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Sigma SD14 Digital SLR Review

Sigma SD14 Digital SLR Review - After more than three years of rumours and promises, Sigma�s latest digital SLR camera, the SD14, sporting an improved Foveon X3 sensor, became available in April. Ian Andrews has had his hands on one for a trial.

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Category : Digital SLRs
Product : Sigma SD14 reviewed
Price : £449
Rating :
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front rightSpecifications

  • Image Sensor: Foveon X3® (CMOS). Three layers of 4.66Mp each, total 14Mp.
  • Image size: RAW - 2640x1760 (4.6Mp), JPEG - 4608x3072 (14Mp), 2640x1760 (4Mp), 1776x1184, 1296x864 pixels.
  • Mount: Sigma SA bayonet mount
  • Angle of view: 1.7x focal length of lens in 35mm format
  • Storage Media: Compact Flash (Type 1/11), Microdrive, (FAT32 compatible)
  • Shooting speed: 3fps
  • Shutter speed: 30-1/4000sec plus bulb
  • Focus mode: Single AF, Continuous AF (with motion prediction), Manual
  • Metering: Eight segment evaluative, centre, centre-weighted.
  • ISO range: ISO100-1600
  • Program modes: P, A, S, M
  • Exposure compensation: +/-3EV
  • Built-in flash: Guide Number 11
  • External flash: PC-sync or hotshoe, contact at 1/180sec or less.
  • LCD monitor: 2.5in TFT (150k pixels).
  • Dimensions: 14.4x10.73x8.05cm
  • Weight: 700g without batteries

This camera is unique in that it is the only one on the market today that does not use Bayer pattern sensor technology with a colour matrix over the photosites. The Foveon sensor packs its punch by stacking its pixels in piles of three, one layer for each red, green and blue colour, hence the X3 name. However, with an SRP of £1099 it is in competition with the Nikon D200, the Fuji S5 Pro and the Pentax K10D.

front, no lensModes and Features
Sigma are best known for their lenses, but they have been producing cameras since 1976 so they have some 30 years experience. Their philosophy has always been to keep the controls as simple as possible and, even in this sophisticated digital age they have managed to keep this tradition. Modes are restricted to the standard PASM with no pretension to scene modes. These are selected via the mode dial on the right of the prism. On the left of the prism housing is the second control dial that turns the camera on and selects, in sequence, single frame, continuous, self timed 10s and 2s, mirror up and an auto bracketing drive. The shutter release is surrounded by an adjustment dial and there is a small button to illuminate the LCD screen that shows the shooting parameters which finishes off the top of a clean camera.

The rear is just as uncluttered with 11 buttons, four directions on a basic joypad layout with a central selector and a +/- rocker pair. Between them, they control virtually all the functions of the camera and the one marked menu, when pressed, reveals a simple menu that is not multi-layered and impossible to find things in.

Around the mount on the front of the camera are just three buttons. One is the mount release, one to set flash exposure compensation and the last is a depth-of-field preview button. The bottom of the camera simply sports the tripod socket and battery door.

front rightOn the right side of the camera is a slide and lift cover for the Compact Flash slot, capable of using Type I and II cards and Microdrives the system supports FAT32 used by larger cards. The left side carries a flash-sync socket, release socket and a rubber door hiding connectors for USB2 AC power in and video out. It is one of the easier ones to open and close whilst retaining good weatherproofing.

Gone is the sports finder of the earlier SD9/10, replaced by a full viewfinder that is bright and has good dioptre adjustment on a slider over the top of the finder.

Criticised for their RAW only approach in earlier cameras, Sigma have introduced in-camera JPEG recording for the first time with four sizes up to 14Mp and three quality options. There are also three size options for RAW capture, but only up to 4.6Mp, although there is no option to record the two file types at the same time. Selecting them is a simple matter of pressing a button on the rear of the camera allowing the buttons on the four-way controller to scroll through the options. The same method is used to select ISO and white balance.

Another first for Sigma's digital cameras is the inclusion of a pop-up flash unit with a useful guide number of 11, fine for those little fill jobs.

facing leftOne of the biggest improvements over the SD9/10 is in the Auto-focus department, where the new system has jumped from the single point of the older model to a very usable five point system that is much quicker and very accurate. The AF points can be selected by pressing the button at the top-right corner of the rear of the camera and turning the front selector wheel, something that quickly becomes natural. Single points, or all five points can be selected, though other cameras in this price range offer more comprehensive facilities.

Another criticism that Sigma have addressed is the battery system of the older models which was a tad ‘Heath-Robinson' to say the least. This has been replaced with a conventional type of rechargeable unit that has a good life span, already topping the 300 image mark on a number of occasions on the test camera.

Build and Handling
Gone are the brick-like qualities of the old models, replaced by a body that has good ergonomics and much more pleasant looks that put it somewhere between the D70 and D80. It does lack a rear control wheel and the front one is rather chunky and noisy though. Those with big hands will find that, with the addition of the optional PG-21 power grip, it is one of the most comfortable rigs available. Those of you who have used, or even just heard, the shutter of earlier models will be amazed how quiet this model is. The sound of the camera firing is little more than a whisper. All of the controls fall easily to hand and there are none of the secondary collars that proved so fiddly in previous incarnations. The positioning of the controls is not so far from the older ones as to cause any confusion to up-graders whilst being well placed for newcomers to the system.

rear LCDFlash Options
Built-in, hot-shoe or sync socket are the options with the hot-shoe allowing use of the 500 DG, 500 DG Super and 140DG Ringflash units from Sigma that are dedicated to the camera. Flash compensation is set via a button on the side of the camera mount and sync speeds up to 1/180th second can be set. The built in flash needs to be manually lifted, so doesn't pop up unless you want it and has a useful guide number of 11.

Performance
The camera takes a moment to start up which is slower than the SD9/10 which were near instantaneous. Once the camera is powered up, most functions are fairly instant and none gave cause for concern. Even the write speeds have improved, although so has the pixel count so perhaps they could have been improved further. Frame rate, billed as three frames a second, is achieved at decent shutter speeds but the buffer capacity is still a little shy with just six frames achievable at the fine JPEG or RAW setting. This doubles for the medium JPEG setting and doubles again for the lowest one. As soon as each shot is saved the camera is ready to shoot the next image, so you don't have to wait until they are all saved. However, depending on the speed of the memory card, it can be a fair wait until all images are cleared out.

As mentioned earlier, the AF system is a good improvement, now sporting five AF points that are selectable, as is the power management but the thing we have all wondered about is the image quality from the unique sensor. And the second question is concerned with the noise in the images.

top viewThere is a fuller explanation of the Foveon sensor used in the SD14 here. Billed as a 14Mp sensor (three sensor layers of 4.6Mp each), the image quality that the camera achieves is certainly outstanding. One of the major criticisms of the older models was the poor performance as the ISO increased as far as noise was concerned. This has not only been improved in this camera, but the handling of it has also improved in the new SPP3 software that is supplied with it. This has had a double-edged effect in that owners of the older models can re-process files for a much better effect. The software is available as a download to existing owners.

To get the best from this camera does require shooting in the RAW X3F format and self-processing with this software. The results from the built in JPEG options are very good but with very little control over the output, the menu adjustments restricted to Contrast, Sharpness, Saturation and Colour Space. The camera comes as a body only, so as a lens we used the highly rated 18-50mm EX DC f/2.8 standard zoom from Sigma, who, incidentally, are the only manufacturer to make lenses in the SA mount that the camera uses. With a crop factor of 1.7x the lens equates to a 30.5-85mm lens on a 35mm film camera.

The images here have been taken with the JPEG option set to Fine Hi, which produces an image of 2640x1760 pixels (4.64Mp), although there is a Super Hi setting that will produce images of 4608x3072 in-camera, using interpolation from the 36-bits of data, through the three layers, for each pixel location.

colour chart
The colour chart shows that the recorded colours, even in the JPEG option, are very close to true with just a slight shift towards the blue channel.

portrait test
The skin tones here are near enough spot on with no detectable casts. Every hair is visible though, giving a clue to the resolution recorded.

landscape test
The landscape test shows good detail even deep into the shadow areas and again, colours being accurately represented.

market shot
This image of a Grecian town market day, this time shot with the versatile 18-200mm lens, again shows true colour recording.

macro shot
Sigma's range of lenses provide the most comprehensive coverage of any system, from 8mm to 800mm. This shot, on a windy day, was taken with a 105mm Macro.

Noise Test
Here is the anomaly. While the JPEG option is included in the camera, the handling of the noise that spoiled earlier incarnations is not much better when shooting JPEG images. At ISO100 the noise is negligible and at ISO200 it is acceptable for most purposes. By the ISO400 mark though, it is starting to become a problem that is quite serious and by the ISO800 mark it is so evident that, to all intents and purposes the images are not worth the disc space they occupy. But, and this is a big but, shoot in the camera's RAW X3F format and process them in the new SPP3 software, which is much more powerful than the in-camera version, and there is a world of difference. In fact, there is little more visible noise in the X3F ISO800 image than there is in the JPEG ISO100 image and less than the JPEG ISO200 image.

ISO100
ISO100 test.

ISO200
ISO200 test.

ISO400
ISO400 test.

ISO800
ISO800 test.

ISO1600
ISO1600 test.

ISO800
This is an ISO800 test card shot with JPEG and not processed for noise. Colour blotches and gritty noise can be clearly seen.

ISO800
This is ISO800 shot in RAW and processed. The colour blotches are gone but the image detail is softer, the colour is different and the grey card area is still noisy.

 

Verdict
Designed for the experienced photographer, the SD14 is, thankfully, free of preset scene modes but does have designated settings for things like Mirror-up, 2sec self timer with auto mirror up and a 10sec self timer, which are all useful. Sigma are well known for their lenses but are a very small camera manufacturer and to apply the advances in the SD14 over their previous models without going to a major manufacturer for the hardware speaks volumes for their ingenuity. It is not the fastest camera out there but for many forms of photography speed is not essential. What the SD14 does have, apart from the advances in handling over its predecessors, is superb image quality and colour fidelity when used in its intended RAW format.

 

front leftPlus points:
Simple operation
Uncluttered menu
Superb image quality
JPEG option now included
Useful on-board flash
Sensible battery system
Improved software is backwards compatible

Minus points:
Buffer fills up after six shots
Write speeds a little slow (restricting frame-rate)
No RAW plus JPEG option
Start-up time slower than previously
Focus system fairly basic
JPEG images noisy at ISO100

cutting edgeFEATURES:

HANDLING:

PERFORMANCE:

OVERALL:

The Sigma SD14 has a street price of around £1000 and is available from the ePHOTOzine shop here.

 

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Photographs taken using the Sigma SD14 reviewed

sentryThe PollutersTop Gunair & spaceHeat hazeTYPHOON (euro-fighter)Another view of the same hawk just before my last shotHawk low flyingstone gazegoing to seedfernstulipthe curlswansforest path
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Comments


MeanGreeny 9 3.7k England
31 May 2007 1:02PM
I think this is just about the first generally favourable review that I've seen.

Hopefully it's good news about the sensor quality and the RAW conversion software with regard to the DP-1

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Mark_Readman 9 922
31 May 2007 9:31PM
such noise at such low iso will keep this a sigma enthusiast camera, it's not what I hoped for, a pro spec camera that breaks the 2 horse race
1 Jun 2007 9:00PM
The ISO noise is only a problem if you shoot JPGs, and using the Sigma for JPG is like using a Ferrari as a golf cart. The Sigma/Foveon is a RAW image camera, period. That's where it shines. Super-sharp images and true colors, right out of the box.

As the reviewer mentioned, it will take extra effort to process the RAW images, but the result is certainly worth it. I've used the Sigma SD9 for a few years, and I've used the SD14 for about a month. I wouldn't trade either of them for any other camera.

As a professional action sports shooter, my images are up against mostly Canon and Nikon competitors. While they may get more frames per second, they can't come close to the sharpness, image quality and true color reproduction of the Sigma.

It ain't for everyone, but if you don't mind trading some time for amazing image quality, give the SD14 a try.

Geez, ...that sounded like a commercial.
8 Jun 2007 11:56AM
"the SD14 is, thankfully, free of preset scene modes"

And this is a good judge of a camera? 30D springs to mind! No custom presets on the main PASM dial either? Wasted space really.

Leaving that aside...interesting camera.
Mark_Readman 9 922
10 Jun 2007 10:54PM
It's all gong and no dinner !
kwolff 7
18 Aug 2007 1:40PM
Camera's are like people. We are all good at certain things and not as good at others. For my purposes, I tested the SD14 against similarly priced Canons, Nikons, a Pentax and Olympus. I printed the shots and to my eye, the picture quality on the Sigma was better hands down in the environments I shoot in even if it is not as versatile. I bought it and haven't looked back.

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