Review: Nikon D600—The People’s Full-Frame DSLR
With the introduction of the Nikon D600, Nikon has delivered a full-frame DSLR at their lowest price yet for such a large sensor. More than that, the D600 delivers huge resolution and many of the features found in the Nikon D800 for nearly a third less the cash. In many ways, the D600 is the common person’s full-frame DSLR.
While the $2,000 price tag is still high enough to keep it out of reach for many, the D600 is positioned as a highly capable image making machine, as long as a few bells and whistles from Nikon’s flagships aren’t to be missed.
The question is, at such an attractive price, does the D600 truly get the job done for the demanding photographer? Hit the full review to find out.
- 24.3MP Full-frame CMOS sensor (10.5MP DX-format crop mode)
- ISO 100-6400 (expandable to ISO 50-25,600 equivalent)
- Maximum 5.5fps continuous shooting
- 39-point AF system with 9 cross-type AF points
- 3.2in 921k-dot LCD screen
- 1080p30 full HD video
- Headphone jack for audio monitoring in movie mode
- Uncompressed video recording via HDMI
- Single-axis electronic level in viewfinder, duel-axis (pitch and roll) in live view
- Dimensions: 141mm x 113mm x 82mm (5.5 × 4.4 × 3.2 in).
- Weight: 760 g (1.6 lbs) (camera body only, no battery)
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The Nikon D600 tested in this review was provided by B&H, where I personally buy all my camera gear. If you find this review helpful, please consider buying your next photo gear purchase from B&H,Amazon.com, or any of my other my affiliate links.
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Where to Buy:
Body & Design
The body of the D600 will the Nikon D600 will be immediately familiar to anyone who has used one of Nikon’s more recent DSLRs. Overall, the D600 is a bit like a cross between the D7100 and the D800, but much closer to the D7100 in size with almost identical controls.
As you can see from the 7 o’clock position on the lens mount, the D600 features a screw-driven focusing motor in the body, so it’s capable of driving older AF-D lenses. You’re not limited to only newer AF-S lenses, which opens up a lot more inexpensive used lenses—always a nice option.
The top panel is basically identical to that of the Nikon D7100—no surprises here. Unlike say the Nikon D800 or the Nikon D700, there are no dedicated controls on the top panel for WB, ISO or Image Quality. Those are set on the back panel of the camera.
One benefit to the mode dial on top of the camera is that if you change exposure modes frequently, there’s a dedicated, hard control for that function.
It’s also worth noting that the D600 lacks a standard 10-pin remote socket for a remote shutter release, which means that it’s just that more difficult to use those types of accessories. If you don’t do any remote triggering, not an issue, but something to keep in mind.
In addition, the D600 lacks a standard PC sync socket. Again, not a huge issue if you shoot with a wireless trigger like Pocket Wizards or even a cheap Yongnuo RF-602, but not great news if you shoot wired in a studio.
Controls & Ergonomics
The D600 has a shutter release, two command dials (front and back) and a customizable AE-L/AF-L button. Basically everything you’d want or really need for customized manual shooting. This is a good start. The placement of these buttons is basically like any other upper-level Nikon DSLR, so anyone familiar with a D700, D6, D800, etc will feel right at home.
The main difference for Nikon D800 or D700 shooters will be the placement of the WB, Quality, and ISO buttons, which have been moved to the rear of the camera to make room for an exposure mode selector on the top of the camera. It’s not a hugely detrimental change, but anyone used to looking for those functions on top of a camera will need to get used to the new arrangement.
While it’s a smaller camera than the Nikon D800, if anything, there are those who may find the smaller grip of the D600 more comfortable. In addition, the body itself doesn’t sacrifice enough surface area to affect button groupings in the negative.
Is Stupid a Feature?
If there’s one thing that provoked a little ire in the D600, it’s the lack of customization in the controls. For whatever reason, Nikon has hardcoded some controls, such as 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 so its easy to check focus and sharpness, something a lot of photographers do. With the D600, you’re forced into some awful in-camera processing menu, as if you wanted to Instagram your photos instead of process them in a sensible manner with Adobe Lightroom—which, frankly, is insulting.
What’s even more infuriating is the fact that these picture controls already have a dedicated button on the back of the camera to the left of the LCD screen. This is pure stupidity. End rant.
Let’s just hope Nikon allows customization of the center control pad “OK” button in the future.
As you can see, the D600 is noticeably smaller, but not so much to be ergonomically challenged compared to the larger D800. In fact, I personally found the D600 to be a bit more comfortable for my hands, even when balancing lenses like the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II.
Shooting & Handling Impressions
Overall, the D600 handles very well. All controls commonly used for shooting are in a natural place if you use Nikon, and for the most part it’s easy to access just about everything you want to. If you’re used to shooting a camera like the D700 or D800, the placement of controls like WB, ISO, etc on the back of the camera is a change, but nothing close to a deal breaker.
Basically, the D600 handles like a Nikon. No real surprises, no real complaints—other than the aforementioned issue with customizing controls, zooming to 100% on playback, etc.
The viewfinder is 100%, and it’s good. The only catch I found was that the viewfinder wasn’t really 100% accurate. The captured image files in my review sample were shifted down about 5-10% from the viewfinder, meaning that a sliver at the top of the scene that I thought I may be composing for in the VF would get cut off, and I’d have a small unseen portion of the scene show up at the bottom of the capture. Not a huge deal, and perhaps unique to this copy, but somewhat annoying if you’re a stickler for composition (which I am).
In terms of speed, the D600 is noticeably faster than the D800. The 5.5 FPS vs 4 FPS really does make a difference in the feel of the responsiveness of the camera and its ability to render a useful burst mode.
While it’s only 1.5 FPS faster, this difference seems pretty profound for real world shooting, enough so that the D600 feels more capable as an event photography camera than the D800. If I had to trade resolution for better framerate in a D800 body, I’d be very, very tempted to choose a faster framerate. The D600 essentially represents that compromise.
AF Performance: Speed & Precision
The AF of the Nikon D600 is solid. It feels fast and sure of itself. It doesn’t hunt. And it’s shockingly confident in low light. In fact, it almost feels as good as the AF on the D800. Almost. It’s somewhat hard to pin down, but the D600 just doesn’t feel quite as good as D800 with regard to AF.
The more tangible strike against the D600 is the tiny, nearly worthless spread of AF points clumped in the center of the viewfinder. It almost feels silly to change the position of the AF points, they’re so close together—often it’s faster to just focus and recompose, which is necessary most of the time anyway.
Overall Image Quality
Image quality on the new D600 seems really pretty excellent. You’ve got a super clean ISO 100 for your studio and controlled shooting, and high ISO quality that is fantastic right up to ISO 6400. All with a nice big, beautiful 24 megapixel resolution—enough to satisfy all but the most masochistic or demanding photographer.
No complains about the overall image quality of the D600. It’s excellent.
High ISO Performance
Rather than bore you with some sort of contrived studio test, I thought that I’d just twist a few dials during a real live concert shoot and see what the D600 could do above ISO 1600.
The below are all 100% crops of this scene of Altantic Records recording artist Brett Eldredge opening for Taylor Swift on her 2013 RED tour.
All above images and their crops were processed with Adobe Lightroom 4 from the RAW/NEF files. They have zero (0, zip, nada) luminance noise reduction, which is why you see that “grain” in them. They have a setting of 25 color noise reduction. I almost never apply luminance noise reduction unless I’m printing very large, because Lightroom does a very good job at rendering fine, innocuous-looking digital noise.
Given that there is no luminance noise reduction in the above samples, the grain you see in the above is pretty minimal.
High ISO Analysis
ISO 1600: Pretty damn perfect for this high resolution. If you could shoot at ISO 1600 all day long for event photography, you should be happy.
ISO 3200: A little more noise, but black levels are still excellent and shadows retain a good amount of depth.
ISO 6400: Black levels suffer and the shadows start to open up to luminance noise, but overall cover fidelity is excellent. You’ll see plenty of luminance noise, but the image holds together very well. And given the extra resolution, the prominence of that digital noise will get pushed down as well in prints or downscaling.
ISO 12800 (HI-1): Now things get interesting. I threw in ISO 12800 as a lark, but the D600 delivered. Much better than the D3/D700 sensor generation, again, even with the 24mp count of the D600′s sensor. Shadows are taken over by noise, and color fidelity takes a little bit of a hit, but the image still retains cohesion. This feels like at least a stop better than D3/D700 performance.
ISO 25600 (HI-2): Honestly, I didn’t test this setting. At least for live music, generally any kind of lighting that actually requires you shoot at ISO 25600 is pretty awful lighting already. Not just in terms of quantity, but quality as well. If you need to shoot at ISO 25600, there’s probably a good reason for it (read: it’s an absolute necessity), in which case pixel peeping is probably not your main concern.
Additional High ISO Samples
Here’s another couple samples — full frame image first, then a 100% crop with commentary.
The above is wide open with the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. To my eyes, this performance is awesome. Blacks are black, the text on the amp is super crisp and contrast looks great. I could shoot at ISO 3200 with the D600 all day long.
This above image is ISO 3200 again. And again, we see some really nice performance from the D600. Yes, there’s more noticeable luminance noise in the shadows, but detail is very nice for 24mp at this high sensitivity. Color fidelity is great. Also, consider this a nice test of the AF performance of the D600 as well, since this was an action shot.
If I had to pick an upper limit sweet spot for the D600 that balanced high sensitivity with image quality, I think I’d pick ISO 3200. But even ISO 6400 looks great as long as you aren’t pixel peeping just for the same of it.
Overall High ISO Analysis
The D600 rocks at ISO settings higher than you can count. Next.
OK, let’s make up for some of the pixel peeping above. Here are some real world images from the D600.
Who Should Buy This Camera?
I think that the target market for the D600 can be broken down into two main groups. Upgraders and Secondary shooters. There’s also a third group, but we’ll get to that.
The D600 represents the most affordable full-frame Nikon DSLR to date, which is not an insubstantial fact. At $2,000 USD, the D600 is as cheap as an entry into Nikon FX as you can get when buying new at this moment. And what do you get with a full-frame system? A much wider range of lenses specifically designed for full-frame, better high ISO performance (due to the pixel pitch), and wider dynamic range (again due to sensor design). Or maybe you’re a DX shooter who just wants an excuse to buy a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 — the D600 is it.
The Nikon D600 packs enough image quality into its compact body to attract many photographers as an 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 point. Maybe you want smaller files than your D800 for non-critical work, or maybe you want more resolution than your D4. All this makes the D600 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.
Finally, there is likely a third group of shooters, who, for lack of a better term, are the Downgraders. No, this might not be a popular notion to downgrade, but it makes it no less real a category.
Maybe you’ve had a Nikon D700 or a D3. The D800 offers a bit of overkill for what you shoot in terms of resolution, or maybe you just want to save some cash without sacrificing image quality. Or, maybe you’re looking for the lightest, most compact full-frame Nikon DSLR that still offers huge image quality. I’m thinking travel or landscape photographers here. The D600 is a perfect fit. While the controls and customizability are a technically a “downgrade,” the addition of HD video, much improved live view modes, and a large increase in resolution are more than enough to make the D600 a great choice.
Summary and End Notes
The D600 is a camera that offers extremely capable image quality. The image quality is essentially everything you could ask for at this price point and more. A beautiful 24mp full-frame sensor with fantastic detail at base ISO and extremely good quality right up to ISO 12800. In many ways, the D600 may be Nikon’s “best” full-frame DSLR to balance price and features.
The Nikon D600 a camera you might even imagine Galen Rowell using for its light weight and big image quality. At 24mp, the Nikon D600 offers more resolution that most people will ever truly use, but this camera also delivers amazing well at high ISO, especially compared to DX alternatives.
If image quality alone is your standard, the D600 is almost flawless. In a lot of ways, the D600 continues the tradition of the original, ground breaking Canon 5D. A fantastic sensor in a relatively affordable body without all the bells and whistles of the flagship models.
To this end, the Nikon’s only real, minor failings are in its controls. The biggest catch for me was the lack of option to set the OK button on the control pad to zoom to 100%, and perhaps just one eccentric example of the limitations of the D600. Luckily, this feature to customize buttons could easily be added as a firmware update.
There is the issue of the small AF spread, but for most photographers, it’s not a massive issue. Even for fast paced event photography, I found the AF system of the D600 quite satisfactory. While not as robust in feeling as the AF systems of the D4 or D800, the D600 definitely gets the job done.
Overall, the D600 is a fantastic combination of great image quality in an increasingly affordable package. It’s easily a better buy than a used Nikon D700 for many photographers given the implementation of live view, increased resolution, and other advancements, even if it’s technically not as “pro.” Aside from the layout of the controls and the strangely small AF spread in the viewfinder, the D600 could have easily been the upgrade many D700 users wanted instead of the slower overkill of the D800 and its über resolution sensor.
Or at the very least, in a world where image quality is king, the D600 deserves a crown.