Nikon D600 Review: Best All-Around DSLR Ever?

Gear & App Reviews October 23rd 2012 6:39 PM 24 Comments

First off, we’re giving one away! CLICK HERE.

 Self-portrait, Nikon D600, Nikon 24-70 2.8, 1/6 sec @ f/2.8 & ISO 3200

A few months ago, I predicted that the world wasn’t even ready for “affordable full-frame” because crop-sensor camera bodies already performed so well.  I didn’t see a market for such a camera.

One month ago, I called the D600 a considerable disappointment based on it’s limitations for flash use  by professional photographers and strobist nerds.

Over the past couple weeks while personally testing the D600, I have been totally blown away by Nikon’s new $2095 full-frame DSLR.

There are already plenty of great reviews out there, but as usual they are mostly lab-style reviews with test charts and objective descriptions of features. To be honest, I always imagine them being narrated by Ben Stein.

I do appreciate scientific rankings, but what I do best is real-world performance testing.  I get out there and USE my cameras.  So this review will take that approach- I will give my account of using the D600 in the field, shooting all kinds of things from wedding photojournalism to landscapes. It will be straight and to the point, I will talk about what I like, what I don’t like, and who I think should or should not buy a D600.  I’m not even going to list the general specs until the end of this review.

 

What I love about the D600:
The image quality is everything. The dynamic range is the star of the show for me, but the ISO performance and overall IQ are also stunning across the board.  It is a noticeable leap beyond any other Nikon sensor, save the D800/D800E, and a considerable leap beyond any Canon sensor, period.  Does this make much of a difference in the real world?  No, the bottom line is just that the D600 image quality is stunning.

There’s really not much to say other than that; the rest of the camera doesn’t get in the way of taking pictures, for most photographers.  The camera body feels strong and robust, but is pleasantly lighter than a D700, D800, D300, …and even lighter than the D7000 from what data I can gather.

Here are a few points that few are mentioning, but I was very interested in:

  • Built-in time-lapse / intervalometer
    Awesome!  Great quality, great interface, all you need to do is fiddle around with the in-camera processing settings (Standard VS Neutral VS Vivid, etc.) …and you can create time-lapse videos that need little or no editing whatsoever.  I’m used to my Nikons having a built-in intervalometer, but with that feature I was stuck shooting hundreds / thousands of RAW frames just to come up with a few seconds of footage.  Now with a D600, I would probably use the built-in intervalometer a lot less, and I would make time-lapse videos a lot more often too.
  • Built-in HDR feature
    Kind of a gimmick, in my opinion.  It’s great if you love that “HDR-y” look, but for natural tonality in a traditional landscape photograph, I still prefer to do it oldschool and merge RAW images in a program such as Photomatix Software.  Even then, with the D600 I barely ever need to shoot HDR’s anymore!
  • Built-in pop-up wireless commander flash
    Another awesome feature.  Strobists and pros will scoff at the use of a pop-up flash, but it is very handy for a quick, dramatic portrait or other type of image where I would otherwise not have the time to fiddle with pocket wizards and cables and stuff.
  • AIS lens compatibility, DX crop lens compatibility
    This is one of the main reasons I love shooting Nikon, as a nature / adventure photographer.  I can go buy an old manual focus 24mm f/2, or an 18mm f/4, and slap that 80’s lens on my 2012 DSLR.  The Nikon 12-24 DX and the Tokina 11-16 DX are no slouch on full-frame too, but that’s another topic for another article.  So while Canon landscape shooters are all selling their tack-sharp 10-22 EF-S lenses and “settling” for the lemon-riddled 16-35 L’s, Nikon users are happily using pretty much any lens they want.  :-)
  • RAW compression & 12-bit options, and DX crop mode
    Nikon almost makes up for  the lack of an “mRAW” full-frame RAW down-sampling by offering full RAW compression and 12-bit options, which significantly reduces file size.  Volume shooters who prefer RAW will appreciate this option, for sure.  I tested the differences between 12-bit and 14-bit, compressed and lossless, and I really can’t see a difference unless I process the heck out of a shot.
  • “U1 / U2″ custom shooting memory banks
    …Instead of Nikon’s old, separate display / shooting menu banks.  At first I didn’t like the mode dial situation, compared to my usual D700 controls, but now I really like having U1/U2 instead of the oldschool menu banks…  It’s convenient for example to save one mode for low-light, and one for daylight.  (BTW, when are they just gonna make lowlight a word?)  Or, one mode for HDR shooting, and one mode for “idiot proof” conditions when you need to hand the camera to someone else.  ;-)
  • Re-designed AF controls
    Instead of C/S/M options, now the AF switch on the lower front of the camera is A/M only, and has a tiny little button “hidden” inside it.  You have to hold down that little button and dial the two command dials to change your different AF modes.  I could get used to this, but I do feel like it is slightly more cumbersome for my clumsy fingers than the oldschool method.  I like how my D700 / D300 switches work so intuitively, although only someone who has shot on those cameras for a very long time will feel the difference.

 

What I do NOT like about the D600:
The D600 is basically just a D7000 with a full-frame sensor. The good news is, it’s lighter and smaller than many other cameras.  The bad news is, the controls and customizations are slightly limited. But only in comparison to the fully professional bodies.  The average user will probably not even notice any drawbacks, or will find them to be only minor nitpicks.  The only major feature I really miss is the OK button customization for zooming during image playback.  It sounds like a nitpick, but it makes a huge difference in checking sharpness / focus in fast-paced situations.

Another thing I miss is the PC sync port, but more on that in a moment.  The shutter / flash limitations have already been discussed to death. All are slight bummers, but not really a problem at all unless you shoot in very specific conditions.

Autofocus:  My biggest question was, “is Nikon’s new 39-point AF system as good as the D700 or D800?”  In short, close but NO.  The D600 has great AF, but in my testing I did feel like the D700 and D800 could nail low-light images a lot better.  The D600 AF, especially with fast primes in low light, had too much “jitter” in AF-C mode, and minor hesitating in AF-S mode.  The problem is I’m a lazy D700 user, Sometimes I just leave my camera in continuous focus all day.  That “jitter” really harmed my keeper rate compared to the D700.  I was also slightly annoyed by the focus point spread on the D600.  At first glance it looks the same as the D700 / D800, but it’s actually an even worse “central cluster”.  This definitely hindered my ability to put an AF point directly over a subject, which I really prefer to do in all but the worst light.  Keep in mind though, I am extremely demanding of my AF.  Nikon AF in general is already incredibly good; and most users will probably be quite satisfied with the D600 autofocus.
So for the most part, the advantages are huge and the drawbacks only pertain to extreme, envel0pe-pushing conditions.  My day job happens to involve those types of extreme conditions, but thankfully my hobby is nature / adventure photography.  So I can very clearly recognize how amazing a camera the D600 is going to be.

 

Who should buy the D600, and who shouldn’t?
I’ll go in order from “buy now!” to “don’t bother…”

Landscape & adventure photographers:
Finally, we have the Galen Rowell edition of DSLR’s. Light, compact, rugged and weather sealed, with breathtaking professional image quality.   Image noise is low at all native ISO’s, but still present enough to not take on that “plastic” look.  Some prefer this, some don’t.  Personally, I think Nikon images look more film-like than Canon images for example, and I prefer how Nikon retains per-pixel acuity even in the presence of noise at any ISO.

I’m sure that roadside landscape photographers with plenty of cash will prefer and brag about their D800 and 14-24, but personally I think the absolute ultimate combo in “adventure” landscape photography is now the D600 and a 16-35 f/4 VR. The latter setup is about a pound lighter and $2,000 cheaper!  Heck, since the D600 has an AF motor and AIS lens compatibility, maybe a 20mm f/2.8 D or 20mm f/4 AI would be a nice ultra-light choice.  (Galen was known for using the ultralight 20mm f/4 AI)  Plain and simple, you just can’t go wrong with a D600. Is the D800 even better? Yes, in the lab it has slightly better image quality and resolution, but the D600 is a winner as far as value is concerned.

This is about as “adventurous” as it gets in suburbia…
Click here for a 1440p SLR Lounge desktop wallpaper!

(Yep, that upper-left sensor dust problem happened to me too. Pesky specks!)

 

Oops!  “It looked brighter on the back of the camera, why is it so dark on the computer?”
…is what people say when they don’t check their histogram while shooting nightscapes.

There, much better.  Of course the proper thing to do is to fix it in-camera, but just in case…

Push-ability:  Even at ISO 1600, detail & noise remain acceptable with +3 exposure in LR4

 

Studio & commercial photographers:
Again, wherever image quality reigns king, the D600 will hold it’s own. Even using a prosumer body for professional work such as this, most of the time all you need to attach is a pocket wizard and/or or a tripod, and you’re good to go.  There is not much else to say for this genre. Either buy a D600 or a D800, you can’t go wrong.  Professionally speaking, I could totally see myself photographing real-estate, architecture, or product photography on a D600 very successfully.

The D600’s dynamic range is so huge, an HDR is no longer necessary to combine full sun and deep shade!

The D600 highlights resist that “hard-edge” look beautifully well,
extreme shadow pushing reveals plenty of detail and minimal noise
D600, Nikon 14-24, f/22, ISO 100,  lossless 14-bit NEF in Lightroom 4.2
+100 shadows, +100 blacks, -100 highlights, -100 whites.  YEAH.

 

 

Portrait Photographers:
Both aspiring and full-time pros can use this camera very effectively with little or no drawbacks.  If you’re an aspiring portrait photographer for example, you might just barely be getting into posing and lighting, and all you need is a camera that delivers the absolute best full-frame image quality on the market.  If you’re already invested in the Nikon system, maybe you have a D90 or a D7000, the D600 is the perfect next step.  And when (if ever) you feel the need to upgrade from the D600, it’s image quality and overall performance will make it a perfect backup camera that you can confidently use to get any job done.  (Compared to that old D80 / D300 you had for backup, which would be really annoying to use if your main camera failed!)  So, two thumbs up for portrait and fashion photographers.

Nikon D600, Nikon 50mm f/1.8 AFS-G, 1/125 sec @ f/1.8 & ISO 100

 

Strobist nerd types:
Although quite similar to general portrait photographers, this nerdy crowd will probably stay away from the D600.  In my opinion that’s their mistake, and their loss!  Even though they may complain about the shutter speed and flash limitations, there are plenty of work-arounds.  If you really need a PC sync port there are adapters, and other wireless systems such as Radio Poppers and Pocket Wizard’s Flex TT5.

You may feel better off with a D700, but you’ll be missing out on some stunning resolution and image quality for sure.  Likewise, a D800 may be a better choice, but personally I’d rather take that $900 difference and spend it on a nice portrait lens, or a few more strobe flashes or something.

Elitists scoff at pop-up flash use, but it works great as an on-the-fly wireless trigger!
Nikon D600, 12-24 DX @ 17mm full-frame, f/11, 1/250 sec, ISO 100, off-camera SB700

 

General hobbyists, mommy / daddy photographers, etc:
These types may think the D600 is the perfect camera for them, and it pretty much is.  However I would caution anyone who is on a “serious budget” to consider the alternative- A D7000 with some great glass.  Because honestly, for all the praise the D600 is receiving, the D7000 is still no slouch.  It’s got great dynamic range, decent ISO performance, and pretty much all the same features as the D600.  From the dual card slots to the wireless commander pop-up flash, the D7000 is still the TRUE winner in the budget department.

If you do have money to spend however, if you’ve already got a good solid lens collection, then the D600 is still the best long-term value.  If I were a casual photographer of any age, whether it’s eighteen or eighty one, the D600 will be the ultimate hobbyist camera for many generations to come.

 

The obligatory pet pic high ISO crop:  ISO 6400, LR4.2,  sharpening @ 45 and NR @ 20
Usable, but still a lot of noise present especially in smooth areas and shadows.

 

Wedding photojournalists:
Now things are going to get iffy.  Personally, I work full-time as a wedding photographer which can include everything from portraiture to journalism, and often things like landscape / architectural photography, detail / product photography, and action / sports photography.  (Have you ever seen an Indian wedding reception dance performance?)

Plain and simple:  Yes, the D600 can do the job.  But in my testing, I’ve realized that I value camera speed performance far too much to be fully satisfied with a D600.  To be specific this includes: frame rate, shutter lag, autofocus responsiveness, autofocus speed, accuracy, and consistency.  (Google the difference between accuracy and consistency, if you think I’m just being verbose)

So, I’ll be sticking with my D700 as my main wedding camera.  In fact I’ll probably buy a 2nd D700.  Speaking of 2nd cameras though, would a D600 compliment a D700, as a high-res, high-quality option?  Maybe, if you’re on a budget.  But if you’re a paid professional wedding photographer, in my opinion the better pair is a D700 and D800.  And since I’m already quite satisfied with my D700’s image quality overall, I’m a dual-D700 kinda guy instead of the D700+D800 combo.  As I mentioned earlier, the D600 lacks a PC sync port and one small customization that I can’t live without, the “OK” button customization for zooming during image playback.  I have used this customization on all my Nikons since the D200 in 2005/6, and it just helps me work faster when I’m on the job.

 

 

The camera can easily focus by the light of a bright candle…

…However the D600 chokes and misses action in poor light a little too often.


…The D700 nails focus in low ABSURD LIGHT conditions, more reliably than the D600.

White dress in bright sun?  A typical wedding day.  The D600 shines.  Pun intended.

 

Action & sports photographers:
Now the D600 is finally into “no deal!” territory, or at least as close as it will get.  For high-speed action, subject tracking,  and shooting speed, the D600 is indeed surpassed by the D700.  In fact the D700 is in my opinion also a better option than the D800, with it’s uber-slow framerate and behemoth resolution.  Yeah, the D800 gets a boost to 6 FPS in DX crop mode with a battery pack and certain batteries, but the D700’s boost takes it to 8 FPS.  WITHOUT going into DX crop mode.  Bottom line:  The D600 is an all-around camera, not an action sports camera.  If you’re looking for the best all-around camera, get a D600.  It will handle things like gymnastics and soccer just fine.  But if you’re looking for a dedicated action sports camera, get a D700 with a grip or something.

Side Note:  Is a DX D400 on the horizon?  If you’re a dedicated action / sports shooter looking for a camera / backup camera in the $2000 range, you might want to wait and see if a Nikon D400 comes out.  Basically, the possible replacement to the D300s.  Many photographers are predicting that this market is completely dead, but then again I predicted the D600 would never happen, and I’m (usually) not as stupid as I look!  Bottom line-  Imagine a DX update to the D300s, with all the new features of the D7000 / D600, but with 6-8 FPS, 24 megapixels with decent ISO 3200 probably, and that legendary 51-point flagship AF with points spread all over the viewfinder.  To me, it sounds like a telephoto sports photographer’s dream.  But we’ll see how well the D600 sells; or maybe Nikon will just make a D7000 replacement instead…

…And what about VIDEO?
The D600 is great at video.   I would love to quote Forrest Gump right now and say “…that’s all I have to say about that”, but I should probably at least continue to say that in my brief testing, it seems like the D600 will make a perfect 2nd camera in a D800 videography setup, however there are a few functions missing that are slightly annoying, such as the inability to change your aperture during live view via the regular control dials.  Other than that, I will leave the testing to professional videographers.

Conclusion:
At first glance, the D600 may not seem very exciting to the uber-geeky strobist, hardcore action photographer,  or the average “armchair reviewer”.  The Sony A99 is definitely a very ground-breaking camera if you have no system investment yet.  But for photographers who just want to get out there and create images, the D600 might be perfect for you.  It leans more towards slower paced shooting conditions such as landscapes, but it is no slouch in any environment except insane peak-action conditions.

More “scientific” tests regarding ISO performance and dynamic range are being prepared for your pixel-peeping pleasure, for those of you who are interested, but as far as deciding whether or not to buy the D600 is concerned, I hope I have already helped as many people as possible answer that question.

 

 

Take care,
=Matt=

 

Nikon D600 specs:

  • 24.3 megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor (6016×4016)
  • ISO 100-6400 (LO/HI 50-25600)
  • 39-point AF, 9 cross-type (central cluster, unfortunately)
  • 3.2″ LCD
  • 30 sec – 1/4000 sec shutter speeds, with “bulb” option.
  • 1/200 flash sync limit
  • Built-in pop-up flash with wireless commander capability
  • 5.5 FPS
  • Dual SD card slots (Capable of overflow, RAW+JPG, and backup)
  • Full weather sealing and magnesium body (Almost as good as flagships)
  • 1080p video at 30/25/24 FPS, 720p video at 60/50/30/25 FPS (MPEG-4, H.264)
  • 3-shot bracketing, up to 3 EV increments
  • Built-in HDR mode
  • Built-in time-lapse and intervalometer
  • Built-in AF motor & AIS lens backwards compatibility, DX lens compatibility
  • Weight: 760g / 1.68 lbs
  • Price: $2096

 

 

Advertisement

About

Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge. Connect with him on Google Plus

24 Comments

  1. Ivan Nikitin

    How does it compare to a99 you reviewed recently? In terms of image quality. I suppose my cropped lenses won’t work for it, so it’s identical for me to change to Nikon and new A99.

    • Matthew Saville

      Ivan, Joe Gunawan will have to report on that; he’s the one who did the most shooting with both cameras.  At a glance, though, it looks like the Sony A99 has comparable image quality to the D600, plus for that extra $700 you get TONS of new innovative features from Sony.  If you have zero brand investment, or are already invested in Sony a little, I’d say go for the A99 for sure.  However if you’re already invested in Nikon, you gotta consider really closely which reasons might encourage you to switch…

      =Matt=

    • Joe Gunawan

      I noticed that the D600 just slightly has a sharper image. Slightly. I think that is because of a less aggressive AA filter, but honestly, the A99 has so much going for it that you can’t go wrong either way. It’s more about whether the $700 worth of features is for you. For me? I love the A99 and its features over the D600: EVF so you can see in real time what the camera sees, 1/8000 shutter, 1/250 sync, better AF, Zeiss lenses that AF, AF range limit, being able to change aperture in Live View (D600 doesn’t let you do that!), being able to change aperture/ISO while filming video. Lists goes on and on. 

      The quality is just about the same. The features after that are not.You can read my review on the A99: http://www.slrlounge.com/extensive-hands-on-field-review-of-the-sony-a99 — JoeSLR Lounge Editor

  2. Malcom-hannah

    Thanks for the D600 review. I have a D7000 and I LOVE it for what I want to do. I started to read the w review and though maybe I’d need to invest in the D 600. But no, your review confirmed my great opinion of the D7000… It’s horses for courses and it’s right for me! Thanks SLR lounge! A
    Amanda.

  3. Marvin

    Great review.  I wish someone would review the 6D like you did. 

    • Matthew Saville

      Marvin, we will do a very similar review on the 6D just as soon as we get it in our hot little hands!  Gotta send back our press copy of the D600 first though LOL…

    • Pablo

      Another reason I chose the D600 over the D800 was the “e4″ option like the D4. You can choose to have exposure compensation apply only to the background and have the flash compensation act separately. I was surprised the D800 does not have this feature. I own the D700 and was frustrated that exposure compensation was additive…both background and flash are affected by exposure compensation.

      The biggest reason I chose the D600 was image quality without having to deal with the huge D800 files that most Nikon lenses could not resolve handheld. The D600 is the perfect amateur upgrade for my D700.

  4. Waldyr Jr.

    This was a great review. it’s probably the most useful one I’ve read in a very long time. most reviews i just end up skipping to the closing thoughts. this one was informative the whole way through

  5. Angela

    Thank you for this. Now I’d love to read a comparison of the D700/D600 and the Canon 5dMII (or newer Canon models).

  6. Used Nikon D700 drops below $1600 on B&H! Free Photography Tips Tutorials Reviews and Wordpress Themes | Photography tips and photography tutorials and more

    […] Nikon D600 is definitely an amazing camera that I’m sure many people are buying right now, if you read my D600 review then you know that for my particular line of work, I’ll be sticking with a D700.  In fact […]

  7. The Complete, Continuously Updated Nikon D600 Review File | THEME

    […] SLR Lounge asks, “Best All-Around DSLR ever?”: […]

  8. Phil

    Great review, probably the best I have ever read on a camera. As a professional photographer with a D700 and looking for to buy either a d800 or d600 you have convinced me to buy the d800. Well done.

  9. Newenglandscene

    A very different and helpful review of the D600. I am a D700 lover. If my D700 had D600 resolution or even D4 resolution, I would be completely happy. This review convinced me to stay with what I have for a while. I don’t have the luxury of changing platforms, too much investment in lenses, so I will wait and see what comes in the next generation and cherish my D700. 

    RE: D700 battery pack. The best $250 bucks I ever spent, after the body purchase price. It transformed my action shooting. 

    Thanks for the review Matthew.

  10. Atomic Dog

    Pardon me for interrupting. But, I was just reading this EXCELLENT review and had to ask somebody. 

    Can someone direct me to  the source that can best answer my question: I’m a 64-year old novice. I don’t what to miss many “moments” because of low light or fast action that requires good AF.
     
    Should I buy the D600 or the D700?  Or neither?

    • Joughton

      I think the answer is in the text above – the D700 will provide faster focus lock on the subject you want and will help you catch those fleeting moments.  It sounds to me like the D700 clearly even exceeds the D800 in this regard. 
      This will really only be an issue when you are doing wildlife, sport and social documentary type work. For family snaps and typical travel photography, this is overkill and a good compact will get you more shots and draw less attention.   
      If you are dripping with cash, don’t mind some weight in your hands, and like to make people gasp when you pull out your camera,  get the D4 it will be the fastest of all.

    • NewEnglandScene

      As a novice, for sure you want to purchase the D600 rather than the D700. The D700 is a professional grade camera and getting the right shots takes work. With the D600, you have preconfigured scene modes that help you get the shot without having to agonize over the settings …unless you want to. I own both and use both. The D600 is my every day camera, and more. The D700 with battery pack gives me 8fps, so it is better suited to sport and action shots, which I do a lot of.

      The larger question is: why limit yourself to these choices? If it were me and I were a a novice not wanting to miss “moments”, I would be looking at the very capable, smaller and much less expensive mirrorless cameras. 

  11. ben55ben

    For general hobbyist you recommended the d7000 with some great glass. Which lenses do you recommend for the 7000 and the 600 for general hobbyists?

  12. JK

    Excellent real world review. Thanks for your insights and I’m in agreement.
    For what its worth, I’ve been shooting a D700 for everything from sport to adventure with product and portrait in between. The D700 does everything well but is a tank. I purchased a D600 a month ago for a backup and travel/backpack body. When I’m backcountry skiing or rock climbing there is already enough gear in my pack, the same when traveling. The D600 with the 28-300 3.5 is a perfect solution for those situations.For an event screw on a 24-70 and it compliments the D700/70-200 combo. I’m so pleased with the D600 and its image quality that its been my go-to when I just want to have a camera on hand. Anything else I might add would be redundant.

  13. BT

    Funny, I am reading this for the first time today, trying to decide on my next camera. An interestingly enough, they DID make a D7000 replacement with everything you said it would have. Good call. The D7100 only makes the decision that much tougher. Do you buy the 7100 with all of the features of the big boys or spend $900 more and get the full frame with less features….

  14. Dan Pacurar

    I shoot lots of danceballet shots. D600 or D700? Why or why not. I am currently with a D7000 now. Thanks!
    -Dan

  15. Brandon

    Good review and I agree on all your points.
    I would have liked to see you talk a little bit about where the D800 fits into the Nikon lineup with its specific features and who the D800 was designed to appeal to.
    I don’t believe the person who would be buying a D700 in the past is the right customer for a D800 today. I think an ideal customer would be a commercial photographer tasked with taking fashion shots intended for print and billboards. Something where the resolution is necessary and the frame rate is null. If you dream over a medium frame digital camera but don’t quite have the funds, the D800 is your next beat option.

  16. Shejin

    I am from India.
    I have only $1800 budget for getting gears for wedding photography and found a deal on Amazon
    Nikon D600 24.3 MP CMOS FX-Format Digital SLR Camera with 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR AF-S Nikkor Lens

    for $1800 in used condition.

    I can buy Lighting, Flashing Accessories, SD Cards from a local store.
    But I don’t have any more money to spend on a further lenses.
    So, is this gear enough for a wedding photography

  17. Nikon DF Initial Review and Sample Images

    […] AF module is borrowed from the Nikon D610 or Nikon D600.  Having reviewed the D600 myself, (click HERE!) it was obvious to me then that the D600 autofocus wasn’t 100% on par with the likes of the […]

Leave a reply

Advertisement