Sigma SD1 Merrill is the perfect backup camera

I opted to go crazy and go the full 8mm with the Sigma 8-16mm f/4.5-5.6 on the Sigma SD1 Merrill (equates to 12mm on full frame).
For me, the Sigma SD1 Merrill is the perfect backup camera for the Nikon D800e (more on that later).
Years ago I shot real estate with a Sigma SD14 but quickly migrated to a Canon 5D (original). Mainly due to the SD14 being a quirky camera that would over heat and lockup if used for bracketing over and over again at a real estate shoot. The image quality was amazing and I still have my SD14 bodies which I shoot with for landscapes and fun stuff around town.

The biggest limiting factor to the SD14 was the bracketing was only 3aeb, but it did allow it to bracket up to 3EV stops between each. And one major benefit the SD14 had over Canon/Nikon cameras that were out in 2007-2008 was the SD14 had a larger dynamic range per shot. But alas… 3EV is too big a stretch between shots for interiors. You lose window frames and the dynamic range of shooting interiors makes outdoor high contrast scenes seem like a joke.
Fast forward to the SD1.
Still not perfect, but it does allow a 5aeb with up to 1.7EV between each frame. If you choose 3aeb you can however have it do up to 3EV between each frame. That’s a bit wider than a 3aeb maxed out at 3EV steps between. It sill is shy of most dynamic range scenes I deal with day in and day out. For example the shot above was tonemapped using 10 shots spaced 1EV apart using only natural light from the scene (well…. mixed lighting… but that is another topic all together). The point is that I had to take two brackets to get all the highlight and shadow data needed.
Even though I had to touch the camera twice, that is something I always had to do with Canon in the past so I got used to being nimble and careful with the dials, etc. For that shot I set it to manual mode and had it shoot the fastest shutter speeds first. I had already taken some test frames to make sure the fastest shutter speed had perfect window data and no blown highlights. So when I set the SD1 to bracket 5aeb, I started the bracket at that fastest shutter speed and had the SD1 options to shoot under to over exposed. I already knew based on having done this so long what the final shutter speed would be and what I would need to change the camera to for the second bracket… especially because I was just doing 1EV steps so the shutter speed just gets cut in half each frame.
I have a cable release for the SD1, but I could have just as easily have used the 2 or 10 second timer that is right on the top dial. But I had it set to continuous mode and just held down the release cable’s shutter (button). It shoots at 5fps.
After that I used the controls on the system to set the next shutter speed to be half that of the final frame from that last 5aeb series. I had to wait a few second before firing off the second series because the SD1 writes 40+mb files and only has a buffer of 7 shots. So I had to wait a few seconds before firing off the next 5aeb.
There are two comments about that wait time. The first one is not as critical, but an FYI of sorts. First of all, in this case the lighting from the last frame of the first 5aeb to the first frame of the 2nd 5aeb is in no mans land. Meaning, that’s about where outside detail that is sun lit (ocean/beach/pool) is blown out and where detail of shadows inside are beginning to perk up. Those middle frames for my line of work are more important for window/door frames and spill areas across a glass table or marble floor. So if people were moving outside the windows, 9 times out of 10, they are blown out in that second series of shots so it won’t kill the tonemapping in post.
Light moves quickly. Faster than you realize unless you’ve done this kind of work before. We’ve all seen timelapses and yes that sun is always moving. So my little two separate AEB series captures can be quite the challenge when shooting before 9-10am and in the later hours of the afternoon. Both scenarios where the sun is lower on the horizon and its movements mean that shadows move faster in just seconds time, not minutes. This can be an issue with tonemapping if you take too long to get the second series taken… with any camera.
Some of you that know me well might be asking why in the world I bought a Sigma SD1 (actually the newly priced SD1 Merrill to be accurate… which is the same as a SD1, but different name so they could save face that they initially mis-priced the SD1 last summer… but I digress). Again… why would I get a SD1? ….
Well for one thing. It is very good resolution. Sigma calls it a 46mp camera, but it’s really a 15mp camera that captures red, green and blue on every pixel. Sigma multiplies it by 3 because bayer cameras only have one color on each pixel. Other people have done scientific tests that state it is equal to a bayer camera of 2x the Sigma pixel count (meaning it renders as sharp as a 30mp bayer sensor camera). No matter how you add or multiple,.. it is a deliciously sharp 15mp. But the MAIN REASON for me getting the SD1 Merrill is that it is a backup camera for the Nikon D800e (once it is shipping), but currently the backup camera for my Nikon D3 which I had the AA filter removed a few years back.
Dirty word. Tougher to fix in post than you know. Photoshop hell in fact. That said, I’ve only had about a dozen or so shots in the last 3 years that were ruined by moire. But I could see it on the back of the LCD right after taking the first frame with my modified D3. BTW, the pixel sharpness was way better once I got rid of the AA filter. More importantly, white balance was AMAZINGLY more accurate than the D3 was in AUTO mode prior to removing the AA filter. Don’t ask my how that works… it just does.
Back to the dirty word. Moire.
I spent enough hours fixing that crap in post that I realized it would be great someday to not have to deal with it again by simply having a backup camera without the issue. So the timing of the arrival of my SD1 Merrill could not have been better. It arrived the day before I shot this gulf front home (1st picture at top of post). I had framed and shot the first shot with the D3 from the same angle, but man of man did those brown couches freak out the sensor. Moire everywhere. So I immediately put the SD1M on the same tripod and proceeded with that shot with it. No moire. The foveon sensor somehow deals with it even though it does not have any AA / blur filter over it.
So… when the Nikon D800e is shipping I will be upgrading to it. Yes I insist on that extra pixel sharpness and that is why I removed the AA filter from my D3 years ago (my clients love it because many of them are builders or architects and they print portfolios to show prospective clients their end product). So… if I hit a scene with moire with the D800e, enter the SD1M to the rescue. I bought so many lenses over the years for my Sigma SD14 bodies, I already had what I needed in focal lengths for the SD1M.
I prefer Nikon’s 9aeb for sure, but the SD1 Merrill is a workable solution for me. That and the fact that the SD1 body is smaller than a 5D and the 8-16mm lens is lighter than Canon’s 17-40mm. So they don’t hog up a ton of extra space in my one bag solution.
I didn’t buy the SD1M solely as a backup camera. I have clients that want to do art reproduction for their paintings and the pixel clarity of the SD1 is astounding. And when using Sigma’s infamous 70mm f/2.8 Macro with the SD1… sharpness and resolution are redefined.
Below is a more tame dynamic range scene taken at that same home with the SD1M. Again because moire reared it’s ugly head with the D3. Twice in one shoot. That never happened before. Thankfully I had the SD1M. This image was taken at 12mm on the SD1M which equates to 18mm on a full frame sensor.

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