Sigma SD1 Digital SLR Pricing – $9700?

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Sigma SD1 – Call Me a Skeptic

Sigma SD1 CameraSigma has announced that the SD1 digital SLR they showed last fall at the 2010 Photokina tradeshow will be available in June for US $9700. Yes, you read that right. The new Sigma SD1 will be priced at close to $10,000. Sigma is justifying the price with a claimed resolution of 46 megapixels. Take that number with a big grain of salt, though. That resolution is a little math trick based on the SD1′s unique 3-layer Foveon sensor. In standard digital SLR terms, the SD1 is a 15.3-megapixel camera. Still, the Foveon sensor does set the SD1 apart and Sigma is using that to go after photographers who value image quality above all else.

For those who don’t already know about the Foveon sensor, here’s a little background. Most digital cameras use what’s called a “Bayer sensor array,” which uses side-by-side red, green and blue elements to create each pixel. The Foveon sensor, on the other hand, uses transparent red, green and blue layers. Sigma and Foveon claim that their three-layer sensor design delivers images with less noise and no moiré patterns. Images made with a Foveon sensor are arguably cleaner, with smoother color blends and less noise than their Bayer sensor counterparts. However, the SD1 is not a 46-megapixel camera. Ultimately, you end up with the same number of pixels with the Sigma as you would with a comparable digital SLR – you just arrive there via a different strategy. The Foveon sensor does it with layers and everyone else does it with three, adjacent color-imaging sites.

The new SD1 is a big leap over Sigma’s previous digital SLR, the 4.7-megapixel SD15 (they also multiplied the resolution of the SD15 by 3, calling it a 14-megapixel camera). Price aside, the SD1′s larger, higher resolution sensor makes the camera much more competitive with current prosumer digital SLRs. The larger sensor changes the focal length multiplier from 1.7x to the prosumer standard of 1.5x and also offers better depth-of-field control. The SD1 is also faster (5 frames-per-second vs. 3 frames-per-second for the SD15) and it has a much better auto focus system.

Sigma SD1 digital SLR - front and back

In spite all the improvements, aside from the Foveon X3 sensor, the SD1 appears very similar to prosumer digital SLRs made by the other big manufacturers. Is there much chance that photographers will be willing to pay the $9700 asking price? In the official press release, Sigma says:

“The SD1 will carve out a new category in the marketplace by providing high-end photographers with an alternative to very expensive medium-format cameras and digital backs, while offering unrivaled image quality,” said Mark Amir-Hamzeh, president of Sigma Corporation of America. “By embracing the SD1, serious photographers will also be able to take advantage of Sigma’s extensive lineup of affordable lenses, which are compatible with this new camera. The selections of lenses for medium-format cameras on the market are somewhat limited, so this will be a huge advantage for SD1 users. This is undoubtedly a very special camera, and we’re thrilled to share it with the photo community.”

The Foveon sensor does have special properties. We’ve talked about its unique characteristics in previous reviews for the Sigma SD14 and the Sigma DP1 premium compact camera. But pitching it as an alternative to medium format digital cameras like the Hasselblad H4D or the Leica S2 is a pretty big reach in my opinion. I haven’t seen what kind of image quality the SD1 can produce but I am definitely a skeptic if its being compared to cameras with much larger sensors that have resolutions of 30 megapixels or more. And what about cameras like the 22-megapixel Canon EOS 5D Mark II or the 24-megapixel Sony Alpha A900? The list price for the Sigma SD1 is three or four times higher than those two cameras and they both have full frame sensors with about 50% more resolution. I think full frame digital SLRs are a more realistic target for the SD1. But at the current MSRP it’s not a realistic competitor for those cameras, either.

I’m very happy to see Sigma continuing to evolve and improve their digital SLR line. On its own, the Foveon-powered SD1 is a compelling camera. But right now the most interesting thing about it is the steep price. Maybe that’s the point – photographers are definitely talking about it. However, I can’t imagine anyone is taking it seriously as a competitor for medium format digital or even full frame digital SLR cameras. At the $9700 asking price or even a possible street price of $7500, I don’t see much chance of anyone but the very rich and curious buying the SD1.

Sigma SD1 Pricing And Availability Press Release >>

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Digital SLRs Forum
All Sigma Camera & Lens News
Sigma Web Site

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About the author: Photo-John

Photo-John, a.k.a. John Shafer, is the managing editor of and has been since the site launched back in 1999. He's an avid outdoor enthusiast and spends as much time as possible on his mountain bike, hiking or skiing in the mountains. He's been taking pictures for ever and ever, and never goes anywhere without a camera.

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  • John Armstrong-Millar says:

    Let me get this straight. They are asking nearly 10000 dollars for a 15mp aps size sensor. Wow that’s an interesting tactic. At least as you say, It get us talking about it. and of course you are still stuck with sigma lenses. Granted they seem to be the best of the independents, but the ones I have used always struggled for colour accuracy and contrast.
    I would have thought the Pentax40MP 645D would be a much better buy for that money

  • Photo-John says:

    Thanks for the comment, John. Did you take a look at the Sigma DP1 and SD14 reviews I linked to in the article? There’s one sort of unknown factor here. That 15-megapixel spec really doesn’t tell the whole story about the SD1′s image quality. When we’ve tested Sigma cameras in the past we’ve been very impressed with the smooth, clean quality of the images. I’m skeptical but I’m hedging a bit because I think it’s possible that the SD1 might surprise us all and be at least as good as some current full frame cameras. I still don’t think that justifies a price of nearly $10k. And the reality is, the camera won’t actually cost as much as the MSRP. Sigma stuff usually ends up with a street price of 20% to 30% lower than the price they set. So maybe it will end up being a reasonable buy. But right now, with no sample images, it seems like a pretty big stretch.

  • Charlie (Anbesol) says:

    I remember they used to have issue on their SD14′s sensor, where the different color channels produced different grain as a result of the fovean sensors layers, i.e. the top layer produced much cleaner grain than the bottom layer. Considering the asking price, I would assume they made this a non-issue.

    Yeah, that price does seem quite absurd, quite ‘Leica’-ish haha. Looks like its basically a $8400 sensor. Sorry Sigma, I wont be buying this thing!

  • person says:

    B&H are listing the price as $6,500 or so, and I expect it will come down further very quickly. There are rumors of a big internal debate at Sigma and I would not be surprised if there is an official drop in MSRP of more than 50%.

    There’s also a possibility of a free selection of 3 lenses at that price.

  • Photo-John says:

    “B&H are listing the price as $6,500 or so”

    Thanks for that addition to the discussion. I didn’t even think to see if it was listed yet on any of the dealer sites. I think $6500 sounds a lot more reasonable. But the image quality is still going to have to be extraordinary to get very many people to spend that kind of money for an APS-C camera – even if it is excellent. Just the *idea* of it having an APS-C sensor is going to get in the way.

  • Gary Heller says:

    I have been intrigued by the foveon sensor and have hoped in a way that it gets off the ground changes the playing field, but this price, AND, it being on an APS-C size sensor is killing any chances, I think. My feeling is that many of us who would consider dropping that sorta dough on our next camera are really thinking about bigger such as the Pentax 645D, which I am lusting over….

  • Charles Fischer says:

    I think people are making too big a deal out of the APS-C sensor size. The pixel size is 5.00um for the SD1 and 5.49um for the Nikon D3x full frame sensor. We will have to wait and see if IQ of the two cameras are about the same. My guess will be that the Sigma will have film like quality and the Nikon will be better for low light. I admit this is just a guess based on previous Foveon sensors.

    If you look at the Sony Alpha DSLR-A900, you have to really wonder why anybody would buy the SD1 or the D3x, unless you have $5,000 of glass that you just must keep. The specs for the Sony read like the SD1, plus a few like in-camera stabilization.

    For Sigma to sell any SD1s the street price must come down to close to the Sony’s $2,700. That is a $4,100 drop. If you added lens to justify the cost you would have to add the following:
    Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8 EX DG APO OS HSM
    Sigma 105mm f/2.8 EX Macro Autofocus
    Sigma 70mm f/2.8 EX DG Macro Autofocus
    Sigma Normal 50mm f/1.4 EX DG HSM Autofocus
    Sigma 24mm f/1.8 EX Aspherical DG DF Macro Autofocus
    Sigma 4.5mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM
    That is $4,324 worth of glass.

    Come on Sigma get a clue.

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