Sigma SD10 Digital SLR Review

by CD Price

The Sigma SD10 is a 10.2 (3.4x3)-megapixel DSLR camera equipped with the unique Foveon X3 Direct Image Sensor. Lenses available range from plastic kit-type to professional primes and zooms and an Optical Stabilizer zoom. This camera, announced in late 2003, is the refined version of Sigma's first DSLR, the SD9.

Price: $1200-1600 US

  • High-quality images free of most digital artifacts
  • Wide range of lenses
  • PhotoPro 2.0 image-processing software
  • Excellent histogram and in-camera image evaluation
  • Diopter correction
  • Performance
  • Some unfortunate design implementations
  • Mirror slap
  • No built-in flash or PC terminal
    Issues Unique to the SD10
  • RAW-only images
Sigma SD10 Studio Test Images
Sigma SD10 Studio SamplesISO 100 Sample >>
ISO 200 Sample >>
ISO 400 Sample >>
ISO 800 Sample >>

More Sigma SD10 Resources
All Sigma SD10 Photos >>
Owner-posted Sigma SD10 reviews >>
Write a Review >>
Shop for the Sigma SD10 >>
Sigma Web site >>
Foveon Web site >>

Sigma SD10 - front and back

IntroductionFoveon X3 sensor
The Foveon sensor-equipped SD10 is a unique DSLR that records only in RAW mode. This RAW-only implementation means that many common DSLR controls are not present in the SD10 body. These controls are provided in the included excellent Photo Pro software.

The Sigma SD10 Digital Single Lens Reflex camera is capable of producing astounding images, and it was these images that first led me to consider this camera. Foveon's unique sensor provides an amazing range of color control, dynamic range, and contrast.

Sigma SD10 Features
The camera offers standard exposure controls allowing for everything from an AE program mode to full manual control. Program shift functions, exposure lock, auto bracketing, EV 1-20 in three metering modes, and ISO levels from 100-1600 provide plenty of versatility. Mirror lockup, depth-of-field preview, self-timer, wired/wireless remote capability, viewfinder diopter correction, and a nearly 100% coverage, 0.77x magnification pentaprism viewfinder are all SD10 features.

The histogram in the camera is excellent. It is a graph with a separate colored line for each of the red, green, and blue components of the image. Pan and zoom control image review with up to five levels of image magnification on the variable-brightness 1.8-inch LCD. The histogram always represents the displayed portion of the image.

The LCD monitor, a four-way controller, nine buttons, and a red, status LED control the interface for all digital imaging operations.

Sigma SD10 - LCD Display
Sigma SD10 LCD review

Sigma SD10 - LCD Display
Sigma SD10 LCD review with info and histogram on
Sigma SD10 - LCD Display
Sigma SD10 menu
White balance is adjustable from auto to custom with eight preset ranges. Custom WB tied to its own dedicated button would be a great improvement.

"Wait," you say. "What about custom functions and scene modes?" Sorry, no fireworks, portrait, or snow modes here. The photographer needs to understand what to do to achieve these types of images with the SD10.

Sigma SD10 Design
The big polycarbonate-body does not feel heavy, in spite of its size. The battery compartment is molded to provide a large grip for good handling.

The command dial around the shutter release controls most of the exposure and meter settings in the SD10. This dial, combined with a mode button or the +/- button, selects most camera settings. The manual is needed to find some settings and controls, as they are obscure.

Sigma SD10 body and exposure controls
    Left: Sigma SD10 and apple - for size
    Right: Exposure controls and shutter release

Sigma uses what it calls the "Sportfinder." The area around the edge of the viewfinder is "grayed out," which allows the photographer to "see beyond" the edges of the captured image. This unusual finder takes some getting used to, but it works well.

There are two control oddities if you compare this camera to many other current cameras. The shutter speed dial is marked FAST and SLOW with arrows and bars as opposed to numerical values! Metering mode is not displayed in the viewfinder, and selection requires both hands and looking at the top of the camera.

There is no built-in flash, only a proprietary hot shoe. An optional adapter, the ST-11, provides an external flash connection.

A clear dust shield protects the Foveon sensor. The mirror is locked up with the AC adapter for shield removal to access the sensor. After cleaning, the sensor seems to stay clean; the dust shield can then be cleaned instead.

The Foveon sensor detects three ranges (R, G, and B) of color at each pixel point. These three values are used to produce one output pixel that contains the appropriate blend of red, green, and blue when processed from the .X3F RAW file. The Foveon sensor eliminates many of the artifacts that come with traditional Bayer color array sensors. There is also a clustering capability with the Foveon sensor to produce larger- and smaller-resolution images by combining detector sites to produce larger and smaller sensor sizes. Lower-resolution images thus may benefit from "fat" pixels. More information is available at the Foveon and Sigma Web sites.

Foveon X3 Direct Image Sensor
    The Foveon X3 Direct Image Sensor and Foveon sensor technology - click on images for details

Camera Performance
Overall, the camera, though large, handles well and shoots what and when you want, as long as you have read the manual and understand the two auto-focus (AF) modes, and as long as the buffer is not full. Some controls and settings are awkward. Unlike many cameras on the market today, the SD10 requires both hands to operate various settings.

Start-up is rapid. From power-on to shutter-firing is less than half a second. The memory card is checked for space before a picture can be taken. I was able to turn on the camera while raising it to my eye and not miss a shot.

The single-sensor auto focus is better than expected. Under certain conditions of marginal contrast, the camera hunted for focus. This seemed to be as much a light-and-lens issue as it did AF capability, with some lenses producing much quicker AF. Attaching a Sigma flash makes this a good performer in a variety of situations. The camera locked onto some 'flat' and concrete surfaces as well as any camera I have used. The two AF modes, single and continuous, operate very much as focus priority and tracking or picture priority, respectively.

Shutter lag is minimal to non-existent. The image called 'Jumping through Hoops' (see sample photos, below) demonstrates a snapshot. This was a quick, unplanned one-time opportunity to catch the dog at the apex of his jump.

Shot-to-shot times depend on resolution and buffer capacity. Continuous shooting and frame-per-second specification seemed poor with this camera until a certain technique came to mind. In the LOW-resolution mode, many more frames at a higher fps can be shot and then Photo Pro can be used to produce a double image. I never really waited on the camera after I adjusted to it. This is still not an action-oriented camera, but with good technique, it will work.

An unusual amount of mirror slap occurred doing macro photography. Investigation disclosed there was an unexpected amount of residual vibration causing blurring in the images. A heavier carbon fiber tripod and using mirror lock-up (MLU) made the problem disappear completely. It is probably a mechanical problem, with not enough damping of the mirror pivot connection to the frame.

Battery life is just OK. Four 2300mAh AA batteries provided about 200 shots under harsh temperature conditions. CRV-3 disposable batteries yielded more than 300 shots prior to low-battery indication. It is a user choice: Use the optional vertical grip/battery pack or just carry extra batteries.

Image Quality
This is where the SD10 performs the best. The SD10 is listed at 10.2 (3.4MP x 3) megapixels. The notation reflects 3.4 megapixels for each of the three colors the sensor detects.

The camera can produce HIGH, MED, and LOW images that translate to resolutions of 2268x1512, 1512x1008, and 1134x756 pixels. As all images are RAW, there are no other in-camera image-quality settings. The HIGH file setting output obviously makes this a 3.4-megapixel camera. Doesn't it? Not exactly. The SD10 records more than 10 megapixels for every high-resolution image (2268x1512) captured in the lossless .X3F RAW file format.

Sigma SD10 - Jumping through HoopsSigma SD10 - hot air baloonSigma SD10 - piper
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.

The Photo Pro Software will output a double-size image from a HIGH-size file that is 13+ megapixels (4536x3024) in size. The sample photo Spirit of Peoria (see below) and the crop from the Double Size (really 4x) image are examples of what is possible. This is an up/resize algorithm of some type and produces a one-step result that is very usable. It would be desirable for Sigma and Photo Pro to provide more documentation on this topic (see photo Spirit of Peoria and crop).

Foveon RAW images have no halos under proper exposure and may look dull or soft. At first glance, the photos straight from the camera can be disappointing, partly because there is no image processing in the camera. In fact, these images can be sharpened to the maximum in Photo Pro, then adjusted and sharpened more with Photoshop or other image editing program! Occasional moire occurs.

Sigma SD10 - Spirit of PreoriaSigma SD10 - Corgi ISO 800Sigma SD10 flower macro
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.

Images derived from the Foveon technology do not exhibit many of the artifacts and problems associated with interpolative Bayer sensor images. Upon magnification, resolution and detail are incredible, but photographically the look is not always the most pleasing. Many photos need an unexpected degree of adjustment to look "right." With a little post-processing, they can be excellent. Some images, like the Piper image (see photo, above), can be printed straight from the camera or displayed with little adjustment.

Noise levels with ISO increases were at first disappointing. This is another area where the lack of in-camera processing can lead to frustration. Color and grain noise show up in some images, but third-party software cleans them up quite well. Quite usable results, up to 800 ISO, were consistently achieved. The 1600 ISO setting is not a good option for anything other than using faster shutter speeds or smaller apertures in specific conditions. Most noise problems occurred shooting in marginal conditions with available light while testing worst-case scenarios (see photo "Corgi ISO 800," above).

There is a definite learning curve with this camera, and frustration is possible even for experienced photographers. Once the post-processing adjustments become integrated into the image-processing workflow, the SD10's output can be printed at much greater size than that of many other current DSLR's because of the 'clean' data.

Software - PhotoPro 2.0
The included companion Photo Pro software addresses the RAW-only image recording of the SD10, and it is more than just a quick-start option.

The software acts as a partner with the SD10 in image production. In the Photo Pro package, the user will find image quality adjustments usually included as in-camera controls in other digital SLRs.

Some third-party vendors are supporting the .X3F RAW files, but with Photo Pro 2.1, other RAW conversion software is not a must-have addition. Photo Pro is a rugged program that runs well on a limited platform (lowest tested was a notebook 1.5 Ghz processor and 256M of memory) and just gets faster with more resources.

The Auto setting in Photo Pro will produce quick output from a shoot. Custom setting creation and storing parameter sets are more than worth the time required. Dynamic range examples demonstrate how much difference a little adjustment can make (see photo, 'Leaves and Sunlight').

Sigma SD10 - water liliesSigma SD10 ISO 800 sample
Two Photo Pro adjustment samples. Click on images for larger versions and details.

Photo Pro in the browser portion has tools for sorting, rotating, preview/thumbnail options, file marking, and output options for color space and image size. There is a magnifier tool for color and pixel examination, a histogram with clipping warnings, and dynamic range control. A separate control panel contains familiar slider controls for exposure, contrast, highlight, shadow, sharpness, saturation, and X3 fill light. This control panel also contains a color wheel control, histogram, and warning range options.

The color wheel, as opposed to slider controls, takes some rethinking to use, and it uses the previously mentioned Color Correction (CC) filter units. The neutral/midtone compensation tool works well but is different from just white/black point compensation. There are extra presets compared to the camera in the white balance menu (for example, Monochrome and Restore-to-original) that provide more presets to get close before fine-tuning. Export file format ranges from reduced size JPEG to 16-bit TIFF files.

The X3 fill light is a post-shot fill flash combined with a highlight-, midtone-, and shadow-balancing tool.

Photo Pro does not contain a crop tool, as the software is for image adjustment, not for editing.

Sigma Photo Pro softwareSigma's PhotoPro software in the Large Thumbnails browser view.
Sigma Photo Pro softwareSigma's PhotoPro software in the Review mode, with the Adjustment Controls window open, to the left.

Note: A separate flash card reader is strongly recommended, as the camera uses the slower USB 1.1 interface. It is quicker to load files to the hard drive directly via a reader or media slot depending on configuration. Trying to load more than few directly from the camera is too slow.

Testing and review of the Sigma SD10 came about because of a need for high definition and detailed documentation capability. As a professional photographer working in some rather unusual, and at times difficult conditions, I was seeking another solution for cost-competitive hardware and decided to look seriously at the Sigma SD10. A specific job opportunity in construction documentation, currently on hiatus, was the original motivation. When the project resumes, this camera will be a good choice. The SD10 is currently being used to build composite images.

Who Should Buy The Sigma SD10
The camera fits a definite niche market where high-detail, low/no-artifact images are required. For photographers who have established a good digital workflow, are willing to spend time processing images, and are prepared for the learning curve, this high-quality image producer is hard to beat for the cost.

Advanced and professional photographers requiring such capability will be satisfied SD10 users. The SD10 control layout and some of its speed limitations do not make this the first choice for a family camera or a sports/action camera.


Sigma SD10 box contents
  Contents of the Sigma SD10 box.

  • SD10 body (with body cap)
  • Removable LCD protector
  • Camera strap
  • Finder cover for long exposures
  • AC adapter
  • USB and firewire cables
  • Video cable
  • SD10 user manual
  • Photo Pro Software CD (electronic manual only)
  • Warranty cards
Note: SD memory card not included

Other Resources:
Sigma SD10 User Reviews >>
Write a Sigma SD10 Review >>
Sigma SD10 Sample Gallery >>
Sigma Web site >>
Foveon Web site >>

Foveon, the stylized "F" logo, X3, and the X3 logo are registered trademarks of Foveon, Inc. Copyright (c) 2002-2005 by Foveon, Inc. Illustrations used with permission.