5 frames with a Sigma DP1 – Classic Cars and Overcast Skies – By Wes Hall

Bold and brave or exotic tech and ill timed debut on the photography stage? Enter the Sigma DP1, the original Foveon X3 sensor compact camera. Promoted for having an APS-C sized sensor from the DSLR range of Sigma cameras and a purpose specced lens created to maximise it’s promised capabilities. Unique. Exotic. Expensive.

There’s been much written and, in some cases ridiculed, about the the usability of this odd little camera. Criticism ranges from slow (glacial in many an action photographers eyes) write and shooting times, a borderline 2 ISO option (you get 50 and 100 – and the 50 was a firmware update) to restrictions on processing the proprietary .X3F files. Did I mention the low resolution, even for it’s time, LCD display which was your only real option to use the fine focus ability in manual mode (expensive optical viewfinders were and are available).

So why… why consider getting this little black brick with a lens in 2021 to develop as an amateur photographer?

1960's Ford Zodiac
Sharp colour reproduction under difficult lighting conditions at low ISO? No problem for a Foveon- ISO 50 f/6.3 1/30s

Quality. Like savouring an exquisitely prepared piece of Unagi sushi, to be enjoyed in that moment as it is served, this camera and all it creates has refinement and character that sets it apart even today from its contemporaries. With a light aluminium body, ergonomics that considered one hand operation with an excellent manual focus wheel, there’s plenty to appreciate from this pocket jewel. But, much like sushi, the exquisite presentation presents unique challenges to overcome.

Compose a shot. Get the ISO, shutter speed, aperture all harmonised. You decide to check your actually in focus through the manual zoom…wait, is it buffering as it renders? Why is the sun ghosting my screen? Nope. That’s the mighty 230,000 dot resolution LCD struggling to render what the lens is seeing and having some of the worst contrast for anyone, even 20/20 vision, to decipher. Did I mention it likes to adjust it’s colour on the fly to almost monochrome? Oh it’s a beauty, so much so shooting blind is actually considered a valid way to treat this camera in some circles.

The 28mm full frame equivalent lens has provided me challenges with composition. If, like me, you find a 50mm or even short telephoto (hello 135mm my old friend) focal length more natural, this camera will provide another spike in the learning curve. Stuck with a sharp across the board, yet slow F.4 maximum wide open, it’s never going to keep those shutter speeds fast enough for those of us with human hands or friendly reminders of old age creeping up to take spontaneous low light images.

Quality. Persevere to the end result and be rewarded with all the refinement this high quality tool can show. The first time I saw a Foveon sensor image I was blown away. I’d been shooting with (and still do) a Pentax KS-1, and honestly thought I’d been mislead by the resolution of my little Pentax. These images have a 3D quality that seems to play off the depth of field and makes the image come alive off the screen. Metals in particular are some of this cameras best pairings for a subject matter!

Triumph 1500 interior
Colour and metals are capable of popping with this amazing little camera. ISO 50 f/5.6 1/30s

Which leads me to today’s 5 frames. Situated in a valley, overlooked by trees and a stately manor is the 23rd Leighton Hall Classic Car and Bike show, dodging the inclement storms of the Lancashire coast.

For a first show since lock down has been eased, the turn out of a few hundred hardy souls was encouraging, both to me and I’m sure the petrol head fanatics who were displaying their prides and joy.

Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special 1956
That 28mm full frame equivalent lens is capable of pulling some excellent angles even with long vehicles such as this classic Cadillac. ISO 50 f/7.1 1/60s

Walking around the relaxed displays, most simply parked with their owners pitched in the cars or on camping seats, a simple question about the car was enough to get tales of romancing their machines back to life and pristine. Old tales to match the old vehicles.

Cadillac Fleetwood Special 1956
Close up monochromes with strong reflections seem to favour this sensor and lens pairing. ISO 50 f/6.3 1/200s

This camera is similar to the subjects. Old, of a time when greater risks were often taken with design and technology, often to interesting and stunning effects. The weather may not have been ideal, but just as the Sigma won’t be hurried, neither will the weather or these cars.

Two good ol'boys watching their pride and joy
Watching the world pass by and enjoying the fruits of the show- Sigma DP1 ISO50 f/5.6 1/100s

Thanks for taking the time to chill and read this article- be nice to see and hear from you over at my Flickr. Wes.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

21 thoughts on “5 frames with a Sigma DP1 – Classic Cars and Overcast Skies – By Wes Hall”

  1. Really interesting words!
    I just bought a Sigma DP2 (the original one) but I can’t really find a post-production flow to get the best of this camera sensor!
    What is yours?
    Thank you!!

    1. Good question Manfredi, I’m jealous about the DP2 as it’s out of my price range when I’ve spotted one and it’s got a useful speed advantage over the DP1 lens I believe.

      My post flow goes like this; open Photo Pro 5 (use whichever is latest or most stable for your O/S). Check what the auto adjust option looks like- it sometimes surprises and gets a good baseline. If not, click the ‘adjustments’ button on the upper far right of the ribbon. The X3 fill light slider is your best friend on these cameras. Adjust to get the luminescence of the shot to your liking. I then play around with the exposure, shadow and highlight sliders in that order. If the image is suffering issues with the colour balance (has a ‘cast’ of say yellow) I will then check the white balance option and adjust, testing each to see which produces a tone I find appealing.

      That’s it! I’m no expert and don’t profess to understand the workings in detail, but I’ve produced results I’m happy with following this experimentation route.

    2. Get Sigma X3 Photo! Watch for the matching Version. I had the DP1, DP2s. Then DP1x, and DP2x. Then sold both, only kept my DP2 Merrill (later buy at its day) The DP1 had issues, the DP2s less, the last one was the DP1x, same goes for the DP2 Series (Original, s & x versions)
      I had the matching Lens Hood, and also a Sigma UV Filter als front element protector. Afaik, Sigma Photo Pro up to 5.x supports the older DP1/DP2 Series (pre-Merrill, Quadro Series)

      Good Luck.

  2. There are so few modern cameras that really have character or idiosyncrasy left in them — it’s what interests me about earlier digital cameras. Nice to see what can be done with this one!

    1. Thanks Matthew, this little gem cleared the fog of megapixel envy away for me; I can see worth in a sensor that had a good lens matched to it and unique rendering characteristics. I’d recommend tracking one of the Foveon cameras down and sample it- you don’t seem to lose money on them as prices keep on creeping up from my eBay hunts. I’m considering an older CCD Pentax DSLR to try at some stage as I’ve witnessed some stunning work taken with the early K10 and ist* cameras.

  3. Wes, I purchased one of these in 2015, out of curiosity, when one came up for a very reasonable price, it almosrt screamed “buy me”!
    I recalled the dpr review when it came out, which praised its IQ for the time but it had a long list of cons, one of which was its speed, or woeful lack of it. I had been looking for a digital equivalent for my film Ricoh GR1, which accompanied me everywhere with my M6. The DP1 seemed to be the closest match for it, but it was too expensive for me to consider this unique camera.

    With the exteremely obvious cons aside, when I eventual owned one I did find it quite a pleasant experience in use, despite the near impossibility of seeing the screen in good light. I thought the application of a focus wheel for manual focusing was a very useful touch, no doubt necessitated by the problem viewing the screen. I also liked how it performed in good old black and white mode. I used one of my old pocket rangefinders in the accessory shoe and used the DP1 like a manual focusing film camera at times. This was particulalrly useful when the subject matter had the sun behind me.

    I was surprised at your comment about available ISO settings. You seem to imply that there are only two, 50 and 100, whereas 200, 400, and 800 are available, although 400 is the max you’d ever likely want to use. And with this lens, the bespoke lenshood is very good at minimising flare.

    1. Hi Terry, thanks for the detailed comments- regarding the ISO it’s meant very much a ‘tongue in cheek’comment along with the rest of that paragraph as it generally get’s criticised for this fact. True, the range includes as you mention to 800, however, to me the noise introduced is very difficult to adjust from 200- It seems to negate the beauty of the shots this sensor is capable of. I’m a big fan of using a slower shutter speed and tripod if I need to get a low light shot, or using the fantastic Photo Pro software to recover the details and exposure.

      It’s great that you found the experience endearing, flaws and all. That focus wheel is a joy and feels very precise, and agreed the black and white jpegs are some of my favourite going, especially for metals. I’ve got the JA lens adaptor for mounting filters which has helped for flare control, however I’ll keep an eye out for the hood!

      1. Wes, I understand your point about ISO. I follow you practise of keeping to the lowest ISO I can, with all my digital cameras, and go up in speed only where it is absolutely necessary. IS helps enormously here with some of my cameras. The Sigma hood adapter is model HA-11.

        1. Great, I’ll keep a look out for that on eBay. Terry, have you found that sticking to the minimum ISO on digital has caused any kind of a ‘boxed in’ habit? I ask as I’ve discovered such a reluctance to ever venture pass 100, yet recently forced myself to adjust as far as 800 in order to capture a moment (on a Pentax KS-1 I must add, not the Sigma-bless it) and been happy to tolerate the noise produced. Still can’t beat the quality at 100 or less though!

          1. Wes, “boxed in habit”? Not really. It was a practice I adopted with my first digital camera, the Canon G2, 4mp, as it topped out at 400 ISO where the images were really blotchy, but at base ISO, 50, it produced really clean images. By 200 ISO quality was visually compromised to my eyes. The G2 produced nasty colour blotches at 400 ISO and which was far more objectionable than grain in fast b/w films that I would sometimes use in the 1960’s. But as things improved with later digital cameras, I would test for optimim highest ISO that I could accept and with cameras that would allow it, I’d set this as an Auto ISO maximum. For example, I know that I can happily go to 800 ISO with my Sony Nex 5N, and 3200 ISO with my Fuji X-Pro 1 and X-E1. But, as you say, best is always base ISO.

  4. Nice job. I think I prefer the color examples. What software do you use to convert the sigma files to jpeg?

    And that amazing Cadillac Fleetwood. Does someone really drive that on roads in Lancashire? It fits? And how much petrol does it eat? I admire the enthusiasm of collectors who have neat stuff.

    1. Thanks Kodachromeguy, the software I use is Sigma’s Photo Pro (5) and then if I need to do any further edits, I’ll use Rawtherapee (Linux user here). The fill light option in Photo Pro is incredible and it’s not as slow as reported with modern PC’s.

      I did wonder that with the Cadillac, I sadly didn’t get to chat to the owner of that one, but I like to think it gets the occasional trip and mostly admired (he’s one of the gents in the last picture). Enthusiasts are an inspiring bunch- certainly infectious (photographic equipment collectors included!).

    2. Andrew, I believe you would be surprised at just how many Brit car enthusiasts drive old classic US monsters. There is The American Auto Club and their “Rally of the Giants” is a great event, even if one doesn’t own a piece of Detroit history. Many years ago I attended one Rally as I really like the 1950’s cars. Today, old original b/w Perry Mason TV shows are airing here and for me the biggest attraction is seeing all the nice gleaming cars, and being slightly bemused at how soft the suspension was in those days, as the cars seem to wallow like beached whales!

      1. Very interesting. I have a friend in Sweden with an older V8 Corvette. He said there are clubs there for V8 American cars. And in the 1990s, I watched a Studebaker rally on the island of Andros (Greece).

        In Kathmandu a few years ago, my friend drove me to the airport in his right side steering wheel 1970s VW Beetle. Nepalis waved and honked. Well, they honk all the time anyway….

  5. Terry,
    Cultural differences can lead to different conclusions about the same object. I can recall the 60’s and 70’s where many of us in the U.S. referred to the Detroit behemoths as going through a corner like an elephant on one knee where when we looked to the U.K. and Europe to provide good road behavior and handling, not to mention economy. I won’t even talk about parking problems. Now
    the old “land yachts” are considered classics. Go figure! As for your images, Foveons at lower ISO’s have always looked better than cameras with Bayer or even Fuji X sensors. I can recall being “blown away” by images produced by the original Foveon equipped DSLR’s. I am still thinking about getting a Sigma SD Quattro w/ aSigma Art 30mm lens at the right price. It’s not an everyman’s camera for all situations, but it looks ideal for landscapes. Nice article, Terry.

    1. James, some of those behemoths are now works of art in their own right. It was as though the designers were allowed to run riot knowing that Detroit would build them as each marque tried to outdo the next, often with some whacky ideas. I’m thinking of those Cadillac Fleetwood models, especially the one with tail fins kitted out with rocket pods for rear lights and exhaust pipes. Just out of an original Flash Gordon movie!Tail fins seemed to be quite popular, that I wondered if they were necessary to keep the cars going in a straight line!
      Following the Perry Mason episodes, one can see, sadly, how the designs became less flambouyant and less interesting, although still jumbo sized! Back on topic, they make excellent subjects for photography with a Sigma, or any other camera. They had so much character.

  6. Just one problem with your photo of the camera: it’s not surrounded by enough batteries;) I had to haul around 4 or so of those puny things if I was going to be out for more than a few hours. A neighborhood walk was enough to pretty much chew through one battery. Real shame, too. The Sigma DP cameras produced special images. I don’t think anything else at the time even came close.

    1. Haha, this made me laugh; I have 4 batteries that I share between mine and my partners DP’s. I’ve found you have to get cunning with ensuring the LCD is off unless adjusting focus, no image preview as well. It’s true, nothing I’ve come across looks the same as a Foveon image.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top