When Sigma offered me the chance to shoot with the flagship SD1 Merrill DSLR, I jumped on the opportunity to extensively explore the abilities of the Foveon X3 sensor at the heart of the camera. Knowing that my plans involved photographing the natural beauty of the mountainous American West allowed for the selection of several lenses from Sigma’s fine catalog most suited for that purpose – the 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM wide angle, the 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM mid range zoom and the 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM telephoto.
While shooting in the Montana and Wyoming high country known for unpredictable weather, the SD1 Merrill’s excellent build quality, tough magnesium alloy shell and weatherproofing shone through in spite of the rain and snow. The camera handles well and feels comfortable in-hand. With button controls for most significant functions, the SD1M proved intuitive to use. Although the camera does not feature a Live View mode, I rarely use it on other cameras and found the SD1M’s clear, large viewfinder perfect for my photography. All the three lenses I have used provided fast autofocus speeds under demanding conditions.
The Foveon X3 15 x 3 megapixel (effective 46 megapixels) sensor produces images of excellent quality at the low ISOs typically utilized for landscape photography. As you may see in provided examples, the sensor renders minute details exceptionally well, with vivid color and nuanced gradation seen in the RAW captures. Image sharpness is at least on par or better than other high-end DSLRs on the market, aided by lack of an anti-aliasing filter without the susceptibility for moire. Bumping the ISO up to 800 for wildlife photography results in an acceptable amount of noise. My workflow consisted of converting the.x3f RAW files produced by the SD1M utilizing Sigma Photo Pro to TIFF files in order to take advantage of the full dynamic range captured by the camera. Final finishing touches were applied in Adobe Lightroom.
One of my favorite images from my adventures with the SD1M is entitled, “What Dreams May Come.” Triple Falls is a hidden location among the alpine meadows dubbed the Hanging Gardens in Logan Pass, Glacier National Park, Montana. This stunning waterfall is also known as Double or Quadruple Falls depending on the number of streams joining the Reynolds Creek as it flows towards lower elevations, often a reflection of how much snow has melted. The landscape master Galen Rowell was among the first to photograph it, instantaneously elevating the site to an iconic status.
After seeing the waterfall in multiple publications over the years, I made the experience of finding the Triple Falls my number one priority on my trip to Glacier. Most importantly, I wanted to capture it in a way that hasn’t been done before and provide my own interpretation of this magical place. Having scouted the location the day before, I awoke well before 4 AM to drive up to Logan Pass. A nearly full moon, red in color perhaps due to the numerous wildfires around the area, lit the way as I carefully treaded along the slippery downstream portion of the creek so as to not disturb the fragile alpine ecosystem and beautiful wildflowers. This was no easy task in darkness, especially in grizzly country when every fir and bush seemed to adopt the silhouette of a bear.
When I arrived, I noted that the moon imparted a subtle glow to the rocks around the bustling waterfall, with these mysterious hues well captured in the final image. I set up my tripod low on the very edge of the rock above the waterfall and used the 8-16mm lens to bring the viewer into the scene. I made several exposures for the water, sky and moon, which were later manually blended in Photoshop. I loved the way the Foveon X3 censor rendered even the most minute details in relatively low light.
Logan Pass proved to be my favorite location in the Glacier. After hiking out to shoot the sunset the previous afternoon, my plans changed when I spotted a herd of bighorn sheep. It took a couple of hours of following them until I was able to get a shot that I really liked with the alpha male looking right into the camera with soft, warm light falling on these majestic animals as well as the trees and rocks in the frame. I used the 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM telephoto with the SD1M in burst mode to get the shot. I had this wonderful lens handy several months later when I unexpectedly saw a cinnamon bear cub along Moose Wilson Road in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. This yearling was seemingly unconcerned about coming close to the road, so the reach of the lens was useful in keeping my distance as I was unsure whether a sow was nearby. The cub was moving very quickly in his pursuit of wild berries, so I bumped the ISO to 400 and opened up the aperture to f/4.5 for a shutter speed of 1/250 sec.
On my last morning in the Tetons, I hiked out from Schwabachers Landing well before dawn from to photograph the sunrise on the magnificent mountain range. Even though it was only early October, the temperatures had dropped to 17 degrees Fahrenheit. As the crowds of photographers gathered to shoot the sunrise at the beaver pond, I opted to follow the Snake River upstream for a different view. Soon, I found myself all alone as the first rays of the sun warmed the peaks of the Cathedral Group. I used the 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM with a circular polarizer to emphasize the golden reflections of the mountains as well as aspens and cottonwoods dressed in beautiful autumn colors in the partially frozen waters of the Snake River. I really love the way the small rocks in the drying river bed, seen on the left of the photograph entitled “Golden Teton Sunrise,” add to the depth of the image and lead the eye towards the background.
The lenses I had the privilege of using performed fantastically. The 8-16mm F4.5-5.6 DC HSM wide angle proved perfect for taking in the full breadth of a landscape while preserving fine detail. I really appreciated the 24-70mm F2.8 IF EX DG HSM mid range zoom for its incredible low weight while maintaining versatility and sharpness in all four corners, making it my lens of choice for long hikes. My favorite lens, however, was the 120-300mm F2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM telephoto. With the help of optical stabilization and constant wide aperture throughout the zoom range, I was amazed at the number of razor-sharp images I was able to capture while shooting highly mobile animals such as bears, elk, bighorn sheep, buffalo and moose, just to name a few.
Accompanied by the great lineup of Sigma lenses, the Sigma SD1 Merrill is an excellent DSLR for the nature photographer that has earned its place in my camera bag while helping me add some “keepers” to my portfolio. I am pleased with the stellar detail, lifelike color rendition and superb sharpness that is evident in the images I brought back from the American West and look forward to witnessing further evolution of Sigma’s flagship DSLR in the years to come.
Alex Filatov is an internationally published professional nature and city fine art photographer. More of his work may be found on his website.