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 Nikon D600 a considerable disappointment based on its 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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