In the world of digital SLR cameras, 2012 might as well be remembered as the year of FX, which is a Nikon terminology for the 24×36mm sensor area, made popular by 35mm film in the last century. “The year of FX” started in October 2011 when Canon announced the 1DX, which was delivered mid 2012, followed by Nikon’s January announcement for the D4, February announcement of the D800/D800E twin and then Canon’s 5D Mark III in March. For Photokina in September 2012 we saw the Sony Alpha 99, the Nikon D600 and finally the Canon 6D.
With all of these new models, Canon and Nikon are competing head on in three tiers:
High-speed DSLRs for sports, news, and action photography: Canon 1DX and Nikon D4 at $6000+
Mid-range, high-pixel-count DSLRs: Canon 5D III and Nikon D800/D800E at around $3000 to $3500
Prosumer/enthusiast DSLR: Canon 6D and Nikon D600 both with the same $2099.95 introduction price
For the first time, FX-format DSLRs are now available at a fairly affordable price just over $2000.
Nikon D600, the FX Version of the D7000
D7000 and D600
Two year ago, Nikon introduced the DX-format D7000, which retains the size and controls of the consumer-grade D90 but adds quite a few higher-end features, including
Metering with manual-focus AI/AI-S lenses
A 100% viewfinder
Dual memory card slots, two SD
1080p full HD video
excellent low-light performance, which is still the best among Nikon DX DSLRs
Some of those high-end features are not available even on the FX-format D700, which has a 95% viewfinder and only one CF card slot, and the D700 cannot capture video.
In the last two years, the D7000 has been extremely popular. The new FX-format D600 closely resembles the D7000, both externally in terms of the controls and internally concerning the features, as the D600 also comes with all the high-end features outlined above.
The controls on the D600 are largely adopted from the D7000 with the D70/D80/D90-style P,A,S,M dial on the left side to control the exposure modes. One complaint about the D7000 is that this dial has a high profile such that it is rather easy to unintentionally change the settings. The dial on the D600 is lower and also comes with a lock button in the center; you need to hold down that little lock button to rotate this dial. Similar to the D7000, the C,S,M switch for continuous, single-frame, and manual focus selection is replaced by an AF/M button that works in conjunction with the command dials to select the auto focus modes. There is one dedicated exposure bracketing (BKT) button on the front side above the lens release button, but just like the D7000, bracketing is limited to two or three frames (normal, one overexposed, and one underexposed). Some of those who perform high-dyanmic-range (HDR) merge in post processing would prefer to have 5 or 7 frames to merge; on the D600 and D7000, you need to set that up manually. Also similar to the D7000, there is no dedicated AF-ON button on the back, although there seems to be room for one on the larger D600. Instead, the AF-ON functionality can be programmed onto the AE-L/AF-L button.
All in all, except for AF-ON, all dials and buttons available on the D300, D700, and D800 are also available on the D600, but the layouts are quite different. I personally prefer the AF mode button on the D800 where you hold down the button and rotate the command dial to change the exposure mode settings, but I think it is a matter of getting used to the controls.
Similar to the D7000 and the consumer DSLR models, the D600 has a set of pre-programmed scene modes for various photo subjects, such as sports, children, night photography, etc. Scene modes is generally considered as a beginner feature, indicating that the D600 is targeted for enthusiasts and serious amateurs alike.
Multi-CAM 4800 FX Layout
As the D7000, the D600 uses the Multi-CAM 4800 AF module that has 39 AF points, including 9 that are cross type in a 3×3 matrix in the center of the frame. Its capability is a little below the 51-point Multi-CAM 3500 on the D3, D4, D300, D700, and D800. While I have very good experience with the Multi-CAM 4800 on the D7000, on the FX-format D600, those AF point definitely feel quite concentrated into the center of the frame. When your subject off center, which is what it should be in most situations for a better composition, the lack of outside AF points can be a bit problematic for action photography, especially when the subject is small.
For slow-moving subject such as ducks swimming on a pond and people playing tennis, the D600’s auto focus is perfectly fine. For something like birds in flight or people running directly towards the camera, I have concluded the D800’s auto focus is considerably better than even the D3 family before it. Under those demanding conditions, the D600’s AF is clearly not as fast and accurate as that on the top-of-the-line cameras.
D600 ISO 6400 Sample
At this point I don’t have a RAW converter that works with D600 NEF files yet, but based on JPEG fine images from the D600, comparing D600, D700, and D800 high-ISO images side by side, after I down sample everything to 12MP to match the D700, it is clear that the D700 is the noisiest among the three at ISO 3200 and 6400. I use the word “noisiest” here reluctantly as the D700’s high-ISO capability was considered ground-breaking merely 4, 5 years ago. In fact, the difference is quite obvious. Prior tests indicate that the D800 has about one stop advantage over the D700. I would say the D600 is about the same as the D800.
A slightly annoying feature on the D800 is that during live view capture, the rear LCD is blacked out while the image is being written onto the memory cards; the LCD won’t come back on until the entire image is written. Since the D800 image files are huge, on slower memory cards, that blackout can last as long as 3, 4 seconds. I am glad that the D600 does not have this blackout.
Compatibility with the 24mm/f3.5 PC-E (Tilt/Shift) Lens
Nikon 24mm/f3.5 PC-E on D600
Similar to the D700 and D800, the D600 is fully compatible with the 24mm/f3.5 PC-E lens, which is favorite among landscape and architecture photographers. This lens can achieve maximum shift on the D600, although the D600’s viewfinder overhang does block one knob on the 24mm PC-E as the D700 and D800 do, but all you need to do is to rotate the lens counterclockwise instead of clockwise and you will get the same special effect.
Since the D600 is a small and relatively light FX-format DSLR suitable for long hikes, it is great news for landscape photographers that it is fully compatible with the 24mm PC-E lens.
D600, D700, or D800?
All three are of Nikon FX format. The D700 was introduced back in 2008 with only 12MP, which is considered low nowadays, although I find 12MP sufficient most of the time, perhaps 80% of my photography. The D700 was introduced as a downsized D3, sharing most of its sports/action capabilities, such as 8 frames/sec in conjunction with the MB-D10 vertical grip. The D600’s 24MP seems to be the norm now while 36MP on the D800 is definitely high and unnecessary for most people.
The D800’s auto focus is state of the art now in 2012, while the D700 shares the same Multi-CAM 3500 AF module. The D600 still has good AF but its AF capabilities are definitely second tier.
D7000, D600, and D800E
The D600 is the smallest and lightest FX-format DSLR from Nikon. It is about the same size as the popular D300/D300S, slightly narrower but a bit taller to accommodate the viewfinder for FX. It is also the first time Nikon manufactures an FX-format DSLR in Thailand instead of Japan, thus reducing the cost.
Compared to the previous generation D700, the D600 has more advanced features just like the D7000, including a 100% viewfinder, dual memory card, and of course 1080p HD video.
Some of us have been expecting a “D700 replacement,” another more affordable FX-format DSLR as a downsized D4 similar to the D700 being a downsized D3 but with the same electronics. With the introduction of the D800 and now D600, both have sensors with more pixels than the D4, I have concluded that a downsized D4 is unlikely to be in Nikon’s plan. Looking back, I am sure the D700 had affected D3 sales to some degree, and that was why Nikon promptly upgraded the D3 to the D3S with better high-ISO results, while leaving the D700 unchanged to the end. With the current D4, D800/D800E and D600, all introduced in 2012, Nikon’s FX line up is very full and up to date for another couple of years.
The 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S VR Kit Lens
The D600 is available in two options, body only and with the 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S VR kit lens. Nikon had announced that lens separately earlier this year, and “we have reviewed it:” http://photo.net/equipment/nikon/lenses/review/24-85mm-f3.5-4.5-af-s-vr/
About a decade ago, there used to be a Nikon 24-85mm/f3.5-4.5 AF-S consumer lens without VR and it was very popular towards the end of the film era. This new lens is the re-introduction of that lens with VR added. Optically it is very good, but since it is not a constant f2.8 zoom, it can be a bit challenging using it indoors. Auto focus with it tends to hunt a bit more under indoor dim light.
The D600 is a very fine general-purpose DSLR with a modest $2100 price tag, which is very reasonable for an FX-format DSLR but of course still high for those who are accustomed to DX prices. 24MP seems to be the sweet spot at this point. All essential features on the D600 work well, but there is no doubt that Nikon is reserving the state-of-the-art capabilities for their top-end DSLRs to save cost on the D600 and differentiate it from the top-of-the-line models. The D600 would not be my choice for heavy-duty sports photography, but it should be very good for travel, landscape (relatively light weight with 24MP), and wedding photography. I find the features quite good for most photography situations, unless you capture action sports. Wedding photographers would certainly appreciate the 100% viewfinder, dual memory cards for backup purposes and the good high-ISO results.
Where to Buy
Nikon D600 DSLR Body, (buy from Amazon) (review). From the Nikon website: If you’ve been looking to take your passion to the next level with full-frame HD-SLR performance, your wait is over. Now the power of a pro-level Nikon FX-format cameraâstunning full-frame images, cinema-quality 1080p videos, superior low-light performance, blazing fast framing and burst rates, built-in HDR, wireless photo sharing and much moreâis attainable in a compact, lightweight HD-SLR. Optimized for full-frame shooting and versatility, streamlined for compactness and value, the D600 will fuel your passion like never before…