I’ve tried every professional camera that came out in 2012, and I’ve never had people clamor for my review as much as with the Nikon D600. It’s clear that the attractive price point, including staggering holiday sales with lens bundles, are attracting people to move up to a full-frame sensor while it becomes more affordable than ever. Great! In late September I got one of the first models, I tested it out, found some things I loved, some things that I didn’t, and I was ready to go! I used it on an engagement shoot, used it at a wedding, and was ready to really put it through the paces in my extremely busy fall schedule.
And then … it broke. I’d started my second engagement shoot with it, and almost immediately it just stopped autofocusing. Not good. It turns out that my model had been damaged in transit. This means a couple things for this review:
- The reason you are reading this in late December instead of early October is that I had to sit and wait to see if this was a persistent problem with the model. I suspected this was a one-time case of bad luck, but if I’d started reading reports that D600 autofocus was failing left and right, then this would be a very different review.
- I have not been able to test it nearly as thoroughly as I like to for a dSLR review, especially as it was just a backup camera at the wedding I shot. I would have skipped the review altogether if people didn’t beg me for it every single day. That said, I have some insights on it as a working camera that I believe are valuable.
I have not seen anything about this being a persistent problem with the model, so I wouldn’t take this as a point against it in the review. A single data point is not in any way valid for determining whether the camera is particularly fragile.
OK, let’s get to it:
What is this camera all about?
This, not the D800, is Nikon’s real successor for the D700 … which shows how confusing the model naming system is. The D700 was all about fitting a full-frame sensor in as compact and broadly usable a camera as possible for a more affordable price. The D600 has the same mission, and uses a few design choices and technological progress to make the camera even more compact and affordable, weighing 22 percent less than the D700. The D800’s mission is totally different — from extremely high resolution to crazy dynamic range, Nikon set out to make the best ISO 100 DSLR around, and they did so. But the trade-offs are giant files and a sluggish, un-Nikonlike response speed. (see full review here)
So one of the central questions people have is this: Is it a worthy upgrade? Absolutely. In almost every way, the D600 is a superior camera to the D700, so pay no attention to that model number. It’s been four-and-a-half years since the D700 was released, and that’s a lifetime in sensor development. Even though the D600 has twice as many megapixels, you will absolutely get better prints at the highest ISOs from it, especially in regards to color fidelity. The D700’s sensor is virtually identical to the 2007-designed Nikon D3, and the color and overall tone gets muddy at the highest ISOs. Five years ago, no one cared that a photo was a bit muddy at ISO 6400 — we were too busy saying “I can take a usable photo at ISO 6400? What strange sorcery is this?”
The Nikon D600 at ISO 5000, good color and all
The only major potential drawback in the comparison was that the D700 used the best autofocus design available at the time, the same as the much more expensive Nikon D3, while the D600 uses a modified version designed for the “semi-professional” Nikon D7000. I expected this to have more of an effect on me, but I used it all day next to the D3s and in practice I didn’t notice any real difference in focus acquisition. Any effects were minimal compared to other factors like which lens you were using.
The diamond design of the focus points plus the large frame make the AF points feel a bit more clustered than others, especially if you’re shooting in the corners. But pretty much all full-frame cameras are pretty bad on this front, so I’ve learned to adjust for it a long time ago. Get as close as you can, then focus and recompose — it’s the full-frame way. (Live View actually lets you put the AF point wherever you want, but it’s much slower). Someone coming from, a pro DX camera like a D300s might be shocked at the difference though.
So what’s it like to use?
Even though its resolution pales next to the D800’s 36 megapixels, the 24 MP of the D600 is nothing to sneeze at. Let’s take a look at a picture of the New York skyline next to a 100 percent crop of the same picture, that lets us look at all of the best footholds for King Kong on the Empire State building:
Now, I know what some of you might say. “Noise on a low ISO image?!? Get the pitchforks!” But this image was taken underexposed to keep the data in the highlights, and then sharpened so that it would look good in a smaller print. Luckily I’ve uploaded a RAW version for the techies to play with, because I care.
Nikon seems to be maximizing the resources of its sensors, whether they’ve designed them or they’re tweaking Sony’s designs, because all of their full frame cameras from the D3s on have the same general high ISO output of “very, very good.” They all look different at the 1:1 range, but if you were making an 8×12 print from each camera at high ISO, they would all fall pretty close to each other. I haven’t tested the D3x, but according to DXOMark, the D600 wins the battle of 24MP on all fronts at dramatically lower cost.
On Color: Another reason this review took a long time coming is that 3rd party software took forever to properly support this camera, and it is still very hard for me to get the results I want out of Lightroom with D600 files, particularly in skin tones. This is likely just a continuation of my frustrations with Lightroom, but I’ve got it pretty well figured out for the D3s, and it certainly treats D600 files differently. Capture One does a better job for me, and I suspect that Capture NX2 does it perfectly … but I can’t test that because I lost my serial number long ago after I realized that processing a wedding in Capture NX2 is like crawling across a field of broken glass in the hot sun, except without the sense of adventure.
Started the processing in View NX for better color
This is not a manly camera, and that’s the best thing about it for me. It’s as small and light as Nikon has ever had a full-frame digital sensor in, and is a fantastically compact package when paired with great lenses like the 28mm f/1.8G and 50mm f/1.8G. Like most cameras without a vertical grip, I find it poorly balanced with heavy-but-not-gigantic lenses like the 24-70mm f/2.8G, since too much weight gets put onto one wrist (luckily there’s an optional vertical grip).
But there’s something even better than weight — it’s quiet, really the only full-frame Nikon DSLR that I would give that designation to. Particularly in silent mode, the shutter barely disturbs your subjects. Now, I love the giant shotgun miror-slap of a 6×7 camera and the sharp clack of my D3s, but I shoot weddings and photojournalism for a living, and I count every shutter click as an “annoyance unit.” Stand in front of someone and fire off your camera, and eventually they will think about you instead of what they’re doing, and soon thereafter be annoyed by you. The quieter the moment and the louder the camera, the quicker the annoyance. With my D3s I never press the shutter multiple times in a church ceremony, because the sound carries everywhere. But with the D600 I felt more free to capture multiple shots to get the right expression, capture a small panorama, and whatever I needed without the subjects thinking about me:
For a Nikon wedding photographer, this is easily the best feature of this camera over others.
Also, the D600 retains that classic Nikon responsiveness that the D800 doesn’t have — generally, the camera can keep up with you, and you know that when your finger hits the button, a picture will happen. Doing multi-image panoramas with the D800 can be an exercise in patience, but the D600 kept up handily with this 47-image stitch, resulting in an image near 250 megapixels:
The dual slots are a great feature, and I like that they’re the same kind of card. It just makes my life easier … (I’m looking at you, Nikon D4). In fact, if not for the next paragraph, I could have easily made this my next camera, as its strengths make it a good complement to a D3s or two.
Here’s where my disappointment comes in. I don’t want to end a review of a great camera on a down note, but I would really like Nikon to listen to me on this. One of the things that would have made this the perfect complement to the D3s is an even better Live View. Live View is one of the few recent camera bells and whistles than can dramatically improve photography when used correctly. A good live view system can show you everything you need before the image is captured, from exposure to white balance to true depth-of-field to flare and backlight and details in light too low for your eyes to make out. Recent Nikon cameras not only have better back LCD’s than the D3s, but they also fix the D3s’s major Live View problem, which is that it only works up to a shutter speed of 1/250th of a second. So I took it out of the box and immediately played with the Live View. Nice and sharp! Good color! OK, so how do I set it up to preview my exposure?
You can’t. You can’t.
Nikon doesn’t generally play the game of intentionally crippling their cameras for purposes of market segmentation, (unlike some major camera-makers), but its hard to see this as anything but. The other professional cameras they’ve released can do this — the D800’s works great but is filled with lag, and the D4’s is a dream. There’s no reason for them not to fix this. I imagine they could fix it in firmware, but I thought the same with the Canon 5d Mark III‘s glaring “black AF point” problem and as far as I know they haven’t fixed that yet. Nikon, if you are reading this, fix this. This reason alone is why I didn’t ask for another one when this one broke.
(Of course, I then bought two Nikon D4s instead, so I’m not exactly teaching them a lesson).
I think for most users this will not be a huge issue, and certainly not worth a $4,000 premium to move to the Nikon D4, but it was for me.
Let’s consider this a race. Will Nikon fix the Live View crippling first, or will Canon fix their AF points? Who will win the firmware battle of consumer satisfaction? I’m not taking any money on this, but if this sounds like a nitpick to you, then you might want to consider putting money on the D600, because otherwise this is a great camera.
Just don’t smash it on stuff.
PS: One issue that has received a lot of press is the grease and dust spots in the upper left corner that seems to be pervasive. Yes, I saw it. Here’s the upper left of a stopped-down image:
I can’t confirm this, but from what I’ve read this goes away after a couple thousand shots and a good cleaning, so if you buy one, go to town for a week or so and then clean it well before using it seriously.
Other D600 photos: