Eric L. Woods

Bought an Art lens and it came with a camera: SIGMA sd Quattro – 30mm f/1.4 Art Part 5 – Foveon vs. Film vs. Bayer

Scroll down to content

Disclaimer: For practical and general purposes a Bayer sensor is superior to a Foveon sensor. If that is what you are after read no further. This post leans into the impractical elements of photography. The subjective over the objective. Sane, rational folks would be none the wiser, those lucky souls. Perhaps Foveon would be a more practical option with others investing in the technology, but that is where things stand. In that regard it is the Wankel rotor to the traditional piston internal combustion engine. One blows oil and the other suffers image quality issues above the base ISO and does not do video. But where the question is what sensor creates the superior image functional limitations aside the Foveon sensor is superior. So much so that it has weathered two (here and here) direct comparisons between it and favorite film stock and film cameras. So this is a comparison of all three. Foveon, film, and Bayer. On to the preamble.

This post starts as a cut and paste of another recent post where I started deviating from the task at hand. Here I will follow the diverging path.

I mentioned in a recent post that the SIGMA sd Quattro proved to be a surprisingly good tool for night time black and white photography where there is some light available. Pitch black is a non starter.

SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4 Art

In all honesty given the amount of flack this camera gets for it’s poor low light performance I was surprised it did this well with minimal light. With black and white only however. It is a color shifting train wreck otherwise. This camera is a poor performer with color using ISOs above 800 or in low light, but I find it to be fantastic for black and white in all but in the darkest of conditions.

Sigma dp2 Quattro

I would even say that it performs better so far than any black and white camera I own digital (emulated) or film. Especially with a bright f/1.4 aperture lens where low light is concerned.

SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4

As a result this camera is more flexible than I thought it would be.

Mainly because I had been viewing this camera through the lens of my modern digital camera expectations.

But I regularly shoot film while out and about. Most often I will use 400 speed film. Not suitable for all environments, but that does not stop me from shooting it in every environment.

Leica M3
Leica M3

That is the fun part for me. Film would be my preference on any given day all things being equal. But the backlog of film rolls requiring developing and scanning I would create if I only shot film would be tremendous. So while digital is usually my choice when I just want to get the shot film is what I would prefer.

Have read summaries comparing the Foveon sensor’s layered design to film’s use of emulsion layers. From the wikipedia corner of the internets:

In color films, each emulsion layer has a different color dye forming coupler: in the blue sensitive layer, the coupler forms a yellow dye; in the green sensitive layer the coupler forms a magenta dye, and in the red sensitive layer the coupler forms a cyan dye. 

That sounds a heck of a lot like what SIGMA is looking to achieve with the Foveon sensor on the left below.

So taking this into consideration what I have on my hands is not a less capable digital camera but a more capable film-ish camera.

Below I will compare black and white images first and then color images. For both I will show samples of Bayer sensor, film, and lastly Foveon with thoughts shared throughout.

Black and White Samples

Bayer (Various Brands)

Random NJ
NYC
Rokinon/Samyang 45mm f/1.8
Rokinon/Samyang 45mm f/1.8
SMC Pentax-FA 28mm F2.8 AL
SMC Pentax-FA 28mm F2.8 AL
Pentax HD Pentax-FA 35mm f/2

Thoughts

  • The images are fine. Perfectly fine. But…
  • A bit… soulless. Characterless? Harsh? Perhaps, but even though I find it hard to quantify it is real.
  • The blacks and whites skew to the extreme and lack a bit of subtlety for me.
  • I scoffed initially, but Leica is onto something with this whole monochrome only sensor thing.
  • Black and white JPEGs limit your ability to edit them and RAW files are rendered in color requiring black and white conversion or a hard swipe at the saturation slider. Seems counterintuitive when shooting black and white. The Foveon sensor has a better way of dealing with this that I will mention below.
  • Shades of gray and black are not rendered like black and white…

FIlm

Konica C35 AF2 - Rollei RPX 400
Contax T2 - Rollei RPX 400 - Cinestill Df96 Monobath
Contax T2 - Rollei RPX 400 - Cinestill Df96 Monobath
Hasselblad 501c - Rollei RPX 400
Rollei RPX400 w/ Contax G1
Rollei RPX400 w/ Contax G1
Leica M3 w/ Voigtlander Nokton 50mm f/1.5 and Ilford XP2

Thoughts

  • That is more like it. All the tones. The lovely tones.
  • Blacks are… subtle?
  • So many lovely shades of gray.
  • Sharp, but there is a glow… A warmth?
  • For these reasons film was always preferred for black and white until…

Foveon

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4 Art
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4

Thoughts

  • Honestly? My first thought was what manner of sorcery is this when I saw the first image above.
  • Cut and paste from film section above:
    • All the tones. The lovely tones.
    • Blacks are… subtle?
    • So many lovely shades of gray.
    • Sharp, but there is a glow… A warmth?
  • In my opinion every bit as good as my favorite film tonally and cleaner.
  • How? That is my only question. My guess-timation theory? Perhaps it captures detail on the top layer? I do not know, but one thing I like is that…
  • It commits. Set the camera to DNG RAW in black and white and you get a black and white RAW file. Nice. You lose the color RAW safety net, but in my experience it gives you a much better file to edit.
  • And lastly the files themselves require far fewer adjustments than any files I have ever edited before from a Bayer sensor JPEG or RAW.
  • Unlike color this sensor is much more forgiving in low light with black and white. The shop window shot above was taken after dark and the camera shop shots above did not have strong lighting. In short where color would fall apart with the Foveon black and white hangs in there, with a caveat. The faster 30mm f/1.4 is a must. When night falls I would likely just put the dp2 away due to its f/2.8 aperture. Makes a big difference in practical use.

Color Samples

Preface: Where you can push the Foveon sensor in low light situations with black and white, good lighting is a requirement with color. Where I would push black and white to 1600 I would really go no further than 400 or maybe 800 with color. As I have stated above this is not an issue for me since I regularly use 400 speed film in low light, but if you are looking for some of the low light hand held antics possible with some Bayer sensors on the market there shall be no such shenanigans here. That being said…

Bayer (Various Brands)

Pentax 50mm F/1.4
Pentax 50mm F/1.4
Pentax HD Pentax-FA 35mm f/2
GORDON PARKS PHOTOGRAPHERS COLLECTIVE HARLEM AND SOHO-VILLAGE PHOTO WALK
GORDON PARKS PHOTOGRAPHERS COLLECTIVE HARLEM AND SOHO-VILLAGE PHOTO WALK
Rokinon/Samyang 45mm F1.8 Auto Focus Compact Full Frame Lens
Rokinon/Samyang 45mm f/1.8 FE
Samyang/Rokinon FE AF 45mm f/1.8

Thoughts

  • Again. The images are fine. Perfectly fine.
  • Color fares better than black and white soul wise. In isolation it does just fine.
  • Not sure how to describe it, but there is a lack of warmth when I look at these images where film can be both vibrant and subtle at the same time.
  • A stated previously, a sensible compromise for the sake of convenience. Good enough.

Film

Contax 137 MA Quartz
Film - 20200101 Durham Photo Walk - Lomography 400
Film - 20200101 Durham Photo Walk
Koni-Omega Rapid
Yashica Mat LM - Lomography 800
16 of 16 - Provia 100F w/ Pentax 645N
Contax T2 w/ Fuji Provia 100F
Contax G2 w/ Agfa Vista 200

Thoughts

  • Lovely. Just lovely.
  • That is about it.

Foveon

Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
Sigma dp2 Quattro
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4
SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4

Thoughts

  • The look of film I prefer if not better.
  • If I am willing to accept the ISO limitations of film to get the look I am definitely willing to do the same for a Foveon sensor that removes the back end work and provides a cleaner image.
  • The first image above of the Chevy Blazer was my first indication that this sensor was something special. The warmth and tones are just lovely and render what could be considered a mundane scene beautiful to me.
  • Very true to life.
  • The DNG files require less work than any digital camera files I have ever worked with before. Almost no post edit work is needed.

Bottom line?

I am happy to adjust for the Foveon sensor’s limitations given the images that it can produce.

Yes, I am still going to use Bayer sensors, of course. I am also still going to shoot film. There is something therapeutic about shooting film and the post processing routine that I enjoy. But for my every day image capturing that used to be split between Bayer cameras and film? That role has now been filled by SIGMA Quattro cameras. For me they are the best of both worlds.

SIGMA sd Quattro - 30mm f/1.4
%d bloggers like this: