The Merrill range brings major updates to Sigma's DP series of expert compacts which, you may remember, come loaded with large-format sensors (APS-C) and fixed-focal-length lenses. This update brings a higher-resolution sensor, fresh electronics and a redesign of the body and controls. Could this be the dawn of a new era for Sigma compacts?
Measuring 122 mm x 67 mm x 59 mm and weighing 370 g, the DP2 Merrill (DP2M) isn't exactly what you'd call a pocket-sized compact. This camera is a heavyweight in the expert compact market, with a body made from magnesium alloy and a quality finish. The design may be a bit on the austere side, but this is a camera that inspires confidence. While it's not without a few faults (no real handle or rubber finish to improve grip, controls on the back of the camera are a bit narrow), it has plenty of nice touches. The mode-selection dial, for example, is particularly nice, and the neck-strap hook on the back of the camera doesn't get in the way of general handling. Good work Sigma.
This camera has an accessories hot-shoe but there's no sign of a flash—whether built-in or as a separate accessory—to help light up a tricky scene or a backlit subject. Other things we're not keen on are the proprietary USB connection (and there's still no sign of USB 3) and the memory card compartment on the underside of the camera, which means you can't change the card when using the DP2M on a tripod.
We've moaned about the poor quality screens in Sigma's DP cameras on more than one occasion. The DP2M does, however, seem to bring a slight improvement, with 920,000 dots compared with 230,000 dots in previous models. Our colour sensor also found that this LCD is much better calibrated, in spite of a slightly high gamma (washed out blacks, overexposed whites). We measured the colour temperature at 6500 K and the average Delta E94 (colour fidelity) at around 3.3, which is good. In practice, though, the screen is pretty frustrating to use, as high latency and unpleasant ghosting effects make tracking a subject pretty much impossible.
Real progress has been made with the camera's design, control layout and general handling. The settings wheel is pleasant to use and manual focusing is now controlled via a lens ring (the lens is therefore no longer retractable). It's a shame that Sigma hasn't integrated a peaking system to show up areas that aren't in focus (sharply focused objects show up in a different colour), as this can make manual focusing a whole lot easier.
As for the battery life, well, the new electronics (sensor, image processor) seem to drain power, as the DP2M struggles to shoot its way to 100 photos. Thankfully, two batteries are supplied as standard.
The DP2M still isn't a particularly responsive camera. Although it's now quicker to start up (there's no retractable lens to deploy), the autofocus is slower than most compact cameras. In low light, it's barely usable.
Shooting moving subjects can therefore be problematic. The DP2M is best kept for shooting static scenes or for shots that can be lined up in plenty of time. The good news is that you can now shoot up to seven shots without totally freezing the camera. However, the buffer memory takes ages to empty so you'll have to be patient about viewing the shots back. It goes without saying that working with RAW shots, with 50 MB files, pushes up the photo saving time considerably.
The new Foveon X3 Merrill sensor is bigger than previous versions, measuring 23.5 x 15.7 mm. The sensor is made from three layers of silicon for a spatial resolution of 15 Megapixels. Unlike standard CCD and CMOS sensors, the Foveon doesn't need a low-pass filter to blur images very slightly to limit the appearance of moiré effects.
Twinned with a new 30 mm f/2.8 lens (equivalent to 45 mm in 35 mm equivalent), the sensor captures superb images that are rich in detail and exceptionally sharp. There's no trace of distortion or chromatic aberration. In fact, this Merrill model no doubt shoots some of the cleanest, nicest shots we've seen from a compact camera.
Noise, however, could be handled more effectively. While noise levels remain excellent at 100 and 200 ISO, speckles of noise kick in at 400 ISO and become very visible at 800 ISO. Smoothing is minimal here, and the images retain a good level of detail. At any higher ISO settings granularity becomes heavier and coarser, and the colours start to get a bit crazy. Evidently, the DP2M will be more at ease in bright sunlight or on a tripod.
The easiest way to handle noise here is by using RAW files and Sigma's Photo Pro software. However, this software is pretty slow and there's currently no alternative available (Adobe Lightroom is only compatible with the DP2x for the moment).
The fact that there's no stabilisation (optical or mechanical) also holds the DP2M back, as it has to push up to higher ISO settings to try and keep blurring from camera-shake under control.
Even though you get four times more pixels here than with the previous model, the DP2M only records video files in 640 x 480 pixels (VGA). At a time when 1080p video at 50 fps is becoming something of a standard, this video format looks seriously out-dated and should only be used if you really, really need to.