Sigma SD1 Merrill

I have to admit that I was waiting a long time to call the SIGMA SD1 my own.
Now finally it happened and all I can say is WOW.
As someone who has had hands on experience with all previous SIGMA DSLRs and has used every single one intensively, the first contact was a very special experience.


First of all I have to say that the packaging the camera came in was very nice. White box, separate sections for accessories and very nicely packed.
After opening the box and first holding the camera, it fits very nicely in my hands. If you have big hands like me, you’ll enjoy the tight grip. The grip is perfectly formed to make sure you can hold the camera for hours without feeling tired when using it.

The weight is also very reasonable. Not too light and definitely not too heavy as some have said in the past. The body is of excellent build quality and especially when compared to the Sigma SD14 and SD15, it feels very professional and nice, not as plasticy as the previous models.


The display is bright and easy to read, but it’s still the LCD that’s used in the SD15 – so no high resolution for this baby. For me this isn’t an issue as I am not using the display to determine the quality of the image, but more to check the composition. So this is enough for me, but may not be for others.

The camera brings the basic functions (P,A,S,M) and is not cluttered with unnecessary gimicks like Night mode and such.

There is no liveview or video function, this is due to the fact that the processing power needed to process such immense data was not up to the task back then when the camera was introduced (2011).

You can easily change settings using the QS button (quick select), where you can find 2 screens with 4 settings each. Quick and easy as I would say. Also to check the settings you have a func button next to the view finder.


Walimex 85mm 1:1.4
ISO 100 – 1/500 sec – f1.4

The ISO range is from ISO 100 to ISO 6400 but I would only recommend using up to ISO 1600 if you feel like you need to take coloured pictures. The modes above should be only used for Black and White images.

Special function:
Since the SD9, SIGMA provides its cameras with a removable dust protector, for cleaning purposes.
Since the SD10, this dust filterdoubles as an infrared filter to make the cameras capable of capturing infrared images.

All SIGMA DSLRs to this date use the Foveon X3 image sensor to capture the images.

Foveon sensor:
The Foveon X3 image sensor is a very special and sometimes difficult sensor that needs a lot of light to deliver best image quality.


Sigma 105mm 1:2.8 EX DG Macro
ISO 100 – 1/30 sec – f4

It’s structure is similar to that of colour film as it uses 3 layers to gather light from different parts of the visible spectrum. That means that each pixel can capture 3 different colour values at once which is different to the way that normal bayer pattern sensors work. Those gather the colour information by using a colour filter in front of each sensor pixel. Each pixel can only capture one colour tone which can be red, green or blue using a fixed pattern. Later this information is used in the RAW developers to interpolate the final colour value for each image pixel. The green colour filters on a bayer pattern sensor are twice as many as the red and blue which gives a higher sensitivity to the green areas of an image.


Sigma 28-70mm 1:2.8 EX ASP
ISO 100 – 1/500 sec – f5.6

The downside of this process is that it can introduce colour artifacts such as colour moire. For this the camera makers found a good solution by using an anti aliasing filter in front of the sensor to blur high frequency patterns. Unfortunately these types of filter can also cause the issue that images recorded from bayer pattern sensors are much blurrier than the ones captured with sensors that do not sport one, like the Foveon sensor.

How does this Foveon sensor work then?
In early stages of developing image processors based on silicium, it happened that a few scientists realised that silicium absorbes different part of the colour spectrum in different depth of the material. Later, Richard B. Merrill, Dick Lyon and Carver Mead developed the “vertical colour filter” Foveon X3 technology that was able to read out this full colour information from one pixel. This technology doesn’t need any bayer pattern filter in front of the pixels and also gets rid of the anti aliasing filter as there is no need to blur the information gathered because no interpolation to estimate a colour at a pixel is needed.

This results in astonishing clarity in the images captured with a Foveon sensor and detail resolved down to pixel level.


Sigma 105mm 1:2.8 EX DG Macro
ISO 100 – 1/200 sec – f2.8

What does this mean for the end user? Let me put it that way, you cannot compare the image resolution from a pure number point of view. Neither, a 15 MP Foveon, nor a 15 MP Bayer image can be compared using conventional charts. The Foveon image will resolve more detail at its base ISO than the bayer equivalent. Sigma states that for B/W resolution this new sensor would be comparable to a 30 MP Bayer sensor and I would say that this is pretty impressive. For colour resolution this is a different thing. The Foveon would be more consistent with its resolution whereas for a bayer pattern sensor it depents heavily on the subject. Having lots of colour contrasts means that it will introduce more artifacts and in fact, for those images you might need a 46 MP bayer imager. For images with almost no colour contrast, a 24-30 MP imager would be enough to compare with this Foveon.

But lets just say, the images that you can capture with it are full of detail and with very amazing colour fidelity in both, print and on screen.


Sigma 28-70mm 1:2.8 EX Asp
ISO 100 – 1/100 sec – f5

However, lets face it, this camera has some downsides.
1. Due to the low ISO range, it wouldn’t be the best idea to try to capture a black cat in the dark, unless you want black and white images
2. To utilise the sensors resolution, you need the best of lenses. Because of the high colour contrast resolution it would be a bad idea to use cheap lenses like kit lenses or cheap 18-250mm lenses. Every flaw of the lens will be resolved with this sensor.
3. You need to have some time to do a photo shoot. Anyone wanting to use this camera for sports or action photography should look elsewhere. The data of 46 MP need to be processed by the small computer inside the camera and depending on the RAW size and complexity it can take between 8 and 20 seconds. The buffer fills after 7 consecutive images in Full Res, using Low Res it is still 14 images. Lower resolution and Jpeg is much faster, between 2 and 3 seconds per image.
4. Due to the depth of the sensor, you will quickly lose colour information starting with ISO 800 and it gets much worse past ISO 1600. Better try to use B/W then or a different camera.
5. No Scene modes. The user needs to have some photographic background and be able to cover all the basics by himself. This is not a camera to try out if you don’t know what you do. I will be no fun and can be frustrating for those.
6. For Windows there is only one software capable of processing the X3Fs from the Merrill cameras. Sigma Photo Pro covers the basics in RAW processing but for further editing, other programs are needed. Also keep in mind that this software is not one of the fastest, so bring some time for editing too. On the MAC, in addition to Sigma Photo Pro, there is Iridient RAW Developer which can also process and edit the images. Adobe and other developers have support in the pipeline, but nothing has been released as of yet.

Let me add a few words to Sigma Photo Pro. This is a free RAW developer. It brings basic developing tools, nothing more. There are no tools to rotate in degree steps, crop, heal dust spots or allow for perspective correction. Nevertheless, it has some killer features. The Fill Light feature allows you to create HDR like images out of a single RAW image by equalizing the dark and bright areas in the image. This keeps the details in the image or recovers them to create a final image. Phantastic.
Also be careful when sharpening the images. I usually export the images with values between -1 and -1.5 and sharpen them in other programs. You can say that you might be able to cut your eyes, thats how sharp they are.


Sigma 105mm 1:2.8 EX DG Macro
ISO 100 – 1/160 sec – f8

If after all you still think that you can live with the flaws, you get a camera and a sensor that doesn’t face much competition in the DSLR market.
Looking at the price, you have to admit that the marked has very few competitors and this sensor alone deserves a little premium in price.

For myself, I am very happy with this camera.

Image quality (Low ISO): 5/5
Image quality (High ISO): 2/5 (Colour), 4/5 (B/W)
Handling: 4/5 (Very goot menu structure, quick buttons, nice grip, just a bit slow in some areas)
Box content: 5/5 (Localised manual, charger, camera cap, camera strap, video cable)
Extra features: Foveon Sensor, removable infrared / dust filter

Total: ~4/5

Final words:
All I can say is that it is expensive but good! Anyone who practices photography as a hobby (like I do) probably doesn’t really need this camera. Smaller cams like SD15 or other APS-C cameras from Canon/Nikon/Pentax/Sony or others will also do the job. But if you’re someone that requires really high image quality, and can live with all the quirks of this camera – you should consider this camera. I don’t wanna go back.

Sample images:


Sigma 105mm 1:2.8 EX DG Macro
ISO 100 – 1/80 sec – f8


Sigma 105mm 1:2.8 EX DG Macro
ISO 100 – 1/320 sec – f2.8


Sigma 105mm 1:2.8 EX DG Macro
ISO 100 – 1/400 sec – f3.2


Walimex 85mm 1:1.4
ISO 100 – 1/50 sec – f1.4


Walimex 85mm 1:1.4
ISO 100 – 1/250 sec – f2.8


6 thoughts on “Sigma SD1 Merrill

  1. Hallo, das Walimex 85mm wurde von mir mit einem M42 Adapter auf SA Bajonett umgebaut.
    Was ich gemacht habe ist ein Walimex 85mm 1.4 mit Canon Bajonett zu kaufen und das Bajonett zu erntfernen. daraufhin habe ich Löcher so in den M42 Adapter gebohrt, dass diese mit den schraublöchern des Objektivs zusammenpassen, habe zusätzlich noch einen ca 1mm dicken Kunststoffring zurechtgeschnitten, welcher unter das Bajonett kommt, (damit das Auflagemaß wieder stimmt) und habe das Quasibajonett (der modifizierte M42 Adapter – ) draufgeschraubt.

    Fertig ist ein Walimex 85mm 1.4 mit SA-Anschluß

  2. Thanks for the concise very well balanced review and the wonderful sample images, they indeed really do look stunning! My SD1 is due to arrive from B & H in a few days and like you I am not a pro but I find the foveon quirky and some times frustrating but ultimatly very rewarding if you know what you are doing and use it for it’s strengths. Regards

  3. Hallo,

    das mit den Wallimexen geht aber auch leichter: Einfach die Pentax-Variante nehmen und den Blendenhebel abschrauben. Bei Unendlichstellung bleibt dann noch ein halber Millimeter bis zum Filter.

    Gutes Licht

  4. I am very impressed with your work, I am just going to purchase A SD1 tommorow, I have the DP3 and I am amazed with the image quality. I currently use Olympus E-5 which is good, But, I think the SD 1 will be better for my wedding photography. keep up the good work!, cheers, Doug, ( Scotland )

  5. Hallo Jan,
    Danke für deine ausführliche Beschreibung der SD1.
    Ich habe mir gerade bei AMAZON eine neue SD1 für 844€ gekauft. Ich Denke für diesen Preis kann ich nichts falsch machen. Ich fotografiere schon seit einiger Zeit mit der Sigma SD9, SD15, bin also mit den bekannten Eigenheiten der Sigmas vertraut.

    Viele Grüße und ein gutes neues Jahr 2015


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