The Nikon D600 was the first full frame DSLR aimed squarely at the enthusiast market, though it was admittedly quickly followed by the Canon 6D. It packs a large sensor into a compact body and comes in at a considerably cheaper price than previous full frame cameras. But is the D600 the right first step into the full frame world for current crop sensor shooters? I recently had the opportunity to spend a bit of quality time with one to find out.
While Nikon would like to think that the US$2,000 price point and full frame sensor of the D600 put it in a category of its own, there are plenty of cameras that it can (and will) be compared to. Is it a stripped down D800, is it a D7000 on steroids, or is it the true successor to the D700? And that's before you compare it to Canon's enthusiast full frame offering, the 6D.
For me, being a D800 owner, I was particularly curious about the D600 and how it compared to its sibling. I wanted to know if the smaller camera lost out in ergonomics what it gained in portability, and whether the cheaper construction made it feel amateur. I was also intrigued to see if 24.3 MP was a more practical resolution than the 36.3 MP D800 … and whether I should have waited for it to be released before buying the megapixel monster.
My first thought when picking up the D600 was that I couldn't believe Nikon had managed to fit a full frame sensor into this thing. Coming from using a D3 and D800, it feels positively small in the hand, much more similar to the DX format D7000. That's not necessarily a bad thing, the D600 is targeted at enthusiasts who want to carry their camera around with them, rather than professionals who are paid to carry theirs.
Weight-wise, the D600 again feels more comparable to APS-C cameras than the majority of full frame shooters. Because it features a magnesium alloy top and rear, rather than a full chassis, it's not too hefty at 760 g. But it is sufficiently sturdy; even the polycarbonate parts feel pleasantly solid and not like those on some lower-end DSLRs. You're not going to want to hammer nails in with it, but I had no worries about it being able to handle anything I could throw at it during normal use.
Because the D600 is weather-sealed to the same degree as professional cameras like the D800, you don't need to worry about using it in all but the most extreme weather conditions.
As with other Nikon DSLRs, the D600 features a built-in flash, which while not the most powerful or versatile (it's no substitute for a separate flash unit), can come in handy for a bit of fill flash. It can also be used as a master to control wirelessly slaved flashes.
Moving attention to the side of the camera, the D600 boasts dual SD memory card slots. This feels particularly luxurious if coming from a camera with just one, because you can instantly back-up photos as you take them, use one for stills and the other for video, or just combine the storage potential. I was also pleased to see the use of metal hinges on the doors, rather than the cheap feeling plastic ones used on some Nikons. Little things do make a difference.
The eagle-eyed out there may have also noticed the lack of a PC sync port on front of the D600. While some have criticized Nikon for this, it's not a feature that too many people, in reality, will ever miss. I can't remember the last time I used my PC sync port.
Anyone who shot 35 mm film before moving to a crop sensor DSLR will instantly feel like they've been reunited with an old friend when looking through the bright 100 percent viewfinder of the D600. Your 50 mm lens is suddenly back to being 50 mm, 24 mm feels wide again and everything just seems right.
As with the D7000, Nikon have done an admirable job of laying out the D600 to provide easy access to manual controls despite it being a smaller body. On the top left of the camera sit two stacked dials, one for controlling exposure mode on top of the release mode dial.
I very much liked the U1 and U2 user options on the exposure mode dial as a great way of slipping between regularly used settings. I'd even go as far as to say that for day-to-day usage I prefer this to the more complex (and admittedly more sophisticated) way this is dealt with on Nikons pro bodies.
On the whole, button layout feels intuitive and Nikon has not tried anything too radical. Of note there's the same Liveview toggle and button as other recent DSLRs, and the AF-mode button which is positioned on the front of the camera also feels a step up from some previous incarnations.
Personally, I didn't like that there was no separate dedicated AF-On button on the rear, or the fact that the ISO button is on the back not the top. I felt I had to move the camera away from my eye to make ISO changes. But these are really rather minor niggles and things you would probably get used to with more constant use. I also found the battery life of the D600 to be very impressive. Even after a full day shooting the camera was ready to go.
On paper the autofocus of the D600 is a step down from the D800; it uses a Multi-CAM 4800 autofocus sensor module compared to the Advanced Multi-CAM 3500FX. However, you don't need to worry that it's a slouch when it come to nailing focus. Sure, it's not quite as quick as its bigger brother, but I found it to be as reliable, if not more so. Sometimes I find the D800 can occasionally miss focus, but this was not a problem with the D600.
However, there is one glaring negative with the autofocus on the D600, the spread of its points … or rather the lack of spread. All 39 autofocus points (nine of which are cross type) are positioned in the the center of the sensor. This can feel strangely limiting if you are used to your AF points covering a larger area.
That said, autofocus was good in lower light conditions and even in AF-C (continuous autofocus) I found that focus was held well, especially if the subject was moving towards the camera rather than across it.
When shooting in burst mode, I'm glad to say the D600 feels sufficiently quick. While 5.5fps isn't going to make the ideal sports camera, it will probably be more than you need most of the time. However, the buffer does fill up quickly and I frequently found myself waiting for the camera to catch up so that I could review images. This was especially noticeable when shooting RAW + JPEG. The buffer is considerably better if shooting in the 10.3MP DX mode, though frame-rate stays the same.
The D600 is capable of producing quite simply amazing quality images. The 24.3 megapixel sensor gives you plenty of resolution, and there's something about the full frame format which just feels right.
While it's easy to think that it has an inferior pixel-count to the D800, it's worth remembering that it's still more than the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. Many would argue this is about the sweet-spot in terms of resolution on a FX camera. It also means editing isn't too demanding on your computer.
JPEGs produced in-camera are up there with some of the nicest I have seen, with a more natural look than some which feel over-processed; colors feel accurate and skin tones appear natural. But it's when shooting in RAW that the D600 really shines. These images can withstand a significant amount of editing such as pulling highlights or shadows, which is a testament to the dynamic range of the camera.
Low light performance and high ISO are areas that full frame cameras have traditionally outperformed their crop sensor counterparts, because they have a bigger sensor they are able to use more light. With a native ISO range of 100-6400 the D600 certainly performs well here too.
The below test shows the noise levels at higher native ISO levels. The cropped areas are taken at 100 percent. So while noise is noticeable from 1600, you would only see this in the real world if you printed images very large, cropped-in heavily, or are a pixel-peeper. I found I could happily dial the ISO to around the 3200 mark without worrying at all about noise levels.
Kit lenses can offer great value when buying a new DSLR. Indeed, if bought with the D600 the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED AF-S VR only costs a fraction of what it would alone. But you probably wouldn't buy it on its own. While it's perfectly good for video, it covers a nice range and has Vibration Reduction, it simply doesn't feel worthy of being used on the D600 for stills.
My first experience of the D600 was with this lens mounted and I have to say I was disappointed. It was only when I took it off and used a 50mm 1.8 that I realized it was the lens and not the camera I was disappointed with. If you are thinking about getting a D600, please don't let this be your only lens.
Even at the wide end of the zoom range the f3.5 feels slow for use on a full frame DSLR where you might want to be making the most of that light gathering potential and shallow depth of field. And by the time you get the 85 mm and f4.5 it feels positively glacial.
Videographers will no doubt be pleased to know that there is both an input for an external microphone and a headphone out for monitoring sound while filming. There is also the option for clean HDMI-out. However, something they probably won't like as much is the lack of ability to control aperture while in Liveview.
The D600 comes with a built-in image-editing menu which allows you to perform a number of retouching functions. While you're always going to get better results by performing your editing and processing on a computer, in-camera options include effects such as monochrome conversion, fisheye, color sketch, miniature effect (above) and selective color (below).
A scene mode can be selected on the exposure dial to make the D600 even more beginner-friendly. When used, the camera will automatically choose the most appropriate settings with scene modes including Portrait, Landscape, Child, Sports, Close up and Pet portrait among others. The inclusion of this suggests Nikon thinks that the D600 isn't just going to sell to enthusiasts, but also beginners who need a bit of photographic help.
Well, unless you already know you need something considerably more powerful like the Nikon D4, the answer is a resounding yes. The D600 is a fantastic quality camera capable of amazing images, all at a price-point which could prove a game-changer.
The Nikon D600 offers much of the functionality of higher end full frame DSLRs at a much cheaper price. It also comes in a form-factor which could be more appealing to users who want to carry their camera around with them.
But the D600 needn't just be a great choice for enthusiasts who don't need or can't justify a more pricey camera. Professionals who want a back-up body would be equally advised to have a good look at one.
Capable of producing images as good as any other camera in most conditions, if you want full frame photographic bang for buck, the Nikon D600 really is a great choice.
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