DCRP Review: Sigma SD10
by Jeff Keller, DCRP Founder/Editor
Originally posted: March 17, 2004
Last Updated: March 18, 2004

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The Sigma SD10 ($1689) is one of only two cameras to use the Foveon X3 Direct Imager Sensor. The other is the Sigma SD9, which has been replaced by the SD10. Soon, a new Polaroid model will arrive with a lower resolution X3 sensor.

What's the big deal about the Foveon sensor? To understand that, first you need to know about how it works. A traditional CCD or CMOS sensor on a digital camera looks like a checkerboard, except with 3 colors (red, green, blue). 50% of the total pixels are green, while 25% are red, and 25% are blue. The camera must take this information and interpolate it into a complete image -- doing so introduces digital junk, reducing resolution and sharpness.

The X3 sensor tries to replicate film, in that it has three layers that capture image data -- so this time you capture 100% of red, green, and blue. The X3 sensor used on the SD10 captures 3.4 million pixels of each color, for 10.2 million total pixels captured. That doesn't mean that you'll get a 10 Megapixel image -- rather, it's 3.4 Megapixel, which sounds skimpy compared to other digital SLRs. You will, however, find that this 3.4 Megapixel image blows away anything you've seen before in terms of image quality. I think you'll agree after viewing the sample photos attached to this review.

For more info about how the X3 sensor works, I recommend viewing this page over at the Foveon site.

With that out of the way, let's learn more about this camera!

What's in the Box?

As is the case with most digital SLRs, the SD10 doesn't include a lens or a memory card. In fact, it doesn't even include batteries. Here's what you'll find in the box:

  • The 3 x 3.4 Megapixel Sigma SD10 camera body
  • AC adapter
  • Body cap
  • Eyecup
  • Viewfinder cap
  • LCD cover
  • Neck strap
  • USB cable
  • Firewire cable
  • Video cable
  • CD-ROM featuring Sigma Photo Pro
  • 113 page camera manual (printed)

As I mentioned, the SD10 doesn't come with even a throwaway set of batteries. So you'll need to pick up some NiMH AA rechargeables. Since the camera takes four AA batteries, I'd pick up 8 batteries, so you have a spare set around. A fast charger is a must as well. When those batteries run out, you can always toss in some alkaline AAs, or two CR-V3 lithium batteries, to get you through the day. Sigma does not provide battery life information, but I never had to change batteries in my weeks with the camera.

For studio work, of if you're just transferring photos to your PC, the included AC adapter is a very useful thing to have around. For more power on the go, consider the "Power Pack SD" ($130), which doubles the SD10's battery life, and lets you hold the camera in the vertical position as well.

Another thing not included with the SD10 is a memory card. The camera supports both Type I and Type II CompactFlash cards, including the Microdrive.

SD10 with "super" flash and 17-35 mm lens

When it comes to accessories, the first thing you'll need is a lens -- I'll cover those in the next section. Another must-have is an external flash, as the SD10 doesn't have one built in. Sigma sells two that are integrated with the camera, and they're known as the EF-500 DG Super SA-N ($170) and the EF-500 DGB ST SA-N ($140). [Aside: Who names these things?] For those who want to use a flash via a PC Sync cord, pick up the ST-11 terminal adapter ($40).

Other accessories include a remote shutter release cable ($40), wireless remote control ($24), and various dioptric correction lenses for the eyepiece.

Included with the the SD10 is the excellent Sigma Photo Pro 2.0 software. This software should serve as an example to other camera manufacturers, with its great user interface and robust performance. You'll be spending a lot of time in Photo Pro, since the camera only saves photos in RAW (X3F) format. At first glance, Photo Pro looks like just another photo browser (see above photo). But select an image and you'll find a lot more functionality.

The image editor is where all the good stuff is. By moving the cursor over the photo, you can see an enlargement of the area below (see above photo). Here you can also rotate, protect, or delete photos, or view exposure information and a histogram. This is also where you'll process and save your images into another format like JPEG or TIFF.

You have three options for post-processing your images. You can use the original settings that the camera chose, you can let the software choose the best adjustments, or you can make them yourself. For the latter, you can use the controls on the panel at the left side of the photo. You can adjust:

  • Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Shadow
  • Highlight
  • Saturation
  • Sharpness
  • X3 Fill Light - a kind of "digital flash" that adds extra lighting into the scene
  • Color (using the color circle)

In general, I was pleased with the results I saw using the auto correction feature. If you're not satisfied with how that looks, you can tweak the settings until the image looks like what you were expecting.

The manual included with the SD10 is pretty good for a camera manual. I especially liked the lengthy explanations, and minimal fine print.

Look and Feel

The first impression I had of the SD10 was that it was big for a D-SLR. It doesn't compare to the monster Nikon D2X or Canon EOS-1D, but it towers over the Canon D60 and Olympus E-1 that are here at the home office. Have a look:

See what I mean? In terms of build quality, the bulky SD10 is competitive with other D-SLRs in its price range. Here's a look at how the SD10 compares in size and weight against similarly-priced SLRs:

  Dimensions (WxHxD) Volume (bulk) Mass
Canon Digital Rebel 5.6 x 3.9 x 2.9 in.  63.3 cu. in. 560 g
Canon EOS-10D 5.9 x 4.2 x 3.0 in.  74.3 cu. in.  790 g
Olympus E-1 5.6 x 4.1 x 3.2 in.  73.5 cu. in. 660 g
Pentax *ist D 5.1 x 3.7 x 2.4 in.  45.3 cu. in. 550 g
Nikon D70 5.5 x 4.4 x 3.1 in.  75.0 cu. in.  595 g
Sigma SD10 6.0 x 4.7 x 3.1 in. 87.4 cu. in. 785 g

As you can see, the SD10 is the biggest and heaviest of the bunch -- and you'll tell as soon as you pick it up!

Now, let's begin our tour of this camera, starting with the front.

I promised to discuss the lens options on the SD10, and I'll do that now. The camera has a Sigma SA mount, and it only uses Sigma lenses. I've had mixed results with Sigma lenses. The 17-35 and 28-70 that came with my review camera were not impressive. On the other hand, the 15-30 that I own for my Canon D60 is much better. Sigma makes lenses of all types, ranging from 8 to 800 mm.

As with all lower-end D-SLRs, there's a focal length conversion ratio that you need to note. On the SD10, it's 1.7X -- so that 17-35 mm lens is really 29-59 mm.

The release for the lens can be found to the lower-left of the mount.

One of the much-touted features of the SD10 is a built-in dust cover. It didn't seem to do a good job, as the camera arrived with quite a bit of dust on the sensor. Even after having it professionally cleaned, there were still unwelcome objects in my photos (maybe the junk was in the lens too?).

On the far right in the above photo is the receiver for the optional remote control. You can't see it here, but to the left of that is the depth-of-field preview button.

The first thing you'll notice while looking at the back of the camera is just how simple everything is. There are just a few buttons and no dials, making it a welcome change from more complex D-SLRs.

The SD10 has a high resolution 1.8" LCD display, with 130,000 pixels. The screen is bright and sharp, and you adjust brightness and contrast in the setup menu. As is the case with all digital SLRs, the LCD is only used for viewing photos after they are taken (NOT beforehand) and for menus.

Directly above that LCD is the SD10's optical viewfinder, which they call a sports finder. The sports finder takes a little getting used to, as it shows a larger area than what is actually captured. The captured area is clear, while the non-captured area is gray. This makes more sense when you pick up and use the camera. The viewfinder shows about 98% of the frame. Below the field-of-view is a green strip showing shutter speed, aperture, flash setting, and more.

On top of the viewfinder is a diopter correction slider, which focuses what you're looking at in the finder.

To the left of the viewfinder are two buttons, for changing the resolution and ISO setting. The SD10 is unusual (for a D-SLR) in that it has just three image sizes (and no compression options, since all images are in RAW format): high, medium, and low. In the ISO sensitivity department, you can choose from 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1600. I'll have more on both of these topics later in the review.

On the opposite side of the viewfinder are two more buttons, this time for AE lock and exposure compensation (-3EV to +3EV, 1/3EV increments).

Image modification menu

Below those two buttons are five more. These control:

  • Menu
  • View - enters playback mode
  • Info - shows exposure info about photos (described later in the review)
  • Mod - opens the image modification menu, which has the following options:
    • Lock image (Lock/unlock, lock all marked/unlock all marked, lock all, unlock all)
    • Mark image (Mark/unmark, mark all, unmark all)
    • Rotate image (Clockwise, counterclockwise)
    • Slideshow (Resume show, show all, show marked, show locked, settings)
  • Delete photo

To the lower-right of the LCD are the OK and cancel buttons, which are mainly used for menu operations. The OK button is also the shortcut button, whose function you can customize in the menu (more on this later). Above those buttons is the four-way controller, which is used for menu navigation.

At the top-right of the photo are the +/- buttons, which are used for the "zoom and scroll" and thumbnail view features in playback mode. Below those is the release for the CompactFlash slot cover.

On the top of the camera, you'll find a few more dials and buttons, plus the hot shoe and LCD info display.

Starting on the left side of the photo, we find three buttons, which are for:

  • Metering (8-segment, average, center-area)
  • Function - has the following options:
    • Remote control channel (Off, C1, C2, C3) - for use with the RS-21 wireless remote only
    • Beep (on/off)
    • Extended mode (on/off) - gives you longer exposure times [30 sec vs. 15 sec] and ISO 1600
  • AF mode (Single, continuous)

To the right of those buttons is the mode dial, which has the following options:

  • Off
  • Single-shot
  • Continuous shooting - see below
  • 10 sec self-timer
  • 2 sec self-timer
  • UP - flips the mirror out of the way for sensor cleaning
  • AE bracketing - takes three shots in a row, each at a different exposure value. Interval can be set in 1/3EV increments up to ±3EV

The continuous shooting mode will take up to 6 shots in a row at 1.9 frames/second at the highest quality setting. At the medium and low quality settings, the numbers are 14 shots / 2.4 fps and 30 shots / 2.5 fps, respectively.

The next item on the top of the camera is the hot shoe. The camera manual insists that you can only use Sigma DG-series flashes with the hot shoe, but who knows if that's really true -- it looks like a standard hot shoe to me. By attaching a PC sync adapter, you can connect to studio strobes or to a flash bracket. The maximum flash sync speed on the SD10 is 1/180 sec.

To the right of the hot shoe is the "s-dial", which has the "mode selector" below it. The s-dial is used for changing the shutter speed while in the full manual (M) shooting mode. The items in the mode selector are:

  • Program mode - camera chooses both aperture and shutter speed; you can use the C-dial (shown in a second) to scroll through sets of different aperture/shutter speed combinations (this is called Program Shift)
  • Aperture priority mode - you choose aperture, camera picks appropriate shutter speed; aperture range varies depending on your lens; on the 17-35, it was F2.8 - F45
  • Shutter priority mode - you choose shutter speed, camera picks appropriate aperture; shutter speed range is 15 sec - 1/6000 sec; turning on extended mode in function menu allows for 30 sec exposures; at higher ISOs, exposures are limited to 1 second
  • Full manual mode - you choose both shutter speed and aperture; same ranges as above; bulb mode allows for exposures as long at 30 seconds at any ISO setting (assuming extended mode is turned on)

To the right of all that is the LCD info display, which shows shots remaining, quality setting, shutter speed, aperture, and more. I was disappointed to see that the screen was not backlit.

Above the the info display is the aforementioned C-dial, with the shutter release button inside of it.

On this side of the SD10, you can get a better look at the depth-of-field preview button (just to the right of the white dot around the lens). Other things to see here included the I/O ports (kept under a rubber cover) and battery compartment. I'll take a look at each of those now.

The I/O ports include Firewire (IEEE1394), USB (1.1), video out, and DC-in (for included AC adapter).

Here's the camera with the battery case removed. As I mentioned at the start of this review, the SD10 can use four AA or two CR-V3 batteries.

Over on the other side of the SD10, you'll find the CompactFlash slot, which is behind a sturdy plastic door. This is a Type II slot, so the Hitachi (formerly IBM) Microdrive is fully supported.

The final stop on our tour is the bottom of the camera. The only thing to see here is the metal tripod mount, which is inline with the lens.

Using the Sigma SD10

Record Mode

The SD10 starts up almost instantly when you turn it on.

Focusing performance was responsive, though a bit slower than I would've expected from an expensive camera. Low light focusing was not good, since the camera doesn't any sort of AF-assist system. There's a fairly easy solution, though: use an external flash. I attached the "super" Sigma flash and got better results, though you must take a flash picture.

The camera does very well in the shutter lag department -- there's none to speak of. The SD10 also excels in shot-to-shot speed. You can shoot as fast as you can compose, until the buffer memory fills up.

You can delete an image after it is taken by pressing the delete photo button on the back of the camera.

The SD10 is a little unusual for a D-SLR, as it shoots only in RAW mode, and has just three image quality options. And here they are:

Mode Resolution Approx. file size # images on 256MB card (not included)
HI 2268 x 1512 8 MB 32
MED 1512 x 1008 4 MB 64
LOW 1134 x 756 2 MB 128

Pretty simple, eh? As I said at the start of this review, you must process every image you take in the Photo Pro software. Later this year, Adobe Photoshop CS will be able to open the X3F files as well.

Images are named using the following convention: IMG#####.X3F, where # = 00001 - 99999. File numbering is maintained as you erase and switch memory cards.

Let's continue onto the menu system now.

The SD10 has a nice menu system that's more like those found on consumer-level cameras than D-SLRs. It's simple, and easy-to-navigate. You'll find the following options in the menu:

  • Camera info - displays current camera settings and CF card status
  • White balance (Auto, sunlight, shade, overcast, incandescent, fluorescent, flash, custom) - the custom option lets you shoot a white or gray card for perfect color in any lighting
  • Set custom WB - shoot that white or gray card here
  • Date/time (set)
  • Language (English, Japanese, German, French)
  • Quick preview (Off, 2, 5, 10 sec, hold) - post-shot review
  • Preview style (Image only, info screen)
  • Exposure warning (on/off) - whether or not the overexposure warning is shown on images
  • Info strip (Exposure info, date/time) - what is shown above images in playback mode
  • OK shortcut (None, lock/unlock, mark/unmark, rotate, exposure warning) - define what the OK button does
  • File numbering (Continuous, reset)
  • LCD brightness (Dim, normal, bright)
  • LCD contrast (High, medium, low)
  • LCD sleep (30 sec, 1, 2, 5, 10, 15, 30 min, off)
  • Auto power off (10, 30 sec, 1, 5 min, off)
  • Key sound (Long, short, off)
  • Video mode (NTSC, PAL)
  • Firmware version - mine was
  • Camera reset - back to defaults

I can't believe it that I made it through the whole menu system and don't need to explain anything!

Let's move on to sample photos now. Since the camera doesn't include a lens, I'm skipping the distortion test. And, since there's no built-in flash, I won't be doing the redeye test (it should be minimal to nonexistent with an external flash).

The SD10 with the 28-70 mm lens did a fine job with the macro test. The color was off a bit in the original X3F file, but fixing it was a piece of cake in Photo Pro. The minimum focus distance will vary depending on the lens you're using.

Although it's crooked (sorry!), the camera also did nice work with the night test shot. The sharpness and clarity in this photo are stunning! Purple fringing was low, though I did notice "stars" on some light sources.

Unlike your average D-SLR, the SD10 doesn't do so hot at higher ISO settings. Here, have a look:

ISO 100
View Full Size Image

ISO 200
View Full Size Image

ISO 400
View Full Size Image

ISO 800
View Full Size Image

ISO 1600
View Full Size Image

As you can see, things start to get noisy at around ISO 400 -- which is something you probably wouldn't see on other D-SLRs. Things get pretty yucky by the time you get to ISO 800, and even worse at ISO 1600.

As I've mentioned several times in this review, every image must be post-processed in Photo Pro. What do they look like straight out of the camera (unprocessed)? Here are some comparisons between an untouched image and one adjusted with the "auto setting":

Untouched X3F image "Auto" adjusted image

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to see which one is better. Since you have to use Photo Pro anyway, using the auto setting is a no-brainer in my opinion. Those seeking perfection will be able to tweak image properties to their heart's content.

If you clicked on those images above, or if you know anything about the X3 sensor, you won't be surprised to hear my assessment of the image quality: it's awesome, especially after a trip through that auto adjustment feature. The sharpness and resolution are truly stunning, blowing away any 3 Megapixel image you've ever seen. It's just that good.

I was a little dismayed by two things, though. The first was dust: it was in all of my images, even after I had the sensor cleaned. That was surprising for a camera with a dust protection feature. Secondly, I wasn't thrilled with the Sigma lenses I used -- they often had softness in corners. Do careful research before you buy a lens for this camera (and don't ask me, since I don't review lenses).

While the SD10 "only" saves images at 2268 x 1512 (compared to 3072 x 2048 on most other D-SLRs), the great resolution allows you to enlarge them to that size, and still have a great-looking photo. So Megapixels aren't everything!

Don't just take my word for all this, though. Have a look at the gallery and decide for yourself if the photo quality meets your expectations!

Movie Mode

No digital SLRs have movie modes.

Playback Mode

The SD10 has a pretty standard playback mode (as do most D-SLRs). Basic features include image protection, thumbnail mode, image rotation, and slide shows. It doesn't seem to support DPOF print marking or PictBridge.

The "zoom and scroll" feature lets you zoom in as much as 400% into your photo, and then scroll around in the zoomed-in area. This is a great way to check the focus on a photo. This feature is well-implemented on the SD10.

By default, you get some decent exposure information about your photos in playback mode. Pressing the info button displays the screen on the right, complete with a very nice histogram.

The camera moves through photos almost instantly -- very nice.

How Does it Compare?

While the Sigma SD10 would be a nice D-SLR if it used a traditional CCD or CMOS sensor, it's the SD10's Foveon X3 image sensor which really makes it stand out from the crowd. Image quality is, in a word, stunning. The resolution and detail makes your typical 3 Megapixel camera look like a toy. Don't let the Megapixel difference scare you away from the SD10, though. All that detail that the X3 sensor captured allows you to enlarge the image and still get a nice looking image.

The two issues I do have with the image quality have more to do with Sigma than they do with the X3 sensor. For one, this camera has dust issues, even with the protector screen. Secondly, Sigma's lenses seem to be hit-or-miss. Some models are great, others are not-so-great. Shop carefully.

The one X3-related image quality issue deals with noise levels at high ISOs -- they're noticeably worse than on other D-SLRs.

The SD10's performance is competitive with other D-SLRs, except in terms of low light focusing. You really need to attach an external flash if you expect to focus in the dark. The camera has a very good user interface, and the whole camera is easy to use, especially when compared to some other SLRs.

Another standout feature of the camera is the Sigma Photo Pro software, which you'll learn to love. That's because you must post-process every image, as they're all saved in RAW format. Thankfully, the Photo Pro software is both capable and responsive. You can let the camera make automatic adjustments to the image, or you can tweak it yourself.

Since the SD10 uses Sigma SA-mount lenses, I recommend it mostly to those who either have a small lens collection, or for people who are buying their first D-SLR. For those with large investments in Nikon or Canon glass, it's hard to throw all that away, even with the great image quality of the SD10. Even so, it'll be hard to resist the temptation of this camera!

What I liked:

  • Stunning image quality
  • Robust performance
  • FireWire and USB ports
  • Uses AA batteries (instead of lithium-ion)
  • Easy to use
  • All the benefits of a D-SLR: lenses, flashes, and full manual controls
  • Excellent Photo Pro software

What I didn't care for:

  • Poor low light focusing without external flash
  • Dust seems to be a problem
  • Some of Sigma's lenses are not so great
  • All images must be post-processed (this may be a good thing, depending on your point of view)
  • Above average noise at high ISOs
  • Bulky

Other D-SLRs that I'd recommend looking at include the Canon Digital Rebel and EOS-10D, Nikon D70 and D100, Pentax *ist D, and the Olympus E-1.

As always, I recommend a trip down to your local reseller to try out the SD10 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

I've got tons of photos in our gallery!

Want a second opinion?

Check out another opinions about this camera at Steve's Digicams!

Feedback & Discussion

If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.

To discuss this review with other DCRP readers, please visit our forums.

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