I personally dont like any description of a camera as entry level, intermediate, or professional. It is an instinctive reaction to what what always sounds like marketing hyperbole to me. I don't judge anyone by their progress along some nebulous upgrade path. I judge on their results. I have printed extremely large panoramic prints from a 12 megapixel Olympus Pen. If I stitch 6 images I probably have a 50 megapixel image anyway. A camera is just a tool. If you use it carefully it can almost always produce really good results. I have seen absolutely wonderful black and white pictures reproduced in Lenswork magazine my friend John shared with me of ice formations taken with an Iphone. The marketing hyperbole would have you believe that a massive DSLR is the perfect tool no matter what the task. What would you choose if you do a lot of bushwalking like me good set of boots or a ball and chain? For me personally a good pair of walking boots is a much better choice than a ball and chain for bush walking. I dont want to drag any extra weight. I also would prefer to have a backpack as light as possible than carry something the weight of a sack of rocks. I bought an Olympus OMD to carry in my rucksack for that very reason. It has its limitations but it also has it's strengths. It's resistance to the salty damp winds coastal environments is a huge strength.
Knowledge and practice make better images than knowledge of gear. Having something to say with your pictures is about a hundred times more important than knowledge of gear, and even of knowledge and practice. A 45 dollar tripod can make more difference to the image you create than a thousand dollar upgrade. So can the use of the inbuilt timer. But having a reason to go and take your photographs is the single most important thing you need to carry with you when you venture out each day. Without that reason you will be forever stuck trying to make technically perfect images of what? Something you saw someone else do? Why? Knowledge and practice are far more inportant than knowledge of gear, but having a motivation a real motivation is the most important thing to take with you every day.
If you are reading this you probably know or have been interested in the Sigma range of cameras. You may also know the general consensus from the collective reviews and reviewers is that they have great image quality, but are a little bit difficult to use. After several hundred images,(which isn't a lot I know) I would like to share some thoughts about using these cameras.
Everything that glowing reviewers have said about image quality is true. The raw images are incredibly finely detailed. Converting them to 16 bit tiffs for further editing is much easier than all the moaning and groaning that has gone on about Sigma's raw software would suggest. In fact it is easy. The files are quite large, about 44 megs each so you have to expect some computing time. Treat the process like dealing with the highly knowledgeable but slightly surly and slightly argumentative worker who knows exactly what has to be done to get a first rate result and doesn't like to cut corners. You will get on fine with the Merrill and it's workflow if you do.
Making adjustments to individual raw files isn't very hard, and while not blindlingly fast what creative decision did you ever make at hyper speed? The image above required the highlights to be tamed, shadows reduced slightly and overall exposure brought back a touch. It would have taken me less than a minute. Working out what to do took me overnight thinking about it. The thinking after all, is the important part of the process. Perhaps it was me but the software seemed to open and edit images more quickly after the folder itself had been accessed a few times. The software lacks an adjustment brush like Lightroom or ACR or even Helicon 6, but usually if you have to go poking around fixing stuff like that your image wasn't that great to start with. As a side point Helicon 6 did not open Merrill files for me as others have said, but it did open and edit Quattro files.
Using the camera.
I always use a tripod. I have used the Merrill handheld and the results have been good, but with no image stabilisation they will definitely be better using a tripod. Because I walk a lot to get my pictures I use a light tripod fully extended when I walk and use it as my "other walking stick" in rough terrain. Because you dont have to get it out to use it, it no longer is such a pain to use. I set the timer to 2 seconds. The lack of a viewfinder for me is a problem. Even on a tripod it denies me that last little increment of confidence when composing your picture. The screen itself however is as good or better than my OMD EM5. I have a Hoodman loupe on order so hopefully that will provide me with a viewfinder solution. I really like the way the buttons and controls are laid out, and they way they work. I dont really like the lack of over or under exposure warnings apart from the histogram, which for me trying to avoid burnt out highlights. Finding out an image is over or under exposed after you have taken it isn't ideal.
For landscape work the few seconds it takes the camera to process the images can be used to check your boots for leeches, or spiders or work out your next shot, or race off a few facebook updates...cough. I originally bought the camera because of their supposed ability to produce large prints, and of course because of the image quality, which so far silkily satisfying. I havent printed anything yet but from what I have experienced so far I have no doubt they results will be exactly as promised.