The Short: A Sigma with probably the best and most vibrant colors of all the Sigma DSLRs, with the responsiveness and reliability that was missing from the earlier SD14–BUT, it’s also a Sigma camera with probably the craziest highlight blowing potential in all exposure modes and picture settings and hints of the inconsistent white balance problems of the earlier SD14.
Do I like this camera? Yes! I like all cameras. In my quest to try and get good photos from all the various digital cameras that are around (and prove the internet wrong) here are my photos and thoughts about this odd and “rare” Sigma SD15 from about a decade ago.
Again, I think I’ll refrain from using “Review” in the title, since I’m not here to affect anyone’s wallet when it comes to buying gear. That’s pretty much for most everyone else in this era of Google and YouTube click revenue. I’ve never been to engineering school and don’t have what it takes to design a camera, lens, or other photographic imaging system, so I’ll just appreciate the abundant amount of toys we have to document our days and adventures. Some tools are better than others of course, but at the end of the day it’s always been about the user of the camera.
I’ve still yet to take the SD15 on a real work gig, but I’ve used it plenty on my random trips around town. I got this mint condition camera with about 1700 clicks on it, and thus far have added about 5000 to that number. I’m thinking that’s enough to get a feel for a particular camera’s strengths and weaknesses.
Here are my photos and thoughts!
This was one of the earliest photos I shot after getting the camera. A lucky sunset while going to dinner one night and the local QT was looking very majestic. From the onset I thought, this camera has potential.
The Sigma 50mm macro I have does not autofocus anymore since the motor failing is a common thing with those older lenses. This was another lucky twilight when the color was really tailored for this camera. Like all the Foveon X3 Sigmas they really excel at architecture, things with straight lines and tiny regular details.
I can’t remember exactly but this might have been shot with a really oily on the inside Sigma 18-55mm kit lens. It has an interesting haze for some pictures, but this lens is definitely my least used one. I browse all the time on the used market some modern Art lenses for the Sigma mount, but decide every time to see what I can do with modest gear. Again, these Sigmas aren’t my main cameras, and wouldn’t win a battle with even an ancient Nikon D40, but I still feel like using them on my off days.
So this is what I meant by crazy color and white balance shifts. These shots of a Vornado fan were taken in my room with consistent morning window light. The lens probably has something to do with it as well, but seriously this is what Sigma photo life is all about. Just accept the shifts and appreciate the actually nice and vibrant Starburst candy colors!
I think the reason why Sigma shooters keep on coming back to the Foveon sensor is because of the detail. Like really pleasing scroll around the whole image looking at things the naked eye doesn’t pick up.
It’s a bit hard to tell from the 1200 pixel wide images on my blog, but hopefully the pixel sharp detail shows up. Most other cameras these days have such a high megapixel size that downscaling and applying a light unsharp mask can somewhat mimic the look the Foveon Sigmas, but I think it will always lack that clarity. Bayer sensors are great for almost every other type of photography and the look is still lovely, but the Foveon files are similar to CG renders, without a layer of blur separating you from the image. It’s something that shows up in regular monitors like the one I’m using now, and even upscaled on the Apple retina displays.
Having said all of that I still appreciate the detail in the Nikon 1 1″ sensors and their really great lenses. Even the non AA filter Olympus E-M1 produces very sharp, almost Foveon like files.
While the Sigma excels at product photography, it’s almost a bit too good at picking up detail like dust in your shooting environment. When you shoot as many cameras as I have over the years you start to notice things like Canon’s noise reduction getting rid of blemishes on faces that other cameras would leave in. The Sigmas can be used for portraits, which you’ll see later, but the crazy amount of detail captured might not be the best tool for casual pretty girl photography.
If I was a tripod using shooter these shots would be much sharper, but all of these are handheld with lenses with no built in IS.
The Sigma SD15 also excels at architecture, even with its meager by today’s standards megapixel count. I’ve used the SD14 on jobs in the past and have always enjoyed the struggle of getting the best image out of those, but the SD15 makes things much easier. Its buffer is very generous and doesn’t lock up on you.
From an image standpoint, the high ISO SD15 images look very nice, like video games. The same clarity in product shots shows up again in Atlanta city scenes with grit and texture. The way it captures how street lights fall on bricks is very similar to first person shooters, and not like how a mushy Canon low light high ISO snapshot looks.
If I worked in the videogame industry making texture maps, I’d really consider using the Sigma Foveon cameras to acquire the source material. It would definitely give a project a hyper realistic look.
Next are images of an organic nature, things without the lines of buildings that could perhaps line up pixel perfect with the grid on the sensor. No, these are images that would look the same if shot with most any other camera on the market. What is nice is again, the colors of this SD15 make up for the yellow/greenish ugly colors of the SD14 and recall the SD10, but much more vibrant and punchy.
Like most Foveons red and blown highlights is a big concern.
The various picture settings on the SD15 really makes a difference in the look of an image, but also what happens to the raw file. Vivid gives a look similar to Fuji/Nikon/Pentax Vivid, but you really risk blowing out highlights.
The Neutral Picture Setting is the only mode where you can be kind of be sure the highlights won’t go haywire. However, it’s really really neutral. The above image of maple and gingko leaves was heavily edited in post. The bottom image is pretty much straight from camera. It has a film look and tone though.
Also in the above image, behind the steeple isn’t a dust spot. It’s actually an airplane and it’s still amazing this little sensor can resolve all that detail.
Being in Neutral Picture Setting doesn’t solve all metering problems though, as this is an example of the SD15 blowing out highlights.
So next is what portrait photographers will have to deal with. By that I mean the inconsistencies in contrast and slight color balance issues, especially with Auto WB in the older Sigma SD14 (of which I have two so I know it’s a hard wired quirk). Why shoot in auto white balance you ask and not a consistent pre set? Because pre set in the Sigma world is often times wrong in its own way and can cause headaches in post. On Nikons and Canons, pretty much non optimal or incorrect white balance can be changed by a mere click in post. Walking out of the house with WB Incandescent and accidentally shooting in broad daylight really has no effect on a Canon/Nikon raw file. Sure Shade WB will up the ISO in many situations, but it’s still nothing like Sigma Foveon. Minute changes in sunlight and the combined glare of the internal IR dust protector makes for consistent photos difficult in the native Sigma Photo Pro software.
The Sigma SD15 is thankfully much better and doesn’t go as crazy as much with color WB shifts like the older cameras.
For this shoot, Neutral and Auto WB somewhat behaved itself. Again the lens I’m using is not exactly great or fast, but I just wanted to try. You can see the yellow tint of the IR filter though in the right hand corner. If this were the SD14, it would be much much worse and annoying to fix.
I think this was in Standard Picture setting. Notice how the highlights in the cardinal are beyond recovering. This is heavily color corrected as well, as the SD15 still has problems in certain sections of daylight for figuring out a close WB.
These flower photos were shot at the same time, same lens. Only difference is the processing. The one above, the sharpness is turned almost all the way down, giving a very filmic look. The one on the bottom, sharpness turned all the way up, giving a more digital look.
With all that technical stuff being said, I will have to say sometimes the randomness and quirkiness of these Foveon cameras is part of the charm. If they’re not going to be consistent, then why not just embrace it. That’s what I did last week, rolling with the SD15 and manual focus m42 mount 55mm 1.4. Luckily it works in Aperture priority, but only if you set the aperture to f/1 on the camera. But the difficulty in nailing focus wide open is pretty tough and the nature of that old glass and sunlight can produce some unpredictable results.
Obviously the focus is off on these since I don’t have enough experience with this lens as I do with Nikon Ai-s lenses, but you know it’s a type of rendering that recalls a different era. The vintage glass and unique sensor is something that never existed before.
So there you have it, a collection of photos shot over the course of about a year. The SD15 was always 3rd or 4th option in my bag on all of these outings, but at home, when the lighting through the window is lovely I always think about using it just to see how it sees the world. Mundane things like half eaten bread and afternoon shadows look different on a Foveon sensor.
Many (if not all) of the photos edited with this process: Sigma Photo Pro, Capture NX2, then Photoshop. Then all photos batch resized with the old ViewNX2 for my blog.
Thanks for reading this far!