The Sigma Pro software also allows you to make more marked
changes, as seen in this low saturation rendition of the
same scene. You can drag the saturation slider all the way
to the left to create monochrome renditions, if desired.
The SD9 Experience
The SD9 is designed like most SLRs, but there's some time required
to get familiar with all those buttons and dials. Happily, the user's
manual is quite comprehensive and thankfully printed in booklet form.
The camera body is largish, but not unmanageable, and is covered with
numerous user controls, which we'll review shortly. The lens mount
is Sigma only, although the company certainly has a full line-up of attractive
lenses to offer. We worked with the Sigma 15-30mm f/3.5-4.5 DG lens, which,
when you factor in the 1.7 magnification factor (due to the size of the
sensor in relation to a frame of 35mm film) turns into an approximately
25-50mm equivalent focal length. When you look through the finder you
actually see a mask in the frame, which crops to the sensor's view;
it's what some call a sports finder (in that you can see what's
coming into the frame from the sides) and although it's certainly
different it's easy to adjust to after a while. That mask leads
us to believe that Sigma may be planning a full 24x36mm chip in future
manifestations of this camera, one where they can use the body and workings
and just swap out the mask in the finder. But that's pure speculation
on our part.
Brilliant color: Shot on an overcast day with the Sigma
SD9 at ISO 100 on Program exposure mode, the richness of
color and often startling image detail are a hallmark of
the X3 chip. This image was converted "straight"
from the Sigma Pro software to a TIFF file.
For those used to having a
choice between JPEG, TIFF, and RAW, or at least JPEG and RAW, having only
RAW output might seem like an omission, as you must work through the Sigma
Pro software to convert to these other formats. Because this is a proprietary
format you also must view images through the Sigma software, which can
be used with both Mac and PC. Happily, you can download both from the
camera (with USB and FireWire) and using a CompactFlash card reader, like
the SanDisk 6-in-1 we use. And you can download to any folder and reopen
the images later in the Sigma software, or on the road to a CD using a
walk-up kiosk, although that kiosk cannot display the files it has downloaded,
as it does with TIFF and JPEG formats. If the Sigma software is loaded,
clicking on any X3 file format in your hard drive will evoke it.
The Sigma Pro
software interface makes altering image files and moving
and saving images to TIFF or JPEG a breeze.
tonal and image adjustments available in the Sigma Pro
software allow you to massage and spice the RAW image
format to taste. Controls are intuitive and previews are
almost instantaneous. The shadow and highlight slider
are excellent controls that allow you to exploit the full
tonal spread recorded on the X3 file. The color wheel
at the bottom is where you fix color balance, while the
Histogram yields read-outs that help with printing later.
The camera back offers a host
of buttons that allow you to control the camera and the digital file setup.
One thing missing, however, are the menu items that allow you to control
contrast, saturation, and sharpness. This is all done later in the software
when massaging the RAW images. So, the time you might save having to peruse
menus and make such settings is taken up with post-processing later. We'll
get to the software momentarily.
Those buttons and toggle switches allow you to choose the usual camera
functions, such as drive mode, AF setup, metering modes, autoexposure
lock, auto-bracketing, etc. Happily, there's also a push button/command
dial procedure for changing resolution modes and the ISO setup. This makes
accessing most of the camera controls easy, as you get used to the setup.
The menu, view (review), information, and trash keys are also on the back
of the camera, all being accessible digital functions. The menu is more
a camera operating system or customization area, and once you set these
parameters up you are unlikely to change them. In short, everything you
might need to operate the camera--both photographically and, if you
will, digitally, is right at hand. It's just that you might need
a few minutes to sort them all out, but once you spend six minutes with
the camera you'll get it.
Now to the image quality issue. There has been much discussion about how
the three-color layer chip would fare next to the standard checkerboard
arrangement. The folks at Foveon have done overtime selling everyone on
the differences and the quality issue, and while we're all impressed
with their accomplishment (which other chip engineers say is no mean feat)
it's really what happens when the file hits the monitor where the
truth will out. Well, based on the time we had with the camera we'd
say that it delivers more than satisfying results. Indeed, it's
a rival for cameras with higher megapixel counts and the color, sharpness,
and delineation of line and tone was at times startling.
But in this case you can't separate the image from the format. If
you're OK with having to view through Sigma software only (that's
all that can read the file format, at least for now) and working with
conversions when you go into Photoshop or other image-editing programs,
then you should be more than satisfied with the images this chip and camera
produce. In fairness, most digital SLR cameras these days have RAW mode
and it's the one recommended by the makers as delivering the best
quality and memory efficiency. Indeed, this RAW-only route may be followed
by others soon, although we don't see the JPEG option disappearing
Sigma Pro Software
When you open the Sigma Pro software you will be presented with a host
of options including exposure, contrast, shadow detail, highlight control,
saturation, and sharpness. In most digital cameras these options are processed,
to a degree, in the on-board image processor (when you shoot JPEG or TIFF
mode) and there's always some of the camera's information
"baggage" that is carried along with the original image file.
The advantage of RAW, as those who work with RAW in other digital cameras
know, is that you get a "cleaner" file that you can add attributes
The Sigma Pro software is a
great place to add these attributes, and the controls are accessible,
fairly fast, and show a preview as you work. In some cases the image right
out of the camera required little or no tweaking and going right to a
TIFF save made sense. We were especially impressed with the way the image
delivered highlight and shadow detail in fairly high contrast conditions.
The sensor seems to dig into the shadows while retaining highlight texture
in scenes that would drive other digital sensors a bit mad. And the colors
were bright and lustrous, not unlike the current taste for vivid color
and sharp tonal edges. Indeed, there was a character to the images quite
unlike what we've seen before, in that the original file was not
as "flat" and "soft" as we've noticed in
other direct from camera file output in some other SLR systems. So, right
out of the box the Sigma image has a leg up, we feel, and should satisfy
those photographers who usually shoot chrome film. In many cases any tweaking
we did was for taste, and not to fix a deficiency in the delivered RAW
Of course, if the image is too vivid you have that saturation control
in the software, just as you have a soften option (negative sharpness)
and even a shadow and highlight modification step, if desired. The color
balance control also works well, with a color wheel asking you to place
your bet on the best way to counter any color imbalance. You can go the
Auto route, but that's not half the fun.
This is a tough shot for any camera, digital or film. The
shoppers in the outdoor farmer's market were backlit
on a very bright day. After downloading the image was opened
up with the shadow control, with highlights topped off as
well. Color balance was adjusted to obtain a more neutral
rendition, as the original file was a bit on the cool side.
Making The Choice
As with any proprietary approach to digital, or any other image-making
process, there is a choice to be made between gaining the advantages of
a clearly excellent chip, camera and software combination with always
having to work through a system that is unique to the maker. Sigma is
not going to go away from the digital market, as evidenced in the work
done on this system. But until plugins for using the Sigma format are
developed for commonly used software, and at kiosks and other download
sites, you will always have to download the images through the Sigma software
to see them. In many cases the download itself will be no problem. The
RAW file is just like any other data and can be transferred from the memory
card to any media.
But we don't know one digital photographer who will reformat their
memory card before they are assured that the downloaded file opens properly.
To do this with the Sigma RAW files you will have to use Sigma software
to convert them to TIFF or JPEG format before you can re-size, send, and
even do image manipulation not offered in the Sigma Pro software. In short,
once you sign up by buying into the Sigma system, at least for now, you
will always have to salute that one flag. Again, the same goes for other
RAW formats from every other digital SLR maker. But there may be times
when you might need the facility a straight JPEG or TIFF gives you, being
more common formats. Clearly, for the Sigma system to gain wide acceptance
both Sigma and Foveon will have to do some proselytizing and make a strong
effort to get their format "readable" by other software programs
and kiosks alike. Even current versions of image organizers, like ACDSee,
are blind to the Sigma format.
In our tests we found that the Sigma SD9 and accompanying software really
delivered the goods. We felt that the images right out of the camera were
among the best we've seen in terms of vivid and true color, sharpness,
and especially when it comes to highlight and shadow rendition. If we
went pixel to pixel and resolution to resolution then the Sigma would
be our choice for one of the best in its class. But getting a 10MB file
from a digital SLR these days, especially with the (albeit more expensive)
competition of late, may cause the camera to have some problems going
up against the higher resolution models, if only in terms of the megapixel
horsepower race. On the marketing side the competition is fierce; when
first announced in early 2002 the SD9 was rumored to be priced at about
$3000; now, upon release, it's going for about $1800.
But as Sigma and Foveon rightly point out, it ain't just a matter
of megapixels, but what the chip itself delivers. In terms of image quality
right off the card the Sigma SD9 is terrific. But for those who insist
on getting max file sizes (and who have many memory cards of large capacity),
the SD9's 10MB output might just seem too little too late. For everyone
else who loves vivid color and incredible dynamic range, it comes in just
For more information, visit Sigma's web site at www.sigma-photo.com.
Camera: Interchangeable lens SLR, Sigma mount lenses
Memory Card: CompactFlash Type I and Type II
Lens Coverage Factor: 1.7x (e.g., a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera
equals 85mm equivalent)
Sensor: Foveon X3, 3.43 megapixels, 12-bit RAW format
Interface: USB 1.1, Video Out, FireWire
Autofocus: Passive, with Single and Continuous mode
Metering: Eight-segment Evaluative, CWA, Center (Partial Spot)
Exposure Modes: Program AE, aperture- and shutter-priority, manual
ISO: default at ISO 100; 200 and 400
Exposure Overrides: +/- 3 EV, AE Lock, Auto-bracketing
Shutter Speeds: At ISO 100, 1/6000 to 15 sec; at other ISOs, 1/6000
to 1 sec. Flash sync at 1/180 sec.
Power: Lithium CR 123A (2), plus (4) AA type or (2) CR-V3
Weight: 28.4 oz
Price: Street, $1799. Sold without batteries or memory card.