Tag Archives: Sigma SD Quattro

Digital Panatomic-X: The Sigma SD Quattro Foveon

The Utterly Weird, but Compellingly Fascinating Sigma SD Quattro

I’ve always been a lover of quirky, neglected and/or unfairly maligned cameras. Hence, my allegiance to the Leica M5 and the Ricoh GXR, two of my favorite cameras, both of which were critical and popular disappointments. I also own, and love, the Sigma SD Quattro. Sigma says its 20MP APS-C sensor produces a resolution “equivalent” to 39MP. In reality, it’s way better than that. My experience is, when shot at ISO100, it easily resolves fine details much better than the 36MP D800E, which was, at the time of the Quattro’s introduction, the Mack Daddy of high resolution full-frame DSLRs, and I suspect it can hold its own against the current crop of 60MP mirrorless. All of this out of a 20MP APS-C sensor.

The SD Quattro’s Foveon* sensor is what makes the SD Quattro unique and allows it to punch so high above its weight. Traditional high resolution digital sensors employ a Bayer filter sensor where red, green and blue photosensors are positioned at discrete locations. The Bayer filter then ‘interpolates’ them (i.e. makes an educated guess about what, for example, red would look like in a position where there is no red photosensor) to produce a full color image. The Foveon sensor ‘stacks’ the red, green and blue photosensors on top of each other at the same location ( in other words, there’s a red, green and blue pixel at every position) producing significantly sharper files than a Bayer filter sensor at same resolution. Frankly, it’s not even close. ‘Why’ it would do so, from a technical standpoint, is beyond my expertise. Just know that it does. If sharp resolution files are your thing, a Foveon sensor is what you want.

It also produces really nice, tonally rich B&W files that remind me of the look of Panatomic-X, and does so right out of the camera with exceptional jpeg files. While I’m hesitant to admit it, given my love of the M9 CCD Monchrom’s output, I think the Quattro is the better B&W camera. It’s that good.

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ISO 200 B&W Conversion in Silver Efex

Build quality is excellent. This is no cheap, plastic-y camera. Made from a magnesium alloy, fit and finish is really nice. Buttons and dials feel robust. Ergonomics are surprisingly intuitive, much more so than digital Leica’s and contemporary DSLR’s and mirrorless offered by Canon/Nikon et al.

In spite of all the above, the Sigma SD Quattro (and the Quattro H) are most decidedly not for everyone. They aren’t a camera you’re going to grab going out the door if you’ve got other less complicated options. They’re cumbersome in any situation in involving live action – people photography, ‘street photography’ , sports. They’re bulky and super slow in operation. If you’re shooting RAW, don’t even think about shooting them at any ISO above 400; in fact, it’s advisable to not shoot at anything other than its native sensor sensitivity of 100 ISO… or 200 ISO in a pinch. (Shooting jpegs is another story, which I’ll address shortly).

But man, when you use it as it was meant to be used – 100 ISO steadily handheld in sunlight, or on a tripod – the results are remarkable. It gives you DNG files that allow almost endless manipulation to get whatever look you’re after. They are particularly good for B&W conversions. They are incredibly sharp even at large magnifications, and their Foveon-ish* sensor produces a noticeable something that even current 60MP sensors don’t. Viewing the output of my M9 Monochrom (itself capable of really sharp, clean fines at lower ISO way better than you’d expect from an 18MP sensor) with an out-of-camera JPEG from the Quattro makes it clear just how good 1) Quattro jpegs are and 2) the Foveon sensor is in B&W.

Out of Camera jpeg from the Quattro using the 4:5 Aspect Ratio In Camera Crop

A DNG RAW file from the M9 Monochrom – Processed in Lightroom

The ability to shoot DNG RAW files is a major upgrade from Sigma’s previous Foveon cameras, which shot a proprietary RAW version that required conversion in clunky, bug-ridden Sigma software (although the latest version Sigma Photo 6.8 is pretty good). In 2004 Adobe created the DNG file format to replace the various proprietary Raw (.RAW) formats of differing digital cameras. The goal was to provide a standardized file format that could be processed on any computer system or viewer without special proprietary software. DNG files are supported in software such as Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Camera Raw.

With the Quattro, you also have the ability to avoid shooting RAW format entirely: the jpeg processing engine is really good, which allows you some ability to shoot at higher ISO’s – expose properly and you can shoot jpegs in color up to ISO 400, and black and white to ISO 800. Yes there is some degradation as you increase ISO, but because of the clarity of the Foveon pixels you can still print and display at very large sizes. One upside of shooting jpeg is the reduced file size; the DNG files out of the Quattro are enormous and take a lot of processing power to work with. Of course, the downside is you’re stuck with the rendering the jpeg engine gives you. Suffice it to say that the Quattro is the only camera I feel comfortable shooting in jpeg mode.

Out of Camera jpeg From the SD Quattro – Me Looking Like Uncle Festor

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And then there’s the issue of lens choice. The Quattro employs the Sigma SA mount, a mount Sigma used for all its SLR and mirrorless cameras until they discontinued it in 2018. As such, you’re limited to pre-2018 Sigma optics (of which there are plenty and most of which are really good, the trade off being most are also quite large). I’m currently using the Sigma DC 17-50 2.8 EX HSM which is solidly built and sharp at all apertures. If you need a ‘standard’ prime, the excellent Sigma 30mm 1.4 ART lens fits the bill nicely (that’s it on the photo that leads off the piece). Just realize that you’re going to be limited to already existing Sigma optics.

Sigma discontinued the camera in 2018. They’ve replaced it with the fp, which uses a full-frame Bayer sensor. This means that the Quattro is probably going to be the last in the line of commercially produced Foveon-sensored cameras, as Sigma wholly owns the Foveon patent. I applaud Sigma for doing something different; their Foveon cameras, from the original 4MP DP series through the Merrills and ending with the Quattro are all fascinating departures from the norm. IMO, their strengths – super sharp, super detailed RAW files – transcend their obvious limitations. It’s a shame the marketplace killed it. I suspect Foveons, and the Quattro in particular, are eventually going to achieve cult status, with in-the-box examples bringing exorbitant prices. Ten years maybe?

UPDATE: Maybe not…..

July 2022: Sigma CEO Says More Foveons Coming. Yay!

Should you buy one? Yes. Full Stop. These things are currently bargains used. Buy one – or an equally weird Merrill or DP Quattro – and use it. The question is which one. I’ve owned most iterations – the 4MP DP2x, the DP2 Merrill and the Quattro. I loved the pocket-sized ‘4MP’ DP2x with its fixed 24mm 2.8 that produced beautiful color files looking like those from a camera with 5 times its resolution but, alas, the lower pixel count precluded you from printing big. The Merrill’s produce stunning output, but unfortunately tether you to Sigma’s RAW processor, which is a nightmare to work with. Were I to choose one my preference would be the Quattro, as it offers the ability to shoot DNG files you can post-process in Photoshop or Lightroom without recourse to the dedicated Sigma software and it allows use of the entire range of Sigma SA optics. It also shoots really good jpegs, which the Merrill did not. I haven’t used the DP Quattro series, which Sigma offered after the Merrill and before the SD, but I assume the image quality is on par with the SD. As I understand it, the DP series is the SD with fixed lenses (and a very weird design).

The Quattro H, a slightly larger sensor than the Quattro (1.3 crop as opposed to the 1.5 crop of the base Quattro) commands a premium over the APS-C base Quattro, but I don’t see much functional distinction between the two. Given the price difference, I’d stick with the base APS-C model. Current prices are all over the map, as you can see from the Ebay offerings below. Having watched past auctions, $800 should get you a lightly used Quattro body and either the 30mm 1.4 Art lens, or my choice, the 17-50DC EX with IS. What you’ll get is an APS-C camera that easily out-resolves the latest Leica M, isn’t going to ever become “obsolete,” and will keep your interest permanently. Certainly, if you aspire to landscape photography, take things slow and use a tripod, this is the camera for you. Plus, this thing just oozes cache; pull it out and start pointing it around and every DSLR toting Ansel Adams and Leica M HCB wannabe is going to be secretly envious. Thorsten [von] Overgaard will be completely flummoxed. Try doing that for $800 in Leica land.

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Get the PG-41 Power Grip and Extra Batteries. You’re Going to Need Them.

We talk of Leica being the one camera company offering digital cameras that hearken back to – and retain vestigial features of – film era cameras and their operation. I’d suggest that the Sigma SD Quattro does the same. Operation is reminiscent of a MF film camera loaded with a high resolution low ISO film. Think of a Hasselblad loaded with Panatomic-X.

The Quattro requires you to slow down and think about what you’re doing. Its slow start up and interminable write times give you no choice. Its energy hungry sensor eats batteries, so, much like film, you’re best to make every shot count. There’s no doing it wrong and having the camera’s automation correct you. But do it right and work around the camera’s inherent limitations and the results can be stunning. It rewards pre-visualization and proper technique with subtle color detail or wonderfully detailed, tonally rich B&W files. Those who’ve worked with MF film cameras will feel right at home.

Mine. Yes it’s Big. So is a Hasselblad 501CM with 80mm Planar.

*The X3 Quattro sensor used in the SQ Quattro is slightly different than the original Foveon sensor. The blue photosensor layer at top has 4 times the high resolution of the red and green  photosensor layers underneath it are of lower (1/4th) resolution.

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Further Foveon Geekiness (With Some Deeper Thinking Included)

4.8 megapixels, from the SIGMA DP2x Foveon Sensor

I know. I know. I claim to despise the pixel-peeping insanity that passes for camera evaluation many other places. Nothing worse than 100% views of receding fenceposts or closeups of the family cat to critique a sensor’s “IQ” or “corners,” or, God forbid, an optic’s “bokeh.” It’s such a blinkered, limited understanding of photo tech and the priority it should be given in assessing the relative strengths and demerits of the photographic tool you chose. It’s the equivalent of judging the aesthetic value of a Redwood tree by examining its leaves as opposed to standing back and taking the larger view of the entire tree in context. The larger view is the instructive view, obviously, and will tell you why Redwoods are such incredibly amazing trees. Examining the leaf will…tell you about the leaf. And yet…here I am with another post about the intriguing quality of the images I’m getting from my latest photographic crush, the SIGMA Foveon sensor. Bear with me.

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2640×1760 (4.8 megs) DP2x, RAW conversion in SPP, tweaking in Lightroom

I’m currently reading (actually listening to on Audible) Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, written by David Epstein. It’s an interesting book, as far as books popularizing social science research can be, and I’m struck by a point he makes in refuting the currently popular notion that true excellence is only developed via long, intense, focused interest and practice in the specific skill you’re seeking to master (the “10,000 hour” rule, etc). He cites research into the various factors most likely to be seen in the education and development of exceptional musicians. The common denominator among them is not the early age at which they took up the instrument, the assistance of parents in facilitating opportunities for rigorous instruction, or the hours spent in learning that particular instrument as opposed to more generalized musical training but rather...did the musician like his instrument. Did he or she love the violin or piano or tuba or whatever; was there, early on, a bond that the nascent musician felt with the musical tool he’d chosen (or, too often, in the case of young children, that was chosen for them). That’s it. That’s what correlates most strongly with subsequent mastery of the instrument.

SIGMA DP2x, 2640×1760 (4.8 Megs) RAW @ 100 ISO, desaturated in SPP (Pretty Much What Came out of the Camera)

This is something we, as users of traditional Leica Barnack and M cameras, understand. It’s the importance of a felt, emotional connection with your creative tool, in our case, our camera. It matters. In theory, yes, you can be as exceptional an image maker using a Pentax K1000 as you can with a Leica M4. It’s just a light-tight box, right? But we all know it’s not that simple. Nothing is really “simple” when we seek to understand the resonances of our creative impulses, what nourishes them and what thwarts their expression. When we’re talking of creative expression necessarily mediated by tools – e.g. photography – emotional and psychological fit with that tool matters. A lot.

My Boy Buddy. DP2x, 100 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Silver Efex Pro

Of course, the more cynical (or stupid) among us will claim to be above such things. Don’t believe a word of it. They really don’t, and neither should you. A large part of what makes us avid enthusiasts is our interest in the tools themselves. Cameras are cool things from any number of perspectives – both their superficial and functional aesthetics of endless fascination apart from their technical specifications, but so too their tech specs, they being, at base, quantifications of qualities inherent in the camera’s output, and, when all is said and done, that’s what we all claim is important – the photograph.

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Sigma sd Quattro, 400 iso, Raw conversion in SPP, tweaking in Color Efex Pro I Wouldn’t Have Taken This Photo With a Leica

So, that’s a long-winded way of saying the truth of the matter: the equipment you use matters. It matters because, in creative endeavors, the tools you use to accomplish your ends are themselves an extension of you. Your camera isn’t something set apart from your body and mind, something distinct from your creative act. It’s an integral part of the creative act, the necessary pre-condition of the act itself. As such, it needs to be something that’s functional…but also its use itself needs to appeal to our aesthetic sense. It’s that aesthetic component of use that initially drew many of us to photography, and certainly, it’s behind why many of us retain an emotional allegiance to our film Leicas.

In addition to being necessary, it’s formative in the sense that the photos you create will, to a certain extent, be conditioned by the strengths and weaknesses of your instrument. Leica cameras became famous because they were small and unobtrusive and could be carried places larger cameras couldn’t. It certainly wasn’t because they had better image quality. For that, a view camera or a Speed Graphic. Photographers early on understood and utilized the Leica’s strengths, creating new genres of documentary photography – war photography, street photography, candid personal documentary. Meanwhile, “Fine Art” photographers necessarily used large-format view cameras so they could print large with maximum detail and subtlety.

With the digital age, some of these use distinctions are breaking down. Technology has become so good. Amateur level digital cameras are capable of routinely producing film era medium format quality. Unfortunately, our understanding of what constitutes a competent photo also seems to have shifted, more now involving technical excellence than creative vision, and this is the area where gear mania becomes counterproductive, wherein the enjoyment of the tool subsumes the larger creative act itself. Too many photographers chase technical excellence without any understanding or concern with creative excellence, which are two distinct things. Hence, we’re now inundated with banal, technically excellent photographs that digital era photographers confuse with creative excellence. It’s the triumph of the superficial, where excellence comes easily, over against the subtle and profound and visionary, where excellence is rare and always hard-won. It’s the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.

Technically Excellent? Not Really. Creatively Excellent? Yes. A Work of Art.

The key, I think, is to match your creative vision to the correct instrument as opposed to allowing your equipment to drive your output. And that has created my current intellectual conundrum. Truth be told, I really like my little Foveon DP2x. I find it endlessly fascinating that a camera little more the size of my iPhone, that can be bought for $200, 4.8 effective megapixels no less, can create such stunning photographs, photos that aren’t merely about details but seem to have a solidity to them that can’t be described but is most definitely there. And so, I’ve been out and about with it, taking the sort of static views you see reproduced here, potential photos I’m only seeing now because of the type of camera I have in my hands. So, the question is: is the DP2x dictating my vision to me, or am I dictating my vision to it? Does it even matter?

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64 Meg Leica Introduced

Leica has announced a new S model, the S3, with a 64 megapixel “Medium Format” (45x30mm) sensor. It will retain the optical viewfinder on the S2,  which had a 37-megapixel CCD sensor, and debuted way back in 2008, when Leica’s current digital M was the M8.

Coming some time in 2019. No word on price.

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On a related note of interest for Leicaphiles, Sigma plans to produce a full-frame (24x36mm) Foveon mirrorless camera. Till now, the largest Foveon sensor is the APS-H 51MP SD Quattro H mirrorless camera. The real news is that this new full-frame Foveon camera will use the Leica L-Mount and not, as the current SD Quattro, its own SA mount. I suspect a full frame Foveon mated with L-system lenses should be a match for the S3 in terms of output quality…at a 1/10th of the price of the S3 body.

If you own SA mount lenses and want to use them with the new camera, Sigma will be able to convert some SA mount lenses over to L-Mount, while the company will also be offering a SA to L-Mount adapter.

I own the APS-C SD Quattro and love it. The Foveon sensor works by interpreting color by capturing light at three different depths, and is capable of stunning results at lower ISO, much like film, but struggles with noise at higher sensitivities. Expect the same with the full frame Foveon. Think of it as digital Panatomic-X.

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A Walk With Buddy


“The first mistake of art is to assume that it’s serious.”  Lester Bangs


I love that quote. Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that photography can be ‘Art’ and that those who do it can be “artists.”

Photography should be fun. It should come from a place of ease and spontaneity. If it comes from your head instead of your heart, it’ll likely be forced. If it’s forced, it won’t be very good. This doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work. That’s the paradox of it. Good work is hard…but it usually comes easily. When I’m “seeing” it seems everywhere. When I’m not, it’s nowhere to be found. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, I’m a firm believer in one’s muse, an animating creative force that comes and goes on its own volition. The trick is to take advantage of it when it’s present. It’s a free gift you can’t expect on schedule.

It being a lazy Sunday morning, I intended to stay in bed, enjoy a cup of coffee (maybe a demitasse of calvados on the side) and read. I’ve recently commenced reading back issues of Aperture Magazine, which I’ve subscribed to for at least 25 years, although I hadn’t really read an issue in the proper sense since Fall, 1999, instead filing them for later perusal on the bookshelves dedicated to photography. Now suddenly inspired, I’ve committed to catching up on 20 years (that’s 80 issues). Sunday morning in bed, sipping calvados, seemed as good a time as any.  Buddy the dog had other ideas. Traditionally, Sunday is his day for the extra-special, extra-long walk off-leash on the Dorothea Dix Campus grounds. I know it. He knows it. And he knows that I know. To let me know he knew that I knew, he picked up one of my walking shoes, jumped on the bed and dropped it in front of me. Then he stared. This went on until I complied by asking him the totally rhetorical question – “Do you want to go for a walk?” – that sent him prancing to the door while I threw on my pants and tied my shoes.

As we left I dropped my Sigma SD Quattro in a shoulder bag and took it with. I’ve been feeling inspired all of the sudden – blog posts coming a mile a minute; thinking of, and seeing, pictures everywhere. Visual inspiration usually comes to me in one of two forms, either the urge to document everything around me, usually wife, kids, friends, animals, or a heightened sensitivity to shapes and form I see in the things around me. I’m presently being visited by the second muse, and when I am I’ll typically buy a canvas and paint, but I’ll occasionally gratify the urge with a camera, photographing form I see latent in everyday things.

So, Me and Buddy went for our walk. We were gone about an hour, In that time I took maybe 20 pictures with my Sigma. Here’s four that caught my eye. What’s remarkable to me is that the entire process, from conception/initiation to execution and presentation, took 2 hours total, maybe. In the spirit of my last post, I can’t decide whether that’s good or bad. Shouldn’t it be hard? Can it be easy? If “easy,” isn’t it that the “hard” part has been done over many years of reading, looking, thinking and seeing?

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The Anti-Leica

Christmas Presents to Myself: a Weird Novel About the Death of Roland Barthes (The Guy Who Wrote Camera Lucida) and a Sigma SD Quattro

I love quirky things, whether it be cameras or motorcycles or cars or music. Or people, women in particular. If I were to buy another motorcycle, it would have to be a KTM RC390. Cool little 390cc one cylinder 40 hp “thumper” engine in a dedicated lightweight track bike package that will smoke a liter bike (1000cc) when the roads start to bend a little. Maximum fun in a small, affordable package. Let the 20-somethings with their 180 hp Kawasaki’s and Yamaha’s snicker; I’m happy to leave them for dead when the pace heats up and the road turns twisty.

Likewise with cameras. You’ve probably noticed my penchant for the much-maligned Leica’s in the M series – the M5 and the M8 – and the quirky Ricoh GXR with its modular lens system. Great cameras all. The GXR is my absolute favorite digital camera of all-time. I absolutely love it. It’s the KTM RC390 of digital cameras – small, light, produces beautiful files with a certain character, performs great in the real world as opposed to on the spec sheet, and it’s different in a cool way. I much prefer it to both the D3S and D800 I’ve owned, the D3S too bulky, the D800 with unnecessarily massive files. The GXR hits the sweet spot. Of course, by an iron logic inaccessible to me, this also meant that it would be a commercial failure, which it was (general consensus was that it was a good idea in theory, but in practice just didn’t cut it for some undefined reason). There’s something about the “general consensus” that always gets my contrarian juices flowing. “Common opinion” is just that: common. Look up the definition and get back to me if you think that’s a good thing.

As far as digital cameras go, you can’t get more “much-maligned” than the Sigma Foveon cameras. They are glacially slow (as a friend says – “slower than a wet fart”), basically useless at any ISO over 400 (just like film), produce huge files and most require proprietary Sigma RAW software that runs at a snail’s pace and frequently crashes. They also, when used correctly, produce stunningly sharp and nuanced Black and White images that rival the best Medium Format. Of course, given the above, I had to have one.

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You might remind me that I’ve spent years denigrating the obsession with photographic “IQ” and wonder about the inconsistency and why I appear to be doing an about-face now. Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I am of the opinion that a 12MP APS-C sensor is sufficient for most any photographic need short of massive prints larger than 20×30 inches that need to hold fine detail. 12MP files from my GXR certainly can hold their own against fine-grained 35mm film negatives (Panatomic-X for instance) carefully shot with Leitz or Zeiss optics, and in most instances,  medium format 21/4 negatives as well. I’ve got a 40×60 inch print of my quirky wife hanging over our bed (the print is hanging over our bed, not the wife), taken with the 16MP GXR APS-C Zoom lens module. It’s stunning, even at that enlargement, the detail even when viewed close up really amazing. Why any general interest photographer would need more is beyond me. I just don’t understand the point of 36 or 42 or 50MP sensors given how people generally view and display their photos; detail in even a ‘middling’ 24MP full frame camera cannot be fully articulated on a 4k monitor or in any reasonable size print. 12MP is more than enough.

Taken with a 16MP APS-C Ricoh GXR and printed at 40×60 inches. Looks Great.

I will admit, however, there are times, very infrequent for me and I suspect for most everyone else, when you simply need the most resolute image you can get. Back in the day, you’d grab a 6×9 MF camera like a Fuji 690, or you’d rent a 4×5 or larger view camera to get what you needed. You certainly wouldn’t use your 35mm Leica, even with the sharpest Summicron. Medium format cameras were often bulky and a pain in the ass to shoot, usually requiring a fine grained film and a tripod, but when you nailed it the results were stunning. The resulting negative could be printed as large as you wanted with minimal loss of quality. That need does still exist today, even more so given the massive print sizes made available to even the most casual happy-snapper with the use of inkjet printing, at least for those absolutely needing to print big. Of course photography is not just about IQ, but it is nice to have maximum IQ in these certain limited instances and for the money, Sigma Foveon cameras offer eye-wateringly sharp images at ISO 100-400 that MF systems costing 10x as much would envy. The SD Quattro, Sigma’s latest Foveon camera, can shoot DNG and thus does away with the need to use Sigma’s abysmal RAW software. Interesting camera, cheap too.

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So, in the spirit of Christmas (i.e. buy a bunch of shiny crap you don’t need) I took the plunge and bought a Sigma SD Quattro with massive 17-50 zoom attached. I bought it for one specific purpose – to shoot very large b&w prints for a documentary series I’m doing about the old Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds here in Raleigh, a beautiful historic state mental hospital complex that’s being bulldozed to make way for a city park. I live directly across the street from its entrance and have watched it transformed from a bustling hospital that treated our most vulnerable citizens to a decaying warren of unoccupied  buildings set amongst pristine grounds full of beautiful huge old oaks. All soon to be uprooted.

Like most good things, I suspect we won’t miss any of it until it’s gone, and then we’ll realize nobody thought to memorialize it. Nobody seems to paying attention to the fact this local landmark, so important in our city and state’s history, soon will be a memory. The few I see sitting in the grass while their dogs run seem too busy looking at their phones to admire the faded beauty of the place and the majestic oaks they’re sitting under. So, given my training as a documentarian, I’ve decided to shoulder the responsibility myself and make a record of the place before its gone, and given current visual culture, nobody is going to pay me any mind if I ultimately propose to exhibit 8×10 B&W silver prints; too small, not sharp enough, simply not cool enough. What they’ll want are huge, hyper tack sharp prints. Hence the Sigma SD Quattro.

It certainly lives up to its reputation: it’s slow, and quirky and produces eye-poppingly sharp photos you can blow up to massive sizes with minimal loss of detail. To my eye, sharper and more pleasing than the files from the D800. Would I use it as I would my Leica or GXR. No, those fit different needs. But when I need big and sharp, while you can’t tell it from a computer screen, it’s about as good as it gets.

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