Steve's Digicams

Sigma SD10 SLR

Steve's Conclusion

In my review of the Sigma SD9 one year ago, I said "the Foveon X3 sensor technology is new and this is only the first camera to use it. For a "first effort" I think that Sigma has put together a very capable camera that will only get better in the future". Well, the future is here; the SD10, Sigma's second effort at producing a digital SLR, employs an enhanced version of the Foveon X3 PRO 10M image sensor, promising to increase sensitivity, maximum exposure time, and dynamic range. I'm not going to go into any details here about the Foveon imager, you can read about it here. The SD10 offers additional improvements over the SD9, including ISO settings of 800 and 1600, shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds at all ISO settings, and exposure compensation in finer increments of 1/3EV. Finally, the camera's software, Sigma Photo Pro version 2, has also received attention with the addition of a "Fill Light" feature, the ability to save adjustment settings in the X3F image file, and the ability to later "reset" those adjustment settings.

The SD10 is unique among digital cameras in that it produces only raw images, requiring post-processing before they can be used. This may not seem like a big issue, but if you like to have photos printed directly from the CF card, or copy a usable image onto a friend or relative's computer while you are visiting, you will regret the SD10's inability to record a JPG file. Sigma bundles their Photo Pro software with the SD10 and this gives the user a lot of control over the output image. It has slider controls with ±2.0 Custom adjustment (in 0.1 steps) of the exposure, contrast, shadow, highlight, saturation, sharpness and X3 Fill Light. A "color wheel" with eyedropper is provided to make changes in the CMY color balance; it was OK for making gross adjustments, but ineffective for fine tuning color. Auto Adjustment Mode produced pleasing results without any fuss, and can be used as an effective starting point for your own Custom adjustments. If you need the power of Photoshop or other image editor, Photo Pro can save its results as TIFF images so that no quality is lost. The true image purists out there will applaud Sigma's use of the raw format but it may be viewed as an unnecessary "extra step" by less experienced users. If your images don't require individual attention, Photo Pro can quickly process a batch of X3F raw files, optimizing each one if Auto Adjustment Mode is selected, and making that "extra step" as painless as possible. On balance, I found Photo Pro to be an easy-to-use and effective image processing tool.

An area Sigma overlooked for improvement is the SD10's USB interface. I complained about this in the SD9 review, and the SD10 performs no better; it took one hour to transfer 20 images from the camera to the computer! The software first shows how many files are on the CF card and then builds thumbnails for each of them. It's painfully slow and the lack of a progress indicator will have you wondering if it's working or locked up the computer. The firewire interface performed much better, taking only two minutes to accomplish the same transfer. I suggest that you use a USB 2.0 card reader or the SD10's firewire interface to transfer images.

Physically, the SD10 is only slightly larger than the Nikon D100 or Canon 10D. Like these two cameras, the SD10 also has an optional "battery booster" that can be attached on the bottom. Sigma was unable to supply us with one of these during our review period so I can't comment about it one way or the other. The SD10 is a little "boxy" in appearance compared to the 10D, but it was comfortable to hold. The body is constructed from a polycarbonate material that makes it both light and durable. When outfitted with the 50mm f/2.8 macro lens and batteries the SD10 weighed in at 2 pounds 12 ounces, 2 ounces lighter than the 10D with a 28-105mm zoom. The fit-n-finish of the camera is very good and the controls are clearly marked and located in the proper places for easy operation. It has the same look and feel of a 35mm SLR and for good reason, it was designed around Sigma's SA9 film camera. The lenses are easy to put on and take off, the Sigma SA lens mount is a bayonet type requiring only a 1/4 of a turn to affix the lens. The viewfinder is large and bright with a good eye relief and lots of dioptric adjustment. The viewfinder's coverage is about 97% and is unique in the way that it shows more than just the active capture area.

Sigma SD9 SLR

Sigma used the same prism and finder as their 35mm SA9 camera and then "masked off" the area not covered by the digital imager. This masked off area is not opaque so you can see things outside of the capture area but it results in a smaller overall viewfinder image. It took some time for me to get used to this "wide-angle" viewfinder; I frequently included the masked-off area when shooting, resulting in poorly-composed images. There is a digital status line along the bottom of the viewfinder with aperture, shutter speed, focus confirmation, exposure comp, AE Lock and AE Bracketing.

This is a SLR type camera so its 1.8-inch color LCD display cannot be used as a live viewfinder. It does let you immediately preview the image just captured or review any previously captured images. It also lets you access the camera's menu system. We found the color LCD to have very good visibility in all but the brightest outdoor conditions. The image rendition is very good and a playback magnification of up to 400% lets you check for critical focus as well as composition. Pressing the INFO button toggles between a full screen image and the Info screen with a smaller image window and the exposure info strip across the top as well as time and date, metering mode, exposure compensation, image size, exposure mode, focus mode, focal length, white balance, image dimensions and exact file size. It also gives you a histogram display with separate curves for each of the color channels. The histogram is keyed directly to the playback image, even when magnified, so it can be used to accurately analyze smaller portions of the image. You'll find nothing lacking when it comes to field-checking your images.

The SD10's shooting performance has not been improved over the SD9. The first image can be captured within two seconds of powering the camera on. Shutter lag measured under 1/10 second when pre-focused, but varied between 2/10 and 1.5 seconds including autofocus time using the 50mm lens, sometimes "hunting" through the entire focus range in marginal lighting conditions. Shooting in single frame mode in HI quality, the shot to shot time was .5-.6 sec. per frame up to six frames. It took an average of ten seconds before the next frame could be captured as the buffer contents were being processed. If you filled the buffer it took about fifty seconds to one minute to write the entire buffer contents. In continuous mode the frame rate for HI was about 2fps with a depth of six frames and a 10 sec. delay before the next frame could be captured. To write the full buffer was the same as in single exposure mode, about a minute. These times were measured using a Sigma-supplied SimpleTech 512MB CF memory card, no flash, Hi quality, and single AF, and included photographer response time. There was no difference in performance noted with continuous AF. While this performance might seem robust compared to consumer digicams, it lags its competition in the dSLR market.

Sigma sent us a 50mm EX f2.8 macro and a 105mm EX f2.8 zoom lens, but unfortunately not either of the recently-announced 18-50mm F3.5-5.6 or 55-200mm F4-5.6 DC lenses that were designed to suit the characteristics of digital cameras. Because the image sensor has a capture area smaller than 35mm film, the SD10, like most other dSLRs, has a focal length multiplier. The SD10's focal length multiplier is 1.7x so this means that the 50mm lens is equivalent to a 85mm lens, the 105 to a 178, the 18-50 zoom to a 30-85, and the 55-200mm zoom covers the 93-340mm focal length range. This is great for the telephoto lovers because it's like having a 1.7x teleconverter that doesn't affect the aperture value. However it also means that doing wide angle photography with a field of view greater than what a 30mm lens affords is difficult, more expensive and sometimes impossible.

The SD10's autofocus system is generally good but not as "robust" as the 10D or D100 cameras when using the latest Canon or Nikon lenses. The SD10 has no user-selectable focus points. You have the choice of Single-AF where the camera focuses only after the shutter is pressed halfway or Continuous-AF. The Continuous-AF mode is always adjusting the focus and incorporates an AF Predict function that tracks a moving subject and predicts where it will move to next. In low light there is frequent AF hunting and more than once the lens was moved through its entire range of focus before autofocus succeeded. The SD10 lacks a focus illuminator, but effectively utilizes the AF-assist lamp of an attached EF-500 DG Super SA speedlight to achieve autofocus in conditions of low ambient light. The camera has no built in flash so you're going to need an external flash; only the Sigma EF-500 DG Super SA or EF-500 DG ST SA flashes will integrate with the camera's TTL exposure system, but other flashes can be used in manual exposure mode. The fastest flash x-sync speed is 1/180 sec., which sometimes caused the SD10 to overexpose daylight fill flash shots.

Sigma replaced the hybrid power system of the SD9, which required both AA and CR-123 batteries, with a single source of either four AA or two CR-V3 cells. SD10 users will appreciate the ability to carry spare batteries of a single form factor, but the SD10's power consumption will require having several sets on-hand. I was able to capture just under 300 images on a set of disposable CR-V3 Lithium batteries, and about 100 on rechargeable 2300mah NiMH batteries.

Under ideal lighting conditions, the SD10's images are amazingly sharp and defined with very good color rendition. In fact, they're some of the sharpest images I've ever seen from a camera with a 3.4 megapixel sensor, frequently exceeding the sharpness of its 6-megapixel dSLR competitors with more traditional CMOS or CCD sensors. Most of this is due to the fact that the Foveon sensor does not employ an anti-aliasing filter which tends to blur fine details. But SD10 image quality does have its faults, especially with the presence of noise at ISO settings above 100 in dark areas of the image, and oversaturated colors, especially with blue skies. And while the availability of ISO settings of 800 and 1600 extends the SD10's ability to capture images in conditions of low available light, there is an unacceptable amount of noise present in those images. We've also seen chromatic aberrations (purple fringing) on contrasting highlight areas. Long exposures, while improved over the SD9, produced inconsistent colors, sometimes turning a gray into a bright and unnatural yellow.

As with the SD9 last year, I experienced a manufacturing quality control problem on the SD10 involving an abundance of dust or dirt on the sensor, causing visible dark spots on some images. These "spots" become more pronounced as the aperture gets smaller and are very visible in blue sky areas of our outdoor photos. I was not comfortable with cleaning the sensor, nor do I feel that a user should be required to clean the sensor on a brand new camera, especially one that employs a dust protector to eliminate these problems in the first place. The dust protector also makes cleaning the imager a real project as it must be removed first. I hope that Sigma doesn't ship all of their cameras in this kind of condition or there will be a lot of them coming back for service.

As stated at the beginning of this conclusion, the Foveon X3 sensor technology is new and Sigma is still the only camera to use it. The SD10 can produce stunning images because of the sensor, but on balance the camera's overall performance still lags the competition. I think it will find a place in the market as a consumer dSLR capable of producing amazingly sharp images at times, or for studio work under controlled lighting conditions. Many will find it a terrific value when bundled with Sigma's 18-50mm F3.5-5.6 and 55-200mm F4-5.6 DC lenses at a street price of under $1,600, but they may later be disappointed by its inconsistent results in marginal lighting. Don't forget to figure-in the cost of an external flash (the SD10 does not have a built-in flash) and a large capacity CF memory card (1GB will hold under 150 images recorded at HI quality). And, by all means, have a look at our sample photos to see for yourself what the SD10 is capable of.

Updated Sigma Photo Pro 2.1 Software Available

Sigma Japan has posted an update to their software used with the SD-9 and SD-10 digital SLR cameras. The new Photo Pro 2.1 software (PC/Mac) feature improvements are:

    New Edit/White-Balance Options
  1. Auto WB always available as an option in Edit White Balance.
  2. Monochrome processing as a WB option, which allows tinting via Color Adjust.
  3. "Original" WB sets WB back to as-shot.

    Info Enhancements

  4. Show focal-length range in Info Window's focal length field, e.g. as "28mm (15-30)"
  5. Info Window improvements (smaller layout, original white balance, long pathnames).
  6. Info Line improvements (added WB to Review Window info line, and metering mode with bias to both windows' info lines)

    Image Processing Improvements

  7. Improved Auto White Balance calculation, especially for long exposures.
  8. SD9-specific highlights color problem fixed.
  9. SD10-specific purple-fringe problem fixed.

Go to
SD10 Sample Photos

Want a second opinion?

Imaging-Resource's SD10 Review

DP Review's SD10 First Look

Digital Outback's SD10 Experience Report

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