The Sigma SD9 is one of the most anticipated digital cameras of all time. It features a new type of Foveon X3 CMOS sensor which was announced over a year ago and caused a lot of chatter across the web.
This new sensor the SD9 uses has fundamental differences to the traditional mosaic type sensors. Instead of having one pixel capture each red, green or blue wavelength of light, the CMOS is organised in layers, so each wavelength of light reaches a different layer depth. According to Sigma the Foveon X3 technology should deliver 'twice the sharpness, better colour detail and greater resistance to unpredictable colour artifacts'.
Sigma SD9 features
- Innovative Foveon X3 image sensor
- 3.43 megapixel CMOS with 1.7x multiplication. 20.7x13.8mm
- Sigma SA Bayonet mount
- ISO100, 200, 400
- Lossless compressed RAW data format
- Sports Viewfinder
- Dust protector
- 1.8" TFT display
- Firewire and USB
- Needs 2x CR-V3 and 4x AA batteries
- Uses Compact Flash I/II
Sigma SD9 handling
Sigma have already had experience in creating SLRs and with some success too. However, with the SD9 being their first attempt at a Digital SLR, there was always the remote possibility of things going pear-shaped. Fortunately this isn't the case, with the SD9 being an easy to use and comfortable to handle body.
Appearance wise, the SD9 isn't a great looker. It looks slightly more like an effort of function over form. The build-quality is very close to that of the Canon and Nikon Digital SLRs in the same price-range. It's a bit bigger and heavier than some of its competitors, but the factor that will have the most effect on the end weight is going to be the size of lens attached.
The grip is quite large and has a good soft rubbery feel to it. It is possible to add a power pack to the base of the body which further extends the grip area. Although you can't see it very clearly in the above photo, Sigma have fitted a dust protector just inside the lens mount area. This is substantially easier to clean than the image sensor itself. If you are unlucky enough to find dirt has found itself way inside the body, you can still remove this protector and manually clean the sensor.
On the back of the camera, the same rubber grip as on the front is continued, ensuring that a good hold of the camera can be maintained.
The control layout is very simple on the SD9, as you can see in the photos shown above and below. This makes it very easy and quick to learn how to operate most of the cameras functions. Some of the buttons are plastic, some are rubber, but they all work perfectly and we experienced no issues with usability of the camera.
Although these kinds of issues are largely down to personal taste, we enjoyed using the SD9 and found its simplicity a very likeable feature.
Sigma SD9 software
Again alienating itself from most other Digital cameras, the SD9 only offers a compressed RAW format, with no support for popular JPEG. So in order to view the images you've taken, they must first be passed through the Sigma Photo Pro software, which screenshots of are provided below.
Fortunately, if you so desire, you can save all images as JPGs when they are all loaded into the software, though then they all share the same image processing settings.
If processing the images individually, you click on the desired image and a larger version is slowly loaded up as shown below. Although a blurry version of the image appears quickly, it's more than a few seconds before the high resolution version appears and you can start changing settings. Though this time could vary depending on the speed of your computer.
The controls offered are quite comprehensive covering Exposure, Contrast, Shadows, Highlights, Saturation, Sharpness and saving of presets. There is also provision for colour adjustment and a histogram with selectable warnings. In addition, you can pass your mouse over the image and see a small portion of the image blown up to a magnification level of your choice. Although you can rotate the image in this software, there is no other basic editing functionality such as cropping provided.
Sigma SD9 menu system
As is the case with the body controls, the SD9 menu system is appealingly simple. It's quick to navigate and contains most of the features and options you'd expect from a digital SLR. It has however, been simplified somewhat by Sigma moving a lot of the options you'd normally find in a menu to controls on the camera body. This setup makes changing commonly used settings such as ISO quicker and also simplifies the list of less commonly used settings.
||In playback mode you can quickly review all your images, zoom in on a particular area, view a histogram of the image or run a slideshow.
It's also possible to lock, mark or rotate images using a straightforward overlaid menu system.
||The first option on the SD9 menu is Camera Info.... This shows the current ISO, White balance and resolution settings. It also shows the date, time and amount of space free or used on your CompactFlash card.
There are the usual white balance settings, and options for how long the quick preview shows and its style. You can also turn off/on the Exposure Warning system which highlights any areas of your image where detail may be lost due to over exposure. There are also settings for the LCD, Language, Power saving and other basic camera setup options.
Sigma SD9 camera modes
Keeping with the simple interface, the SD9 offers only the most basic of modes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as for many people the extra user modes competing cameras add just get in the way.
The main modes, controllable by the main mode dial as shown to the right are:
- P - Program AE - The camera automatically selects the most ideal shutter and aperture settings. Whilst in this mode, you can change the shutter speed or aperture by turning the dial surrounding the shutter-release.
- A - Aperture Priority AE - The aperture value can be controlled and a suitable shutter speed will be assigned for proper exposure.
- S - Shutter Speed AE - After selecting the desired shutter speed, the aperture setting will be calculated by the camera to ensure proper exposure.
- M - Manual Exposure - This mode allows you to set either the shutter speed or the aperture setting. In this mode it is more likely you may not attain a proper exposure.
The slow shutter speeds available are limited to 15sec at ISO100 and up to 1sec at ISO200 and ISO400. There is a Bulb setting, which is only available at ISO100.
Although the SD9 stores images as quite large RAW files, there is a good continuous shooting mode available. In the highest resolution you can shoot up to six frames at 1.9fps, at medium resolution you can shoot up to fourteen frames at 2.4fps and in the lowest resolution you can shoot up to 30 frames at 2.5fps.
Sigma SD9 viewfinder and LCD screen
The viewfinder is slightly different to the type we've seen in the past on digital SLRs. It's a sports finder, meaning that it is possible to see outside the actual area that will be captured by the camera. This helps framing a photograph quite a lot and is a good feature for Sigma to have included.
Diopter adjustment is provided from -3 to +1dpt. Surrounding the viewfinder is a tough rubbery plastic surround. This is removable so that when using a long shutter speed you can cover the viewfinder with the supplied accessory.
The LCD display has options for brightness, contrast and power saving. Colour accuracy of the LCD could be improved upon, but generally it is acceptable for viewing your images. Additional information on the exposure in the form of a three colour histogram is available, as shown in the menu system section covered previously in this review.
Sigma SD9 connections
Embarrassing the cheapest of the Nikon and Canon Digital SLR offerings, the Sigma features USB and Firewire connectivity. With raw files taking up a huge amount of space, it's just as well they have included the latter!
In addition, there is a PAL/NTSC selectable video-out, power-in, and a flash hot-shoe. For more information on flashes for the SD9, visit the Sigma flash page. If you wish to use PC-type flash units you'll need an optional PC Synchro terminal adapter. Remote shutter release is possible using a cable release switch or wireless remote controller, both of these are optional accessories.
Sigma SD9 battery-life
Using two different types of battery, makes the SD9 lose out to some of the competition straight away. It's just not as convenient as having the camera running off one centrally located set of batteries. Still, this camera does offer the benefit of accepting either 4x AAs or 2x Lithium CR-V3 batteries in its tray.
With the two CR123A Lithium batteries being used only for mechanical operation of the camera, they should last for a considerable time. The other set of batteries faces a heavier drain, being used to power the LCD and other electronic parts of the body. We used a set of powerful Ni-MH batteries whilst shooting and the SD9 performed very well.
Sigma SD9 image quality
Through all the hype Foveon created with their initial announcements of X3 technology, expectations have been riding high. On the SD9 literature, Sigma mention that it "delivers twice the sharpness, better colour detail and greater resistance to unpredictable colour artifacts". Looking through the shots we've taken, this statement largely holds true.
The resolution the SD9 provides is truly groundbreaking, with a sharpness to images few digital cameras can match. Colour accuracy is very good too and with the RAW processing being done after taking the shot a lot of adjustment is possible through the included software. It is also true there are very low levels of image artifacts compared to those seen on traditional sensor produced images.
However, not everything is as rosey as it might appear! Yes, the SD9 is capable of producing a very fine image under the right conditions, however there are quite a few problems with the technology the camera is based upon.
Whilst conventional CCD and CMOS sensors can produce long exposure, high quality photos, the SD9 is limited to 15 seconds. Noise levels increase to an unsatisfactory level at the longer exposure times even when on the ISO100 setting.
Secondly, while cameras like the Canon D60, Nikon D100 and Fuji S2 Pro all have a wide range of usable ISO settings, the SD9 is limited to ISO100, 200 and 400, with the 400 only just on the usable side. Sharpness levels started to deteriorate as soon as the exposure was taken over a couple of seconds or the ISO was increased.
The crop below is a 100% view of the image above. With all the images taken on the SD9 being in RAW format it is always possible to finely correct issues such as colour saturation levels after taking the shot.
Looking at the image shown above, we didn't expect to see the gentleman as clearly as the 100% below crop of the original illustrates.
Using the supplied Sigma software to save an interpolated version of the image we achieved double the file size. This has made the crop below easier to view. As it is a very small portion of the original image we have highlighted the area in red above.
Despite the negative issues we found with the SD9, Sigma have done a great job with their first Digital SLR. In some ways, this is a groundbreaking camera that puts many cameras to shame. Yet at the same time it can be embarrassed by its inadequacies in other important areas.
Taking into account the competitive price of the SD9, its good handling and specification and the generally very high standard of image quality, we'd certainly recommend it. However, do bear in mind the limitations with the ISO and shutter speed ranges. Also consider the workflow the SD9 forces you into by only using RAW files and whether you are prepared to add that extra amount of work into your photographic experience.
In summary the main positive points of the Sigma SD9 are:
Excellent resolution from new Foveon technology
Capable of producing very high quality images
Solid build quality and easy to use interface
Competitively priced and backed up by Sigma's lens range
Well designed and powerful RAW editing software
Firewire and USB connectivity
Compatible with IBM Microdrives
Comprehensive range of accessories
Negative points are:
ISO range limited to 100,200,400
Shutter speeds limited to 15sec at ISO 100
Sharpness levels decrease at long exposures/higher ISOs
No option to save in JPEG
RAW processing software requires a fast processor on your computer or a lot of patience
No internal flash
Relies on two types of batteries for operation (minor point)