Sigma DP1 Review

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Sigma DP1 Digital camera
One of the most anticipated cameras of 2008, the ground-breaking Sigma DP1 has a DSLR-sized, APS-C sensor in a compact body, allowing it to produce image files of a quality never before seen in a camera this small. The DP1 also features a 28mm fixed-length lens, the ability to shoot JPEG and RAW files, a 2.5-inch LCD and an optional optical viewfinder.

Photographers have long dreamed of shrinking DSLR quality into a pocketable camera. Has Sigma fulfilled our dreams with the DP1? The answer is a qualified “yes.”

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Sigma DP1 Studio Test Images
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Sigma DP1 Sample Photo


  • Foveon X3 DSLR-size image sensor
  • The “best” available image quality in a compact camera
  • Distinctive image quality characteristics
  • Small enough to fit in a coat pocket
  • JPEG and RAW file formats
  • Crisp 28mm (35mm equivalent) fixed focal-length lens
  • Rapid burst mode for limited action photography
  • Optional optical viewfinder
  • Hot shoe and optional dedicated flash
  • Sturdy build quality

  • Only 4.6 megapixels of effective resolution
  • ISO 800 and higher has objectionable noise levels
  • Slow auto focus (contrast detection)
  • Slow camera operation
  • Unrefined menu interface
  • Lack of dedicated controls for ISO and white balance
  • No live histogram, over/underexposure alerts
  • LCD has problems with color and reflections
  • RAW conversion requires Sigma software (as of publication)
  • Minimum focus distance of approximately one foot
  • Average to below-average battery life
Sigma DP1 - front and back

Originally announced in September 2006, the Sigma DP1 was delayed several times before finally being released in mid-2008. The camera’s initial reception has been mixed – its image quality praised, its usability panned. The DP1 is simultaneously a technological step forward and a throwback to old-school photography. It’s a champion of image quality above all else, married to a compact camera body that behaves a bit like an old rangefinder.

But what is it like to live with a DP1? Does it function well in a wide variety of situations? Who will be happiest with this camera? Based on my testing, I think it must be someone flexible enough to adapt him or herself to the DP1′s style.

The DP1′s major claim to fame is the digital SLR-sized Foveon X3 imaging sensor. Briefly, the Foveon is different from and theoretically superior to the Bayer filter sensors found in most other digital cameras. For starters, it’s much larger than the sensors found in other compact digital cameras. All else being equal, bigger sensors generally result in better image quality.

Bayer-filter sensors use a single layer of light detectors (called “photosites”) that are actually monochromatic. The individual photosites across the layer are filtered to capture only one color (red, green, or blue) and the filters are alternated across the sensor. So instead of an even grid pattern, Bayer sensors detect light in more of a checkerboard pattern. And because of the resulting gap in between each colors’ photosites, Bayer designs must interpolate (a process called “demosaicing”) the data to create the final image.

Foveon takes a different approach. Foveon sensors are like three sensors in one. There are three layers of photosites, each sensitive to an individual color – red, green, or blue. The data returned from each layer is then combined to create an image. Since each layer is fully dedicated to one color, no demosaicing is necessary.


While Foveon’s approach appears to be superior to Bayer designs, one only has to remember the Betamax versus VHS video format war to know that second best is often good enough. In fact engineers have done a respectably good job improving the quality of images from Bayer-filter sensors. Obviously there is much more to the two technologies and you can read more about them at Wikipedia [link] and elsewhere. And in the end, we the consumers have to live with the actual output, not the theoretical quality.

The DP1 is marketed as a 14-megapixel camera. But in practice, the file size produced by the camera is more like 4.6 megapixels. When converting RAW files using Sigma’s Photo Pro software, you have the option of small, medium or large output. I found the Sigma software’s “large” output to be over-sharpened. The recommended optimal size is medium, which produces 2640 x 1760 pixels at 180 dpi – or a 14.667 x 9.778-inch print. Converting the file to 240 dpi translates into a native 11 x 7.333-inch print. While not exactly up to the specs of a 14-megapixel DSLR like the Pentax K20D, it is adequate for most prints and I think the files “up-res” or size up nicely in Adobe Photoshop for larger prints.

Sigma says the DP1 is “exactly like an SLR. Just in a smaller body.” But once you get past the “DSLR-in-your-pocket” hype, the DP1 is a no-frills machine — minimalist design and minimalist functionality, and a far cry from the responsiveness of a DSLR. The DP1 has limited controls, and of course there is no image stabilization, face recognition or smile-manipulation technology here.

The other major feature of the DP1 is its 28mm (35mm equivalent) fixed focal length or “prime” lens. In a world of zooms, why would you want a prime lens? Conventional wisdom — and the laws of physics — says that primes are sharper and have less distortion than zoom lenses, which must trade image quality for the convenience of zooming.

A fixed wide-angle lens has also traditionally appealed to a certain kind of photographic vision — it’s just how some people like to take pictures. By limiting yourself to one focal length, you are forced to learn and explore the ins and outs of what that focal length can and cannot do. Working close to a subject, you can use a 28mm lens to capture foreground and background relationships or communicate a sense of place. As Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” A 28mm lens makes you zoom with your feet.

Sigma DP1 - Mode dial Sigma DP1- Back Controls
Sigma DP1 Mode dial and Controls

The DP1 offers just the standard shooting modes — Program, Shutter, Aperture and Manual — along with movie and audio recording. The camera controls are basic with no dedicated buttons. To change important settings like ISO or white balance you have to dig down through the menu tree to find them. (Maybe Sigma can eventually fix this in a firmware update.)

The DP1 has a built-in, pop-up flash as well as a hot shoe, into which can be fitted an optional optical viewfinder or external flash.

Camera Menus

Sigma DP1 - LCD Display
Sigma DP1 during capture
Sigma DP1 - LCD Display
Sigma DP1 Playback mode
Sigma DP1 - Picture Control Menu
Sigma DP1 Playback w. info & histogram
Sigma DP1 - Picture Control Menu
Sigma DP1 Shooting menu

The other major feature of the DP1 is its 28mm (35mm equivalent) fixed focal length or “prime” lens. In a world of zooms, why would you want a prime lens? Again, conventional wisdom — and the laws of physics — says that primes are sharper and potentially more distortion-free than zoom designs, which must trade off some absolutes for the convenience of zooming.

Sigma DP1 Pop-up Flash, Lens Sigma DP1 - Back
Sigma DP1 28mm Lens / Pop-up Flash & Controls

A fixed wide-angle lens has also traditionally appealed to a certain kind of photographic vision — it’s just how some people want to take pictures. By limiting yourself to one focal length, you are forced to learn and explore the ins and outs of what that focal length can and cannot do. Working close to a subject, you can use a 28mm lens to capture foreground and background relationships or communicate a sense of place. You don’t use a 28mm to photograph sweeping vistas in the distance. As Robert Capa famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Sigma DP1 - Manual Focus DialThe DP1′s design is handsome if plain. It’s a rectangular brick of a case with no significant curves or textures to grip. I never really felt comfortable using the camera one-handed, and I often spent time correcting some setting or menu that I had inadvertently bumped. It would be nice if the case had a contour for the right-hand fingers to grip, such as those found on the Nikon P5100, P60, etc.

A manual focus dial is mounted on the top rear where your thumb naturally falls, but I wanted some kind of physical indication of where the focus is set. A thumb notch or tab (like those found on Leica M-lenses) would help you know approximately where the focus is set without having to take your eye off the subject and look at the dial.

Camera Experience
If you try to use the DP1 like any other modern compact digicam, it will likely disappoint. But if you shift your thinking and use it like a rangefinder camera, the DP1 can be surprisingly fun. This means learning to think ahead photographically: Set it to manual focus and learn how to judge distance. Then experiment to find out how much depth-of-field you get with say, f/5.6 and focus set to three meters. It will take some trial-and-error, but in my opinion it’s the best way to work around the camera’s slow auto focus.

Exposure is consistent, so working in aperture priority with exposure compensation is similar to other cameras. Or shoot in manual exposure and use the playback histogram to fine-tune your exposures.

It turns out that the DP1′s three-frame burst mode (Sigma doesn’t list the spec on their site it feels to be around 3 frames-per-second) does a respectable job of capturing action, especially if you’re pre-focused (shutter half-pressed) or in manual focus mode. Burst mode even works with RAW files. However, once the camera has captured the burst, it takes five or six seconds to write the data — during which time you’re dead in the water.

Sigma DP1 Sample Photo - Camping Sunset

As it turned out it was fun to slow down and be more deliberate about the kinds of images I looked for. Knowing I couldn’t zoom in made me keep my compositions simple. The DP1′s workflow and 28mm lens force you to pay attention to background details, quality of light and “decisive moments.” The downside is that if you’re not a person who already photographs this way, you may find learning to use the DP1 an exercise in frustration. But I trust some people will stick with it and appreciate how the camera expands their way of seeing and anticipating photographic moments.

While manual focus works at most distances, you may need to return to auto focus if your subject is within 5 feet (2 meters) of the camera where it’s more difficult to focus accurately using the DP1′s manual dial. Obviously, you can’t make critical focus decisions based on what you see on the LCD. And close focusing requires more precision than focusing on something 10 or more feet away.

I was initially excited about the optional optical viewfinder accessory, which mounts in the flash hot shoe. It’s well made and bright. However, my initial excitement wore off, as I grew annoyed by the viewfinder sliding out of the hot shoe; it has no lock latch. And too often I found myself shooting from some angle where keeping my eye to the viewfinder was difficult, uncomfortable or just impossible (e.g., a low angle from the ground looking up). It wasn’t long before the viewfinder went back into its box for good.

The 2.5-inch LCD is of reasonable resolution, but reflections make it difficult to see outdoors. It doesn’t display colors accurately, either – particularly reds. I was photographing some red neon signs and when I replayed them on the camera, they were blown out to white. Naturally, this was disturbing. But when the RAW files were downloaded to the computer, the reds were there. The LCD’s color blindness had an effect on my shooting; I learned to emotionally disassociate the bland image I saw on-camera with the scene before me, knowing that rich color and quality of light would be available in post-processing. It was like stepping back from the scene and concentrating on form and framing only — sort of like shooting black and white film.

Using the DP1 felt reminiscent of the early days when I first discovered wide-angle lenses and shot everything with a 24mm prime lens. Yes, there are issues when trying to grab a fast snapshot — you must anticipate and have your focus zone prepared. And yes, you find that you can’t shoot everything with wide-angle glass — body shapes and architecture can be distorted. But on the whole, I found myself adapting to the limitations of the 28mm field-of-view and expanding the way I think about framing and composition.

Image Quality
The DP1′s image quality is first rate – although only 4.6 megapixels of first-rate quality. Nonetheless, it’s the best available image quality in a compact digital camera for now, and has a distinctive look. The subjective value of the DP1′s distinctive image character should not be underestimated. Some have likened the DP1′s look to film; others observe its smooth tonal gradations or the way it depicts light. I feel the colors are natural and well-balanced, and when saturated they retain a rich, natural smoothness that doesn’t seem overdone. As with most digital captures, the usual slight, gray digital patina accompanies any underexposure, but this is easily corrected in post-processing. I find the DP1′s saturation and contrast are both rendered on the low side (conservative).

From a workflow standpoint, the DP1′s RAW files are very flexible. I can open up shadows and change color temperature easily without unattractively distorting the overall color balance. RAW captures are adjusted with the supplied Sigma Photo Pro software, and exported to 8 or 16-bit TIFFs or JPEGs. When I opened the files in Photoshop, I was impressed by their outstanding smoothness and yes – film-like quality. Shooting at ISO 100, the DP1′s RAW files can be underexposed and corrected in post-processing, which in my testing yielded a very film-like noise texture. At higher ISOs, chroma noise began to appear, but noise reduction software should handle this issue.

Although Sigma’s software doesn’t provide the most polished workflow ever, it is functional and straightforward. After using super-powered post-production software (read: complicated) for so long, it was a bit refreshing to find the exposure and color adjustment sliders simple and effective. Thanks to the DP1′s great initial captures, most images only required some compensation here and there to spruce them up. Sigma’s Photo Pro software is not Lightroom, but it will get you close enough that further adjustments are only minor tweaks.

In good light at low ISO settings, the Foveon X3 sensor technology shines. Colors from a RAW file are rendered with a very natural palette. Saturation and contrast are easily increased or decreased to taste. The lens delivers very sharp, detailed lines, while offering real, selective-focus background-blur or “bokeh,” something we’ve largely lost with small digital cameras and their miniature image sensors. The DP1 brings back more bokeh than you might expect from an f/4 lens.

Sigma DP1 Sample Photo - Cloudy Beach Photo

As I mentioned, chroma noise did appear at times. The degree of noise depends on the subject matter, original exposure, ISO setting and post-processing. The cloudy seascape above, for example, has very slight magenta blotchiness in the clouds’ tonal texture, but this is only visible at 1:1 on-screen and not worth bothering about.

The DP1′s image quality begins to become noticeably coarse at ISO 800. Lines and contrasting edges in ISO 800 images take on a grainy character that feels a bit like film, but with a sharper, more jagged edge than film’s classic texture. I wouldn’t use ISO 800 or higher unless I had no other choice. I also underexposed ISO 400 and compensated the exposure in RAW format post-processing. If you don’t mind doing a little clean up with noise reduction software, it seems to me that the DP1′s files are more forgiving of exposure adjustments than Bayer filter camera files.

Since the DP1 uses an APS-C size sensor, I compared its images with DSLR images in my library. Although I did not do a controlled comparison, I found DP1 images generally more appealing than captures from older DSLRs. Then again, there are some instances where the DP1 falls pretty short relative to other cameras — such as shooting into the sun or other bright light, where ugly flaring occurs. So the DP1 is not a DSLR-killer. But there’s no question that the DP1 produces images of distinctive quality.

Sigma DP1 - Sample Photo Sigma DP1 - Sample Photo Sigma DP1 - Sample Photo
Sigma DP1 - Sample Photo Sigma DP1 - Sample Photo Sigma DP1 - Sample Photo

Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.

Sigma has to be respected for being the first to answer the marketplace’s cry for a pocket-sized DSLR. The challenge of marrying an APS-C sensor with a compact camera clearly has not been easy. While the resulting camera largely meets image-quality expectations, the DP1 suffers from a kind of mandatory retro-photographic technique that modern digital camera owners — the wider marketplace and gadget-freaks alike — are unlikely to appreciate. I’m glad Sigma persevered and brought the DP1 to market; the world is a better place for it. But I believe they only got it half-right.

If you’re a rangefinder kind of shooter or enjoy the slower, more deliberate photographic thinking that the DP1 requires, it won’t be too much of a stranger in your hands. I doubt I would have been so patient had I not had experience shooting with manual rangefinder cameras. And while I enjoyed slowing down and adapting to the DP1, this is 2008 and any serious digital camera should incorporate the years of solid functional design demonstrated by almost any compact digital camera introduced since 2006. I’m talking about basic usability here, not fluff like face recognition, because the best image quality in the world is meaningless if you don’t get the shot. Potential DP1 buyers accustomed to modern digicam handling should be prepared to “shoot different.”

The Sigma DP1 is best suited to wide-angle photographers who value image quality and aesthetics as the primary photographic attributes. Whether these are landscape photographers or street photographers may not really be the question. The DP1 forces you to adapt to its wide angle, rangefinder-like shooting style, and people able to work within these limitations will be rewarded with a rich image quality never before seen in a compact camera.

Who Should Buy It
The Sigma DP1 is an ideal choice for:

  • Advanced or professional photographers who value the highest image quality possible in a pocket-sized camera.
  • Beginner or intermediate photographers who want to learn to shoot slowly and deliberately with a fixed wide-angle focal length.
  • Any fine-art photographer who enjoys taking their time and getting up-close and personal.
  • Photographers comfortable with rangefinder-style shooting.

The DP1 is probably not the best choice for photographers who require fast shooting, zoom or interchangeable lenses, and modern features like image stabilization, face recognition and scene modes.
- end -

Sigma DP1 - Box Contents

Contents of the Sigma DP1 Box

  • Sigma DP1 Digital Camera
  • Li-ion Battery
  • Battery Charger
  • Lens Cap
  • Neck Strap
  • Soft Case
  • USB Cable
  • Audio/Video Cable
  • Sigma Photo Pro Disc
  • Instruction Manual

About Laurence Chen
Laurence Chen is a freelance editorial, commercial, and wedding photographer based in Seattle, Wash. His clients have included Fortune Magazine, Sunset Magazine, and America 24/7. Visit his portfolio at and buy his e-book, “Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera”, at

Other Resources:
Shop For Sigma DP1 >>
Sigma DP1 User Reviews >>
Write a Sigma DP1 Review >>
Sigma DP1 Camera Specs >>
Sigma DP1 Sample Gallery >>
Sigma Camera Web site >>
Sigma DP1 Camera Manual >>
All Digital Camera Pro Reviews >>
Digital Camera Buyer’s Guide >>
All Digital Camera Sample Images >>
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  • Poagao says:

    Firmware updates released prior to this article have fixed a few of your problems; you can have a dedicated ISO or white balance button, for example. You might want to check this out.

  • Alf Beharie says:

    You are completely wrong about the effective resolution of the DP1 being “only 4.6mp” because the resolution of a Foveon X3 sensor is not the same as the resolution of a Bayer/CFA sensor and cannot be measured in the same way.
    If you compare the resolution of the DP1 with a DSLR with a DSLR fitted with a 4mp Bayer sensor and fitted with a sharp 28mm lens then it would be immedietly obvious that the SD14 is far exeeding the Bayer cameras resolution.
    Several carefully conducted comparisons between the Sigma SD14 (which has the same sensor as the DP1) and the 12mp Canon EOS 5D DSLR have shown that the effective resolution of the DP1 is actually equivalent to the resolution of the 5D when it is fitted with a sharp 28mm lens.
    If you insist of incorrectly calling the DP1 a 4.6 mp camera then you should correctly state that the 5D only has an effective resolution of 3mp, in red and blue and somewhere between 3-6mp in green.

  • Alf:

    I spend a fair bit of time considering how I phrase things, but I should have taken more care to state that my use of the term “effective” refers to what happens when I open the file in Photoshop and have x-amount of data to work with. And my use of the term “resolution” was in retrospect ill-chosen, as your use of it and the general understanding of it refers to imaging resolution, not my intended use, which is the amount of data an end user winds up working with in Photoshop when you use the DP1′s medium conversion. Maybe I should have said “usable” or “output” megapixels instead of “effective.”

    But this is exactly why these debates rage on… It’s a comparison that doesn’t work smoothly, and most end users just want their camera to work. If I spent $800 and found my output pixels to be the effective equivalent of a 4.6 MP camera, I might be a little disappointed.

    It’s not my intent to argue the merits of Bayer vs. Foveon, but to evaluate the camera as an end user who is concerned with photography rather than technical imaging superiority. Nonetheless I apologize for any misunderstanding caused by my use of the terms above. Note that there are other reviews that take the same approach however.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  • Richard Franiec says:


    I really enjoyed your fair and balanced review from user point of view.

    After several months since the introduction most of DP1 enthusiasts adopted themselves to what this cam really is: great sensor + optics with less than average executed user interface.

    Knowing and accepting the shortcomings regarding controls and speed of operation, with deliberately slow and premeditated approach toward using DP1 as photographic tool it can reward the user with the images incomparable with any digital compact available to date.

    One of my biggest gripes, and this review concur to my impressions,was lack of sufficient grip which is the typical case for most compact cameras.
    Following the experience with Powershot G9 custom grip I decided to develop similar device dedicated to DP1.
    The details can be seen at:

    Based on the feedback from the actual users of the grip, they no longer worry about the cam squirting from their sweaty hands even when using DP1 one handed.

    Best regards

    Richard Franiec

  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for the link for the grip. That’s a good addition to this page.

    Reading your comments and thinking about Larry’s review I was reminded of how I used the camera for the short period I had it. I did sort of a walkaround in downtown Salt Lake City and I did find myself working slowly and methodically with the camera. I did not ever feel frustrated or held back by the camera. I guess I acclimated to it quickly. And once you accept it for what it is and work within its limitations, I think it’s fun and satisfying to use. For me personally, it’s not a camera I feel the need to own. I want either high-performance SLRs or cameras that fit in my pocket. And the DP1 is neither. But I did enjoy using it and have some photos from it that I think are really nice. You can see a few of them in the Sigma DP1 Preview I posted before sending the camera on to Larry so he could do the actual review.

  • Richard,
    That’s a handsome improvement to the camera body and I would buy that before the optical viewfinder for sure!

  • Richard Franiec says:

    Larry, John,

    I was not sure if you, guys, kept the DP1 after the review, otherwise I was going to offer a complimentary sample for your evaluation.

    The offer stands, what I need is your mailing address, if you can Email that to me.

    Not many web publications regarding DP1 present such systematic and thoughtful approach like yours does.
    Your review might not fit well with some of the DP1 users but many working pros and open minded enthusiasts who use DP1 as photographic tool rather than an icon would concur to your findings.

    Please, keep up good work.

    Best wishes


  • Photo-John says:

    It’s good to hear that someone appreciates our review(s). Please spread the word. We take our pro reviews seriously and from the point-of-view of working photographers. Specs and numbers are all well and good. But the most important question to me is always – does this camera facilitate or get in the way of better picture-taking? And in the case of the DP1, it can help you take better pictures, if you acknowlegde its limitations and don’t expect it to be something it’s not.

    Unfortunately, we have to send all cameras back. Otherwise it would be great to try the grip. And thanks a lot for the offer. It would have been a nice addition to the review. But at least you’ve posted here so people will know about it.

    Thanks for the comments! If you haven’t yet, please post a review for the DP1 in our user reviews. We definitely need more reviews for that camera. Here’s a link to that review page:

    Sigma DP1 User Reviews >>

  • Richard Franiec says:


    Sigma DP2 appear to have identical front body panel as DP1.
    What that means, the DP1 grip should work with DP2.

    I trust you will be reviewing the new camera when it become available.
    The offer of grip sample for your evaluation stands, just let me know when and where to send it.

    Hopefully DP2 will score higher points in yours and others reviews, although multiple cameras system concept have a lot of drawbacks in my view. I put my thoughts in the comment on your DP2 news page.



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  • Rich says:

    Thanks for your review and informative comments regarding the DP1. Yours and the review from are the most insightful from a walking photographer’s point of view that I’ve read. I am disappointed to learn that the new Sigma DP2 still has some of the same problems as the first; the same 230,000 pixel LCD, the same lack of manual focus position-lock at infinity, and the same resolution (or lack thereof). Perhaps it will be a bit faster and the autofocus will work. I look forward to your review. Thanks again.

  • Mike says:

    Hi there!
    well, the AF WORKS and the camera is NOT slow!! I have a DP2 and DP1 and they blow the G10 (I did have it) out of the water entirely. Heck, even my D2x Nikon is not better iq wise…
    And all that in a tiny package! Great!!

  • Matthew Tollin says:

    Thanks for a wonderful review. I can really appreciate the better image quality of the dp1. I have been warned by photogfile friends that I should not even consider because of the operability issues. But due to price drop, i am considering buying for the image quality. I agree it is like Beta vs. VHS, but even more relevant because you are capturing creativity rather than displaying images from tapes that may become obsolete. Other technologies that have not been adopted and lost (i think of early film types with bright rich and memorable colors), are a loss for our societal artistic and creative collective appreciation- in addition to a loss for the marketplace. So i guess im saying- to be able to preserve 1-of-a-kind photos like this produces is worth the sub $400 bucks..
    Thanks again. Matthew Tollin

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