The Sigma SD14 is a newly redesigned 14-megapixel digital single-lens reflex camera equipped with the innovative Foveon X3 direct image sensor. The SD14 digital SLR is priced at about $1,500.
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The Sigma SD14 is more than just another pretty face in the growing crowd of consumer DSLR cameras. The SD14 improves on the amazing image quality that was hallmark of its predecessors, the SD9 and SD10. The camera has also been refined with several new and much-needed features. I tested the SD14 primarily with a Sigma 17-70mm F2.8-4.5 DC Macro lens provided by the manufacturer.
Sigma’s latest entry in the SD digital SLR camera series features improved handling, along with several new bells and whistles. The camera is controlled by an easily viewed, 2.5-inch rear LCD, an updated four-way controller, three dials, 13 buttons and a red LED status control. The top-panel LCD now has backlighting with a dedicated button.
The newest Foveon X3 sensor is the major selling point for this camera, setting the SD14 apart from other digital SLRs and making stunning prints possible. Foveon’s X3 differs from other the CMOS and CCD sensors in other cameras. Instead of arranging colored pixels in groups, it has three transparent, colored layers (RGB). The theory is that this allows the sensor to collect cleaner, purer color information for better image quality. To protect the X3 sensor there’s a dust shield in the camera body just behind the lens mount. This round, quick-release shield is easily removed without tools and conveniently doubles as an infrared filter.
The SD14′s long-life shutter – rated at 100,000 cycles — makes a barely noticeable, but satisfying sound.
Sigma has moved in a different direction from its previous RAW-only strategy, finally providing the ability to produce JPEG files in the camera. Image quality can be fine-tuned with +/- adjustments (in 0.1 increments) for sharpness, contrast and saturation. The SD14 offers a choice between Adobe RGB and sRGB color spaces. Image files can be sorted into user-created folders in the camera’s file-storage area for easier review.
A flash-exposure compensation control with a dedicated button controls the built-in pop-up flash or an external hot shoe flash. The SD14 is also equipped with a PC connector to control studio flashes and wireless remotes.
Sigma SD14 playback mode with basic info
Sigma SD14 playback with all info and histogram
Sigma SD14 main menu with
Sigma SD14 four-way controller display
The SD14′s sleek, black polycarbonate body is well-finished and rests easily in the hand. Gone are the SD10′s awkward handling and unnecessary heft. This camera will be most comfortable for those with larger-than-average hands.
A command dial surrounding the SD14′s shutter button selects the camera’s exposure settings: Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual. Shutter speeds range from 1/4000 of a second to 30 seconds, plus a bulb setting.
|Sigma SD14 Top Controls and Pop-up Flash|
Metering mode is tied to the multi-use function button and not displayed in the viewfinder. To select a metering mode, you must use both hands while looking at the top LCD. The SD14′s three metering modes — eight-segment evaluative, center and center-weighted average – address most lighting situations.
The quick-set white balance and ISO button displays a menu on the main LCD screen and is operated with the four-way controller. Also on the menu are five sensitivity presets ranging from ISO 100 and 1600, quality and resolution settings, and eight white balance presets, including a custom setting.
The Sigma SD14′s new, multi-point auto focus system particularly attracted me, since it was lacking in previous Sigma DSLRs. It offers five selectable focusing points, as well as an auto setting that chooses the highest contrast point. It also includes a built-in auto focus-assist light on the camera body, separate from the flash.
Sigma grabbed my attention with the SD14 announcement, but continued release delays caused me some anxiety. However, despite some negative first impressions, after a thorough test I came away liking the Sigma SD14 more than I expected.
I started by taking the camera out one morning to shoot beautifully lit tiger lilies, pumpkin blossoms and flittering butterflies – perfect testing conditions. Twenty minutes later, I had a dead battery and a bunch of disappointing images. Color and focus were off and I had barely captured anything worthwhile. A beautiful red lily, for example, was way oversaturated due to bad white balance.
The next time I took the camera out, I used a tripod, the self-timer and the SD14′s RAW capture mode to produce decent flower and insect photographs at ISO 100.
The auto focus system’s six combinations of focusing points, I learned, did not perform uniformly or reliably. The auto setting only worked in the best light and rarely “found” what I wanted to be in focus. The auto focus-assist light helps in difficult low-light conditions, but it only works with the center sensor. Focusing with the center sensor worked as well as or better than previous Sigma DSLRs. However, the other four auto focus sensors were slow and unpredictable and I often had to reframe when using them.
The active AF sensor flashes, but does not indicate focus lock. I found this confusing, although it’s documented in the manual. The SD14′s focus lock is indicated with one single, separate light in the viewfinder. It’s different from other camera maker’s auto focus indicators, and seems counterintuitive. I was confused by both the AF sensor lock indicator light and the flashing focus point, neither of which indicated what I expected them to. In the end I found it best to ignore them both.
The auto focus point selection button is on the top of the camera under the user’s right thumb. Because it feels the same as nearby buttons it’s difficult to use without looking. Had this not been a test camera, I would have scored the button with a tool the first day so I could feel the difference.
My biggest complaint is that the SD14 requires too much looking at the camera and preparing to shoot. A camera this long in the making should be more current in design and offer more setting information in the viewfinder, rather than just on the LCD. It makes sense to have white balance, ISO, quality and resolution all on one menu; however, taking your eye away from the viewfinder to change ISO or quality might mean missing a shot.
Similarly, changing to a different resolution or quality setting in either RAW or JPEG requires looking at the LCD and thumbing through the options when you might otherwise be taking pictures. Also, like Sigma’s previous DSLRs, the SD14 is not a fast shooter in RAW mode. The camera is much slower than desirable due to slow file-writing times and the buffer filling up.
The SD14′s battery life was problematic. Sigma’s proprietary, lithium-ion rechargeable battery — which comes with a fast charger — seems to have limited cell life. It’s true that new batteries often take a few charge/discharge cycles to work their best. And after five or six full cycles, the SD14 was able to shoot 150 to 200 JPEG photos. But the battery indicator showed low power much of the time. Long exposures were particularly hard on the SD14′s battery life. Even after the initial break-in period, I exhausted a fully charged battery in less than 50 shots, 30 of which were .5 to four-second exposures.
A welcome addition is the SD14′s built-in pop-up flash, which can also act as a trigger for wireless and slaved flash units. Sigma’s latest external flash was not available for testing, but a previous version from the EF-500 series worked fine. Flash white balance was right on target (see “Old Fashioned Couple” photo below). I had a few flash photos that did not work. And because the SD14 will not take a picture while the flash is recharging, it’s impossible to get a photo with no flash.
Previous Sigma digital SLRs only allowed RAW shooting, so the included Photo Pro software was an integral part of the camera experience. The SD14 can shoot JPEGs now and third party software like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom can handle the Sigma .X3F RAW files. So Sigma’s software performance isn’t as critical as it used to be. However, I did test Sigma’s included Photo Pro 3.0 software on a variety of computers and noticed a few issues:
- This version was slower to load images than its predecessor, Photo Pro 2.1.
- Processed files usually wrote more quickly, but adjustments were torturous on slower machines.
- The software was prone to locking up.
|Sigma SD14 Funnel Cake Stand Photo Comparison (Click on photos to see larger versions).|
Overall, I enjoyed using the Sigma SD14 DSLR. But I wish it had better auto focus, white balance and battery performance, as well as better menus and more setting information in the optical viewfinder.
The best proof of photographic quality is in printed pictures. Prints from Foveon-equipped Sigma DSLRs never cease to amaze me. When carefully processed from good RAW files, they are second to none. The new Sigma SD14 was no exception. Since the new camera has a JPEG mode, I also shot and printed JPEG photographs while testing the SD14.
The new Sigma has improved noise and bloom control for cleaner, smoother images with better controlled color saturation and detail. In addition to the bulb shutter setting, long exposures up to 30 seconds are now possible. The shutter speed capability of the SD14 is greatly increased over its predecessors and will meet most needs, short of astrophotography or other very long exposure work.
The SD14 produces X3F-RAW images in high, medium and low resolutions (2640 x 1760, 1776 x 1164 and 1296 x 864). JPEG files offer the same resolution options in basic to fine quality, plus a super-high, interpolated resolution of 4608 x 3072.
Sigma has gambled a bit by adding JPEG shooting to the SD14. Some might say it’s about time — everyone else has long had JPEG functionality. However, unlike RAW files, JPEG photos with bad white balance are much harder, if not impossible, to correct after the fact. The SD14′s auto white balance, incandescent and custom white balance settings were unpredictable in less than optimum light. There were also definite color and saturation shifts as ISO sensitivity increased. [PHOTOS] So in spite of the improved image quality of the SD14, JPEG capability increases the chances of less-than-pleasing photos. With RAW-only, previous Sigma DSLRs required attention in post-processing, but were very unlikely to produce final images with bad white balance.
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.
After thoroughly testing the SD14, I’m convinced Sigma has once again delivered a photographic tool that makes clean, beautiful, detailed images. The SD14 isn’t perfect – it could make those beautiful images easier to produce across a wider range of conditions. Auto focus and white balance problems, along with questionable battery performance, make this camera a work in progress.
I’d suggest Sigma introduce immediate firmware improvements to address the SD14′s auto focus and white balance issues. Future camera designs should offer a RAW-plus-JPEG capture mode – standard on most digital SLRs now. I’d also like to see a 25 to 30 percent bigger sensor to better compete with Canon and Nikon full-frame digital SLRs. Sigma should also improve its Photo Pro software’s speed and reliability.
Sigma’s main business is lenses and they make lenses to meet all budgets and photographic needs. Their introduction of more “OS” image-stabilized lenses expand the SD14′s possibilities, while its Foveon X3 sensor produces high-quality photographs that keep it in the game — but barely. As far as image quality goes, the SD14 is an excellent camera. But in terms of functionality and features it’s lagging a bit behind the competition.
Who Should Buy It
Moving beyond the SD10 with additional controls and enhanced in-camera capabilities, Sigma aimed the SD14 at the larger DSLR market. New features and the ability to use older lenses and accessories also make this camera appealing to a wider range of photographers.
Those who will most appreciate the SD14 are current Sigma owners who’ve already invested in Sigma lenses, studio shooters and photographers looking for a high-quality image at a low cost.
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