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The Sigma SD15: What is a camera minus bells and whistles?

The Sigma SD15: What is a camera minus bells and whistles?

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Answer: It’s still a camera, plain and simple.

By Jack Howard

November 5, 2010

Sigma’s SD15 SLR might not have live view, HD video, or a gazillion scene assist modes, and for some, that might be just the right combination of lack-of-features. What it does have is great low ISO image quality, an easily removable IR filter, and a focus on the still shooting experience.



The SD15 is the newest in a line of Foveon-chipped SLRs from Sigma. And when you hold its feature set up to its 2010 classmates, it stands out from the pack in sheer omission of features. There’s no superhigh dotcount LCD, no live view shooting, no HD video (or any video for that matter, so there’s also no microphone port, and no HDMI port), no scene settings or “easy modes” on the gloriously uncluttered exposure mode dial, no jazzy in-camera editing and slideshow playback functions or spiffy wi-fi-to-facebook-functionalities hiding in any dark corners of the utilitarian interface.

What you’ve got is a chunky, basic black SLR with your 3 program modes, plus manual exposure. You’ve got a few focus points to select from, your basic metering patterns to choose from, and a few color/contrast styles to choose for your RAW or JPEG images.  It shoots about three frames per second and processing time, especially for RAW capture bursts, can be lengthy. Note we said “RAW or JPEG.” It is either/or with this basic black box. That Foveon processor takes its time to chew on and chug out RAW frames in Sigma’s proprietary X3F format in-camera, and I find it better to break from my nearly universal Adobe Camera Raw-based workflow to let Sigma’s bundled software work up the X3F Raw images for best image quality.

So, you may ask, here it is, late in the year 2010. Can a camera that doesn’t shoot HD video, doesn’t fire a gazillion frames per second, and doesn’t have heaps of bells and whistles still matter in the market? Absolutely, I say!

It may not be not for everyone, but for some, the SD15 may offer a lot of appeal. It is the digital spiritual inheritor of the classic student film SLR–your basic black box camera. You frame your shot through an optical viewfinder, expose your frame either via the basic program modes or manually, recompose and repeat.  It’s easy to forget that 10 years ago, this is exclusively how all of the the handful of DSLRs that were available operated!

If I were asked to start a program to teach serious beginners about SLR-based photography, I’d touch briefly on film, then hand each student an SD15 and a normal prime and have them learn the basics of composition and aperture- and shutter-priority program, then move on to different types of metering in full manual mode for a full semester. There’d be no chance of video, nor scene-assist modes getting in the way of the learning of the basics, since these are blissfully missing from this camera!

Oh yeah, I’d also touch briefly on infrared photography in this same imagined SLR intensive 101 program, since the Sigma SD15 is the only current SLR in market that is easily swappable between visible spectrum and IR plus visible spectrum due to the placement of the IR-cut filter in front of the reflex mirror. The user manual instructs on how to remove the IR filter to clean the sensor, so this doesn’t void the warranty! Once the filter is removed, you can capture IR+ visible spectrum, or put an IR-passing filter in front of the lens for IR-only capture.

Now, about this infrared capture capability. It’s a known bonus side effect of the Sigma SLR design, but I think it high time Sigma officially acknowledged and embraced this unique capability of their camera line. It would be great if Sigma offered an IR white-balance option in-camera, and added some IR-specific toning and tuning settings to Sigma Photo Pro. It would also be great if they officially produced IR-passing filters to fit into the internal filter slot for these cameras. Perhaps a firmware update for the SD15 could include an IR-balance setting for both color and black and white IR shooting styles?

There’s always been debate about the actual comparative pixel count between the Foveon chips versus Bayer-pattern chips, and I’ll leave much of that argument to the pixel peepers and testing sites with their test targets and linepair comparo-charts. But I can tell you this: image quality at lowest ISOs when processed through Sigma Photo Pro either at Same Size (2640x1760 px or 4.6 megapixels) or Double Size (5280x3520px or 18.5 megapixels) is great. Because there’s three channel data at every point, and no Bayer pattern to deal with, the upsampling process is smooth and crisp, as the 100% pixel screenshots below show.  These are screenshots of 16-bit Tiffs, saved as highest quality JPEGs. No other adjustments made. Looking at these results, I am very excited to see what Sigma can do in terms of image quality at low ISOs with the soon-to-be-available Sigma SD1 with its much great pixel density.


ISO 50 100% pixel view processed at Same Size setting in Sigma Photo Pro.


ISO 50 100% pixel view processed at Double Size setting in Sigma Photo Pro.


Is there a place for a curmudgeonly, still-image only, basic operations-only, HD-video lacking digital SLR as we look towards 2011? I certainly think so. It may not be not for every user, and it may not be the camera for every assignment, but as far as a back-to-basics still-image-centric SLR, there’s a whole lot to like about the SD15. And now I really cannot wait to get my hands on the SD1. How about you?


Sigma SD15 Image Sample Gallery.

All shots captured with the Sigma SD15 and Sigma lenses. X3F files converted to 16-bit TIFFs in Sigma Photo Pro and downsampled for web display in Adobe Camera RAW.


ISO 50 1/60 @ f/13. Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens. (Is that a supersized Canon EF 70-200 f/2.8 near the center of the frame?)


ISO 100 1/800 @ f/5 Sigma 50mm f/1.4 lens.


ISO 100 1/125 f/2.8 Sigma 50-150 f/2.8 lens.


ISO 100 1/640 @ f/5 Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8


ISO 100 1/320 f/2.8. Sigma 50-150 f/2.8



ISO 100 1/125 f/2.8. Sigma 50-150mm f/2.8.



A sampling of IR and Extended Spectrum shots


IR plus visible spectrum. Custom White Balance. Tones adjusted in Sigma Photo Pro. ISO 100 1/640 @ f/2.8 Sigma 18-50mm lens.



IR plus Visible Spectrum. Converted to monochrome in Sigma Photo Pro. ISO 50 1/100 @ f/9. Sigma 50-150mm lens.



IR capture through Cokin 89B filter. Monochrome and tinting done in Sigma Photo Pro.



3-shot HDR Merged and Mapped Shot


3 shots at 3 EV spacing converted to 16-bit TIFF, then merged and mapped in Adobe Photoshop CS5. For more on Foveon-based HDRI photography, check out this piece on the Sigma DP2.


What do you think of Jack's take on the Sigma SD15? Let us know!





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