The Nikon D600 review: full frame for the masses?

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Some cameras launch with a huge amount of anticipation and fanfare, some are surprises from far left field, and some are simply such poorly kept secrets that the manufacturer might as well just have skipped the announcement. Although the Nikon D600 falls squarely into the last category, I think photographers in the world were pleased when it finally broke official cover. The camera itself breaks almost zero new ground technically – it doesn’t push boundaries in any way. Not quite what you expected me to say in the first paragraph, I bet. This is not to say that it’s a bad camera; far, far from it.

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Smaller than the D800, but you’ve got to put them side by side to see it. Subjectively, it’s lighter but you don’t really notice in use; it feels about the same weight because the square handgrip design requires you to exert more pinky pressure, which makes the whole thing feel a bit heavier than it is…

I think two questions were on the mind of the Nikon enthusiasts and pros after the launch of the D800 (full review here) and D800E (which curiously, I’ve never actually reviewed): firstly, was this the D700 replacement, and why the enormous resolution? The D800 snuck in at the same price point as the D700 back in 2008; subsequent erosion of the D700 saw prices fall to the US$2200 level or thereabouts, at least for street prices in this part of the world. The older model continued in the lineup together with the higher spec (and higher priced) D800 pair. At this point, however, the technology inside the D700 was five years old – an age in the digital world, and possibly the oldest sensor architecture still purchasable new (with the exception of the Leica M9, whose photosite design was inherited from the 2006 M8).

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Awaiting departure. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

The D700 and D3 were turning points in Nikon’s history: first full frame, and first time in recent memory the noise advantage shifted decisively away from Canon. Even today, the D700 remains an excellent camera – mine has over 70,000 frames under its belt and hasn’t missed a beat. I still use it on reportage assignments or where the client doesn’t require 36MP and the associated enormous files. (My long term review of the D700 is here.) This review will be written from the point of view of a long-term D700 (100,000+ frames on two bodies) and D800E (20,000 frames between the D800 and D800E) user, with comparisons and references to both.

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Man in blue. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

Over the last few months, I’ve received no end of emails from prospective upgraders asking if the D800 was the camera for them; my answer is a resounding no. If you need the level of image quality this camera can deliver, you’ll know it, and you won’t need to ask me. If you don’t, and you buy it, you might be surprised that it doesn’t quite deliver the same pixel-level crispness as the D700 or D3. It’s an excellent machine, supplanting low-end medium format gear, but it also requires the rest of the support (lenses, processing workflow) to go along with it.

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Car lust. I make no secret of the fact that I’m a huge BMW fan. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

Note: this review, as with all of my other camera reviews, is written from the point of a working professional. Images are edited through my usual Photoshop workflow as this is how I’ll be using the camera normally; I don’t shoot JPEG SOOC other than for client previews. For those who think it skews results, Photoshop benefits all images equally: it can make a great shot even better, but it can’t fix something that should have been there at the time of capture. EXIF data is intact and can be viewed by clicking through the image to its Flickr hosting page.

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Rain = traffic, Kuala Lumpur. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

Enter the D600. I think it’s best described as a hybrid of the D7000 and D800; it inherits the feel, construction, AF system and controls of the former, with most of the innards of the latter. It falls between the two in size, too, but it closer to the D7000 in ergonomics and weight. It also has a similar shutter/ mirror feel to the D7000 – well damped, and much quieter than D700 or D800, but is limited to 1/4000s instead of 1/8000s. Mirror blackout feels about the same as the D7000, which is still excellent. You won’t notice shutter lag with any of these cameras, which are all in the 40-50ms range. All three share the same EN-EL15 battery. The rest of the spec falls squarely in the middle, too: 24MP, 5.5fps (no boost with the optional EN-EL14 battery grip, and no provision for taking the larger/ higher capacity battery from the D4); 1080p30 or 720p60 video, native ISO range from 100-6400 with extension to 50 or 25.6k.

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Selat Mosque, Malacca. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

It uses the same EXPEED 3 processor as the D800, which means shunting around those largish 14bit files with relative abandon; the 14-bit lossless compressed RAW buffer is 10 frames. (Despite the files being smaller, it doesn’t feel any faster, though.) You also get a 100% finder with 0.7x magnification, but not the round eyepiece or eyepiece shutter; it’ll take the DK21M magnifier, and has a reasonably high eyepoint – I can see the whole frame just fine with my glasses. Sadly, the focusing screen has become even less snappy than the D800; it’s nearly impossible to use for manual focus without the focus assist dot. Fortunately, live view works the same way as on the D800, with a button to enable it surrounded by the still/ movie mode switch. It’s also inherited the record button placed behind the shutter, and the slightly difficult to reach second button – except now it controls metering mode, with exposure modes placed on a lockable dial – together with the fully customizeable U1 and U2 memory positions from the D7000. You also get IR remote receiver ports on the front and the back in lieu of the 10-pin connector on the front, which neither the D700 nor D800 have.

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Pick’n’mix for grown ups. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

It definitely doesn’t feel as solid or dense as the D800, let alone the D700; but if you haven’t handled either, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. Nikon claims a magnesium-alloy top panel, polycarbonate bottom section and magnesium frame, although the only way you’ll really be able to tell you paid a bit less is the feel of the rubber grips – it’s definitely D7000 semi-slippery and not D800/ D700 sticky. I personally don’t find the shape that comfortable either; it’s too square around the bottom portion where you little finger rests. The body has environmental seals to about the same level as the D7000; the gaskets don’t look as robust as those on the D700 or D800, and certainly not the D4. Curiously, I don’t feel either the D600 or D800 are true replacements for the D700; neither will do 8fps, and the model that shares the same build (D800) has such a high pixel count that it isn’t really suitable for some applications such as photojournalism or low light work. The D700 line has thus bifurcated into a more serious and less serious option.

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Slurp. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

There is one huge improvement in usability that’s worth mentioning: in manual exposure mode and live view, the camera now shows a usable/ visible image rather than the actual shooting exposure, which means that you can easily manual focus with a flash setting (say 1/200s, f8, ISO 100) in ambient light rather than having to change exposure or switch between aperture priority and manual to be able to see your image. The image is also a lot sharper than the D800 and not blocky – it’s much easier to tell what is in focus, and what isn’t. Needless to say, we don’t need to talk about usability of the D700′s live view function – putting it on the drive mode dial was just clunky, and precluded the use of the self timer or mirror lockup to minimize vibration.

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The surprise joy of finding you just might be in love. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

On the other hand, the D600 lacks a few controls that I’ve come to rely on in my normal workflow with the D700 and D800E, and as a result feels a bit more amateur than I’d like, mainly due to the number of button presses required for some things. Once again, if you’ve never used either D700 or D800, you probably won’t know or won’t miss them: specifics that come to mind are single-button zoom to a desired magnification level in playback using the center multi-selector; having the metering switch around the AE-AF-L button, and a separate AF-ON button. There are also fewer custom settings, though, notably around control configurability and autofocus. It’s also worth noting that although the camera has the same levelling display as the D800 in live view mode, it lacks the two-axis overlay in the viewfinder; instead, it uses the exposure meter to show left-right tilt, at the expense of the other shooting information which subsequently disappears. The LCD also appears to be less accurate for judging exposure than before; it appears much brighter and more contrasty than the actual image, which is something I haven’t seen on Nikon’s typically accurate LCDs.

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Untitled. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

You get the 39-point MultiCAM 4800FX autofocus module in this camera, not the wide-field CAM3500FX system in the D700 and D800 – and the cause of much consternation amongst D800 owners for the notorious ‘left side AF’ issue. I’m pleased to report that after extensive testing and specifically looking for the problem, autofocus on the D600 is fast, accurate and positive even with moving subjects; perhaps feeling a little more ‘solid’ than the D800 – more like the D700, in this sense. My particular example required no AF fine tune adjustment with most of my lenses, and -5/20 on the 28/1.8. CAM4800 has been tried, tested and proven in the D7000, and performs equally well here; it’s even been tweaked a bit to be able to focus consistently with lenses as slow as f8 to allow reliable use with 2x teleconverters.

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A glimpse into home and family. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

The one bad piece of news regarding autofocus is that the points are now even more clustered around the center of the frame than the CAM3500FX cameras; it seems that the base AF sensor itself has been taken from the D7000 and used without adaptation to the field of coverage. The overall coverage area is similar to the Canon 5DII, and it doesn’t cover the rule of thirds points, meaning that you’re almost always going to have to focus and reframe with off-center subjects, whereas the outermost row of five points would cover these subjects on the D700 and D800. Still, I’d rather have reliable accuracy over wider coverage, but ideally we should have both. The AF mode controls now use the new Nikon system of button plus command dial; rear to select AF-S or AF-C, and front to choose the number of points or 3D tracking.

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Stall proprietors sometimes remind me of thespians. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

In some ways, I miss the physical switches of the last generation, but having these settings electronically selectable means that you can save all settings, including AF configuration, to the U1 and U2 mode dials – I’ll probably keep one set up for regular reportage-style shooting with 11-point AF-C, aperture priority and auto-ISO, and the other for studio/ flash work at the X-sync speed (1/200s), manual exposure mode, base ISO, and 39-point AF-C. I wish my D800E had this option. That said, I’ll probably leave the D600 set up for reportage, and the D800E for studio work.

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Lantern and Dunlop. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

The D600 uses Nikon’s tried and tested RGB metering sensor (which also feeds color information to the AF system for subject tracking, as well as face recognition); it appears to be less biased to the active focus point than in the consumer cameras, but not quite as accurate for the overall scene like the D700; the camera seems to meter a bit hot in dark scenes, and a bit under for light/ white scenes – it seems we’ve taken a step backwards here. I feel the D700 generation had the most reliable metering of the lot; the D800 falls somewhere between the two. Auto white balance is accurate, and can safely be used for most situations.

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A curious symmetry. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

I believe the D600 shares the same base Sony sensor as the A99 (previewed here). It’s a 24MP CMOS design, apparently customized for Nikon – in the process losing the A99′s 10fps capability (or perhaps deliberately, to protect the D4′s position in the line as flasgship). Uncompressed RAW is no longer an option, but the whole workflow is 14bit. In any case, I remember testing the difference between lossless compressed and uncompressed NEF with the D3 and not being able to see any difference. The sensor delivers the same color palette as all of the other modern 14-bit Nikons; no surprises here. It’s worth noting that despite the larger pixel pitch, the D600 only matches it for dynamic range – somewhere around 13.5 stops useable at base ISO, which is on par with the leading DSLRs at the moment.

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Full test scene.

D600-D700-D800E low iso comparison
Low ISO crops. Click here for 100% version. As usual go by what I say, not what you see; you’re looking at an artefacted JPEG, not the original file.

D600-D700-D800E high iso comparison
High ISO crops. Click here for 100% version.

Both D600 and D800E produce slightly cleaner images at the pixel level than the D700 at identical print sizes; they’re also cleaner at the pixel level. The D600 doesn’t seem to gain anything over the D800E though; if anything, there appears to be more chroma noise at a lower, blotchier frequency. There’s also some softening going on; it seems that NR OFF isn’t really NR OFF on the D600 in the same way that it is on the D700 an D800E. The D600 also isn’t holding anywhere near as much detail – the AA filter no doubt has some bearing on that. What’s surprising is that at ISO 6400 and above, I’m not sure it’s outresolving the D700, either – look at the numbers in the purple swatch. The D700 also has noticeably less chroma noise; the amplitude is higher, but the grain pattern appears tighter and almost entirely monochromatic. Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate to use ISO 6400 under normal conditions, and perhaps 12800/HI1 under duress with a significant amount of postprocessing. One important caveat: Adobe Camera Raw does not yet support the D600, so I couldn’t put the files through my usual workflow. I used the default Neutral picture control with sharpness at 7 and HIGH ISO NR off from all three cameras; though it seems that sharpening 7 means different things on the different bodies I believe I’ll probably gain another incremental bit of image quality once I can run the files through my normal workflow. Such are the downsides of early adoption. For now though, a flat JPEG is eminently useable, if lacking in some of the tonal plasticity of a good NEF. The lens used was a Zeiss 2/50 Makro-Planar at f5.6, focused at high magnification with live view. The cameras were locked down on a Gitzo 5-series Systematic tripod and Manfrotto Hydrostat head.

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Inside the ‘kitchen’. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

Overall, it’s safe to say the D600 shoots with the dynamic and tonal range of the D800, with the low light usability of the D700 – in part due to the lower pixel density sensor, and in part due to the very low vibration shutter. The large pixel pitch also means that it’s more forgiving when it comes to lens quality; needless to say anything that performs well on the D800E is going to perform well on the D600; I’m primarily using my AFS 28/1.8 G and 85/1.8 G without issue. Image quality is definitely closer to the D800 than the D700, and under circumstances where you can’t achieve sufficiently high shutter speeds, I suspect the D600 may well yield a better image than the D800 can, simply because it’s less demanding on the photographer.

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Feeling the emptiness and abandonment. Nikon D600, 85/1.8 G

Battery life may well be the best of all of the current Nikons – I’m estimating around 2,000+ frames per charge with my normal shooting pattern (400 frames with a mix of CLS, live view and regular CH reportage/ street cost 20% in battery life). No flash and short bursts of 2-3 shots yielded the results below – without a photo, I don’t think any of you would have believed it. I certainly wouldn’t – that extrapolates to about 3,400 frames/ charge! If that’s still not enough for you, there’s an optional MB-D14 vertical grip that allows addition of another EN-EL15 battery; the grip is physically smaller to match the size of the camera, so it can’t physically fit the larger battery from the D4, and consequently doesn’t get a frame rate boost with the grip installed.

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I don’t remember seeing this even on my D3. Whatever they’re doing with that new sensor, it’s very, very power-frugal. Also, the test was done with an older battery from my D800E which had been cycled a few times – so it’s not a new cell anomaly. The screen appears monochrome because the highlights are blown; it was a very dark scene and shot for illustrative purposes only.

I don’t have much to say about the camera’s video capabilities – I’m leaving that for persons more knowledgeable than myself; I’m absolutely not a videographer. However, on the few quick panning test videos I’ve done, I see minimal rolling shutter and to my eyes, it looks slightly more fluid overall than the D800′s video. This isn’t entirely surprising given the sensor’s shared origins with Sony’s heavily video-centric A99; video has traditionally been one of the company’s strengths. I believe the D600 also has the same capability as the D800E to stream uncompressed video out to an external recorder via HDMI, which will make it an interesting option for videographers on a budget.

The D600 didn’t receive anywhere near the same fanfare or hype as the D800/ D800E at introduction; perhaps it was the long rumour train, or perhaps it was the fairly conservative spec sheet. However, I think this is going to be one of those cameras that enjoys a long burn in much the same way as the D70 and D700 did – it brought a decent feature set with a sizeable leap in image quality at a new low price point. The D600 body retails at US$2,100 or thereabouts. In that respect, I feel in the long term it will do for full frame what the D70 did for DSLRs in general: it made it accessible. It’s more than enough camera for the average user, yet not so much that getting the most out of it becomes a challenge, like the D800/ D800E. The D600 is full frame for the masses; if you’re not a pro but you’re itching for an upgrade from your D700 or D7000, this is probably what you’ve been waiting for.

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Untitled. Nikon D600, 28/1.8 G

You’ll notice I haven’t said much about its nearest immediate competition, the Canon 6D – that’s because I haven’t handled one. But I’d be surprised if there was any dramatic difference in image quality; photographers will pick one or the other based on the lenses they already own. Both of these cameras would make excellent travel outfits. Personally, I’m currently trying to decide if I’ll stick with the OM-D or go with a D600 and a couple of pancake primes. Both are capable of delivering excellent image quality in the right hands, have a few tradeoffs, but neither would be taxing to carry and shoot for an extended period of time in the same way a D800 and suitable lenses would. It’s the first big camera I’ve bought that didn’t feel like it was a dramatic upgrade in some way to what I had previously (think D200 to D3, or D700 to D800E) ; but a solid, incremental upgrade in all directions.

In conclusion: the Nikon D600 may not be the D700 replacement or make waves like the D3 did, but for most users it’s going to be like Goldilocks: just right. MT

The Nikon D600 is available here from B&H and Amazon (body only or kit (with 24-85 VR lens).


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