Monday, November 3, 2014

Sigma DP2 Merrill vs. Nikon D3300 with 40mm AF-S DX f/2.8G Micro Lens

On A Brighter Day - Tehachapi, California
Captured using a Sigma DP2 Merrill.
This is a post that I promised a while ago. Hopefully it is better late than never, and perhaps it will be helpful to someone. I don't care to write these kinds of posts because photographic vision is always much more important than photographic equipment, but people want to read opinions about cameras more than anything else. So here we go.

I used to own a Sigma DP2 Merrill camera. I had it for just over a year and loved it. And hated it. I loved the image quality that it produced at low ISO. I hated pretty much everything else about it.

I didn't start off hating it. Every camera has limitations of some sort, and you've just got to deal with them. I shrugged off the DP2M's shortcomings and told myself it was worth putting up with those issues in order to get that phenomenal low-ISO exposure. For about eight months this is what I did.

But then I got busier. I had less time on my hands. My workflow got bogged down big time. One problem with the DP2M is that the JPEGs aren't great (especially above ISO 100), so you need to use RAW format, which requires Sigma's incredibly slow post-processing software. I have hundreds of unprocessed DP2M exposures on my hard drive right now that I never got around to processing.
Cathedral Spires From Cook's Meadow - Yosemite National Park, California
Captured using a Nikon D3300 with a 40mm Nikkor lens.
Ever heard of the cracked window theory? Basically, if everything is in order people will keep things in order. But once something is out of order (such as a cracked window) people will stop caring. Once I let the slowness of working with the camera bother me, every other shortcoming the camera had began to bother me, too.

I knew it was time to move on, but I didn't want to give up the image quality that the DP2M produced at low-ISO. And I didn't have thousands to spend on a new camera and lens, either. In fact, my budget was quite limited. Was there even an option?

That is when I considered Nikon's entry-level DSLR, the D3300. This may seem like an odd option, but a closer looks reveals why this was a potential replacement. The DP2M has an equivalent resolution of about 26-28 megapixels (it is a little convoluted because of the Foveon sensor), and the D3300 has a 24 megapixel sensor. Neither have an anti-aliasing filter. So they're similar.

What the D3300 needed was a great lens to go with the sensor. The DP2M has a fantastic lens that is very sharp. Could I find one, without breaking the bank, that could pair well with the D3300? The best option I found was the Nikkor 40mm AF-S DX f/2.8G Micro lens, which is the sharpest of Nikon's inexpensive primes.
From The Past - Mojave, California
Captured using a Sigma DP2 Merrill.
I don't have any test charts, or side-by-side comparison of 100% crops. What I have is my own experiences and my own eyes. What you'll find below is my own observations and opinions from using both cameras.

Now the DP2M has a 30mm lens (equivalent to 45mm in full-frame terms), while the Nikon setup has a 40mm lens (equivalent to 60mm). It's not the same focal length. In fact, the 40mm lens fits right in between the DP2M and the DP3M, which has a 50mm lens (75mm equivalent). The Nikkor lens is macro capable, something the Sigma lens is not.

The DP2M has a three-layered sensor, which captures the full image in all three color channels. This is particularly good for black-and-white because it is easy to simulate the use of color filters in film photography (in fact, you can use color filters intended for film cameras). The D3300 has a single-layer Bayer sensor, which will show some degradation when manipulating the color data significant amounts.

At ISO 100, the Sigma DP2 Merrill camera outperforms the Nikon D3300 with a Nikkor 40mm AF-S DX f/2.8G Micro lens. It's not noticeable when viewed at 50%, but it is noticeable at 100% and especially 200%. The DP2M produces crisper images with greater fine details. The gap between the two cameras isn't huge, but there is a winner. I think the reasons for this are that the DP2M has a little more resolution and the Sigma lens is a bit sharper.
Purple Thistle Blossom Macro - Stallion Springs, California
Captured using a Nikon D3300 with a Nikkor 40mm lens.
By ISO 200 the field is more even. I think the DP2M still edges out the Nikon setup, but only by a slim margin. By ISO 400 the D3300 with the 40mm lens produces better results. By ISO 800 it is no contest at all.

The D3300 doesn't deliver the same results as the DP2M at ISO 100, but it does prove to be far more versatile. It doesn't have most of the negative downsides that the Sigma camera has, but it isn't a perfect camera by any stretch. The fact is that these two cameras, while they have some similarities, aren't really all that much alike. They have different strengths and different weaknesses.

I paid $720 for the Sigma DP2M over a year ago, but it can be found for less now. I paid $640 for the Nikon camera and lens. The prices aren't that far apart.

If you can put up with the DP2M's limitations and are happy using ISO 100 or 200 only, the Sigma camera is an excellent choice. But if you don't want to put up with its quirkiness and you want more versatility, the Nikon D3300 with the 40mm lens is a good alternative. Either way, you can get pretty phenomenal image quality without spending too much money.

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