As of early 2014, the Sigma SD1 Merrill is Sigma’s flagship DSLR.
First released in May 2011 under the SD1 label, it was renamed SD1 Merrill along with the update of the DP compact line of cameras to the Merrill naming scheme. Most importantly, the update came with a much lower price tag.
At the core of the Sigma SD1 Merrill is a 23.5 × 15.7mm (APS-C) Foveon X3 sensor, producing 14.75-megapixel images (4704 × 3136 pixels).
The Sigma SD1 Merrill is similar in size and weight to the Canon EOS 6D and to the Nikon D600. However, when handled, it feels like a 5D Mark III or a D800, due to a mostly magnesium alloy body.
Weight: 802 g / 28.29 oz (with battery and memory card)
Width: 8.2 cm / 3.23 in
Length: 14.7 cm / 5.79 in
Height: 11.4 cm / 4.49 in
Selected interesting specs, with a few comments.
There is nothing to be excited about the the AF specs of the SD1 Merrill. I’m not crazy about the number of focusing points, but some users may be concerned having only 11 points to choose from. However, it is to be noted that they are all twin cross-type (fully biaxial), which theoretically enhances focus accuracy.
96% coverage, 0.95% magnification in 35mm terms (roughly equivalent to 0.76%, taking into account the APS-C crop), eyepoint 18%, matte focusing screen. The viewfinder is not particularly glorious for a flagship camera, but in line with most consumer-grade APS-C DSLRs from 2008-2010.
Records lossless compression RAW data (12-bit). Lossless RAW is the way to go, recording all the relevant data, without making overly large files.
The focal plane shutter can actuate as fast as 1/8000s. This is in line with others high-end DSLRs. The Bulb mode enables 30 seconds exposures, or 2 minutes exposures in “extended” mode. This is a restrictive approach, possibly because the Foveon sensor is not at its best for that kind of exercise, or to prevent overheating.
Live view (lack of)
Live view would help focusing precisely when the camera is on a tripod.
This is still true in early 2014: one does not buy a Sigma camera for using it at crazy high ISO values. An ISO range topping at 6400 is low by today’s standards, but it would be absolutely useless to offer more with the current Foveon sensor (early 2011 tech). As shown in the Sigma DP3 Merrill Review, it is unable to offer any usable image even at ISO 3200. Base ISO is 100.
Sigma offers two cobra flashes with very similar specs, and a ringlight macro flash (see the Recommended Sigma Gear page). The sync speed tops at 1/180s. Of course a maximum sync speed 1/250s, commonly found on DSLRs, would have been preferred. Anyway, when shooting the Sigma SD1 Merrill, a flash is highly recommended. The Foveon needs light to show its best, especially as far as colors are concerned, and bumping the ISO value is a limited option.
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Lens mount and IR filter
The Sigma SD1 Merrill comes only in Sigma’s own mount, called SA. Obviously this restricts the use of the camera to Sigma lenses. Not that there is a lack of choice in the lineup, but the possibility to have it in Canon mount and Nikon mount would make this camera appealing to many more photographers, as well as extending its versatility.
When removing the mount cap, one immediately notice what Sigma calls the “dust protector”. Located just behind the mount, it is a cover with sealed edges, aimed at preventing dust getting into the reflex chamber and eventually reaching the sensor. This little shield also acts as an infrared filter, and can be removed easily either for cleaning it or for infrared photography purposes.
The LCD screen is an outdated 460,000-dot 3-inch device, that is barely sufficient for image reviewing (checking focus and sharpness) and certainly not pleasant to look at, zoomed-in or not. As Sigma went with the Merrill naming back in 2012, they could at least have updated the SD1 with the same LCD screen as found in the DP Merrills, which offers twice as many dots over the same surface.
Two metal dials are available – one either side of the viewfinder bump. The left one allows to turn on the camera and to set the shooting mode. Mirror lockup is accessible simply by turning this dial. No need to dig into the menus! The right dial is for the usual PASM and the custom settings presets. No fuss, no useless features – there is not even an Auto mode (the famed green rectangle)! The settings are represented by metal-made icons that protrude out of the dials. Overall, they exude a quality feel. Only a locking mechanism (so the dials could not be turned by accident) is missing. Something unique for a camera of this range: there is no top LCD panel. The space usually occupied by this little useful device is taken by the right dial and a small control wheel used for changing the shooting parameters.
Sigma has included a built-in flash to the body of the SD1 Merrill. When open, the flash protrudes of about 7 cm above the body. There is no rubber gasket to seal it, and it is made of plastic. Nominally covering the frame of a 17mm lens, expect it to embrace a field of view of 25-26mm, taking into account the size of the sensor.
Battery compartment door
The door of the battery compartment has a better design than any consumer DSLR’s, except it is also made of plastic: the lift-then-turn-to-unlock mechanism is something only seen on the Canon 1D series or Nikon Dx series. It features a rubber gasket (see the third picture) for weather-sealing purposes.
Memory card compartment door
This compartment is not weather-sealed. The SD1 Merrill offers a single CompactFlash card slot.
The deep handgrip is very comfortable for medium-sized and large-sized hands, with a very recessed hollow comfortably welcoming the middle finger. It is far better than any Nikon DSLR up to the D800, which made my middle finger sore, and better than Canon’s DSLR which also have a deep grip but not as finely carved.
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