Camera Review: Nikon D600

November 16, 2012

By Dan Havlik

The biggest camera news to come out of the photokina imaging show in Germany a few months ago wasn’t that full-frame digital SLRs were back, but that they were back with such a vengeance. For years, camera companies had said full-frame image sensors, i.e. imaging chips approximately the size of a piece of 35mm film, would be limited to premium professional cameras simply because their manufacturing costs were too high for anything else.

And, in fact, there were no new full-frame DSLRs of any kind launched for two years until the 16.2-megapixel Nikon D4 went on sale last March. (While the Canon EOS-1D X was announced before the D4, it didn’t start shipping until June 2012.)

So it was with some surprise that Nikon, Canon and Sony all unveiled full-frame DSLRs in September aimed, not at the professional market so much, but at the prosumer and photo enthusiast crowd. Sony went one further when it announced the Cyber-shot RX1, a 24.3-megapixel full-frame point-and-shoot-style camera.

What was also surprising about Nikon’s first full-frame DSLR for prosumers, the 24.3-megapixel Nikon D600, was how quickly it started shipping. The camera was announced on September 13 and went on sale just a week later.

In contrast, the 20.2-megapixel Canon EOS 6D, which is also aimed at photo enthusiasts, wasn’t slated to go on sale until December 2012. The 24.3-megapixel Sony a99 DSLR and Cyber-shot RX1, meanwhile, were scheduled to arrive in stores in October and November 2012, respectively. (At the time of this writing, we could not confirm whether Sony had stuck to those projected ship dates.)

The early ship date for the D600 meant it was the first of the new wave of prosumer full-framers we received for testing. So is this smaller, less expensive DSLR with a big sensor right for pros on a budget either as a lead camera or as a back-up rig? Read on to find out what we thought about this first-out-of-the-gate full-frame offering from Nikon.

A Step Up (and Step Down)

The Nikon D600 looks less like a mini-D800—Nikon’s 36.3-megapixel full-frame pro camera—and more like the full-frame, fraternal twin to the 16.2-megapixel APS-C sensor-based D7000, Nikon’s popular prosumer camera from 2010. (For the record, Nikon refers to its APS-C DSLRs as having “DX-format” chips and its full-frame cameras as having “FX-format” sensors.)

The D7000 is a great camera, which we named “Camera of the Year,” in 2010. It should be noted that 2010 was one of those “off years” when only one pro-DSLR and no full-frame models were released. Still though, the D7000 was so good it attracted interest from pros as a second or back-up DSLR body, thanks to its light but tough build, its bevy of features and its superior image quality.

Truth be told though, once you go full frame, you never want to go back. Such is the case with the D600, a camera I enjoyed shooting with and one I think will persuade even devout APS-C shooters to graduate to larger chip status. (Nikon D300s users, this means you.)

Though the D600 more closely resembles the D7000, at $2,099 Nikon is really slotting it as a step-down model from the D800 ($3,000). At 26.8 ounces, the Nikon D600 is 16 percent lighter than the D800, which, because of its high-resolution full-frame sensor, is aimed at studio, commercial and landscape photographers who might not be able to afford a medium-format camera. So think of the D600 as for potential D800 buyers who might want to save $1,000. (Tough times, these.)

Small but Serious
The D600 is also slightly smaller physically than the D800. Its dimensions are 5.6 x 4.4 x 3.2 inches (w x h x d), making the D600 just a hair more svelte all around than its stablemate, and thus more in line with the size of the Nikon D7000. Nikon’s also selling the D600 as a kit with the AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR lens for $2,699.

That’s the configuration I tried it with and while the kit lens might be fine for photographers moving up in class from, for instance, a Nikon D5100, I’d recommend saving your money on the kit price and putting it towards a nicer lens. While the 24-85mm was a decent all-around lens, I didn’t feel it was particularly good at any one thing.

I used it during my trip to photokina and though having just one all-purpose lens saved space in my gear bag, I wished it were sharper and had a wider aperture to maximize the shallow depth-of-field and intense bokeh you get with a full-frame camera.

That may be how Nikon wants you to feel. Let’s face it: Cameras are mainly just lens delivery systems and once first-time full-frame users see how much they can get out of their lenses—shallow depth-of-field, bokeh and the actual focal length of their lenses, especially wides, without magnification—they’ll probably want to purchase some pro glass.

I’m assuming most Nikon pros already have high-end Nikkor glass, making another compelling case for the D600. Nearly all of Nikon’s old lenses are compatible with this F-mount camera, which separates it from consumer models like the D5100.

Despite its smaller size, the D600’s build quality is decent, mixing magnesium alloy plates on the top and rear of the camera, and polycarbonate and rubberized gripping on the exterior. In terms of weather resistance, it’s on par with the D800, with moisture- and dust-resistant gaskets and seals throughout the body. It was rainy during my travels in Germany and the Netherlands—when is it not?—and my D600 got consistently splashed and splattered without experiencing any issues.

Yes, there is sort of a “plastic” feel to the D600 but it’s solid and similar to the D800, which has mainly a magnesium alloy build. And while the D600 is smaller than Nikon’s pro DSLRs, it doesn’t feel “small.” The camera’s grip is tall and comfortable and there’s some heft to the camera. If you want something beefier, then you probably want a D4.

The Nikon D600 is a brisk performer in all respects. It uses the same EXPEED 3 image processor that’s in the D4 and D800 and can fire off up to 5.5 frames per second (fps). It powers on and is ready to shoot in less than a quarter of a second and shutter lag is so minimal it’s not even worth mentioning. You’ll pick this camera up and immediately feel comfortable shooting with it. That’s how it rolls.

The interface and menu structure is very similar to Nikon’s other high-end DSLRs and the only things that may give pros pause are the canned scene modes available via the mode dial and the small pop-up flash on top. The D600 has a generous 3.2-inch, 921K-dot LCD screen on back (the same as on the D4 and D800) with a 170-degree viewing angle that images and HD video clips looked great on during playback.

It’s worth noting that the D600’s video chops are on par with both the D4 and D800, with the ability to shoot 1080p HD at 30, 25 or 24 fps, and 720p video at 60, 50 and 30 fps. There’s also 20-level audio control, a stereo mic jack, a headphone jack and uncompressed output via the HDMI port.

As with Nikon’s other full-frame DSLRs, the quality of the D600’s high-def clips was top notch, with crisp color, good dynamic range and tons of detail in my footage. I also noticed no signs of the Jell-O-like rolling shutter effect when I panned during video capture. This was a recurring issue with earlier Nikon HD-DSLRs that seems to have been rectified. About the only thing you can’t do with the D600 during video capture that you can do with the D800 is adjust the aperture on the fly. It’s kind of odd that Nikon would leave this out but I guess you have to have a few reasons to go with the step-up model.

Focusing with the D600 was a fast and accurate experience. The camera uses a 39-point (with nine cross-type points) AF system with the new Multi-CAM 4800 AF module and offers all the pro focus modes including Continuous-servo for sports and action. (In contrast, the D800 has a 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type points.) I had no trouble locking in focus with the D600 even in low-contrast and dim shooting conditions.

Along with full-frame shooting, the D600 offer an APS-C “crop” mode, for DX-format images at 10.5 megapixels.

The D600 uses a 2,016-pixel, TTL 3D color matrix metering II sensor—while the D800 uses a 91,000-pixel sensor—and I did feel the D600 struggled, from time to time, to get the correct exposures in mixed lighting. In contrast, the D800 was spot on in a variety of lighting conditions for most of my testing.

The D600 stores images to dual SD card slots—the D800 uses a CF and an SD slot—so if you’re going with this camera, it’s time to stock up on SD. The D600’s shutter life isn’t quite up to the D800’s durability standard, offering 150,000 cycles compared to 200,000.

Image Quality

Image quality from the D600 was astounding, making me think more and more that this camera should appeal to both pros and enthusiasts. The D600’s 24.3-megapixel, full-frame (35.9 x 24 mm) CMOS image sensor is very similar to the Sony-manufactured chips in Sony’s a99 DSLR and Cyber-shot RX1 compact camera.

Both of those models also use 24.3-megapixel full-frame sensors and while Nikon wouldn’t confirm that it’s the same chip, it’s a safe guess that it’s built by Sony to Nikon’s specifications.

“It’s an original design by Nikon,” Lindsay Silverman, Nikon’s senior product manager for pro DSLRs told us back in September just before the D600 was announced. “Even though the resolution of one [sensor] to another might be the same, the performance is very different.”

While the cynic in me would say this is just marketing speak, a similar scenario occurred when the Sony a900 and Nikon D3X were announced in 2008. Though both cameras appeared to use an identical Sony-manufactured 24.5-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor, the Nikon D3X’s image quality was superior in many respects. At the time of this writing, I hadn’t had a chance to test the a99 and RX1, but it’s likely that whatever secret sauce Nikon has put into the D600’s sensor, it’s Nikon’s own unique recipe.

Whatever the case, the full-frame chip in the D600 flat out rocks. The individual pixel size is a healthy 5.95 microns and the camera just gobbled up light, letting me shoot comfortably at up to ISO 12800 with manageable levels of noise. At ISO 6400, only some speckles of luminance and chroma noise were detectable in the shadow areas of subterranean images I shot in the Amsterdam City Archives, but it was easily treatable in Photoshop. (The camera shoots ISO 100 to 6400 natively but with an extended mode of 50 to 25600.)

Dynamic range in mixed lighting, even without the camera’s Active D-Lighting on, had a latitude comparable to the always-elusive level of traditional film, and I felt comfortable shooting with this camera in a range of lighting conditions. (If only the metering was slightly better.) Skin tones in portraits were gorgeous and natural, producing a very professional look without the bright whites and pumped up reds you typically get from prosumer DSLRs.

While the 36.3-megapixel D800 offers an incredibly high amount of resolution for a DSLR, the D600’s 24.3-megapixel chip was certainly nothing to sneeze at. Since the medium-range zoom of the kit lens combined with the non-magnification property of the full-frame didn’t let me get as close to some subjects as I wanted, I was able to crop my D600 shots and print them out at 13 x 19 inches without losing any detail.

All in all, the D600’s image quality, especially when shooting RAW, was impressive. Pros will want to take a hard look at this camera.

The Bottom Line
I’m curious to see how the D600 and its full-frame prosumer rivals from Canon and Sony do in terms of sales. When the Nikon D7000 came out in 2010 it was so popular, it was tough to find one in stores for months after it was introduced. While that APS-C CMOS-sensor-based camera clearly hit a sweet spot for photo enthusiasts looking to get serious about their photography, the full-frame D600 blows the doors off it in terms of imaging quality for both still and HD movies. While the D600 may lack a few features that the D800 and D4 offer, it’s not so dumbed down that serious photographers should look askance. This smaller, lighter and less expensive full-framer from Nikon has a good chance of not just attracting intermediate photographers drawn by the allure of its 35mm-size chip, but also professionals wanting to add the D600 to their already crowded camera bags as a back-up body. Photographers better move quickly though, because I think this smaller wonder is going to be a hit.

Excellent all-around image quality; strong feature set without any significant dumbing down of functionality to appeal to less experienced photographers; solid but lightweight build; smaller camera size still feels comfortable for photographers with large hands; great HD video quality; reasonable price

Can’t adjust aperture on the fly while shooting video; Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR kit lens won’t appeal to pros; inconsistent metering; body has a somewhat plastic feel

Prices: $2,099, body only; $2,699, kit with Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR lens;

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