Nikon D610 vs. Sigma DP2 Merrill - Lengthy with lots of samples for comparison

Started Dec 12, 2013 | Discussions thread
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Dogonit Regular Member • Posts: 170
Nikon D610 vs. Sigma DP2 Merrill - Lengthy with lots of samples for comparison
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First let me start off with some background. I'm a camera junky. Always have been. I've owned and shot with everything from Hasselblads to Fuji X-series, from Pentax K1000 to a brand new Nikon D610. That said, I am not a pro. Meaning although I've sold some images in the past this is not how I make money, I'm just an obsessed amateur who loves making great photos (to the best of my ability). I've started a somewhat recent Flickr account if you want to see examples of my images from the last year or so:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/93936384@N06/

I've included a lot of background and disclaimer info below, feel free to read, or just look at the images. If you don't read though, don't post up criticisms without going back and reading first! I know this is the Internet, and I do have my flame suit ready, but c'mon people.

BACKGROUND: I've been on a quest for a great Landscape camera that is packable, affordable (aka non-D800E expensive), and that obviously makes superb images - or at least as superb as I can afford. One important factor is that I rarely ever print larger than A3 size prints. Actually, I never do. So a 16MP sensor is sufficient for my printing purposes. That said, it's always nice to have a little more to crop into, or for those fine details. What I'm looking for in an image is (these are my personal definitions, so take with a grain of salt please):

  1. Sharpness - the edge sharpness. I want to see visible and distinct borders between leaves on a tree, or distinct blades of grass in a field instead of just mushy green (for example).
  2. Contrast - as in microdetail. I want to see the subtle shades in the peeling bark on a birch tree instead of just blocks of color (for example).
  3. Dynamic Range - as in ability to capture or recall detail from a wide exposure range. I want to be able to pull an overexposed sky back so clouds are distinct, without losing shadow detail (for example).

I currently have a Fuji X-E1 and X-E2, Olympus OM-D E-M5, Sigma DP2 Merrill, and a newly acquired Nikon D610. Although they are very, very different cameras, it's these last two that produce the best images out of the bunch, so I thought I'd do a mini shootout to see if the D610 (FOR MY USES) was worth packing around. It weighs about three times as much as the Merrill, and is about 2-3 times larger.

ABOUT THE SIGMA DP2 - NOTE BEFORE READING FURTHER: I think we're all aware of the pitfalls of the Sigma Merrill cameras - High ISO disaster, slow write speeds, eats up batteries, etc. But if you're shooting landscapes none of these really matter. It's about getting the best images possible. It's assumed you are shooting at the lowest possible ISO, and you don't need ultra-fast AF with 3D tracking, etc. The Nikon is a much more versatile camera because it does have more features and is much more usable overall, but I have many cameras, and am happy to chase the 2 year-old around with the OM-D (again, for example).

A FAIR COMPARISON: I think comparing the DP2 Merrill to the D610 is more than fair, so don't get on me that it should have been a D800E! That camera is $3,000 for the body. The DP2 is $800, with lens! The Nikon D610 is a full frame sensor with 24MP, the DP2M is an APS-C sensor with 16MP (or 48 if you go by Sigmas marketing speak). If that's not a fair comparison - actually, heavily tilted in the Nikon's favor - I don't know what is. I must say also that I am not biased, as you must be able to tell from my list of current cameras; I have four cameras from four different manufacturers. I did not go into this with any expectations, and please don't claim I somehow manufactured the results. This is all exactly what I shot.

NOT ALL PIXELS ARE CREATED EQUAL: The Foveon sensor in the Sigma and the Bayer-type sensor in the Nikon are very, very, VERY VERY VERY different beasts. When Sigma claims a 48-Megapixel sensor it's an overstatement, but one that's based, at least partially, in comparative reality. The Foveon sensor does indeed have 48 Megapixels! They are just stacked over top of each other, like how film is made. The RGB sensors are translucent, so that the sensor takes a red, a green, and a blue reading for every pixel it ends up rendering, which comes out the other end as a 16 Megapixel image. How is this significant? Well, consider how a Bayer sensor works. The D610 is listed as a 24 Megapixel sensor. Does is have 24 Megapixels? Yes, BUT...each of these pixels picks up only red, green OR blue information. The Bayer filter then takes that information, calculates probable values based on averages from neighboring sensors, and estimates what each pixel's color should be. What comes out the other end? A 24MP image, but it's not really a 24MP image because it hasn't really gathered full 24 Megapixels of Red, Green and Blue data; it's captured somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 Megapixels (because there aren't equal numbers of R, G, B pixels - there are far more Green pixels to record information). If you don't understand this simplified explanation I encourage you to read more technical articles that explain this whole thing in detail. I assure you though that this is an accurate representation of what's going on with each of these sensors. What I'm getting at is this: Don't cry foul when Sigma claims 48 Megapixels. Nikon and Sigma are both over-representing their sensors in terms of the data it collects vs. the final output.

ABOUT THE CAMERAS BEING COMPARED: The Sigma DP2 Merrill is a compact mirrorless camera with a fixed prime lens of 30mm, which is 45mm in full frame comparison. Cost at the time of comparison is $899 USD retail. The Nikon D610 is a full-frame DSLR with (for this comparison) a Nikon 50mm 1.8G lens (regarded as the sharpest 50mm available for Nikon). Cost for camera and lens at time of comparison: $2,250 USD retail. Both cameras additionally have a B+W UV Haze MRC filter attached.

ABOUT THE IMAGES:All of the comparison images were shot within 30 seconds of each other on a typical Seattle early winter day - overcast, but bright. Not raining. I down-sampled the Nikon files to the same dimensions as the Sigma (since the end pixel count is higher in the Nikon). The proportions are slightly different in the images because the focal lengths of the lenses are different by 5mm (roughly 10%). The ISO for all images below is set at 100 for both cameras. White Balance was set to Auto in both cameras (they obviously interpreted the light differently). Likewise, although I've varied the shutter speed/aperture combos throughout the comparison, they are set the same between the two cameras for each shot. Oddly, the Sigma images came out about a half stop darker than the Nikon images. I can't explain this other than it must be either an attribute of the firmware or the sensor itself, or both.

All of the images were shot in RAW, imported to Lightroom (via the required Sigma Pro Photo 5.5 software necessary in the case of the DP2 Merrill) and exported without any editing. I have not applied any sharpening to any of the images (except as noted in the final comparison). In one case (again, the final comparison) I did push the Highlights slider to -100 and the Shadows slider to +100 in Lightroom, for sake of comparing the Dynamic range. I also tried sharpening the image from the D610 a bit because at this edge of the image it was pretty soft.

I will not make any conclusions here because I know it will get too heated. I know what I see, you may see something different. Honestly though, I was surprised what I found. So without further ado:

Nikon D610

Sigma DP2 Merrill

Nikon D610 - 100% Crop

Sigma DP2 - 100% Crop

Nikon D610

Sigma DP2 Merrill

Nikon D610 - 100% Crop

Sigma DP2 Merrill - 100% Crop

Nikon D610

Sigma DP2 Merrill

Nikon D610 - 100% Crop

Sigma DP2 Merrill - 100% Crop

Nikon D610 (Highlights and Shadows adjusted to show Dynamic Range), Sharpened to see if it can get any clearer

Sigma DP2 Merrill (Highlights and Shadows adjusted to show Dynamic Range), Unsharpened

Nikon D610 - 100% Crop, Sharpened to see if it can get any clearer

Sigma DP2 Merrill - 100% Crop

Nikon D610 Sigma DP2 Sigma DP2 Merrill
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