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Nikon D600 First Impressions Review

by Shun Cheung, September 2012


2012, the Year of FX

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

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.

Camera Controls

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.

Auto Focus

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.

High-ISO Performance

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.

Live View

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

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.

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.

Conclusion

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
Price as low as $1996.95 from 1 retailers
$1996.95

Nikon D600 DSLR Body, (compare prices) (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 camera—stunning 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 more—is 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…






Text and photos © 2013 Shun Cheung.

Article created September 2012

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



LeRoy Pearce , September 27, 2012; 02:55 P.M.

Thank you Shun for your review.  It is helpful and I always read your assessment with great interest.

 

Jim Donahue , September 27, 2012; 09:39 P.M.

Well written and useful, but I have had such good success with my D7000 I'm going to stick with it. I recently purchased the 16-85 VR Lens and it is a great addition for my hobbyist type photography.

Jesse Holbrook , October 09, 2012; 08:24 A.M.

Shun, sounds like I'd be better off to stay with my D300 if this 600 is not built tough and some what weather tight?  I do mostly wildlife and was thinking it would be nice to up-grade but this may not be the time or camera?  Thanks for your re-view

Shun Cheung , October 11, 2012; 06:41 P.M.

The D600 has good weather sealing just like the D7000, but keep in mind that none of these cameras is waterproof.

 

The D600 is more like a general-purpose FX-format DSLR. Its AF is good but not great and its frame rate is a modest 5.5 fps. For wildlife photography, I prefer the DX format myself. The D300/D300S is still quite good, although the pixel count has gone up in the last few years, and high-ISO results have also improved.

Darren Gold , October 15, 2012; 08:45 A.M.

I believe the D600 was supposed to be an entry-level full-framer. But at the last moment someone very clever at Nikon said, NO. And that was a very good decision.

If you want to go full-frame, you NEED all those features that Nikon installed into this camera. You need the sophisticated AF system. You need the weather-sealed body. You need all those other bells and whistles.

Take a look at the chart here to see what I mean

deb cloud , October 20, 2012; 04:48 P.M.

I made the jump from my D300 to the D600 and I'm very pleased with my decision.  I've been trying it out with an assortment of some old school lenses and the results are wonderful.

Image Attachment: fileuNAPDF.jpg

Tord S Eriksson , October 25, 2012; 05:00 A.M.

I've had my D600 for some weeks now, and I must say it delivers just what I wanted: Nice deep colors, even in low light conditions, something my DX-sized DSLRs just couldn't do! Amazingly it weighs almost exactly the same as my beloved K-5, which now have found a new home!

Robin Custance , November 06, 2012; 02:43 A.M.

Does anyone know whether using Extreme Pro 95MB/s SD cards in the D600 make a difference over using Ultra 30MB/s SD cards when shooting?

When I use the ultra cards it handles quite a few shots before the buffer fills but then I am left waiting while it finishes writing them to the card/s.

Not so bad when set to JPEG but I need to shoot raw doing weddings. I have not tried the Extreme Pro cards yet as they are 3x the price and I need at least four x64GB cards to shooting weddings, 1 in slot 1 for RAW and 1 in slot 2 for Fine JPEG as back up and would need to have the second set once they fill up.

As far as I can tell I will get roughly 1,400 images per card which is just enough to want a second set in case I shoot more than 1,400.

So to get 4 cards at $180 Australian dollars each (cheapest I can see on the web) that's $720 just for memory cards when the Ultra (if the extreme pro cards don't make any difference) 4x ultra 64GB 30MB/s cards are $60 each which is only $240 I already have 2 so only need to spend another $120.

So has anyone used both and know if it does make a difference?

I have looked everywhere but can not see the actual write speed of the D600.

Hope someone can help as I have a wedding booked for this Saturday the 10th of November 2012

Shun Cheung , November 06, 2012; 10:22 A.M.

I have one 32G SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/sec SD card, and I have tested it against 30MB/sec Extreme cards. If you shoot RAW "machine gun" style with many consecutive frames, you can see a difference as the D600 can dump its image files onto a 95MB card faster. Therefore, it may make a difference if you shoot sports or some action sequence. Since most people do not shoot weddings that way, I don't think you need 95MB cards for weddings.

We have had a couple of such discussion on the Nikon Forum:

In any case, if you shoot RAW + JPEG, you certainly don't need 90MS cards in the JPEG slot as JPEG image files are much smaller. If you want to give it a try, I would get one 95MB card, perhaps 32G or at most 64G to store your RAW files and see how that works out. There is definitely no point to buy four very expensive 95MB cards.

Incidentally, I bought my 30MB/sec card two years ago. It has already lost more than half of its value. Memory cards depreciate rapidly; I would not buy any more (both in terms of speed and capacity) than what you really need now.


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