Sigma DP1 Merrill – Finding perspective in the Mojave Desert – By Brian Cox

The Sigma DP1 Merrill will teach you the meaning of tough love. It has a very low tolerance for shooting outside of its comfort zone and is quick to remind you of its limitations. Many of the online reviews will quickly point out its flaws and they aren’t necessarily wrong. Let’s start with those flaws and my “real world” experience.

Battery life? Yes, as the reviews will tell you it’s terrible. I usually have at least four batteries on me when I take this camera out. On the bright side the battery is shared with the Ricoh GR digital which I already owned and had plenty of spares.

The screen? Yes, that’s bad as well. It’s only useful for composing and that’s also a real challenge in bright daylight. No Chimping here folks. What you see on the screen is not an accurate representation of what you actually captured.

Processing time between shots? Terrible. The files this camera produces are huge. On average the raw files are 50 megabytes and it takes some time for this 2010 camera to process all that data. You can expect about a second of processing time between each shot.

Dynamic Range? That can be added to the list of things this camera is not so great at. You have a little bit of highlight recovery when using Sigma SPP software. Shadow recovery is abysmal. Much like film the shadows block up and lose most color value when underexposed.

About that Sigma SPP software? It’s not great. It’s slow to process adjustments (surprise) and does crash from time to time.

ISO Performance? As a test I tried using ISO 800 and all the images were trash. After my test I haven’t attempted to go past ISO 200.

I suppose you might be asking yourself why anyone would want to buy or use a Sigma DP1 Merrill. I like to think of this Camera as a restaurant that serves really good food but provides equally bad service. This camera is the Soup Nazi reincarnated as a camera. If you can put up with the bad service this camera will reward you with some really great images from a small(ish) package.

The actual megapixel count is probably one of the most asked questions about this camera and wanted to give my opinion on the matter. The camera is technically 14.8 megapixels on a APS-C sized sensor. Sigma advertises this camera has 46 megapixels because each of its three layers has 14.8 megapixels.  Yes, this sensor has three layers. One each for Red, Green and Blue (I’m still unsure how Sigma concluded 14.8 x 3 = 46?). The final output is a combination of those three layers. Though I don’t agree with Sigma’s advertised 46 megapixels it is still in a different league than a traditional 14-megapixel sensor. Because it captures light on three different layers it doesn’t have a Bayer filter or need to interpolate color data. It also doesn’t need an Antialiasing Filter. The files are sharp all the way down to the pixel. When compared to a traditional sensor I would say it compares closely to 25 megapixels.

I bought this based on my experience with the original DP1 and DP2. Though it has a lot of limitations it is still an upgrade from the original DP1/DP2. Most notably the autofocus is actually usable in the DP1 Merrill (though still only adequate when compared to similar cameras of its time). Terrible autofocus combined with a terrible screen and lack of a viewfinder was a bit frustrating on the first generation. My only disappointment with the DP1 Merrill when compared to the original DP1/DP2 are the colors. I’m not saying the colors from the DP1 Merrill are bad, but I much prefer the ones from the original. The Merrill series just aren’t as true to life and can sometimes have a weird green cast to them.

Sigma has continued its naming convention into the Merrill line with the DP1 having a 28mm lens, the DP2 having a 50mm lens and the DP3 having a 75mm (all 35 mm equivalent). Everything besides the lens is exactly the same between the three models. Since 28mm is my favorite focal length, I of course got the DP1. The lens may not be perfect but it’s really good. No distortion to speak of. It’s decently sharp at F2.8 and really sharp stopped down to F8. As with all wide angle lenses flare can be an issue when not using the hood. There is also some minor purple fringing in high contrast scenes but again I find that to be the case with many wide angle lenses.

The ergonomics of the Sigma DP1 Merrill are pretty basic and that’s exactly how I like it. The menus are straightforward and the controls are also very minimalistic.  This camera was designed for photographers who know the fundamentals of manual exposure and they make no apologies for it. I love Sigma for that. I view this as an old school sports car in the modern era. If you want a camera that can do everything this isn’t the one for you. Just like you wouldn’t want to commute daily in a Lamborghini, you wouldn’t want to use this camera to shoot a wedding or for handheld night photography. It wasn’t meant for that. It’s capable of giving results one would expect from a much larger camera but does so at a much slower pace. In my day job, I have many tight timelines that need to be done as quickly as possible. I find it very relaxing to get out with this camera and be forced to slow down. It forces me to hop off the hamster wheel and think about what I am doing. If you are the slightest bit interested in any of Sigma’s cameras I would encourage you to get one. The first generation can be had for very little money. The Merrill’s are a bit more money but they also hold their value really well. You can buy one, try it out and sell it for exactly what you paid for it.

The places

My wife and I were planning a road trip from Las Vegas to Southern California and this was the camera I intended on using. That’s not to say I still didn’t bring four other cameras, but this did end up being the one I used almost exclusively. I live in central North Carolina and this was a trip of many firsts. This was my first time seeing the desert in person. My first time going to Las Vegas. My first time visiting California.

The first three nights were spent in Las Vegas and then we drove through the Mojave Desert to Santa Barbara California. We spent one night in Santa Barbara then drove down to Dana Point for a night and then back to Vegas for the last night. It was a great trip with many great memories and photos but it was the Mojave Desert that made the biggest impression.

Looking out over the vast expanse of the desert was much like seeing the ocean for the first time. I live in an area full of trees, vegetation, winding roads and buildings. In the Mojave desert there is nothing. I found a profound beauty in that nothing. Barren land devoid of almost all life. Sprinkled in that nothing are small forgotten towns and signs of human activity from many years past. People’s hopes, dreams and ultimate failures are preserved indefinitely. My wife drove us from Vegas to Santa Barbara and I spent all of that time looking out of the car window making observations about this foreign land. Looking off the highway you can still see evidence of what would have been the highway’s predecessor. Small stretches of two lane road in disrepair leading to nowhere. Abandoned power poles and lines that look like they belong in the 1920’s. Neighborhoods that never made it past building the roads and sidewalks. Random “Land For Sale” signs miles from any civilization or any water source. Dollar Generals and fast-food restaurants beside motels and homes long since abandoned and covered in graffiti. You can see the slow progression of time in these places that were left to the sun and vandals.

These places help me see time in a different way. The older I get the more I understand time and the more I realize I’m running out of it. These left behind places and things give me perspective on how I want to spend the time I have left. It makes me realize how much time I’ve wasted worrying over physical possessions. I doubt the original owners of these places and things could have envisioned their prized possessions ultimate demise, but here they are slowly rotting away in the desert. I wonder how much worry went into these things and how ultimately it didn’t really matter.

It’s a reminder for me of what is important in this life. The people around you and the experiences you share with them.

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About The Author

11 thoughts on “Sigma DP1 Merrill – Finding perspective in the Mojave Desert – By Brian Cox”

  1. Great photos and excellent points.

    “As you get older, the questions come down to about two or three.
    How long? And what do I do with the time I’ve got left?” -David Bowie (1947 – 2016)

  2. Nice photos! My dp2m is my most used camera I think.

    Did you try monochrome mode? I think iso 800 and sometimes even 1600 works in monochrome. You can select only the top (blue) layer in SPP also which makes it a bit cleaner.

    Another tip for making files easier to work on is to use a fixed WB preset. You probably already know this but auto WB is all over the place with these cameras.

    1. I’ve done very little black and white with the Merrill but you’ve got me interested in trying it out. As you point out it might have less limitations in black and white as the noise renders more film like at higher ISO’s. Thanks for the tip about Auto WB!

  3. Nice photos Brian!! I especially like the first one of the gas station and the fifth with the tumbleweeds in the foreground. I have shot extensively with the Merrills. I’m not too sure on the megapixel count either. However in my experience, if you get the exposure right, the DP Merrills will cameras easily resolve close or at 30+ megapixel full frame camera. I particularly like them for B/W. Sigma Photo Pro is a bit of a pain, but it’s great for processing B/W.

    1. Thanks so much! You guys really have me interested in trying it with B/W. I’m leaving for NY on Friday and was going to leave the DP at home due to its low light limitations but now I’m strongly considering bringing it and shooting in B/W at higher ISO’s

  4. These are spectacular frames, at least on the scale for web display. Well done! You did a nice job capturing the forlorn look of these abandoned motels and the boat in the desert. It would be interesting to see these files converted to black and white. Keep exploring your world and have fun!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. This has been an ongoing project going back to my early 20’s.After all these years I still sometimes question why I keep doing this.

    1. I’m sure its probably not the fate he envisioned. I sometimes research my shooting locations to see what they might have been like in their former life. In researching I discovered this hotel was the shooting location for many of the scenes from the “The big Empty” Seeing the motel in video format prior to its current state of neglect was really mind blowing.

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