The Sigma Foveon Cameras
Since the year 2000, Sigma Corporation and Foveon have worked together to build very unique digital cameras. Foveon developed the sensors that Sigma used in their digital cameras. What made the Foveon sensors unique was that they employed a three-layer design. The sensors would be stacked such that each individual pixel location would receive all three primary colors. This sensor design would lead to increased sharpness, fewer image artifacts, and brilliant color rendition. In 2008, Sigma acquired Foveon and continued to use their sensor design in their cameras.
Over the years, Sigma has produced many different camera bodies using the Foveon sensor design. From small, compact cameras such as the DP0, DP1, DP2, and DP3 with APS-C sized sensors, to the bigger and more robust sd1 Merrill and sd Quattro series. The Quattro-H is the current flagship of the Foveon sensor wonders. It sports an APS-H sized sensor with a resolution that is equivalent to a standard Bayer sensor of 51mp.
Why Aren't Sigma Foveon Cameras Everywhere?
Being able to tout increased sharpness, high resolution, and outstanding color accuracy would make it seem like everyone would be shooting with a Foveon sensor camera. So what gives? Why aren't all of the landscape and portrait photographers of the world shooting with them? Well, there are some downsides to Foveon sensor technology.
Partially due to light having to penetrate all of the different layers of a Foveon sensor, they struggle with high ISO performance when compared to a Bayer array sensor. The word online is that the Sigma cameras function well up to about 400-800 ISO before noise becomes a deal-breaker to most users.
Another potential reason for the Sigma Foveon cameras being placed into a niche category is probably the lens mount. Up until now, the interchangeable lens Sigma cameras have all used the proprietary Sigma SA mount. For a camera that doesn't do video, struggles in high ISO situations, and isn't wildly popular, having to purchase lenses in a mount that won't fit any other cameras can be a difficult sell.
These cameras also won't be winning any sports photography awards. The mirrorless Quattro-H flagship camera features a whopping 9 Autofocus points. Although it does have a face detection mode, these are certainly not going head to head with a Sony.
Why a New Foveon Then?
Despite the negatives laid out above, there are many of us who would love to see a full-framed Foveon camera coming from Sigma. The Quattro-H was released in early 2017, and technology in the camera world has advanced a lot in those two short years. Cameras are getting better and better at higher and higher ISO's. Autofocus performance has improved leaps and bounds in the mirrorless world. Sigma has even launched a new mount in cooperation with Leica and Panasonic.
A full-frame sized Foveon sensor would perhaps have better high ISO performance than the current breed of Sigma cameras. Between the larger individual pixels and the improvements in processing technology, a new Foveon camera could be slightly more versatile. Perhaps remaining usable up until 1600 ISO or so.
Combining new improvements to technology with a larger format Foveon sensor could make for an excellent landscape or portrait platform. Foveon color reproduction is something to behold. A larger sensor with their tech could potentially yield somewhere in excess of a 70mp equivalent resolution. The detail and clarity of well shot photos on Foveon sensors certainly stands out. While it's likely that a new Foveon camera would remain a bit of a niche camera, my next point makes this much more palatable.
It's hard to be certain what technologies Sigma, Leica, and Panasonic share outside of the L-mount, but it is certainly exciting to speculate what that could mean for the next Foveon camera. There will certainly be excellent lenses that could be shared with something like a Panasonic S1. Being able to have a camera like an S1 or S1H for hybrid work and a new Foveon camera for absolute image quality in stills without multiple lens sets would be amazing. I don't expect that Sigma would be drastically improving the autofocus on such a camera, but it is interesting to question what all may come from the L-mount partnership outside of lenses.
Is a Full-Frame Foveon coming?
While I wish I could say that I have some super-secret insider knowledge of this, I don't. I can only speculate on the matter of a new Foveon camera from Sigma. I would have to say that the odds look good to me. Sigma seems to never have expected their cameras to be setting sales records, and that's okay with me. The new L-mount would make it a pretty normal camera to develop, as there would be no need to R&D new lenses beyond what is already in the works. Sigma recently introduced their video-centric FP camera, which is also encouraging. They would then have an excellent stills camera to go alongside what is promising to be a neat little modular video machine.
So will there be a new Sigma Foveon full-frame camera? I don't know, but I sure hope so! I'd love to get my hands on one and go shoot some landscape and portrait work with it if/when they do.