Nikon’s new D600 offers an appealing upgrade path for consumer users. We put it to the test to find out just how good this full-frame, entry-level model really is. Read the Nikon D600 review...
Nikon D600 at a glance:
- 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame CMOS sensor
- Expeed 3 processor
- ISO 100-6400 (ISO 50-25,600 extended)
- Multi-CAM 4800 39-point AF
- 3D Color Matrix II metering
- 3.2in, 921,000-dot TFT LCD
- 5.5fps continuous shooting
- Full HD 1080p video capture
- Street price £1,955 body only
Nikon D600 review – Introduction
It’s been a busy year for Nikon. New cameras have been launched across its DSLR range, from the professional-spec D4 to the entry-level D3200, as well as more recent additions such as the Nikon 1 J2 compact system camera, the full-frame D800 and a healthy range of compacts. Right before the photokina trade show, we suspected there were more models to come – and we were right.
Announced just a week before the show started, the Nikon D600 fills an apparent gap in Nikon’s range between the semi-professional D800 and the advanced amateur D7000. This gap has perhaps been widened by the ageing D300S, a camera that is now more than three years old. While the D600 isn’t a direct replacement, it should certainly appeal to those upgrading from the D700 or D300S, as well as those wanting to step up from the D7000 or D90.
The Nikon D600 uses a new 24.3-million-pixel, full-frame sensor. This is believed to be a Sony-made unit, as has been the case with many previous Nikon sensors – particularly as the release of the camera came just a day after Sony announced three new models, including the Alpha 99, with a seemingly identical sensor.
The camera borrows much of its layout and styling from the D7000, yet with a slightly bigger and heavier body. It also adds weatherproofing, a hefty screen guard and, most importantly, that full-frame sensor.
Despite the rapid advances in image quality from smaller sensors and the array of compact system cameras offering APS-C-sized sensors to match DSLRs, the full-frame unit is still considered the pinnacle of image quality for many amateur users. The arrival of the Canon EOS 5D and Nikon D700 first brought the 35mm sensor size within reach of the serious amateur, but there has continued to be a huge price leap from the high-end APS-C-sized models to those using full-frame sensors.
The D600 is aimed at addressing this gap and bringing full-frame cameras to a wider audience. However, when based on the suggested retail price, there remains a £990 price gap between the APS-C-sized D7000 (£1,005) and the full-frame D600 (£1,995), with room, potentially, for a higher resolution APS-C-sized model at around the £1,400 price mark.
Despite the full-frame sensor and premium price, the D600 sits in Nikon’s consumer range, not the professional range with the D300S. It has a built-in flash, a standard shooting-mode dial and scene modes. While this is an enthusiast camera, like the D7000 it is still likely to appeal to professionals wanting a second full-frame body. We received one of the first samples after the announcement and put the camera straight to the test.
A slightly unusual problem I had with the 36.3-million-pixel D800 was that I found the resolution was just too high. With raw files reaching sizes of more than 75MB, I found that shoots normally totalling images of less than 20GB suddenly filled a 64GB card, which had knock-on issues for downloading time, processing and storage.
The D600 has a more manageable 24.3-million-pixel resolution from its 35mm (35.9x24mm) full-frame CMOS sensor. This delivers a 6016×4016-pixel file that averages around 28MB in 14-bit lossless raw form or just 10MB in JPEG. While this may seem a significant drop from the D800, the files will still produce a 20x13in print at 300ppi or an A2 print at 242ppi, which is more than enough for most users. Further details about the array and micro lenses are unclear, but the sensor works alongside the new Expeed 3 processor, which is also found in the D4 and D800, to deliver 16-bit image processing and provides the camera with a sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400, expandable to ISO 50-25,600. Presumably thanks to the smaller file sizes, the burst shooting rate is faster than that of the D800, providing a maximum of 5.5fps in full resolution. This is only slightly slower than the 6fps offered by the D7000 and faster than the 4.5fps offered by the new Canon EOS 6D. Sensor cleaning is built into the unit to shake dust from in front of the filter, while there is also the dust-off reference data via Capture NX2 for more stubborn particles.
The metering system is not the same 91,000-pixel system as that found in the D800, but the older 3D Color Matrix II system, with a 2016-pixel RGB sensorthat is featured in the D7000. However, this does offer a wide ±5EV exposure compensation, and a choice of matrix, centreweighted and spot options. The centreweighted setting gives 75% weighting to a choice of 8mm, 12mm, 15mm or 20mm centre circles. Equally, the spot option can be recorded from the centre 4mm circle or around the selected AF point.
The autofocusing system is a similar 39-point system to that found in the D7000, rather than the 51 points in the D800. These two factors are clear indications of the D600’s consumer slant, although, as the D7000 has proved, both are still very impressive systems.
Shooting modes are chosen via the top dial and include the standard PASM alongside the more basic auto, no-flash and scene-mode options. Within the scene selection, the D600 includes 19 options, from the likes of High and Low key through to pet portrait and blossom options.
Perhaps more useful for the experienced photographer are the drive modes on the dial below, which feature a quiet shutter setting, mirror up, remote control, and high and low burst options. Nikon has
been criticised in the past for not having an option to combine the self-timer and mirror-up functions, but on the D600 it is possible to select a mirror-up option when using the wireless remote or any setting using a wired unit.
The D600 accepts most Nikon and third-party lenses using the F mount. Those models designated for DX (APS-C) use will provide a cropped image on the camera, with an output of 3936×2624 or 10.3 million pixels. This means that those users upgrading from other Nikon consumer DSLRs can still use all their old lenses.For best results, though, the FX D and G varieties are recommended.
Images are saved via an SD card. Dual slots are available, offering the choice of a second card to be used as an overflow, back-up, or to save raw and JPEG files separately. Both are compatible with UHS-1 SDHC and SDXC cards. Using a high-speed 600x UHS-1 SDHC card, I managed 14 raw+JPEG, 15 raw or 47 JPEG files before filling the buffer in high-speed mode.
The D600 uses the same EN-EL15 battery as the D800 and the D7000, and the predicted number of shots per charge is 900, which is equal to that of the D800. This is still an impressive feat for a full-frame camera, and puts many other brands to shame.
Cementing its consumer status, the D600 also includes a flash – although so does the D300S. The D600’s flash is a moderately powerful unit, with a guide number of 12m @ ISO 100, and provides slow sync and redeye functions, as well as control of Nikon’s advanced wireless lighting system. Wi-Fi hasn’t been overlooked, either, and while it isn’t built into the body, a small adapter – like the one available for the D3200 – can be attached to the side to allow connection to a smartphone or tablet, for image upload or camera control.
Image: The Sigma 105mm macro lens has been able to reproduce very fine detail
HD video has become something of a standard feature for all new cameras, but until recently the Canon EOS 5D Mark II remained the pinnacle for movie fans, thanks in part to its full-frame sensor. Until the Canon EOS 6D arrives in December, the D600 will be the cheapest full-frame HD video solution, and it boasts a headphone socket over its Canon counterpart. The shallow depth of field offered from a full-frame sensor multiplies the creative possibilities of video, and when combined with decent optics it is possible to create real cinematic results.
The D600 doesn’t allow full control over the ISO and shutter speed that some cameras do, but the aperture can be preset before filming from the aperture priority mode. The microphone input means that professional microphones can be used, which also avoids picking up the noise of the autofocus motor in the lens, while the headphone jack allows proper monitoring of the sound. The MOV file type the D600 uses to record will play back on most devices without the need for editing software, and a basic edit of the start and stop points can even be made in-camera.
Build and handling
With a build somewhere between the D7000 and D300S, the D600 feels professional, but is still small and light enough to keep in your bag for opportune shots. The body features a part magnesium-alloy structure that encompasses the top and rear sections, like the D7000, rather than the full shell like the D800, but it has the same degree of weather sealing as its big brother, to resist dust and moisture. The new AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR kit lens also features weather sealing.
While the appearance and general layout of the D600 is closest to the D7000, in use I was reminded far more of the D300S and its predecessors. The large rubber eyepiece and screen protector on the rear give the camera a rugged feel, and although the grip isn’t overly deep for the size of the camera I found it sufficient for holding the camera in one hand between shots.
The shooting-mode dial follows a similar design to the D7000, rather than the mode-button method of the professional range. However, this dial now has a lock button in the centre of the dial to prevent accidental mode changes. With another lock button for the second dial below, it can be quite tricky to change the shooting mode and drive mode when you want to, but this is better than the result of shooting in the wrong setting.
The rear function buttons double up in their operation, between playback and shooting, but most of the time this is not a problem. The only time I found this an issue was when the camera was showing a preview of the last shot and the button, instead of changing the ISO (as it would in shooting mode), zoomed out of the image.
One clever addition that is useful, though, is that when changing the ISO button you use the rear finger dial, but if you turn the front finger dial it switches into auto ISO mode. This works with the white balance – changing the variants of each setting and the quality setting – altering the image size of the JPEG files between large, medium and small.
The function buttons seem to cover most of the controls needed for fast operation, and by pressing the Info button twice you gain quick access to additional controls such as movie settings, noise reduction, D-Lighting, card selection and custom button assignment.
The main menu is fairly clear for all other functions, although the shooting menu feels a little bloated, spanning over four screens. It would have been better to move the video and autofocus functions into their own submenus.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections
of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Sigma 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting.
The D600’s 24.3-million-pixel resolution should mean there is a drop in detail compared to images taken with the D800, but it is still more than enough for most users. Cameras with similar sensors, such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, have produced resolution scores of up to 30, so we were expecting similar scores from the D600.
The results from our chart didn’t disappoint. At its base sensitivity of ISO 100, the D600 reached a score of 30 from the JPEG image and 32 from the raw file, when processed using the supplied View NX2 and sharpened in Photoshop CS4.
Although the initial scores are decent, perhaps what is more impressive is that they remained high throughout the ISO range. In the raw files the scores dropped to 30 at ISO 800 and then to 28 for ISO 6400 and the Hi2 (25,600) setting. Similarly, in the JPEG images the scores dropped to 28 at ISO 800, 26 at ISO 3200 and 24 for theHi2 setting.
Noise levels are well controlled, with luminance noise only showing faint signs from ISO 1600 and being still non-intrusive at ISO 6400. The Hi2 setting (ISO 25,600 equivalent) shows more significant luminance noise and some colour noise in the shadows.
Images: Noise is well handled by the D600, even at higher ISO values. Shown is the same scene shot at ISO 6400 and the Hi2 setting (ISO 25,600 equivalent).
Luminance noise is present at ISO 6400, but the image remains well detailed.
In the Hi2 setting, chroma noise becomes visible, too.
White balance and colour
The D600 has a wide range of white balance settings for those shooting JPEG files. The presets include seven different fluorescent settings, plus the standard array of incandescent, sunlight, flash, cloudy and shade options. The two options of auto mode comprise Auto1, which is a normal setting, and Auto2, which is designed to maintain warm lighting colours for indoor scenes or streetlights. Auto2 will be preferred by those trying to capture the atmosphere of the scene.
The white balance presets allow you to save up to four white balance settings, taken from sample images, or you can dial in a Kelvin value in the temperature setting. The auto settings provide decent results for most scenes and only under a heavily shaded forest canopy did it leave the image looking too cool. The presets are extensive, and the fine-tuning available in each one means you can have the exact temperature you want.
Image: Skin tones appear natural even when shot under tungsten light sources at ISO 2000
The colours straight from the camera are quite bold and contrasty, and the histogram shows plenty of midtones. However, there is a range of colour settings from the picture control menu, including a neutral option and even vivid for those who demand more punch in their shots. All the colour options can also be fine-tuned, with a simple ‘quick-adjust’ control or a series of five sliders covering sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue.
Image: The matrix metering system works well in most conditions, although slight underexposure is necessary in heavy contrast to maintain highlights
The D600’s metering system is the same as that used in the D7000, and in most lighting conditions it produces decent results. However, when challenged by trickier conditions it does lack the complexity of the D800’s 91,000-dot 3D Matrix III system and can require manual adjustment. For the contrast of early evening light, I found myself setting the exposure compensation to -0.7EV to ensure highlights were maintained. This is a fairly small adjustment, though, and with ±5EV to play with it never becomes an issue. Being able to link the spot metering to the AF point is a handy addition for portraits and saves the constant recomposing that would otherwise be required.
Image: A backlit leaf provides a tricky subject to meter, although the spot metering does a great job
Image: The dynamic range is an impressive 14.2EV from the D600
Dynamic range has long been a strength of Nikon DSLRs and the D600 continues that trend. DxO (www.DxOmark.com) rates the sensor as having the third highest score in its testing history – just behind the Nikon D800 and D800E. With a measured 14.2EV, the D600 is well ahead of its competition. For those seeking more range, it also features D-Lighting controls to lighten the shadow areas in JPEGs and an HDR mode to combine exposures with an adjustable differential of up to 3EV.
The autofocus is one of the factors that sets the D600 apart from the D800, and after the D800’s 51-point system, the 39-point arrangement of the D600 cannot help but feel slightly disappointing. In context, though, it isn’t. For example, Canon’s latest full-frame model will only feature an 11-point AF. The D600’s Multi-CAM 4800 system includes nine cross-type sensors and seven points that work at f/8, making them effective for those photographers working with 2x teleconverter lenses on f/4 optics. In practice, the AF is fast and accurate, and the focus-tracking system works extremely well. The focus mode, as on the D7000, is changed via a neat button press on the auto/manual lever, which then shows in the viewfinder, allowing you to keep your eye on the subject. The only thing it lacks here is the level of fine-tuning that is seen on more advanced systems. Had the D600 featured a more advanced AF system, the camera could have perhaps appealed to more of an action-focused audience, as the D4 does. For general shooting, though, this is more than capable.
LCD, viewfinder and video
Even through the plastic protection screen clipped onto the rear, the D600’s 3.2in, 921,000-dot LCD screen looks impressive. Although this isn’t an OLED device, the contrast is still high – perhaps helped by the punchy images – and detail is razor-sharp. There was perhaps an opportunity to offer something a little different, such as a touchscreen or a bracket, but the viewing angle is decent and there is no shortage of buttons at your fingertips for control.
One notable advantage for those upgrading to the D600 from an APS-C body is the size of the viewfinder. This has a 100% field of view and a 0.7x magnification, providing a nice large display. Despite the size of the eyepiece, it is still comfortable to view with glasses and there is a standard adjustment dioptre should you need it.
However, the AF points appear a little too subtle in black, only briefly flashing red when focusing or adjusting the AF point. A grid view can be switched on in the menu. Manual focusing was made easy by the brightness and clarity of the viewfinder, too.
As discussed in the Features in use panel on page 46, video is an integral part of this and most other DSLR cameras these days. The D600 records in 1920 x 1080 pixels at a choice of 30fps, 25fps or 24fps, or at 1280 x 720 pixels at 60fps, 50fps, 30fps or 25fps in the QuickTime MOV format. The quality of the video looks impressive and, thanks to the external sound options, it sounds good, too. Videographers might be put off by the lack of full manual control, though.
Image: Canon EOS 6D
It was perhaps inevitable that both Nikon and Canon would look to supplement their full-frame offerings with a second, more affordable model. Their close proximity in release dates can only serve to benefit the buyer, as prices are likely to be matched to undercut each other.
The Canon EOS 6D follows similar principles to the D600, including a lower-resolution sensor and more basic AF system. With fewer AF points and pixels than the D600, the 6D could be seen as having a disadvantage, but it does boast built-in Wi-Fi, GPS and a higher ISO 102,400 setting.
While aimed more at the D800 and Canon EOS 5D Mark III market, Sony’s new full-frame Alpha 99 is also likely to be on photographers’ shortlists. It also uses a 24.3-million-pixel sensor, but features on-sensor phase detection to create a dual-phase system, 10fps shooting and a high-quality electronic viewfinder screen. The existing full-frame models are also likely to be seen as competition, particularly while the price difference between the D600 and the D800 is relatively small, and older models fall in price.
Image: Sony Alpha 99
Although initially slightly disappointed in some of the D600’s specification, this camera has really impressed me. The size and weight are spot-on, remaining bulky enough to be taken seriously, yet small and light enough to carry around. The handling and navigation are intuitive and the viewfinder is nice and bright. Autofocus is surprisingly adept, and the burst and buffer are sufficient for its needs. Images are well detailed and low in noise, while the JPEGs are print-ready to please those not wanting to spend time editing. As an all-round camera for true enthusiasts, the D600 makes perfect sense. I would have liked the Wi-Fi to be included in the body rather than as an accessory, and the video mode needs manual options. For me, adding the metering and autofocus from the D800 would be ideal, but then that would leave little reason to covet the D800.
Nikon D600 – Key features
The shooting mode and drive mode dials are placed on top of each other as on the D7000, with button locks to avoid accidental movement.
The standard hotshoe mount allows an array of accessories, including the full range of Nikon Speedlights.
Connections on the side include 3.5mm mic and headphone sockets, USB, HDMI and GPS attachments.
This quick selection lever and button allow the camera to be placed in live view or movie mode.
Like the D3200, the D600 has an optional Wi-Fi dongle that attaches to the side of the camera. This allows images to be uploaded via a hotspot or 3G device, or the camera controlled remotely via a smartphone device using the Nikon App.
The 3.2in, 921-000 dot LCD unit provides a large, sharp and accurately coloured review of images. However, it lacks the flexibility of a vari-angle mount or the added zing of an OLED or four-colour
(white pixel) unit, as seen on some recent DSLR models.
The circuitry has been reworked from the D800 to be more efficient. However, the official figures still quote the same 900-shot life from a single charge. This is an impressive figure nonetheless.
Dual SD slots
As a consumer model, the D600 uses SD card memory as opposed to CompactFlash. The two slots can be used to distribute different types of files or the second used as an overflow.