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Sigma DP2 review: Sigma DP2

Sigma DP2

Lori Grunin Senior Editor / Advice
I've been reviewing hardware and software, devising testing methodology and handed out buying advice for what seems like forever; I'm currently absorbed by computers and gaming hardware, but previously spent many years concentrating on cameras. I've also volunteered with a cat rescue for over 15 years doing adoptions, designing marketing materials, managing volunteers and, of course, photographing cats.
Expertise Photography, PCs and laptops, gaming and gaming accessories
Lori Grunin
7 min read


Sigma DP2

The Good

Excellent characteristics for shooting in black and white; compact; nice manual controls.

The Bad

Slow AF system; short battery life; stiff shutter button; some interface annoyances; occasional lockups; poor white balance; overly blue LCD screen; poor video capture.

The Bottom Line

The Sigma DP2 doesn't really live up to the promise of its Foveon sensor, but it does excel for shooting in black and white photos.

It's always difficult reviewing cameras like the Sigma DP2, a fairly niche product that inspires fierce loyalty in its devotes. A compact, pocketable camera designed to appeal to enthusiast and fine art photographers, the DP2 joins models like the Canon PowerShot G10 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 targeting a relatively small market but one that is passionate about image quality. Unlike its competitors, though, Sigma doesn't do a very good job of balancing the camera's left- and right-brain appeal. On one side, the camera renders smooth, filmlike photos with a broad tonal range and attractive noise characteristics for shooting in black and white. But on the other you have a slow, occasionally ineffective autofocus system, desaturated and inconsistent colors on mid- to high-ISO sensitivity images, short battery life, and the occasional freeze-up.

The DP2's simple, relatively straightforward design lends itself to a fluid shooting experience--once you know where to find everything and how the menu navigation works. Its compact body is still a little heavier and thicker than the LX3, but it's still smaller and lighter than most other alternatives, and will still fit comfortably in a jacket pocket. It feels sturdy and well-built.

Key comparative specs Olympus E-P1 Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1 Sigma DP2 Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sensor (effective resolution) 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 4.7-megapixel Foveon CMOS 10.1-megapixel CCD
17.3mm x 13mm 17.3mm x 13mm 20.7mm x 13.8mm 1/1.63-inch
Color depth 12 bits n/a 12 bits n/a
Lens n/a n/a 24.2mm f2.8 (41mm equivalent) 24-60mm f2.0-2.8
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 6,400 ISO 100 - ISO 3,200 ISO 100 - ISO 1,600 ISO 80 - ISO 3,200
Focal-length multiplier 2x 2x 1.7x n/a
Continuous shooting 3fps
n/a JPEG/10 raw
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
4 JPEG/3 raw
4 JPEG/3 raw
Viewfinder Optional hot-shoe optical (with 17mm lens) Electronic Optional hot-shoe optical Optional hot-shoe optical
Autofocus 11-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 9-area contrast AF n/a
Metering 324 zone 144 zone n/a n/a
Shutter 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes 60-1/4000 sec; bulb to 4 minutes 15-1/2000 sec 60-1/2000 sec; n/a
Closest focus n/a n/a 10.8 inches 0.4 inch
LCD 230,000 dots, 3-inch fixed 460,000 dots, 3-inch articulated 230,000 dots, 2.5-inch fixed 460,000 dots, 3-inch fixed
Video (max resolution at 30fps) 1,280x720 Motion JPEG AVI None 320x240 AVI 848x480 Motion JPEG MOV
Battery life (CIPA rating) 300 shots 300 shots 250 shots 380 shots
Dimensions (WHD, inches) 4.7x 2.8x1.4 4.9x 3.3x1.8 4.5x 2.3x2.2 4.3x 2.3 x1.1
Weight (ounces) 13.9 15.1 10.3 9.1
Mfr. Price $749.99 (body) n/a $649 $499.95
$799.99 (with 14-42mm f3.5-5.6 lens) $799.95 (with 14-45mm f3.5-5.6 lens)    
$899.99 (with 17mm f2.8 lens and optical viewfinder)      

Atop the camera is a typical mode dial which switches you into the manual and semimanual exposure modes (PASM), movie capture, sound recording (limited only by the capacity of the card). Unsurprisingly, the DP2 lacks an automatic shooting mode. There's a dedicated setup entry on the mode dial, which contains most of the settings you rarely change. Unfortunately, that's where Sigma chose to bury the media format option, making formatting a pain. On the other hand, the dedicated manual focus dial, located just above the thumb rest, works very well as a focus control.

To the right of the small 2.5-inch LCD sit a variety of buttons, most unhelpfully labeled in black-on-black; you really do need to at least scan the thin manual to figure out how everything works. The three buttons on the left are for AEL (autoexposure lock), middle QS (Quick Set) and Menu; and the two bottom buttons are playback and display options. The only direct-access controls are for focus and focus-point selection.

The DP2 offers three groups of custom settings, which is a useful feature to have, but the information display for them is quite busy and difficult for quickly figuring out which set to load.

A few notable capabilities in the otherwise basic feature set include an intervalometer (various preset durations ranging from 30 seconds to 24 hours for various numbers of frames up to infinite); still photo with sound; and the ability to change button assignments.

The QS button pulls up a two page virtual control pad. Each of the squares tells you where you are in that setting's options and how many you have to scroll through. The first page lets you set flash, ISO, white balance, and metering parameters. Hitting the QS button again offers up image size and quality, drive modes, and color presets. But navigating these settings can be a trifle annoying. For instance, to set the ISO sensitivity, you cycle through via the Up button. When trying to change from a higher ISO to a lower one, I often accidentally hit Down, which would then change the white balance. If it weren't for that need to constantly overcome reflexive responses, I'd really like this method of navigating.

However, I didn't particularly like the shutter feel. It's stiffer than usual, which makes you less likely to accidentally shoot while trying to lock focus, but when actually shooting if requires too much pressure; enough that I frequently introduced camera shake while pressing it.

Perhaps Sigma's helpfully trying to turn you into a more thoughtful, slower-moving shooter, but the DP2 moves at an overly leisurely pace. It powers on and shoots in about 4.4 seconds, slow but acceptable for the DP2's intended usage. However, the 1.3 seconds to focus and shoot in good light and 1.5 seconds in dim are not, especially since I had problems locking focus at all in some dim situations. One might argue that the DP2 is optimized for manual focus--and it does operate significantly faster that way--but even a cheap camera these days can get its shot lag below 0.8 second. It doesn't have to be a lightning fast, just fast enough. The slow AF drives up the JPEG shot-to-shot time to about 4.1 seconds and raw to 4.3; with flash it rises to 4.6 seconds. On the surface, the burst performance seems excellent, but it's capped at four frames. Given how slow the AF system is, I suppose that makes sense. There's also a focus-limited AF option that restricts the hunt zone to 39 inches to infinity rather than the 11 inches to infinity of the standard zone, but it didn't seem much faster.

Other aspects of performance fall short as well. The battery life is subpar; I estimate I obtained perhaps 175 shots per charge. Despite updating to the most recent firmware version (1.02 as of this writing), the camera still suffered from occasional freeze ups the update was supposed to fix. And the AF system actually tested slower after the update from version 1.01 to 1.02. Even with magnification, the LCD isn't really big enough for manually focusing in certain scenes--or perhaps it just doesn't magnify the preview sufficiently--its color rendering is extremely cool, and it's hard to see in bright light. The optional VF-21 viewfinder comes in handy in those situations, but it's a fairly expensive $170 or more. (The LX3's viewfinder is equally expensive, but that doesn't make it OK. Plus that camera is a lot cheaper, bringing down the total cost.)

At low ISO sensitivities, the photo quality is extremely good, with a broad, smooth tonal range with good shadow and highlight detail. Although, according to Foveon and Sigma, the X3 sensor has 14-megapixel resolution, color resolution (in this case the number of photosites, which is 3 for each image pixel) is not practically equivalent to spatial resolution, the number of image pixels--in this case 2,652x1,768 or 4.7 megapixels. Our tests determined that photos shot with the DP2 have equivalent sharpness at a given size to cameras with somewhere between 8- and 10-megapixel resolution, or an 8-megapixel camera with a really good lens.

While the color is pleasing, though, it's not terribly accurate in any of the color modes; it looks as if the white balance is at turns too cool or too warm, and it's inconsistent across the various ISO sensitivity settings. But Sigma's noise suppression algorithms, even as low as ISO 400, emphasize preserving detail at the expense of color; beginning with greens, the DP2's photos simply desaturate to the point where they look like hand-colored black-and-white photos. The color noise then renders to look like a very fine-grained film. The ironic upside is that the camera produces excellent midrange ISO black and white photos that look as if they were shot on film. (You can't shoot black and white at ISO 1,600 or 3,200 because the camera automatically switches into raw at those settings.)

This is one of the cases where our weighted-average ratings probably do the camera a disservice; it's a niche product, and buyers even considering the DP2 are more likely to weight the specialty shooting quality far more heavily than the more well-rounded camera this rating is intended to reflect. However, the fact remains that for its price, for the nonfanatic, the DP2 has an unnecessarily slow AF system, abysmally short battery life, and relatively minimalist feature set. While I can't recommend the DP2 as your primary, all-purpose camera, if you have the money to spend it's a nice choice for artistic experimentation, especially in black and white.

Shooting speed (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Time to first shot  
Raw shot-to-shot time  
Typical shot-to-shot time  
Shutter lag (dim)  
Shutter lag (typical)  
Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1
Canon PowerShot G10
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3
Sigma DP2
Olympus E-P1

Typical continuous-shooting speed (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)


Sigma DP2

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 5Image quality 7