Nikon D600 Digital SLR Photo and Video Camera Review
by: Howard Carson, October 2012
Requires: An interest in serious amateur, enthusiast or professional photography and/or videography
The Nikon D600 is a full frame (FX - Nikon's designation for the full size 35mm digital image sensor) digital photo and video, single lens reflex (SLR), 24.3 megapixel camera. It is a superior grade consumer camera with many design, construction and image quality capabilities lifted directly from Nikon's professional D800 camera. The D600 is also the first non-professional grade, full frame digital SLR camera ever offered by any camera maker. Because the D600 is not aimed specifically at the professional photographer (even though plenty of Nikon pros are already lining up to purchase a D600 as a second camera), it is also not as heavy as its D800 big brother, and that makes the D600 much easier to carry around all day long no matter what you're into. The D600 has the classic Nikon look, thin red v-slash below the shutter button at the top of the right grip, and the recognizable Nikon SLR body shape. The rear LCD is a 3.2" version of the same, excellent 921,000 dot LCD that Nikon has been using since it released the great D700 several years ago.
The Nikon D600 is, for now, aimed mainly at hobby photographers, photography enthusiasts and all serious photographers of almost any kind. The main differences between the D600 and D800 , listed below (and with some comparisons to the D7000 as well), point out much more than anything else how similar the cameras really are. I'll state up front that everyone at Kickstartnews who got their hands on the D600 really liked the thing. If some of what follows in the Features section reads like a marketing piece from Nikon, it's mainly because we're getting more and more excited about how digital photography has progressed to the point where there is now a less-than-professional-priced, advanced, full frame camera on the market that also ticks all the feature, function, usability and image quality checkboxes.
The detailed technical explanations in the book seem to have been designed to work photographers far enough into digital photography and digital video technology that they'll understand much more clearly how the technical implementation of still image and video capture is impacted by configuration changes, focusing techniques, manipulation of exposure settings, customization of color settings and so on. Hogan has taken the approach that a photographer who understands how the technology in these incredible cameras works, is mostly likely going to evolve into a photographer who will make better photos and video. I think he's correct.
Like all high-end Nikon cameras, the most important virtue of the Nikon D600 is that it just gets out of your way. The external controls, the viewfinder, pointability, physical dimensions, high speed internal processor and responsiveness all work together to help you make photos quickly and accurately, and even set up and make video quickly if that's what you want to do.
- 24.3mp Sensor - full frame (35mm) digital image sensors are the way of the future it seems, and this latest sensor design collaboration between Nikon and Sony is an example of excellence
- EXPEED 3 Processor - All those megapixels of image data coming off the sensor every time you mash the shutter button have to be processed quickly and the latest version of Nikon's CPU is up to the task
- Technical Image Quality - This is our term for a camera's color accuracy, color depth, contrast accuracy, dynamic range, high ISO/low noise characteristics and fine detail capture/resolution capabilities, and the D600 ranks with the very best from Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm, Leica, Olympus, Sigma and Sony, which is to say that as long the photographer uses the D600 properly the camera will make photos of astonishing quality
- Usability - The D600 is just heavy enough to help stabilize handheld shooting with the vast majority of lenses, but still light enough to carry around all day on a shoulder strap or sling strap, and weather-sealed enough to resist moisture and dirt penetration in heavy mist, heavy fog, light rain, light snow, or grit from swirling dusty/windy conditions
- Versatility - All of the foregoing features mean that the camera is very versatile, so street or studio, landscape or lab, at home or at work, strolling or trekking, prowling urban jungles on foot or real jungles in the back of a Land Rover, the D600 provides photographers of all kinds with everything they need to make great photos
- Handling - It's a Goldilocks design, not too big, not too small, not too heavy, not too light, a nice bright viewfinder, and just the right amount of external controls for the vast majority of photographers
- High ISO Performance - As best I can tell doing side by side comparisons of ISO6400 photos of the same subject shot sequentially, the D600 actually beats the amazing D700 and D3s, and also produces cleaner ISO6400 images than the D7000 and D800, which leaves only the Nikon D4 which is still the high ISO leader among all camera brands and the D600 in the #2 position
The Nikon D600 is a superior blend of features from Nikon's excellent D7000 (smaller sensor, APS-C-based, 16 megapixel, advanced camera body), and the wonderful top-of-the-range Nikon D800 (full frame sensor, 36 megapixel, professional camera body). The D600 is well built, with more polycarbonate and less mag-alloy framing than the D800, has plenty of weather sealing, is fractionally heavier than the D7000 (30.1 oz/853g vs. 27.4 oz/776g), much lighter than the D800 (30.1 oz/853g vs. 35.2 oz/997g - a noticeable difference for sure, all weights include battery and cards), has the best controls and features from the D7000, and a lot of the advances developed for the D800.
For those of you wondering if you're truly giving up anything important by spending $1000.00 dollars less on a D600 (compared to a D800), note that while there are definitely feature and control differences between the two cameras, both cameras are capable of producing almost identically stellar image quality. Here are some comparisons to the D800 and D7000.
- D600 at 24mp vs. D800 at 36mp, but only a very tiny percentage of photographers should care about this.
- During playback, you can't zoom to a preset magnification level as you can with the D800.
- Digital level uses a graduated side meter display in the viewfinder to indicate left/right tilt,which is not as easy to see and use as the X/Y axis display in the D800.
- D600 uses Nikon Multi-CAM 4800FX autofocus system (an update of the Multi-CAM 4800DX system in the D7000), rather than the Multi-CAM 3500FX system from the D800 (which was originally developed for the D4 released late in 2011), but all of the Multi-CAM systems listed here are clearly superior in both speed and accuracy, and remain the envy of much of the competition (although the new autofocus systems in the Canon 7D, 5D Mark III and the upcoming 6D, and the AF systems in the Fujifilm X-Pro1 and Olympus OM-D systems are just as good - photographers have never enjoyed more choice and quality).
- D600 has a 39-point autofocus system compared to the 51-point system in the D800, but unless you're regularly switching back & forth between the two cameras, I doubt you'll care or notice.
- U1 and U2 user mode selection on the top control dial is back in the D600, something the D800 doesn't offer, and it means be able to very quickly switch between preset configurations.
- D600 gives me slightly better low light clarity at very high ISO because of a bit less low light noise than the D800 (perhaps because of it's slightly lower pixel density compared to the D800?), but at the same time provides all the dynamic range, color depth and accuracy of the D800 when shooting in normal light, or maybe I'm just becoming more familiar with the best ways to use these very high resolution cameras.
- D600 has TTL exposure metering using 2,016-pixel RGB sensor vs. the 91,000-pixel TTL exposure metering in the D800.
- D600 has dual SD card slots (same as the D7000) vs. the single SD and single CF pair of card slots in the D800.
- Nikon seems to have six different button and control layouts in its cameras lines: entry level point & shoot, advanced point & shoot, advanced Nikon 1 line, entry level DSLR, advanced DSLR and one for pro DSLR, so the D600 layout (advanced DSLR) is closest to the D7000.
- D600 can shoot at full resolution up to 5.5 frames per second vs. 4 frames per second for the D800.
If you've used any Nikon digital SLR or digital photo/video SLR before, you'll be able to pick up the D600, hit the Menu button to configure it to your liking, and start making photos right away. Still, I recommend you show some respect for the 24 megapixel sensor that picks up all sorts of things including movement caused by your shaky tripod, lousy handholding technique, or out-of-breath chest heaving. What that means is that I think you initially have to start paying attention to your shutter speed. We've gotten used to VR lenses which compensate for a lot of our sloppy technique, and 12 megapixel sensors which often just don't pick up the kind of bad-technique-revealing detail that sensors found in the D7000, D600, D800, D3x and D4 pick up with ease. Take the hint. Unless you want blur for creative reasons, get that shutter speed up.
I started doing this with the D7000, so I'm also using the D600 and D800 in what seems to be referred to these days as ISO-Priority mode. Don't bother trying to find that setting in any camera - it doesn't exist. What I'm talking about is the ability to set any Nikon photo or photo/video DSLR camera to Auto ISO (which allows the ISO to float in order to adjust exposure), with the camera in Manual exposure mode so that you can control both shutter speed and aperture (with the usual minor eV adjustments as needed of course), and letting autofocus do its thing. I can control my shutter speed directly (rear command dial), control my aperture directly (front command dial), and let ISO roam wherever it needs to go secure in the knowledge that the high ISO performance of these cameras is astonishingly good and won't ruin exposures. I shoot my Fujifilm X-Pro1 the same way. Excellent results. Try it
The D600 can be used for any purpose you can think of: action, landscape, wildlife, street, scientific, casual, travel, trekking, hot weather, cold weather, dry weather, damp weather, backpacking, hiking, safari, events, exhibitions, studio, research, etc., etc., etc. While video capabilities are excellent, it's not a camcorder and if you try to use the camera that way it will let you down. Like all good general video making, TV making and film making, you've got to plan shots, set aperture before you begin shooting, learn to pull focus, shoot scenes from a stable platform, get the best possible audio using an external mic and digital recorder, stop all that irritating panning and zooming, and take the time to learn and practice video technique. The results will delight you. Treat the D600 like a camcorder though, and you'll wonder what the heck went wrong.
I walked, wandered, explored and generally poked around in sunny, dark and shady places in and around Toronto with the D600 and my trusty 24-120 VR f/4 for a week before starting to write this review. The Nikon D600 is a terrific street shooter. In any conditions it's lightning fast, so you can draw the camera, aim, compose, focus and make a shot almost without thinking. If you're used to Nikon camera bodies, that level of usability will happen quickly for you. If you're coming from another brand of camera or if you're moving up from a Nikon point & shoot camera, give yourself a couple of weeks of active photography to familiarize yourself with the D600. You'll be rewarded with wonderful photos. On a tripod, the D600 works just as well (or better for critically focused landscape or architectural photography). The 24 megapixel sensor, EXPEED 3 processor and the superior exposure system combine to capture photos of startling clarity, detail and depth.
I've read some complaints about the smaller cluster of AF points not covering as large a percentage of the viewfinder as the D800 and D7000, but unless I switch back & forth between the cameras I just don't notice much difference. It's there, and I think there were a few shots I could have framed a bit better for lack of an AF point just beyond the cluster, but I think very few photographers will care at all about this. If you're wondering why autofocus sensors aren't arrayed in a grid across the entire viewfinder, it likely has more to do with camera makers keeping AF points away from the edges of the image circle where all lenses tend to be noticeably softer than they are in the middle.
We don't have any reports about how well the D600 functions in very hot and very cold weather yet because none of the pros who tested the camera in the field for the past few months have provided any reports. It's the first of October as I complete this review, so weather extremes just don't exist right now in Toronto. Winter is coming though and we'll update the review in that regard in December.
Meh! It's too expensive, but then I think all cameras (since early 2009 really) are too expensive. Camera manufacturers are cycling the product lines so quickly that manufacturing economies of scale never fully kick in, ergo market entry prices at all levels are high and remain so for almost the entire duration of a camera model's market life cycle. Nonetheless, Nikon appears to have set the price bar for the full frame entry point for a high quality, full featured, digital SLR photo and video camera body. Canon has announced its competing model, the 6D, at the exact same price point (although the Canon 6D won't show up in stores or online for another couple of months). Meh(!) again. The market has painted me into a corner. The D600 is a very good value.
Cons: I haven't found a much to complain about. There are reports that direct HDMI output to a Ninja2 or other direct monitor ends up being slightly cropped. If you care about this, look for a firmware update quite soon. No 10-pin sync port on the body, because Nikon wants you to go totally wireless (but I also confess to not having even thought about that port on any SLR for at least six or seven years). Maximum flash sync seems to be 1/200s without high speed sync fiddling. The D600 is most emphatically not the easiest video camera to use for quick grabs of top quality footage. The camera can be used to make terrific, high definition, 1080p video no doubt, but as with all video SLR cameras needs to be properly set up for shots, so don't make the mistake of thinking that the D600 can easily substitute for your trusty Sony camcorder at your kid's next violin recital or school play. Set your aperture for a video, switch to LiveView (LV) to start shooting, and what you'll see in the rear LCD is a depth-of-field live view using the aperture you set; but changing the aperture setting at that point doesn't update LV (a firmware bug?) until you actually press the Record button, at which point the camera stops the lens to the changed aperture setting. Full control over aperture and focus in LV is there when you use a manual focus lens with an aperture ring, just like the pros. For video, take the hint.
Pros: The technical image quality and technical video quality you can get out of the Nikon D600 are nothing short of spectacular. The D600 is another model in a long line of superior cameras of all kinds from Nikon. If you're not in the market for a new camera, don't go into your local photography store to check out the D600 because once you pick it up in your right hand you won't want to put it down. High ISO, low light performance is wonderful. The viewfinder is bright. Camera operation and response is very fast and sure. The camera handles extremely well an can produce superb photos with all of the lenses we tried, from the older 24mm f/2.8 AF-D, the 50mm f/1.4 AF-S, 85mm f/1.4 AF-D, 24-120m f/4 VR, 24-70 f/2.8 AF-S, 70-200 mm f/2.8 VR, and the slightly long-in-the-tooth 80-400 VR AF-S. The D600, despite my enthusiasm, is not a magic device that will make bad photographers good or good photographers great. Instead, it's one of a growing crop of interchangeable lens cameras (reflex and mirrored) from Nikon, Fujifilm, Canon, Olympus and Sony that are so technically capable that they're simply not limiting factors in the photography process any more - it's all up to the photographer now. Pro, amateur, photography enthusiast, hobby photographer or casual shooter - you won't be disappointed. Highly recommended.