If you’re here for MTF charts and 100% crops, then you’d best turn around and go to DXO Mark. That’s their field and they do it very well. However, if you’re here to find out about how much soul a piece of kit has, then you’ve come to the right place.
Once upon a time, there was a rumor. It went along these lines:
“Nikon is developing a new FX camera to replace the D700. It’s going to have an incredible sensor, 1080p HD video, and…get this…it’s only going to cost $1,500!!!!”
No one believed it. And who could blame them? For Nikon to even think about releasing an FX camera at that price point was absurd. Even their “cheapest” FX DSLR, the D800 listed at $3000. No way Jose. Ain’t gonna happen. Then the details started to come in. Leaked pictures. Confirmed specs. Variable aperture kit lenses made for full frame. It quickly became apparent that Nikon meant business, and that business was to bring a “budget” (and I use that term very lightly) FX camera to the masses. Suddenly, everyone was besides themselves. Forums went mad with Nikon fanboy love.
“It’s the D3/D700 fiasco all over again!!!”
Well..not exactly. Nikon announced a retail price of $2,100 and enthusiasm wavered. It only had a 1/200 flash sync. Sadness. The screen still had a “green cast”. Dust on the sensor issues were brought up. It was discovered that the D600 would be using a focusing and metering system based off of the D7000…in a body that looked remarkably like a D7000. Flaming ensued.
“HEEEEEYYYYYY WAAAAIIIITTT A SECOND!!!!!!”
This was not the D700 replacement everyone was hoping for…Hope can be a dangerous thing.
There are a lot of mixed emotions about this camera. Sadly I would be willing to put money on the fact that 99% of these armchair reviewers passed this camera off without a second thought based purely on forum speculation. Was there anyone willing to put their money where their mouth was and actually TEST this camera? I mean really give it a baptism by fire, not just let it coast in a lab shooting test charts? Among a few others I was, and I did. I spent five days putting this tool through the ringer and I can confidently say that a lot of the criticism is just a bunch of hysterical noise. Are there some genuine issues? Yes. Are they as god-awful as the intenetz is making them out to be? No. In fact, everyone else who has actually had some hands-on experience with the D600 tends to have the same stance. It’s a good camera, albeit with a few minor faults. Here are some quotes and links:
“What about other features, is sensor the only good thing about the D600? While it has similar features as the D7000, it has a far better and larger viewfinder, faster processor, better AF system (see the first page), better movie recording features and some new firmware features such as in-camera HDR, better Auto ISO and Exposure Delay mode implementations. These key differences make the D600 a worthy upgrade from not only the D7000, D300s and other older Nikon DX DSLRs, but also from the discontinued D700 (the sensor alone is worth the upgrade in my opinion).”
“Overall, I think D600′s autofocus did pretty darn well. True, AF-C missed several shots, but the total number of focused frames was very high. Not all of the sharp and focused images were keepers, of course. I went back and rechecked the photos several times, and I’m still amazed at how well many of them turned out.”
“One month ago, I called the D600 a considerable disappointment based on it’s limitations for flash use by professional photographers and strobist nerds. Over the past couple weeks while personally testing the D600, I have been totally blown away by Nikon’s new $2095 full-frame DSLR.”
Matthew Saville - http://www.slrlounge.com/nikon-d600-review-best-all-around-dslr-ever
“The choices start to get tougher when you ask if a D700 is better than a D600. I would say they both have their plusses and minuses. The D700 is built better and is more like a pro body. But the D600′s new sensor in my opinion will give you better low light shooting. On top of that the D600 gives you amazing video where the D700 does not even offer video. As time goes on the older cameras start to get pushed to the side and become harder and harder to justify purchasing. If I had my choice right now between a D700 and a D600 I personally would take a D600.”
Jared Polin - http://froknowsphoto.com/nikon-d600-review/
“This is probably the most logical and well thought out camera release of 2012. A lot of people don’t need 36 megapixels, but want a full frame camera with more resolution than the D700 / D3s provided…The autofocus and autometering systems seem a bit less robust on paper, but that’s on paper. Time will tell how much of a practical difference it makes.”
Roger Cicala - https://www.lensrentals.com/rent/nikon/cameras/nikon-d600
With the exception of Roger Cicala, all of these quotes come from experienced, working photographers who have been around the block and know their stuff. They’ve been in the trenches and perfectly understand their tools and what it takes to get a photograph. That’s exactly what this review is about: understanding the D600 as a tool. Now on to the review.
First off, I would like to start by getting some of the more pressing issues out of the way:
1. The green cast of the LCD screen - Green cast? What cast? Move along people…
2. Dust/Oil Issues - Yes and No. It’s undeniable that dust spots have been found on an alarming number of D600’s and it’s even more unnerving that they all share a commonality of having spots in the same location: the upper left hand corner of the frame. Even I was able to see the same problem after a heavy weekend of shooting:
The strange thing is, when looking at all the images that WERE NOT a shot of a blank wall, I really couldn’t see any dust spots. I went from f/1.8 to f/22 and nothing…nada! According to Roger Cicala, this issue is more likely to affect your images the smaller your f-stop number. But look at this landscape I shot at f/22 and compare it to the dust shot:
Even looking at the image BEYOND a 1:1 ratio, I still couldn’t see jack. As it just so happens, Matthew Saville also ran into this problem in one of his wedding photos (check out his article and scroll down to the photo of the white chairs with the tent). Yet, if you look at the rest of his photos they appear to be spot free. What gives???? I have a feeling that the dust sensor issue is situational. Read Roger’s article again and note how much post processing they had to do to make the dust spots THAT obvious. Push the exposure, increase the contrast, shoot at f/22, layer 20 different images together in Photoshop etc. etc. etc…it would seem as if you really have to meet some very unique shooting conditions before the dust becomes apparent. After looking at Matthew’s shooting style which appears to incorporate HDR and a lot of post, I wouldn’t be surprised to find spots on my photographs either. The tent shot is a bit unfortunate due to the contrasting black of the dust against the white of the tent which makes this issue more obvious. But did you notice the dust spots that weren’t on the tent? If you jam your face against the monitor and look just above the speaker in the left hand corner and the middle of the gap in the tent just below the cloud, you will see some very faint dust spots. So yes, the issue is real but as to whether or not it will come up in your day to day photos is, in my honest opinion, unlikely. This problem is more of an annoyance due to the fact that it requires you to dust off your sensor (gasp!) periodically, which most photographers do anyway. Also, any spots that show up in you photos can be easily resolved with a quick clone job in post. Not ideal, but not the end of the world either.
3. The D7000 auto-focus, metering system and body paired with an FX sensor - And here we have the biggest and most valid criticism of the D600, one which will either make or break your decision to buy this camera. The short answer is: good, great, weird, and OMG THIS SENSOR IS DA BOMB!!! The Long Answer:
A. Auto-Focus - I must admit that before sitting down to comment on the auto-focus of the D600, I thought long and hard about my hands-on experience. There were times when I was absolutely ecstatic about its performance and others where I was left with a feeling of bitter disappointment. It took me several weeks of analysis to sum up my thoughts but here goes:
I would say that 95% of all auto-focus issues experienced by photographers are caused by simple user error. Using area AF instead of single-point AF. Single instead of continuous AF. Not knowing how to look for areas of contrast of the subject for the AF to lock onto. Take your pick. That’s why I usually have a smirk on my face when people complain that “their camera doesn’t focus right/slow/whatever.” (See Thom Hogan’s review of the D7000) The D600 is a VERY complex photographic device and certainly not designed for the use of amateurs. This baby has a lot of horse power underneath the hood and unless you know how to steer it, you should be prepared to crash…a lot. Cars don’t pilot themselves and neither do cameras. With that said, I have no problem stating that the AF system of the D600 is wicked fast and accurate for general shooting situations. This applies to both screw drive and AF-S lenses…ESPECIALLY top of the line AF-S lenses like the 70-200. That lens is simply bad ass. Zero hesitation, instant results. Shoot. Kill. Done. (Can you guess what my next review will be?). And this could be just me but for some reason I got the impression that AF-D lenses like my 50 1.8 are just a TAD slower than AF-S lenses. Loud(er) and with the same accuracy but just a hint of hesitation. It could possibly be some sort of lag caused by the physical action of the screw drive motor turning vs. having an internal motor do the heavy lifting. But I digress.
In general shooting conditions with a reasonable amount of light, the D600 doesn’t even break a sweat. It’s fast and responsive and will stick to your subject like white on rice. If you refer back to Jared Polin and Mikhail Bezruckho’s respective articles you will see that they were able to get outstanding results from unpredictable and fast moving subjects under some relatively extreme conditions. Bezruckho’s only criticism was its tendency to miss focus occasionally while motor driving in AF-C mode but was in general very happy with the images he took. And so was I…until the moment my lighting conditions went from extreme to absurd.
I’ve been in a lot of crazy lighting in my day. If you think a football field lit only by crappy stadium lights is bad lighting, then brother you haven’t seen anything. Try getting your camera to achieve focus in a pitch black club where your only light source is a nasty florescent bulb embedded in a bar:
Nikon D5000. 35mm at f/1.8. ISO 3200. SS 1/30. Praying to God that the girl with the dollar in her hand wouldn’t move. Now THAT my friends is absurd. It was tough but I pulled it off and until a few weeks ago, I considered this particular shot to be the most challenging shot I ever made. Long story short, I was scheduled to do a sunset engagement session for a couple prior to photographing their wedding. Well, things didn’t go as planned and we ended up shooting the session two days before the wedding at 6:30pm instead of 3:30pm. Ever notice how quickly it gets dark in the winter? Sunset generally starts at 4:30ish and ends at 6:00pm at the latest. Not. Good.
But you know what? Professionals don’t make excuses. Professionals get the job done. Where there is light, there is a way and seeing as there was next to no light available, I rocked my speedlights like Gene Simmons at a KISS concert and went to work.
I shot this photo at exactly 6:58pm. 70-200mm at f/2.8. ISO 1600. SS 1/60. I was trying so hard to gather what was left of the ambient light that my flash had to be turned down to its lowest power setting and placed twelve feet away from my subjects just to avoid overexposure! Oh and the D600? Still nailing focus! But this was only the beginning.
15 minutes later the sun had gone completely behind the horizon. It was GONE. The only ambient light left was quickly fading into the twilight as blackness started creeping into the sky. I decided to go with some silhouettes:
70-200mm at f/2.8. ISO 6400. SS 1/400. Here the D600 started to struggle to find focus. It hunted repeatedly back and forth as I looked for an edge in the couple’s figures to lock onto. Internally I was cursing at the camera, trying move as quickly as possible to salvage whatever light remained in the day. To give you an example of what I could see take a look at this photo:
Now imagine this image about a stop darker than what you see here. To me, this is incredible considering that I was shooting at:
200mm at f/2.8. ISO 6400. SS 1/25. NO STINKING TRIPOD!
I don’t care who you are. THAT IS ABSURDLY DARK!!!!!
Seriously, the only thing that I could see clearly on my subjects was the faint highlight on their foreheads. I managed to convince the D600 to lock onto that as a focus point after a few hits and misses along with a few choice muttered words that would make a sailor blush. Did I get the shots that I wanted? Yes. Did I wish that I didn’t have to fight with the camera so much to get them? Absolutely. But this is not a D4 or a D800. This is a D600. And for what it is, it focuses quite all right. It’s only when your ambient light becomes next to non-existent does it even begin to suffer. It’s good. Not terrible. Not telepathic. Just good.
However, while I could deal with the AF performance of this camera the concentration of its AF points is simply unacceptable for the kind of work that I do. The pattern is so tight that you could shove a lump of coal into the camera body and have a diamond inside of a week! The level of disappointment I had with this single aspect of the D600 was so great that it ultimately caused me to reject it as a camera for my professional use. And this is in spite of all the things that I REALLY liked about this tool! Minor annoyances like dust issues and average AF capabilities can be easily dealt with. A trait that handicaps your creative ability as a photographer is inexcusable. The AF concentration cripples your ability to compose your photographs!
39 AF points are useless if all they focus on is the centre of the image. It promotes weak composition traits such as “bulls eyes” (unnecessarily centring the subject) leaving too much head room and excessive negative space. It also makes makes framing by the rule of thirds impossible while tracking moving subjects, especially in the vertical shooting orientation. Yes, their are work arounds for shooting static subjects such a focusing and recomposing, but their are some serious drawbacks to that particular technique, namely that when shooting at very large apertures the act can shift your already narrow depth of field and produce soft images.
Also, since it is all but impossible to appropriately compose your subjects, their is a dangerous tendency to degrade the end product by severely cropping the image in post production which in turn adds a tremendous amount of unnecessary effort to a photographer’s workflow. And while I will say that higher level cameras have a much better spread of their AF points, I would like to vent a personal frustration by saying that it is baffling to try to comprehend why camera manufacturers haven’t gotten around to placing AF points across the entire viewfinder! Surely if Nikon can make the D4 have a continuous RAW burst mode that can sustain itself at 11 FPS for 20 seconds (Useless overkill anyone?) they can easily add this feature to their future cameras. It seems to me that few photographers are demanding features that really matter to producing excellent photographs…No one needs 11 FPS. But how many of you would love to have 11 extra AF points that fill in the current gaps of your viewfinder? In short, the weakness of combining a DX AF system on an FX camera isn’t necessarily the system itself but the implementation. I can see no reason for Nikon to not increase the spread of the D600’s AF points other than to ground its true potential and prevent the cannibalizing of sales from the D4 and D800. Thanks a lot Nikon. You took the D700 upgrade that everyone was looking for and cut its wings before it could even fly…
B. Metering System - No complaints here! The metering system is extremely accurate even in matrix mode. I actually had to force myself to stop over-compensating for the camera and put a little faith in its capabilities. Not something that I like to do, or personally recommend (when people stop driving cars, I will cease to get on the highway) but when such an excellent metering system is combined with the D600’s ridiculous dynamic range, getting a proper exposure is somewhat effortless. Take this shot for instance:
Backlit subject? Piece. Of. Cake. Put this bad boy on spot metering and you just can’t lose. Every other camera I’ve done this kind of shot with requires at least one stop of “overexposure” according to the internal meter to get a similar result. Love it.
C. Body -DUAL CARD SLOTS!!!!!!! OH YEAH!!!!!!!!!
Yeah, this is pretty much a D7000 body. But it’s a good D7000 body that’s been raised on FX steroids banned by the FDA since 1972. It’s chunky with a good weight, but not overbearing like a D3s. That thing is a brick! With a good strap like a Black Rapid, you can easily sprint around for hours without complaining even with a beast of a lens like the 70-200 married to the body. Speaking of the 70-200, or any long telephoto lens for that matter, I would highly recommend attaching a battery grip to the D600 if only to help balance the uneven weight distribution. It’s not terribly unbalanced, but it certainly helps maintain proper shooting form. It also helps with the form factor since the D600 looks hilariously dwarfed when mounted to the 70-200.
I previously mentioned that the D600 is a very complicated piece of equipment. As you can see from the photo above, a great deal of the settings are directly accessible from external controls that bristle the body. Daddy like! Courtesy of Lensrentals.com, this unit came with a users manual that was extremely helpful in getting me up to speed on the various dials and buttons and their individual functions. At about 300 pages long, it’s not exactly light reading but if you have a question about what the little red button does, you’ll find the answer. The layout is very intuitive, especially if you a long-time Nikon shooter. Doubly so, if you are upgrading from a D7000. And while everything feels very solid in the hand a couple of minor quirks caused a little irritation during shooting.
First off, the mode lock dials just aren’t my cup of tea. Sure, it’s great that you can’t accidentally switch from one mode to another but I actually prefer to not have that feature on a camera when I’m on a job. To be honest, it just slows me down. It reminds me of an old war movie I saw once where one soldier complained to another about leaving the safety of his gun on “off” all the time. The other soldier just pointed at his trigger finger and said, “This is my safety”. The worst thing that can happen on a job is when you have to stop what you are doing (taking photographs) and go through a needless and redundant task just to change a simple setting.
Client: “Oh did you see that cute smile on the flower girl’s face?”
Me: “Uhh…no. I was too busy dicking around with my camera.”
I tried several methods of pushing the mode lock release button and turning the dials without taking either my left hand away from a supporting position underneath the lens (which is very important with a tank of a lens like the 70-200) or taking my face away from the viewfinder. Both required the use of at least two fingers and my full attention. If the mode lock buttons were not present, I could easily use my thumb to reach and change my settings at will, without losing control of either the camera or the subject.
Secondly, the ISO button is very awkwardly positioned on the back of the camera next to the LCD screen which, coincidentally, is exactly where your face is when shooting. So again, in order to change a basic setting, you have to either abandon control of the camera or lose sight of your subject. What’s even more frustrating is that despite the amount of customization that you can apply to the D600, it is impossible (at least from what I was able to see) to assign the ISO setting to another button. There are at least 8 different modes that can be assigned to the perfectly located function button which is right next to lens mount of the camera and easily accessible with any one of your left hand’s fingers. None of them include ISO. As a comparison, my nearly 4 year old D5000 can easily assign its ISO to the function button. Fail.
The U1 and U2 settings would also be useful…if I ever used them. It might sound strange, but I really don’t see a lot of practical application for these buttons. Maybe if you were in Yellow Stone National Park doing long exposures of rivers and a grizzly bear just happened to stumble out of the woods…
Bear: “Aren’t you going to run?”
Me: “Uhh…no. I’m too busy dicking around with my camera…Cheese?”
For the most part, I don’t have a need to change my settings that rapidly. Usually I’m locked in at a certain SS/Aperture/ISO/Whatever and adjust them on the fly as needed. If a curve ball does come flying my way, I have full confidence in my ability to make the correct changes (regardless of whatever camera I’m using) to my exposure and capture the decisive moment. The ability to anticipate and react to change is far more valuable than the gear you own.
D. The Sensor - Holy. Ballz. If there is one reason to overlook any of the above criticisms about the D600 this is it. It is simply and unequivocally GORGEOUS. The files that come off of this sensor are more delicious than banana pancakes drenched with honey and chocolate and served with a side of brown sugar bacon. I would be happy to argue that its quality ranks second only to the D800…it’s just that good. The ISO range of 50-6400 is ridiculously clean, even for 24mp. Depending on how much of a noise Nazi you are and how consistently you can nail your exposures, getting a squeaky clean image at ISO 6400 is no problem. Even ISO 12,800 can be usable with exceptional shot discipline and some aggressive noise reduction:
Sure, the image is a little smooth, but that’s the price you pay for a “clean” image. If you want to retain detail, you’ll have to live with some “character” in your image.
As far as dynamic range is concerned you can consider yourself to be 6 feet tall and bullet-proof from ISO 50-800. You can crop, change exposure and generally butcher your RAW files to your heart’s content with little to no noise penalty. If you’re careful you could probably extend that range all the way to 1600, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There’s already been a lot said about the D600’s ability to retain shadow and highlight detail, but I had such a kick playing with its capabilities I thought I would share with you how amazing it can be. Here’s a shot that exposed for the sky and left the ground totally underexposed:
Now here’s the same shot, by with an exposure adjustment of 5 stops:
I don’t consider myself to be a landscape photographer, but if I was and couldn’t afford a D800, I would be drooling all over this camera. Here’s a link to a rather amateurish HDR Panorama I threw together in about 20 minutes. The entire shot is made from just 2 exposures:
Oh, and it does video too. Just don’t ask me to explain any of that. I’m just a still photographer kind of guy. Video is definitely something I’d love to get into, but not right now. Here’s a link to something I shot with the D600 for fun:
In closing, there’s a lot I love about the D600 but in the end there’s also a few of things that I just can’t let slide by. It has a lot of heart and some great guts, but heart and guts won’t help you fly to the top of the mountain. A lot of people wanted this camera to replace the D700 and in some areas it does. The sensor alone humps the D700 up and down main street and the addition of HD video is kind of nifty if you’re into that sort of thing. But certain critical aspects like the autofocus system, ergonomics, build quality issues drag that silver lining down in the mud. It’s still usable camera and more than capable of delivering astounding images in the right hands, but all of these undesirable aspects can cause a lot of frustration for users who are expecting perfection from what is clearly an enthusiast’s camera. Also, while the price tag of $2100 for an FX camera is certainly attractive, the current used market of D700’s (average $1600) or even a D3 (average $2400) offer better performance at a similar price point despite being 3-4 year old technology. The way that I look at it, Nikon missed a huge opportunity to make the camera everyone really wanted and could actually afford. I can only imagine how kick-ass the D600 would have been if Nikon had only put its sensor inside of a D800 body. For that combo I would gladly pay $3000! Hence I hereby dub the D600 as “Frankenstein” the tragic, misunderstood hodgepodge of an incredible soul trapped inside of an inadequate body, doomed to shuffle the world in misery pondering the reason for its miserable existence and secretly plotting revenge against its very creator.
IMHO - Jacob delaRosa