitation of this generation of Foveon sensors. The sensitivity will likely be extended with the next-generation sensors.

I also have to wonder how an ISO800 photo on the SD14 compares to an ISO800 photo on the Canon or Nikon. How does it fare in low light? Will there be noise, or will the photos come out clear and beautiful, like they should? Even better, will its light sensitivity trump that of the Canon and Nikon, even if they do go up to 1600? I'd love to find out for myself! I also need to point out that the top shutter speed, at 1/4000th of a second, is also only half that of the 5D or D200, which both go up to 1/8000th of a second. It remains to be seen how well the sensor compensates for that in real world use.

Since geotagging photos has become so mainstream nowadays, it would have been nice to see some sort of GPS functionality on the SD14, perhaps like the one on the Nikon D200, which allows the photographer to connect a GPS device to the camera and record coordinates to the EXIF data for every photo. These coordinates then get picked up automatically and placed on a map when using a geotagging-enabled site like Zooomr. To be fair, not even the Canon EOS 5D has a feature like this, so I'm not heartbroken, just a little disappointed.

The dimensions and weight of the SD14 are similar to those of the EOS 5D and Nikon D200. The SD14 is 144mm wide, slightly less than the D200 at 147mm or the EOS 5D at 152mm. It's also slightly shorter, at 107.3mm, than the D200 and EOS 5D, both of which are 113mm tall. It is, however, thicker; this I like, because there's more to hold and that tends to stabilize the shots. It's 80.5 mm deep, whereas the D200 is 74mm, and the EOS 5D is 75mm.

It's also lighter than the other two. At 700g for the body, it's 130 grams lighter than the D200, and 110 grams lighter than the EOS 5D. I welcome that, because when you add an external flash or battery pack to a serious DSLR, it gets so heavy you might as well use it for weightlifting. Any weight that gets trimmed off is okay by me.

Battery life is somewhat lower than that of either the EOS 5D and the Nikon D200. The SD14 can take approximately 500 shots on a single battery charge at normal temperatures, and 400 shots at near zero-degree temperatures. The EOS 5D can take approximately 800 and 400 shots at normal and low temperatures, respectively. The Nikon D200 can take up to 1,800 shots per charge at normal operating temperatures; no stats are quoted for low temperatures on their site. Again, to be fair, I think this has to do with the Foveon sensor. Instead of a single layer that must be kept charged, it has three separate layers. I haven't dug deeply into the Foveon X3 specs, but I gather the sensor probably uses about 3 times as much power as a regular single-layer sensor. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong on this.) That means the battery life of the SD14 is actually great. Were it using a single-layer sensor, like the 5D or D200, it would be able to take approximately 1,500 shots on a single charge at normal operating temperatures.

It looks like the SD14 is a natural, unstrained progression for Sigma. After making lenses, then film SLRs, then 1st and 2nd generation DSLRs using the Foveon sensor, they've graduated to the SD14, which looks to be a beauty of a camera. If you'd like more information about the SD14, you can access the brochures easily. Click on each link to download a PDF in English: Concept, Product and Major Specifications, or just visit the Sigma SD14 website.

To sum up, the Sigma SD14 matches the operating specs of the Canon EOS 5D and Nikon D200 in every other aspect except the ones outlined above, and that's a tall order. It also trumps them when it comes to the groundbreaking Foveon X3 sensor. I'm really impressed with this camera, and plan on having a closer look at it as soon as I can get my hands on one.

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About Raoul

  • Robert Grabowski

    I read another review of the SD14 that said that the focal plane shutter has been redesigned so that it does not shed material onto the sensor. I have an SD10 and its focal plane shutter sprays the sensor with particles on every frame. I have spent more time cleaning the sensor and removing black spots from images than I have been taking pictures. It does not matter how good the image sensor is if the focal plane shutter self destructs into it. I really hope Sigma got this serious problem on the SD10 fixed in the design of the SD14.

  • John

    The Canon Eos 5D has mirror lockup through custom function 12. The Nikon D200 also has mirror lockup. You say in the above text, the Canon and Nikon are your favorite SLR cameras, but you could not find the mirror lockup in the specs for either camera. Have you actually used them? The real world importance of 4000th versus 8000th of a second shutter speed is arguably irrelevant. Far more importantly how does the Sigma compare to the Nikon and Canon in the areas of frame rates, burst depths, body flash control, LCD size, color spaces on offer, file formats available, white balance quality and image quality? I would like to know. I know the latter two can not be judged until an example becomes available.

  • Yves

    Very Very Very intersting indeed !
    I want to buy an SLR camera and my short list choice was focused on either the D200 or the 5D. I falled by chance on the nes SD14 and after that my mind was completly confuse :-)
    Your feature is very intersting for me and I hope strongly that you will have the opprotunity to test the new SD14. I am waiting impatiently the results.
    kind Regards,
    yves

  • Richard

    foveon x3 is great on sites with a good sunny daylight, indoors; high ISO…, otherwise cmos is better.

    And the fantstic picture of the sigma web is retouched of course.

    Advantages of foveon as i’ve said, sunny days and patterns with small repeated shapes/colors where you avoid moire that you can get with ccd and cmos.

    if canon gets this tech i wont doubt on buying a new camera(if they were not expensive)

  • Richard

    I meant NOT indoors; high ISO…

  • Yves

    Do you have any irrefutable proof that pictures presented on Foveon web site are retouched ?
    I was so impressed by the quality and the fineness of the pictures. I sent a mail to Foveon and they ensured that pictures are not retouched. Who to believe ?
    Kind Regards,
    yves

  • Yves

    Oups ! just fergot to ask you if there is any issue when indoor, flash or low light …
    Rgds,
    yves

  • http://http//www.pbase.com/chunsum Chunsum Choi

    Very nice article.

    Sample images from the SD14 are available now with more to come.

    to Robert G.: the new shutter is very well executed. quiet, quick, and smooth.

    to Richard: AFAIK the images shown on the Foveon site were not “retouched”.

    to ALL: you can find loads of Foveon/Sigma images

    best to all.

  • Yves

    To Chunsum Choi :
    I have seen the pictures : very impressive.
    I think that my definitive choice is done :-)
    As I have not unlimited financial means, I want to buy two zoom lens. Which one would you recommand for this camera in order to cover as much as possible all kind of pictures?

    To all others : are you also impressed by the quality of the pictures or am I raving ??? Do you think that picture quality are much better than what can produce another camera (Nikon D200 or Canon 5D)

  • Yves

    I have testes the Sigma SD14 with the two lenses :
    18-50mm F2,8 DC EX Macro
    50-150mm F2,8 APO DC EX

    I have shooted about 50 pictures in Raw mode (between 15-18 Megabytes per file) in various conditions of lighting. Then I have converted them on my PC through Sigma software without any correction. Jpeg files weight is between 5-8 Megabytes per file. I was so impressed by the quality of pictures, fineness of details and colours produced. It is also very simple to use use. Absolutly fantastic for me !
    But my final choice is not completly done as I must also test the new Fuji S5 Pro.

  • http://www.pbase.com/chunsum Chunsum Choi

    Here’s an article done by Mike Chaney of Qimage where he has some interesting points and findings.

  • Yves

    Analyzing in depth some pictures, especially in dark parts I have noticed quite a lot of noise (mauve/purple pixels, or even straight spots).
    I was so surprised by this bad result compared to the pictures posted on the official Sigma internet site. Those are more than perfect !!!
    Also pictures from Mike Chaney of Qimage have the same issue …
    I have communicated this issue to Sigma Switzerland. It seems that some cameras have this defect. A firmare update should solve it …
    Personally I have already done 2 tests with te SD14, I do not know if I am ready to do a third one.
    I have also tested the Fusi S5 Pro and if pictures taken by this camera do not have this kind of 3D effect, pictures are more than perfect.

  • http://www.bmwmdatabase.com Modified BMW

    Sigma makes some fantastic stuff and if you read in depth about the Foveon sensor its amazing! Lately their DP1 looks like a pretty good model to take a look at as well.