The ugly duckling

‘Dad, why did you get such a disgusting looking camera!’ is what came from my seven year old’s mouth when the little Sigma Quattro arrived.  It’s since become known as the ugly duckling in the family.

For the last few months I’ve been shooting with the little Sigma Quattro dp0 and dp2 besides a Nikon D810, with a long lens on the D810 and the Quattro’s for wider angle work.  It’s not a bad combination and offers some flexibility but I get a lot of comments on the little ugly duckling’s when I’m out and about so I’ve decided to write up on the experience and make a comparison between these two very different tools.  For the record, I Iike how the little Quattro’s looks.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Quattro, it’s a mirrorless camera, perhaps half the weight and size of the D810, it has about 19.6 super special megapixels on a crop sized sensor, it’s a third the price of the D810 body new, and uses a fixed prime lens, so you don’t swap lenses, you swap cameras.  The Quattro’s talking piece is the Foveon sensor technology, which is different to anything else on the market.

Sigma Quattro dp0 and dp2
Sigma Quattro dp0 and dp2, shown fitted with universal L brackets

I shoot mostly landscapes so this review will be biased towards that type of shooting, which is where the Quattro excels.

Sensor tech

The comparison wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t touch on the sensor technology.  The advantage of Sigmas Foveon sensor is the ‘layered’ design. Traditional bayer pattern sensors are found in just about everything else, and each pixel site can record either red, blue or green data (not red green and blue).  An algorithm is used to interpolate the missing colours at each photosite.  On the other hand, the Foveon sensor is layered, so each photosite can capture red, blue and green data which helps define edges, especially edges with high colour contrast.  Simply put it helps make sharper images.

Quattro Quirks

So how does it work in real life?  The quick answer is  quite well under the right conditions.  But can the Quattro out resolve the D810 like some test charts have suggested? That’s a longer answer I tackle below based on my observations.  More importantly there are a few strange quirks you need to know about the little Quattro’s which make shooting with it a little weird.

Sigma Photo Pro software – Much much much too slow, and you can’t use other raw converters (update 2020, a new firmware update allows the Quattro to save dng files which are compatible with most raw converters, I haven’t used dng’s much but feel they can compromise the image quality).  I haven’t even bothered to master Sigma’s software because it’s just so different and so slow it doesn’t seem worth the effort, but I have found a workaround that works for me.  Images can be batch processed using presets, which is how I handle each shoot. I select a preset I’ve previously made and hit go, the raw files are bulk converted into tiff’s which can be read by other software.  The processing still takes around 15-20 seconds per image on my PC but it frees up time by churning away in the background.  Opening each image manually would be unthinkable.

Image review too slow – I shoot in raw, with raw files there’s a 5 second delay between capturing an image and being able to view it on the LCD, for jpg only it’s much quicker.  Quick preview can be switched on which displays the image shortly after capture, but that’s only quick a preview and not an image that can be inspected in detail.  On other camera’s I wouldn’t normally use a ‘quick preview’ because I find an image popping up on the screen can get in the way, but I usually do with the Sigma to just avoid the wait when I need to see the image.  It’s not a big problem for my kind of shooting but it can become a frustration.

Histogram and level – I’m getting used to this one, but I can’t understand why the histogram and level are positioned near the middle of the LCD where they obscure significant parts of the image, they should be positioned near the edges where things are ‘less important’.  Sigma, why not make the level from a series of dot’s like in the D810 viewfinder?  And how about a smaller opaque histogram, or one that sits beside the image (with a larger LCD) instead of obscuring so much image space?

Sigma Quattro

There are only 9 focus points and none of them are anywhere near the edge of the frame, DSLR’s can have a similar problem but at least it’s easier to focus them manually. The focus controls aren’t intuitive either, why the down button is used to display and change the focus points I don’t know.  On the positive side, manual focus is selected quickly with the up button and has a distance scale displayed as a guide, it’s just a shame it’s not that easy to use without a viewfinder to help see detail in the scene.

Raw file size, 60MB for each raw file plus 10MB per jpeg, that’s 70MB per image, plus another 110MB after you convert the raw into a tiff for further editing, that’s a total of 180MB per image captured!  You could delete the original raw’s or jpg’s later but that might not be wise, even the jpegs are useful because nothing other than the Sigma software will display the raw files.

The battery door catch has a bit of an issue, it isn’t spring loaded like other cameras and sometimes pops open during handling.  Fortunately the battery remains in place with a separate catch.  Sigma please fix this this one, it’s low hanging fruit for the design team.

Every other camera has a card slot on the right side, the Quattro has it on the left so if you’re using an L bracket with the Quattro it can be a little difficult to access.  Plus the door itself is a floppy rubber thing and a little awkward to access.

ISO selection is buried in the menu’s, and not too quick to access. This isn’t usually too much of an issue though because anything above 200 ISO is basically useless, images loose quality quickly at higher ISO’s.

The battery life is probably similar to other mirrorless cameras but noticeably less than a DSLR.  Sigma does provide two batteries with the camera which is excellent.  Battery life is normally acceptable if I head out with fully charged batteries, but on the DSLR I can get away with a lot more.

You’d think I’d be done by now…but I need to get some more quirks off my chest.

How about L-brackets, I’m using a universal fit L-bracket (about $7 shipped from China), they are working fine even if they aren’t quite square, the main issue is that they partially obstruct the SD card door access.  The bracket needed a little modification to fit properly.

No viewfinder? A loupe can provide an huge viewing area but it’s also a huge pain and I find mine keeps getting in the way.  I’m using a Kinotehnik loupe that attaches magnetically to a thin frame that can be adhered to the LCD surround.  It works well but would work much better if the LCD had a decent resolution.  I find it can fall off when the camera is bumped, so it’s best to have the loupe strap around your neck or the tripod itself to avoid it falling on the ground.

Sigma Quattro with loop
Quattro dp2 with Kinotehnik loupe

A remote would be nice addition for the Quattro, but even the D810 should do much better than it’s 10 pin connector remote, give me a small infrared remote any day.

Lack of image stabilisation isn’t a problem for the Quattro when shooting on a tripod, but handheld the lack of high ISO performance becomes limiting on low light days.

Turning the Quattro off part way through an exposure won’t force a capture in progress to stop like the D810 does, not much of an issue, but it can be a problem if you’ve accidentally triggered a long exposure and you need it cancelled to continue shooting.  It’s only happened once or twice but is very frustrating, the solution is to disconnect the battery briefly and switch the camera back on.

No built in flash is no big deal for landscapes, and since the Quattro isn’t much of an indoor camera due to the poor high ISO quality it might be of limited use for many situations.

Phew, glad I got those off my chest, now lets look a bit further….

The Sigma in use

The dp0 uses a 14mm lens, equivalent to about 21mm on a full frame camera like the D810. The dp2 uses a 30mm lens equivalent to 45mm.

To Sigma’s credit they’ve had the guts to think outside the box and provide a camera with some definite advantages over a traditional DSLR; smaller package size, light weight, reasonable price, simple menus and operation, different sensor technology, and competitive image quality.  To be honest the Quattro’s are lot of fun when you’re accustomed to a bulky SLR, but there’s some oddness about them too, things us DSLR users just aren’t accustomed to.  Some of these quirks have me shaking my head at times when it seems basic expectations aren’t met, but in the end none are real deal breakers for me personally because each drawback has a pro weighing up against it.  There are however annoyances that simply shouldn’t be there, so here they are listed in order of most annoyance….

In operation

Firstly the ergonomics and styling.  The Quattro looks spaceship futuristic but the unconventionally shaped grip can take a little getting used to.  The dials and buttons themselves feel good individually but as a whole they are slightly awkward and the positions of some controls could be improved, especially the AEL button and the 4 way dial.  On the whole I wouldn’t say these adversely affect shooting too much.  The front and rear dials are real positives, they work similarly to the front and rear dial on a Nikon DSLR by providing quick access to settings in each mode, and they are customisable to work the way you are accustomed to.

I shoot in Aperture priority mode with the Quattro rather than manual as I do with DSLR’s.  That’s mostly because of the histogram display on the LCD which can be used to judge exposure, one of the advantages of mirrorless systems.  A histogram is a great reference while shooting, it’s easy to understand and adjust the exposure, it’s just a shame it’s positioned near the center of the frame and can get in the way, fortunately the screens can be customised so it’s easy to flick between histogram on and histogram off.

As for LCD’s, the Quattro’s is pretty ordinary, it has no where near the clarity of an optical viewfinder making focus difficult at times.  Reviewing captured images is straight forward enough, the center button provides a zoom function while the dials adjust the magnification and image number as you might expect.  The Quattro seems to have an unusually deep depth of field which is great for landscapes so sharpness from front to back is less of a problem even if it’s difficult to judge off the rear screen.

Lens caps don’t usually get a mention, so thanks Sigma for finally providing a nice grippy lens cap, smooth & slippery lens caps bug me.

Image quality and appearance

Sigma didn’t get everything right on the Quattro, but they do have good optics and a unique way of handling image quality, especially sharpness, and that’s what makes all the difference, without this point of difference there’s no doubt it would be a dud.

Optimal sharpness is at around F5.6.  The dp0 and dp2 are both sharp from edge to edge, particularly the dp2.  There’s rarely an issue at the corners that’s problematic, and they compare well to the Nikon fitted with basic prime lens.

Compared against zoom lenses, Nikon’s 24-70 F2.8 for example (previous generation) is weaker around the edges than the Quattro, but a Nikon 50mm prime, or the 16-35  generally out resolves the Quattro  I say ‘generally’ because there are so many ways a camera can be used.  Personally I think the D810 is ahead for most images and most situations, but that’s saying a lot for the size and price of the little Quattro.

The Quattro falls obviously short against the D810 when it comes to shadow detail and dynamic range, there’s absolutely no room for exposure errors shooting with the Sigma.

The Quattro’s narrower dynamic range is most noticeable in high contrast scenes with important shadow details, and I find myself trying to bracket multiple exposures at times which is rarely needed with the D810. But at least the Quattro does bracketing well, when the timer is combined with bracketing it fires off the shots needed in quick succession.

The Quattro also does quite poorly in low light situations with long exposures, anything more than 10 or 15 seconds can be problematic, unwanted noise and strange patterns creep into these images, particularly the shadows.

Despite some specific image quality issues, there’s a look about the Quattro images that can really stand out, especially with landscapes.  But this can flip if you’re shooting skin tones, you may feel the need to call an ambulance after you find the colour drained from your mother inlaw’s face, or an oompa loompa sitting in the corner.  Unfortunately skin tones from the Quattro can often look ‘off’ even with ‘portrait’ rendering.  There’s occasionally a colour disaster from either system but I do enjoy the alternative and almost film like look the Sigma provides.

Black and Whites are also handled well with the Quattro, even straight from the camera, and there’s a dedicated B&W rendering in the raw converter with lots of good options too.  I’m sure you could write an essay just on the B&W conversions, but I’ll just point out that they’re very pleasing.

Final words

I’d love to see Sigma do well with the Quattro range, they’ve taken a real risk to produce something unique and different but it has strong competition from a range of more versatile cameras.  When it excels, it’s up with the best, the images have a great look about them and generally lots of detail, but there are quite a few quirks to deal with along the way.  So how would I recommend it?  It’s certainly not for everybody, it favours certain types of shooting and certain personalities.

Given the Quattro’s limitations I think theyre best when supplementing another camera system.  If you already have a mirrorless system and are happy with the results, it’s probably not for you.  If you use a compact camera and are after a second camera with improved image quality it could work for you, if you’re supplementing a DSLR it can work.  But be aware of the limitations (low light work especially).

If for instance you carried a DSLR with a long zoom and kept a dp0 or dp1 in the bag for wider angles it could work, especially considering you’re getting a complete camera and lens with a Quattro for the price of a single DSLR lens.  The dp2 and dp3 are 45mm and 70mm respectively.  I find having a dp2 on hand is almost as good as keeping a 50mm lens in the bag, and it means I don’t have to switch lenses.  It gives me an option if I want to travel lighter by keeping the DSLR at home, or if I just want to keep a camera near by when I’m not actually out shooting.

DSLR’s and most other mirrorless cameras are simply more versatile than the Quattro so it’s pivotal that the Quattro image quality can stand up to scrutiny, and often it does when used in the right conditions, unfortunately the trade off’s can be limiting for many situations.

 Finishing message to Sigma

The Quattro is both excellent and lacking, I enjoy the results but getting there is more difficult than it needs to be.  Please keep working on those quirks and you’ll have a competent all round system, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Example Images

Here are some images to provide further commentary.

Rock wall and shed
Rock wall and shed

Landscape colours from the Quattro can appear very natural and pleasing, some assume it’s the foveon sensor, I think it has more to do with Sigma’s colour processing, but it could be a combination of the two.

City scene
Melbourne City scene. B&W conversion, no other adjustments.

The city lane was taken with the dp0 at 1/8th second and ISO 400, on the edge of what I could hand hold.  The image was converted to B&W without further adjustment.

A bit creepy
A bit creepy
Textures in iron
Textures in iron

The Quattro handles texture well, providing fine details and variations.

Protest

The colours just seemed a bit off in this image, adjustments were needed to colour correct the faces and other areas.

Pulpit Rock
Pulpit Rock

A half second exposure was used for the rocks and water, the deeper blacks are starting to show strange patterns and noise when viewed at full resolution.  This image has more processing than the others so differs further from the original look, still, the characteristics of the original Quattro look come through.

The sheep
The sheep

The wool details are sharp and the transition into the background is smooth.

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