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Nikon D600 Field Review

01st November 2013
With the Nikon D600, Nikon has delivered a full-frame DSLR at a reasonably low price for such a large full frame sensor. To add to that the D600 delivers huge resolution and many of the features found in the Nikon D800 for nearly two thirds of the price. This camera is certainly going to pave its own road to success, as it’s an incredible camera. I have listed some of the key features of the camera below;

Sensor: 24.3 MP FX
Resolution: 6016 x 4016
DX Resolution: 3936 x 2624 (10.5 PM)
ISO Sensitivity: 100-6,400
Boost Low ISO Sensitivity: 50
Boost High ISO Sensitivity: 12,800-25,600
Processor: EXPEED 3
Metering System: 3D Color Matrix Meter II with face recognition
Dust Reduction: Yes
Weather Sealing/Protection: Yes
Body Build: Magnesium Alloy
White Balance: New White Balance System
Shutter: Up to 1/4000 and 30 sec exposure
Shutter Durability: 150,000 cycles
Storage: 2x SD slots
Viewfinder Coverage: 100%
Speed: 5.5 FPS
Exposure Meter: 2016 pixel RGB sensor
Built-in Flash: Yes, with Commander Mode, full CLS compatibility
Autofocus System: Multi CAM 4800FX AF with 39 focus points and 9 cross-type sensors
LCD Screen: 3.2 inch diagonal with 921,000 dots
Movie Modes: Full 1080p HD @ 30 fps max
In-Camera HDR Capability
Two Live View Modes: One for photography and one for videography
GPS: Not built-in, requires GP-1 GPS unit
Battery Type: EN-EL15
Weight: 760g (body only), 850g (with battery and memory cards)

Handling and Controls
Having handled most of Nikon’s range of cameras, Nikon is certainly right on the money with the D600. It is not bulky and large like most full frame cameras tend to be, and it is not too small like some of the consumer range cameras. I by no means have big nor small hands and the camera was very comfortable in hand, perhaps a little bulk would be good, so I must admit I think with the added optional MB-D14 battery pack it would probably be just perfect. The camera is nice and light but still has the feel of a good quality build if you know what I mean, you don’t feel like you need to cradle it all the time. Yes the Nikon D600 does not have the same full magnesium-alloy body as the D800 or D4, but it still has a durable body covered with magnesium alloy on the top and the rear of the camera. Some may argue that the D600 could have issues with heavier lenses on the lens mount where the body is plastic. Here for me you just have to use some common sense. There is a reason why the longer/heavier lenses have tripod collars and mounts. You should never let a heavy lens dangle off the camera mount, you are just asking for trouble if you doing that... As well as a tough construction, the Nikon D600 is also weather-sealed. This means that the camera should be able to survive in light rain, dust and humid conditions without getting damaged. I did not put this to the test on the D600, but on other weather-sealed cameras I have owned in the past this works well.

Now he D600 is not some technological masterpiece with a whole lot of new software or features, however what Nikon did is something no other DSLR has ever done. They took what they currently have in the market, the insides of some the best of Nikon’s flagship pro DSLR systems (the D800 and D4) mixed them up and threw them inside a slightly larger D7100 body and there you have it, the Nikon D600.

So essentially the D600 offers some of the same features of the D4 and D800 in terms of performance and hardware and the D7100 in terms of size and some layout, although you will find, that the D600 uses more of the buttons of the D800 rather than the D7100, with exception of the AF-ON button. This might put a few people off but for me is not a big issue at all. The main difference for current Nikon shooters familiar with the D800 or D700 will be the new placement of the WB, Quality, and ISO buttons, which have been moved to the back of the camera to make room for an exposure mode selector on the top of the camera.

There is one thing that was a little surprising and inconvenient for me more than than anything else in the D600, that’s the lack of ability to customize some of the normal controls as you can in most of the higher end Nikon DSLR’s. The one I found most frustrating is the inability to program the OK button in the center of the camera’s back control pad. This is a button I normally set to zoom in to 100% in playback mode, this makes it quick and easy to check focus and sharpness on your images, something a lot of photographers do. With the D600, when you press this button you’re taken into the in-camera processing menu, this was very strange for me. Hope Nikon allows customization of the center control pad “OK” button in future firmware upgrades.

The D600 comes with dual SD card slots, the D600's media can be customized to use the second slot as overflow, backup or RAW/Jpeg option. Still and video files can be recorded to separate cards as well, which I find very convenient, especially during downloading and post-processing, it also allows you to use a higher capacity card for video files. I typically use the Overflow option on my other cameras since it gives me two cards to write to, but with the great video capabilities of the D600 I can see myself splitting the cards to still and video.

Overall, the D600 handles very well. All controls commonly used for shooting are in a natural place, if you are used to a Nikons configuration, and for the most part it’s easy to access just about everything you want.

The Sensor & Processor
We all know that without a doubt, the most important feature of a digital camera today is its sensor. You can put the most advanced features and systems into a camera but at the end of the day the sensor is what drives the decision making. Resolution, dynamic range, color depth and ISO performance are all closely related to the sensor and its physical size and composition. The Nikon D600 surely does not disappoint when it comes to its sensor performance. The superb 24.3 MP FX sensor on the Nikon D600 has been rated second after the two Nikon D800’s and better than that of the Nikon D4 by the guys at DxOMark.

The D600 has pretty much the same color depth and dynamic range as the D800, which as we already know is amazing. (D800 dynamic range 14.4 EV / D600 dynamic range 14.2 EV. The colors are also fantastic, yes the D600 also creates the same green cast on some of the images in the same way the D4 and D800 do but a slight adjustment to the Auto WB setting and its sorted, otherwise I cannot see any difference in color rendition between the D600 and the D800. As for low-light performance, the D600 also handles high ISOs as good as the D800, I will cover this later on in the review.

Behind the sensor, the D600 uses Nikon’s latest EXPEED 3 image processor – the same one that’s used by the D4 and D800. The D600 offers a standard sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400, which can be further extended to an ISO equivalent of 50-25,600 this is exactly the same as the D800.

Auto Focus and Focus Points
The D600 uses a 39-point Multi-CAM4800 AF FX phase detect system that’s very similar to what’s found in the D7000, however its far superior to its Multi-CAM4800 AF DX brother. 9 of the 39 AF points are cross-type sensors. By comparison the D800 and D4 use a 51-point AF system with 15 cross-type points. The one thing I at first had an issue with was the spread of the autofocus points inside the viewfinder, they seemed to be very munched together, one would think they would be more spread out across the frame. On doing a little investigation into this, the autofocus points on the D600 are tightly squeezed in a much smaller area compared to the D7000, however this id due to the viewfinder being so much bigger on the D600. If you compare the D300s to the D700/D800, the difference is very similar. However, if you compare any full-frame Nikon to the D600, you will see that the AF area is smaller but not by much.

I was fortunate I had the chance to put the D600’s AF system through it paces in some of the most AF demanding conditions shooting birds in flight along the Chobe River in Botswana. I wanted to see if the camera would be suitable for photographing birds and wildlife, since those are my main subjects.

The AF of the Nikon D600 is great. It is fast, accurate and it doesn’t hunt. In fact I feel it’s almost as fast as the AF on the D800 and almost certainly more accurate. It’s shockingly confident in low light conditions, having said that, as the light level drops, the AF isn't quite as speedy but certainly quick enough that it was rarely an issue I found when shooting, most importantly, it nailed the focus in almost every shot regardless of light levels.

I used Nikons new 80-400 AF-S VRII as well as the 600 F4 VR mostly, and the cameras AF performed superbly with both. Below you will see a number of images ranging from wildlife to birds in flight under different lighting conditions. I used mostly the AF-C mode with dynamic 9 focus points selected and varied the focus tracking with lock on by situation.

Frame Rate and Shutter Speed
The D600 shoots at 5.5 frames per second, which is pretty impressive, considering that it has to process 24 megapixels files and It has a buffer capacity of 27 frames when shooting a 12 bit RAW file, which means it will shoot 27 RAW images in 4.9 seconds. The 5.5 FPS vs 4 FPS in the D800 really does make a difference, yes it’s only 1.5 FPS faster, but this difference is pretty substantial in real world wildlife shooting. If I had to trade resolution for better frame rate in a, I’d be very very tempted to choose a faster frame rate for my genre of photography. The D600 essentially represents that compromise for me.

Now something I thought would be an issue for me was the slower max shutter speed of the D600 being 1/4000 sec as apposed to the normal 1/8000 sec in the D800 and some of the others. However I did a small test, I opened up my lightroom catalog and searched in the metadata of the entire library for images shot at over 1/4000 sec, and to my surprise there were relatively very few, so is it a big issue? My feeling is not at all, there is not a lot out there that you need to shoot at anything over 1/4000 sec.

ISO Performance
I have been shooting with the D3 and D3s for a number of years, so am very comfortable pushing ISOs quite high since these cameras perform very well at high ISOs especially the D3s. The D600 doesn't have these same capabilities as the D3s, but then I didn’t really expect it to either. Having said that, I would say though that the D600 is on par with the D800 and the D3.

Over the recent years I have found one of Nikon's strengths is keeping noise under control without losing detail this is especially important when shooting wildlife with intricate feather or fur detail, I found the D600 performed really well across the 100-6400 range with regards to this. Although its possible to expand the ISO to a low of 50 and a high of 24,600, I didn’t venture into this realm of what I call “Silly ISO” as I don’t have much use for it in my chosen field of shooting, I pretty much tried to stay within the 100-2500 range where I found the noise most acceptable but did push it up to 6400 just for interest sake on occasion and was very surprised at the results.

Sure, there's noise at higher ISOs, particularly in the shadows, as you'd expect, But this is fairly easy to deal with. Personally, I prefer to handle noise issues in my post processing where I have more control, rather than using in-camera noise reduction, but I did have it set to normal in the camera settings.

Over all the D600 produced very impressive results. Given how little loss of detail there is in the 100-2500 range, I would not hesitate to use it here all day long, the results are damn good and anyone should be very happy with it. When needed in extreme cases you could even push it to the 3200-6400 range and the loss of detail is relatively acceptable. At 3200 there is a little more noise and loss of detail but very acceptable, the black and shadows retain good depth and detail. At 6400 loss of detail is more noticeable, you start to see quite a bit of luminance noise and the blacks, shadows start to suffer, but is by far not a completely terrible result.

Below are a series of images shot a various ISO’s, the images comprise of a full frame image and a 100% crop of the same full frame image.

ISO 400

ISO 800

ISO 1250

ISO 1600

ISO 2000

ISO 3200

ISO 4000

For me, Nikon has a real winner with the D600 as it offers a perfect combination of size, (not too big nor to small, not too light nor too heavy), image quality, performance and especially price. After reading the stats on this camera and seeing that its cost comes in at about two thirds of the cost of the highly regarded Nikon D800, my first impression was that Nikon would probably use an older sensor with unimpressive noise capabilities on the D600, something in the way of the D3x sensor, which produced awesome image quality but ISO was Dismal. My reasoning for this was surely Nikon would not produce a camera that will compete head to head with the D800. However after shooting with the D600, personally I feel Nikon has done exactly that.

The D600 performs just as well as the D800, only with less pixels which is not a massive issue and a lacks a few other minor attributes, the D600 with its newly developed 24.3 MP sensor performs as good as any top DSLR. The D600 shows very impressive ISO capabilities that match those of the D800 any day, as well as very similar colour depth and Dynamic range.

Now having said that the D600 is a third cheaper than the D800, it is still a pretty serious investment at just under R23K. However, when you consider that not too long ago a 24MP full-frame Nikon DSLR would have set you back over R60K, the price of the D600 is very impressive.

The Nikon D600 packs enough impressive attributes into its compact body including superb image quality to attract many types of photographers. The D600 would work extremely well as a primary body for any photographer no matter what you chosen field of photography may be. The D600 is also a great cheaper alternative to a Nikon D4 or D800. You still get a fantastic full-frame sensor just like the big guns, great video capability, and compatibility with all your lenses, all at a much lower price.

How it fits into my line up, is as a second body, with the higher resolution to my current D3s and fantastic high dynamic range it fits in perfectly when I need that little bit extra. Basically the D600 would be a great compliment to anyone who already has an established Nikon system, but who may be looking for an economical way to add another body that is still able to produce the image quality they demand.

I have no doubt, the Nikon D600 will be and already is a very popular camera. I will even go as far as to say, in the long term it will be far more popular than the D800/D800E, especially after people realize that it is not some downgraded stripped version of the D800, but a very capable DSLR with impressive performance on any playing field. Overall, I am extremely impressed with the D600. It is in all ways, a top camera!

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