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Nikon D600 Review: Full Frame, Full Features, Smaller Size
by Theano Nikitas -  2/19/2013

Nikon was the first out of the gate with a mid-priced full-frame camera - the 24 megapixel D600. Targeting advanced amateurs, enthusiasts and pros who want a smaller, lighter second or third camera body, the D600 brings with it a good mix of features and a price tag that won't break the bank. Granted, at $2,100, the D600 isn't inexpensive, but it puts full-frame shooting within the reach of a broader group of photographers than ever before.

Around the same time that the D600 was released, Canon announced the 6D. The two cameras offer many similarities and, of course, your choice will likely depend on the type of glass you have in your gear bag. We are in the process of testing the Canon 6D and will post a review in the coming weeks with additional comparisons of the two cameras.

Overview

Wrapped around a new 24 megapixel FX CMOS sensor, the Nikon D600 merges features, functionality and usability from its siblings, most notably the D7000 and the higher-end D800, including the latter's video options such as uncompressed output via HDMI, a headphone jack and manual audio level adjustments. Its 24 megapixel sensor seems to be a good compromise between the 16 megapixel D7000 and the 36 megapixel D800 and certainly a nice step up from my Nikon D3s' 12 megapixel sensor.

The camera offers a full range of features with plenty of options for experienced shooters and those who want to maintain control over their picture-taking. In addition to a full complement of manual exposure modes, Program Auto and full Auto, two custom user settings are also available. An automatic flash off mode can be utilized when shooting in museums or other situations where flash is prohibited or unwanted.

Beyond the basics, the D600 borrows some of Nikon's higher end features such as vignette and auto distortion controls. To help maintain highlight and shadow detail in high contrast scenes, Active D-Lighting and in-camera HDR are available. Although the latter only captures two shots, EV can be set to Auto, 1EV, 2EV or 3EV and smoothing can be adjusted to Normal, Low or High. While more extensive than HDR options on some other DSLRs and fairly effective in providing a broader dynamic range, as with any camera, bracketing more than two images generally delivers better results.  

With a nod towards photo enthusiasts and those with less DSLR experience, Nikon has also equipped the camera with easy-to-use options such as scene modes and a green Auto mode. With all of its great features, it would be a shame to use the D600 on automatic, though. If you're using the D600 as a learning tool, keep at it and soon you'll be up to speed. 

Build and Design
Despite its moderate price tag, Nikon didn't skimp when designing the D600. As expected, it's not quite as rugged as either of its higher end siblings, the D4 and the D800. But the body is built over magnesium alloy top and rear covers, so it's sturdy and durable. It's weather-sealed and, according to Nikon, provides the same amount of weather resistance as the D800. I haven't put it to the test in any extreme weather, but a little rain here and there hasn't hurt it; in fact, I was much more concerned about protecting my lenses than the camera.

The D600 measures 5.6 x 4.4 x 3.2 inches and weighs 26.8 ounces - a little smaller and about 16% lighter than the D800. Even with smaller hands, the D600 fits well and feels well-balanced with short and long lenses. Those with larger hands will find the camera equally comfortable to hold.

If you already have an assortment of Nikon glass, you can purchase the D600 body alone. Otherwise, it comes in a kit with Nikon's new 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR (vibration reduction) zoom lens, complete with lens hood. The camera comes bundled with a rechargeable battery that's good for about 900 shots per charge, a battery charger, USB cable, monitor cover, rubber eye cup, body cap, hotshoe cap, neckstrap and printed manual. NikonView NX2 software is included as well.

One of the great things about Nikon cameras is that they can accommodate both AF and AF-S lenses, regardless of whether the camera is full-frame, like the D600 or utilizes a cropped sensor like the D5200. With this cross-compatibility, you don't have to buy a new set of lenses if you step up to a full-frame camera. And, because the D600 has a built-in AF motor, autofocus is available with older lenses. (In contrast, Canon's EF lenses are compatible with both types of cameras but EF-S lenses can only be used on cropped sensor cameras like the 60D and not on the full-frame 6D.) It should be noted, however, that the D600 automatically switches to crop mode when an AF-S lens is attached. I tested the camera with the kit lens, as well as my personal 24-70mm and 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses. While the kit lens delivered more than respectable images, I felt that the zoom ring didn't operate as smoothly as my other lenses but I really appreciated having a wide angle lens that zoomed to the perfect-portrait focal length of 85mm.

In addition to the full range of NIKKOR lenses, D600 owners have several speedlight options to supplement the camera's onboard flash (the latter has a Commander mode to trigger remote flashes). Other optional accessories include an external stereo microphone, headphones to monitor audio levels, remotes, a wireless transmitter and a GPS unit. As a point of comparison, the Canon 6D comes with Wi-Fi and GPS built in. Since, like the D800, uncompressed video can be output via the HDMI port, you may want to pick up an HDMI cable for video output or viewing images on an HDTV.

Equipped with dual SD/SDHC/SDXC card slots, the D600's media can be customized to use the second slot as overflow or backup. Still and video files can be recorded to separate cards as well, which is not only convenient during post-processing but allows you to use a higher capacity card for video files. I tested the camera with SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-1 cards of various capacities and generally used the second card for overflow.

Ergonomics and Controls
Most Nikon users will feel right at home with the D600, particularly those stepping up to this model. D4 and D800 users will have to make some adjustments to their muscle memory for changing modes and adjusting parameters such as white balance and ISO but the transition between any Nikon DSLR is relatively painless.

External controls are plentiful, logically arranged and generally within easy reach. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of the locking mode dial, particularly since I'm right-handed and the dial which only can be changed when the center button is depressed, is on the camera's left shoulder. Granted, it makes good sense because it helps prevent accidental mode changes. Underneath the mode dial, you'll find options for single and continuous shooting modes, as well as quiet shutter release, self-timer, remote control and mirror up options. Again, locking this dial makes sense but it's a little difficult for us right-handers to release.

A direct "red" movie button is positioned close to the shutter release and while that normally might be an issue, the Live View switch has to be repositioned before the movie button is active. Other controls are much more convenient and are dedicated to various functions such as exposure compensation, metering, focus mode, bracketing, etc.; others can be customized. Combined with the LCD's control panel, there's little reason to go into the menu system once the D600 is set up and, overall, is conveniently designed for easy operation.

Menus and modes
Like other Nikon DSLRs, the D600's menus are relatively straightforward and easy to navigate. As expected, they're logically arranged into sections such as shooting, playback, setup and custom - to name just a few. The Custom menu is, however, the most complex of them all. If you're unfamiliar with Nikon's custom options, it's best to read through that section in the user manual. What's interesting, and a sign of the D600's sophistication, is that you'd be hard-pressed to find many differences between the D600 and the D800 menus.

Nikon D800                                                                                 Nikon D600

One menu feature that may be overlooked is the somewhat consumer-sounding but very useful, My Menu. It's here that you can create a separate menu with only the options that you want for faster access. Why wade through a list of features that you rarely use?

As mentioned earlier, there are a couple of modes that are designed for no-brainer shooting including automatic exposure, auto flash off and scene modes. The latter covers all the standards like portrait and landscape but also includes a special pet portrait mode along with high key and low key settings.

Of course, the D600 offers full manual, aperture-priority and shutter-priority exposure modes. Two custom user modes are available on the mode dial for quick changes between your favorite or most often-used groups of settings. Timelapse, HDR and multiple exposure have, by now, become standard on most Nikon DSLRs.

It's a good idea to spend a little time setting up the custom user modes and My Menu feature to get the most efficient use of the D600. A little work up front translates into ease-of-use in the long run.

Display/Viewfinder
Similarities between the D600 and the D800 extend to the smaller camera's optical viewfinder as well as the 3.2-inch LCD. Bright and clear, the D600's viewfinder offers a 100% view. If, however, the DX (cropped) format is selected or a DX lens is attached, the viewfinder coverage drops to about 97%. Both FX and DX formats are available in both still and video shooting.

Nikon D600                                                                                 Nikon D800

Although the focusing screen is not interchangeable, it's quite efficient. Thanks to a small diopter near the viewfinder, those with less than 20/20 vision can make adjustments to fit individual eyesight.

The 3.2-inch LCD's resolution measures 921,000 dots and provides 100% coverage. An ambient brightness sensor automatically adjusts the monitor's brightness; brightness is also adjustable via the camera's menu. But I found that the LCD provided great visibility under just about all lighting conditions on its own.

A dual virtual level can be displayed on both the viewfinder and the LCD. While a single level is available, I find the dual level is more helpful when trying to keep horizons and other straight edges even. 

Performance

The D600 is a real pleasure to shoot with. In many ways, it's as responsive as my D3s with fast start-up time and quick action throughout most of the shooting experience.

Although you won't have the lightning fast continuous shooting speed of the Nikon D4 or the Canon 1DX -- or even the Sony A99 --the D600 can capture up to about 5.5 frames per second, even when set to RAW + JPEG. Be sure to use a high capacity card for storing the camera's large files, though. And make sure to use a high speed (Class 10) card to help keep the D600 nimble.

Nikon D600

Its 39-point autofocus system doesn't quite match that of the D800's 51-points and the area of AF coverage is, understandably, smaller. I haven't shot a runway show with the camera, but Iimagine I would miss being able to set the top focus point on a model's eyes because of the smaller AF area. On the other hand, using the DX crop mode helps expand the AF coverage.

That being said, autofocus is fast and accurate in good light. As the light level drops, AF isn't quite as speedy but certainly quick enough that it was rarely an issue in everyday shooting. And, most importantly, it nailed the focus in almost every shot regardless of light levels.

In Live View, not surprisingly, AF is much slower -- as it is in almost all DSLRs. I rarely use this mode and when I do, the camera is usually mounted on a tripod and manual focus is engaged.

If you regularly use Speedlights and/or studio flash, keep in mind that the D600's sync speed is 1/200th second, rather than the more standard 1/250th second. But, unless you're heavily dependent on external flash and need the extra sync speed, it shouldn't be an issue. 

Video Quality
DSLR video has become increasingly important as still photographers expand into movies by choice or by necessity. As mentioned earlier, the D600 inherits some of the D800's advanced video options including uncompressed output to an external drive via HDMI, the ability to view live footage on an external monitor, a headphone jack to monitor the camera's 20 audio levels and a microphone jack. The camera's internal microphone records in monaural so you'll need an external microphone for stereo sound, although the internal microphone is quite sensitive and can pick up relatively distant sounds.

Movies can be captured in both FX and DX modes with a range of options including full HD 1920 x 1080 at 30/25/24fps, 1280 x 720 at 60/50/30/25fps. Two quality levels -- high and normal -- are available as well.

Video quality is quite good. Colors are accurate and natural looking. Even indoors under mixed lighting, auto white balance worked extremely well. Test footage was sharp in good light and at low ISOs and softened only slightly under low light conditions.

As an extra bonus, the D600's timelapse feature automatically combines images to create a finished stop motion video in-camera.

Image Quality
The D600 certainly delivers where it counts and image quality is excellent. On default settings, test shots were very good but adjusting various parameters elevated the quality even more.

Exposures were almost always spot on thanks to the camera's excellent matrix metering system. Equally as impressive is the camera's auto white balance, which -- like the sample video -- kept the stage and the dancer's white suit clean and bright, even under mixed lighting. But, if you prefer a more "natural" (e.g., warmer) representation when shooting indoors in tungsten lighting, for example, you can tweak the camera's settings.

Colors were rendered accurately with enough saturation to bring images to life without overdoing it. Saturation, however, can easily be pumped up or toned down in-camera to suit your personal aesthetics. And Nikon's Active D-lighting works well to maintain shadow and highlight detail.

Regardless of the lens used, detail capture was quite good. I tend to prefer shooting with the 24-70 and 70-200, which are very sharp. But the kit lens delivered crisp detail in most images as well.

After shooting with the D3s for several years, I'm comfortable pushing ISOs to extremes since that camera is so amazing at high ISOs. The D600 doesn't have the same latitude (nor did I expect it to) but one of Nikon's strengths is keeping noise under control without losing detail and the D600 performed really well across its 100-6400 light sensitivity range. Although expandable to a low of 50 and a high of 24,600, I tried to stay within 100-3200 but topped out at 6400 on occasion. Sure, there's noise at higher ISOs, particularly in shadows as you'd expect. But the D600 handled itself quite well. Personally, I prefer to deal with image noise in Adobe Camera Raw rather than using in-camera noise reduction since it's more controllable. But each photographer needs to determine how much a trade-off between detail and noise reduction he or she is willing to make. Fortunately, with the D600 the trade-off is pretty minor.

ISO 100                                                                                 ISO 200

ISO 400                                                                                 ISO 800

ISO 1600                                                                                ISO 3200

ISO 6400


Additional Sample Images

Nikon D600

Conclusion

The Nikon D600's release (along with that of the Canon 6D) has made full-frame shooting available to a broader market than ever before. This is particularly important for Nikon users since photographers with DX cameras don't have to buy new lenses when stepping up to the D600.

Additionally, the D600 offers a 24 megapixel sensor, a full complement of features that almost rival those of the more expensive D800 and performance that will meet the needs of most photographers. Sports shooters and others who need super-fast continuous shooting will, of course, favor the D4 or the Canon 1DX but even so, the D600 has all the markings of a capable but more compact back-up camera.

If you're interested in full-frame shooting and don't have the budget -- or the need -- for the D800 or the D4, the D600 is an excellent alternative. This camera delivers on all counts: image quality, feature set and performance.

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Cons: