Squeezing the maximum joy out of a Sigma fp when out "street shooting."

Damn good looking hat. Just so chic.

If you've read the blog for a while you probably know that I bought a Sigma fp very early in 2020 and have used it on and off since then. To date I have racked up about 14,000 frames. That doesn't seem like a lot over the course of 2.8 years but you have to take into consideration that I mostly use the Leica SL2 and a couple of SLs for my primary business cameras. They are the ones that rack up the frame counts. The Sigma is one of those eccentric "art" cameras that makes no sense to purchase but once purchased digs its hooks into you with wonderfully different looking files and its overwhelming difference from most other full frame cameras on the market. There are a number of video features that one could use to bolster a capricious and impulsive purchase but for me the singular look of it (design aesthetic), coupled with the really wonderful images it can produce are arguments enough to drop about $1500 for the cameras. If you want to get all logical about your purchase you could also mention that the sensor is one of the standout stars of high ISO performance. It's at least as good as the ones in the Lumix S5 or the Leica SL2-S in that regard. 

Over the last week my friend, Michael Johnston has been using an fp that's been modified to shoot only black and white and he's found that, much to his surprise, he loves the way the camera handles, thinks the layout of the menus makes sense and has even found peace with the big chimney finder loupe that substitutes for an EVF. A few comments left on some of his recent Sigma fp posts have criticized the handling of the camera and, of course, I disagree with that. I think it handles well. 

After reading one such comment I decided this afternoon to take the fp and one lens out with me to try and understand just what is behind the handling complaints. I seem to mould myself to most cameras pretty quickly and get along with their interfaces without much angsty-ness but today I tried to ignore my own sense of "camera comfort" and  to look through the lens as if for the first time. And at the end I have some suggestions for getting the most fun out of the camera.

I have to say that what draws me to the fp and its ecosystem is precisely what most people dislike. In its barest form it's just a brick. There's no grip. There's no practical EVF finder. And in that form it's not the most comfortable camera to hold. The AF is basic contrast detect so it's a bit slower than a camera with PDAF and won't do wondrous and heroic focus tracking. In fact, in my experience it's like a sullen teenager when asked to follow something moving through the frame. But really, it's not a camera for someone who wants a "do everything" camera that's complete and ready to go right out of the box. I am pleased by the fact that in S-AF it focuses with great accuracy and as quickly as I ever need it.

The things I like about the camera are: Its solid build. It's effective cooling system. It's use of the L mount for lenses. That its raw files are .DNG. That it has a wonderful array of image profiles. But mostly that it's a small, small brick that is uniquely customizable. I find its operation straightforward and its menus logical, although with each firmware update more and more subsets are added to the original menu; but I guess it's incumbent on us to either keep up with or to ignore the firmware updates altogether. 

If you are a hybrid shooter who dabbles in both video and still photography there are other advantages to this camera but I'm just concentrating here on using it as a still photographer's tool so I'll ignore the ability to shoot raw video, etc. 

If you are willing to use a tripod with this camera you might have a fun time experimenting with the lower ISO settings. All the settings under ISO 100 are more or less computational. You can select, in third EV increments, ISOs all the way down to 6 (six) but the way these settings work is by shooting and combining multiple frames. The camera takes full advantage of its electronic shutter in a couple ways like this. But you'll have to be comfortable on a tripod to take advantage of the things on offer. The benefit of the lower ISO settings is discernible in the areas of lower noise and increased dynamic range. Plus, they allow a photographer to use wider apertures on fast lenses without having to remember to bring along a neutral density filter. At ISO 6 it's darn easy to use something like your Noctilux lens at its most extreme aperture outside in strong light. And the files will look better than you can imagine if you've been shooting with less capable systems. 

Granted, if there's anything that moves in the frame you're pretty much out of luck....unless you can convince your friends or clients that you did that weird ass artifact thing intentionally; as art. 

When I bought the camera I had a long history of disparaging the affectation showcased by several serious photographers using the "Manny Ortiz" shooting style. Watch one of his videos on YouTube. He holds his camera vertically with one hand, far away from his face, and composes and shoots by watching the screen on the back. I think he's a pretty decent photographer but damn....that hold and that willful disregard for using the EVF on his cameras drives me a bit nuts. So as soon as I bought the fp I ordered the big chimney finder that fits on the back of the camera and makes the LCD traditionally usable as a faux EVF. But, I guess it is actually an EVF since the images shown are electronic and the loupe and screen together are a "view finder." 

Of course, just like my recent foray into retail to buy a refrigerator, the Sigma LVF-11 was backordered for months. I cobbled some Hoodman Loupes onto the camera to make do but I was very happy when the Sigma product arrived. I tried the "Manny Ortiz" viewing method before the chimney finder arrived but I felt like such a fraud when doing so. Works for Manny but it just feels wrong for a photographer of my generation. Reverse ageism rears its ugly head. 

The nice thing about the Sigma hood is that all the buttons and controls on the camera are still accessible and having the hood on the camera short circuits the ill-considered urge to use the touch screen. Yes, I mostly dislike touchscreens as well. Nose-to-screen intersections have a nasty way of changing focusing points and other stuff which slows down the process of actually taking photographs. You know.....the reason we have the cameras. 

When I went out today I tried to make the experience as efficient as possible. I decided to forgo using a strap on the camera because when I do the camera always hangs down in an odd fashion and looks and feels clumsy. Instead I used a small Osprey bag that I've recruited into service as a small camera bag. I lengthened the strap so I could use the seemingly popular, "across the chest" method of carrying it. Into the bag I tossed, in the main, central pocket, the camera festooned with the big finder and a small, 90mm f2.8 Sigma lens. The Contemporary i-Series. 

A quick aside about the lens. It's magnificent. Super sharp. Contrasty. And it's all these things while wide open. Stop it down and it's on par with the Leica 90mm f2.0 APO Summicron I borrowed. And it's small, lightweight and .... small. The one thing is does which the Leica lens doesn't is vignetting when shot wide open and at f4.0. It's optical and not mechanical so it's easily remedied in post processing but I thought to mention it in case someone does the same comparison and would be aghast at my lack of thoroughness. 

That lens, or the 24mm f3.5 or the 45mm f2.8 Sigmas are all wonderful lenses and all of them are small and light. They are, to my mind, the perfect companions for the diminutive fp body and help to offset the added bulk of the LVF-11 hood. 

Here's how to squeeze some joy from this camera:

Buy and use the LVF-11 hood. Putting the hood on the camera turns it into an eye-level camera and that's something most of us are familiar with and happy to shoot with. The rear screen on the camera is bright, sharp and about 2 megapixels of resolution which, when spread across 3+ inches and magnified by the loupe gives you a great image on which to focus and compose. It's a really nice look. And immersive. 

Use a small and light shoulder bag instead of a strap. I like to be ready to shoot at a moment's notice so I didn't keep the camera in the bag. Instead I held it in my right hand for almost all of my walk. With the small 90mm lens on it the weight isn't a burden. Get a wrist strap if you must. After two hours of walking and camera use no cramping or pain ensued. The shoulder bag is for times when you know you won't be using the camera and want to give yourself a break. Or when you go into your favorite coffee shop and need hands free to order and hold your magic liquid of supreme happiness. During that process the camera can ride along comfortably until you are ready to re-engage with photography and disengage from coffee swilling. 

The bag is also useful for carrying extra batteries, one's wallet and phone, a big, wicked Kabar lock-blade pocket knife, some hand sanitizer, an extra face mask and a copy of that book of Wallace Stevens poetry you've been promising yourself you'd read....

I recently decided I would like using a small shoulder bag when I got caught out in our first big, long rain of the year and I was at the furthest point of my walk from the safely and waterproof comfort of my car. On that day I made due with a trusty bucket hat as a protective shield for my camera and lens but now...the bag has resurfaced as a practical precaution. 

On the fp it's important for you to discover or remember that you've got to customize the camera for your own hands. It's really important. Early on I tried to make do with the Smallrig video cage that's made for the camera but it was too unwieldy and made access to the top plate switches difficult. I eventually bought the Sigma combined hand grip and bottom plate and loved the accessory. The Sigma HG-21 is about $100. Just 1/3 the price of a single Leica SL2 battery... And it makes the fp a pleasure to hold and to shoot.

When I shoot on the street I like to use the camera in aperture priority and with auto-ISO. In this set up the aperture is set on the lens while the exposure compensation is set with the rear dial on the camera. Easy to remember and easy as pie to use. If you are shooting with a manual focus lens and you'd like focus magnification all you have to do is push the button that's right in the middle of the rear dial. It stays in magnification mode until you press the button again. You can couple that with focus peaking if you'd like. 

It's as straight forward as using an old film camera once you've set it up the way you'd like it. Now you just bring the camera up to your eye, press the shutter button half way down to wake the camera from its power saving mode, half press the shutter button to enable focusing and then push all the way down to take the photo. Pretty darn easy. Need to make the image lighter or darker? The rear dial is your friend. 

There's a quick menu with a dedicated button on the back of the camera for rapid modifications to the system. And if you want to dive in and take advantage of all the Jpeg functionality (highlight and shadow curve modifications, HDR, slower ISOs, etc.) you have also have lots of controls in the menu. 

The way I use the camera is almost like a point and shoot camera but the files are leagues better. 

There are one or two downsides to the camera. It always uses an electronic shutter. There is no mechanical shutter. This means that working with electronic flash is just pretty much off the table. Unless you want to work at 1/30th of a second and longer sync times with Jpeg files or 1/15th of a second with .DNG files. You might also encounter rolling shutter (jello wobble) if you pan the camera aggressively while shooting. But really, this is a different camera than one of the more pedestrian "do everything" cameras. If you need to use flash a lot you should think of this camera as your non-flash camera and alternately buy and use a more traditional, flash friendly system for those times when the limitations of this camera get in the way. 

For a person who wants to use all kinds of features and only wants one single, solitary, lonely, isolated, Swiss Army Knife camera for all time, this is not the one to choose. But if you crave a different approach from most other photographers and can swing this camera as a secondary camera it's pretty wonderful. I guess the best case scenario would be for someone who already owns and uses a more full featured L mount system camera like a Leica SL(x) or Panasonic S1 series, or S5 camera. The fp might make sense; or at least assuage your need for some diversity in your tool kit by adding it as a secondary or back up unit. 

The only other caveat that affects me about the fp is the battery life. It's fine. But not fine enough. I want a battery that lasts for at least half a day. When I shoot with the fp I carry a couple of extras. And that's fine. They are pretty small and light themselves. A bonus is that generics are available for about $20 each while a very good Sigma branded battery can be had for around $40 each. A bargain. 

The camera, even with the hood attached is smaller than it looks in most photographs. Sigma should have more images on their website of people actually holding the camera to give a better indication of its actual size. And while numbers are okay I understand it better if someone tells me: "This camera with a small lens weighs less than half of what your SL2 does without any lens at all on it..." 

Buy the camera. Don't buy the camera. But resist buying into the inaccurate orthodoxy that it is somehow awkward or difficult to use for daily shooting, street shooting or video creation. It's not. It's like most other well designed cameras --- you have to use it for a couple of days or weeks to train your hands and their muscle memory to a new camera configuration. Once you do that it makes conventional photography with the fp as easy as swimming a slow 50 yard freestyle. Here are some photos from the hour or so I took out of the day to do some walking and photographing. I'd say my camera was different than all of the other cameras out on the main street today but mine was the only ONLY real camera out there. The other choices were phone cam or none. Sad times for photography. Happy times for a Sigma fp user. 

yummy diagonals.

handles reds beautifully and look at all the detail in the cloth around the neckline.
Sharpness galore.

The Michael Johnston Effect...

Verticals and horizontals equally easy.
f2.8. Background tree bokeh syndrome.

How good is the high ISO in this camera/
This photograph was taken in a dark living room 
at ISO 10,000.  I'm still looking for the noise.....

Nice Birks