Guided Tour: Sigma DP-1

Take the tour and master the camera

If you’re patient, this tiny camera will deliver DSLR image quality. We show you how

Sigma DP-1 Key Features

  • 14MP APS-C sized Foveon Sensor
  • 16.6mm f/4 (35mm equivalent: 28mm) lens
  • Program, Aperture-Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual exposure modes
  • Manual or autofocus
  • Built-in flash
  • Hot Shoe for external flash or optical viewfinder
  • 2.5-inch LCD monitor
  • JPEG, RAW image capture
  • ISO range 50-800

Best for:

  • Scenics
  • Candid, unobtrusive photography
  • Static subjects
  • High Dynamic Range photography

Not recommended for:

  • Casual snapshots
  • Sports or action
  • Street photography

Price: $550 (at time of publication)

Executive summary

The Sigma DP-1 is the first compact digital camera to have an APS-sized sensor, the same size found in digital SLRs and exactly the same sensor that's in the Sigma SD-14. Image quality is claimed to be comparable to DSLR image quality. Sigma uses the 14MP Foveon X3 sensor, but the 14 is really a bit of jiggery-pokery because it's actually three vertically stacked color diodes, with 4.3MP each of red, green, and blue diodes. So the actual resolution is really roughly 9 or 10MP, depending on who you ask. This means you can get sharp 16x20 prints (or even larger) with this small camera.

The DP-1 is a very specialized camera. It has a fixed 28mm (35mm equivalent) lens, many metering and image quality control options, automated or completely manual exposure control options, and manual or autofocus. As part of a system, the DP-1's focal range can be extended via a wide-angle or telephoto adaptor, and close-up lenses; a matching optical viewfinder is also available as an extra option as is an integrated flash unit. If you’re an HDR (High Dynamic Range) fan, using the DP-1’s auto bracket mode and processing the three resulting images in any HDR program basically turns this camera into the smallest high-resolution HDR-capable camera in the world. That’s impressive.

Thanks to its DSLR-sized sensor, the DP-1 has been critically acclaimed for its image quality, which far exceeds that of a just about every compact camera currently on the market. It has been criticized for slow processing speed, a complaint that Sigma says they've addressed with the just-released DP-2. In this Guided Tour, I will offer tips to help work around the camera's slower operations. But if all you're looking for is a really small camera that can deliver DSLR image quality with lots of control, the DP-1 may be the camera for you.

The Guided Tour

First, let's look at the camera's external controls, then we'll dive into the menu options.
Top of camera

The top plate has a simple layout: a pop-up flash (operated by a sliding switch on the back edge); a hot shoe for mounting an external flash or viewfinder; the power switch; control knob; and the shutter release. Peaking out of the back where your thumb might rest is a dial that controls manual focus. It's in meters only (feet are shown on-screen when in manual focus mode).

Tip: I highly recommend investing in the bright, compact 28mm optical viewfinder. It lets you hold the DP-1 up to your eye and compose the image while holding the camera steadily rather than holding it at arm's length, which can cause camera shake. This is important since the DP-1 lacks image stabilization.

The control dial has a red camera icon to indicate it's in auto mode, which is basic point-and-shoot. Programmed Autoexposure (P) selects the appropriate exposure based on subject brightness. Aperture Priority (A) lets you control the aperture by pressing the  right-left buttons that can be found in the circular array of controls on the back of the camera; shutter speeds are then automatically selected. Shutter Priority (P) lets you change shutter speed using the same right-left buttons. To set exposure manually (M) use the same right-left buttons first to set the shutter speed. Then, press the exposure compensation (+/-) button—and while this won't directly let you control aperture, it lets you change the exposure compensation setting, which the camera does by adjusting the aperture. Yes, this is a kludgy operation and will hopefully be addressed in the next model.

In the other direction is the video recording mode, which lets you record 320x212 pixel-sized videos, and a microphone, which lets you record audio messages. A 1GB memory card can store up to 356 minutes of audio—handy for audio note-taking.

The thumb dial lets you manually adjust focus. To switch from AF to manual focus, press the up arrow in the circular array of buttons until you're in manual focus mode. A focus scale in feet and meters appears on-screen. Unfortunately, there is no depth-of-field indicator. Alas!

Tip: The DP-1's autofocus system is, to put it mildly, sluggish. With fast-moving subjects, precious moments can be lost while waiting for the camera to focus after you've pressed the shutter release. One way to speed things up is to focus manually, or even to pre-focus. If you know approximately how far away your subject is, dial in the distance and keep it there. Since the camera uses a 16mm lens, the depth of field should let you fudge focus.

Back of camera

The camera back is dominated by the 2.5-inch LCD monitor.  At the upper left corner is a switch that pops up the small flash. The rest of the camera's controls are clustered to the right of the LCD monitor.

The AE-L button locks the autoexposure: point the camera, press the button and re-compose. In the setup menu, you can customize this button to also lock in focus, or just lock focus without locking exposure.

The Trash/Exposure Compensation button is used to delete photos in playback mode, and to adjust exposure to + or - 3 stops in picture-taking mode.

A circular array of five buttons helps you navigate through the menu items and lets you quickly set the flash and focus modes. The up button changes focus from AF to fixed infinity "landscape" mode to manual focus. In manual focus, a scale appears on screen as you change focus. The down button chooses the flash mode:  Red-eye fix, slow exposure with flash, slow exposure with flash and red-eye fix, flash always on, and auto flash.  The right and left buttons adjust exposure and work in tandem with the EV compensation button. In playback mode, they scroll through the photos.

The preview button displays photos on your memory card on the LCD monitor. Use the wide/tele buttons to enlarge image views.

The Display button changes the information accompanying the photo in live view and in preview mode.

Tip: To conserve battery power, turn the display screen off. When you hit the shutter release partway or move the focus dial, exposure info will appear on screen, but no image.
Tip: For accurate exposure feedback, keep the display screen on Histogram mode (see screen shot). It will flash histogram information during instant preview.

The wide/tele switches (which, unfortunately, can get in the way of your thumb) will digitally zoom in on a live image, and will also let you view details on preview images.

Bottom of camera

The bottom plate includes a small loudspeaker that isn't very loud, a tripod socket, and a door which protects the battery and memory card ports.

Note: To replace a memory card or battery, you have to take the camera off the tripod to access the compartment.


The menu items are divided into Shooting Menu and Setup.
SetUp: These are mostly set-once-and-forget 'em items, such as date, language, how long the preview will stay on screen, file numbering, etc. But there are several items you may find a need to change occasionally. Let's look at them.

Zoom button settings: Most people won't use the digital zoom feature, so this button may seem unecessary. But you can customize it to control any one menu item, such as ISO, Image Size, Color Settings, Drive Mode, AF area, or Saturation. If you're constantly switching from color to black-and-white, for instance, it makes sense to program the Zoom button to control Color Settings.
Key and Shutter Sound can be adjusted or turned off entirely. If you want to shoot unobtrusively, these sounds should be turned off or very low. Even with sound off, you can still hear a subtle signal when you've taken a picture.

You can also reformat your memory card--a good practice that will keep it usable for longer--reset the camera to all of its default settings, and update your firmware via the SetUp menu.

Shooting Menu

The Shooting Menu adjusts more commonly accessed features.

ISO Setting: Change the ISO, from 50-800. Oddly, ISOs are out of order: It's Auto, ISO 100-800, and at the bottom is ISO 50.

Image Size controls the actual size of the photo. There are three file size options plus a fourth which indicates a change in aspect ratio, from the standard 3:2 to the more cinematic 16:9.

Image Quality controls compression. As a general rule, leave it on the highest compression setting for the best image quality.

White Balance lets you choose from Auto, Sunlight, Shade, Overcast, Incandescent, Fluorescent, or Flash light sources.

Color Settings let you switch from color to Sepia or black--and-white image capture.

Note: I recommend capturing all images in color. You can always convert to black-and-white later.

Drive Mode lets you shoot in single, 3fps continuous shooting mode, or with a 2- or 10-ssecond self-timer.

Note: The DP1 can shoot no more than 3 frames at a time in continuous shooting mode, and it takes nearly ten seconds for the images to write from buffer to memory card. During this time you cannot take pictures.

Metering Mode lets you switch from evaluative to center weighted to spot metering. In critical lighting situations I recommend spot metering. In tricky light, evaluative may be best. Center-weighted is fine for general shooting.
In the second Shooting Menu, AF Area lets you select one of 9 focusing points. This is useful when shooting off-center subjects, but it may be faster to lock center focus, recompose and shoot if you're not sure where the subject will be and things are happening fast. For architecture, scenics, or other static subjects, AF Area select makes sense.

Auto Bracket: This lets you shoot three exposures, up to 3 stops over, metered exposre, and up to 3 stops under, in a second. You can control the range of exposure in this mode.

Tip: Auto Bracket, when used with the right software, can turn the DP-1 into the smallest high-resolution High Dynamic Range camera on the planet! Set Auto Bracket to the widest exposure range, then use HDR software to merge the three resulting images for a dynamic range of 15 or more stops! Be sure to shoot your three shots on a tripod. Learn more about HDR here.

Digital zoom turns the digital zoom function on or off. The default is off and it should be kept that way.

Image with sound lets you record an audio note while taking a picture. This can be useful for future captioning.

Contrast lets you vary contrast in up to five steps.

Tip: Normal to low-contrast is better because if you set to high contrast you lose image detail.

Sharpness lets you sharpen images, kind of like pre-applying Unsharp Mask.

Tip: While the camera offers five steps of sharpness, we recommend you stay neutral.

Saturation lets you intensify or lower the amount of color in an image.

Tip: When shooting scenics more saturation can lead to more dramatic results.

Color Space sets the color space to sRGB (the default) or Adobe RGB. Most of the time, sRGB is best.


Your turn: What tips do you have to get the most out of the DP-1? Scroll down and leave a comment!


© 2009 Adorama camera, Inc.

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