|Nikon D600 Review
The D7000 goes FX
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The surprise in Nikon's 2012 FX onslaught was the D600, announced just prior to Photokina and only about six months after the D4/D800/D800E. The FX line went from one model (D3) to two (D3 and D700), to three (D3, D3x, and D700), and now with the current configuration, we're technically at five variants (D3x, D4, D600, D800, and D800E). One could imagine this compounding into an even fuller line: D4s, D4x, D600, D600E, D800, and D800E. But probably not more than that, which will be a disappointment to some D700 users waiting for an exact upgrade (e.g. D4 sensor in D800 body).
What? Disappointment? Yes. A lot of the D700 users think that the D800 wasn't the follow up they expected. I personally think they're seeing this wrong: in almost every way, the D800 is a better 12mp camera than the D700 was. These folk are really balking at the giant step from 12mp to 36mp, but that's a different story. Now that the D600 is here, they get put out of shape because the D600 is the first consumer FX body. They believe that their choices are to go down in body quality or agonizingly up in pixel count. They're right. Those are their choices: get a much better imaging system in a slightly downgraded body, or get the best DSLR currently made. Frankly, I don't see the problem.
To get to a D600, Nikon did something rather simple: they took the D7000 body and parts bin, then stuck FX gear inside (shutter, focus screen, viewfinder, sensor). That's really about it. A few other modest differences exist, but they're mostly things that come with the D600 being two+ years later than the D7000: Nikon's iterative engineering keeps adding and tweaking things, so the D600 has those tweaks (as does the D7100, just announced as I write this), while the D7000 doesn't.
The D600 is a consumer FX body. The D800/D800E and D4 are professional FX bodies. What's that mean in practical terms? First, only professional bodies meet the requirements for NPS as a primary body. You can't become an NPS member with two D600 bodies only. You need at least one professional body (as I write this: D300, D300s, D800, D800E, D3, D3s, D3x, or D4). More important, however, is the "design sense" that Nikon uses for consumer bodies versus pro.
What's "design sense" mean? Well, one example is the presence of a Mode dial and Scene exposure modes on consumer cameras, while pro cameras have a Mode button and no Scene exposure modes. Consumer models don't tend to have as many dedicated buttons, they don't have a full metal body chassis (only partial), they don't have banks of settings (they sometimes have two user settings, U1 and U2 on the Mode dial, instead), and so on. The list of consumer versus pro aspects in Nikon's designs is actually fairly lengthy: the biggest change in user experience generally comes when moving from consumer to pro camera. Within the consumer lineup, things are very recognizable. Indeed, a D7000 user will feel right at home with a D600, as most things are exactly the way they learned and where they're used to them appearing.
So get used to this: the D600 is a consumer camera. True, it's one heck of a consumer camera, and performs at levels unheard of for consumer DSLRs not very long ago. But Nikon designed it for consumers, not pros. That's one reason why at Photokina they were saying things like "we think D7000 (DX) users will move up to the D600 (FX)." Yes, in the sense that it's the same camera with better internal digital aspects (bigger sensor), that's a very logical statement. Yet as I wrote in my Photokina report on the D600, that's not necessarily a 100% logical progression in my mind, but we'll get to that later in the review.
Right now the thing that you need to consider is whether you want a consumer FX camera with 24mp at US$2100, or a professional FX camera with 36mp at US$3000.
Beyond what I've already mentioned, let me outline some of the other differences:
Interestingly, there are some things about the D600 that will immediately appeal. The eyepoint of the D600's viewfinder is a glasses friendly 21mm, which is better than the pro cameras for some reason. We've got a headphone jack for monitoring audio, and an external microphone jack, as well (though take a look at that photo, above; cords are a nuisance, and you can end up with a lot of cords plugged into the D600 for video production).
Indeed, many of the features you'll find in the D600 are decidedly upscale from previous generations of consumer cameras: 150k rated shutter that actually flips the mirror up at start of Exposure Delay and keeps it up during Live View (unless you use flash), both front and rear infrared remote receivers, the viewfinder is 100% view (though DX is just a frame line), a big 3.2" 921k dot TFT LCD on the rear with ambient light detection, and more.
Inside, we still have a CAM4800FX focus module (39-point), but it's been tweaked to support f/8 lenses (not with all sensors, though). Likewise, the metering sensor has been updated to 2016 pixels and is more involved with the focus system, as well. The battery is an EN-EL15 (shared with D7000, D7100, D800/D800E, and V1 models).
The D600 requires yet another new vertical grip, the MB-D14. The grip has a Direction pad (though small) and AE-L/AF-L button. You can stuff one EN-EL15 or 6 AA batteries in the grip, but you'll have to take the grip off to get to the battery in the camera for charging if you're thinking that you'll go two-battery via this route.
The sensor inside the D600 is a 24mp Sony part. That'll net you 13 x 20" images at 300 dpi, which is probably as much as most non-pros need. In DX mode, though, we're down to 10.3mp, so unlike the D800 models, the D600 isn't quite the double-duty camera some want. If you're one of those using DX crop to keep from buying the super-exotic long telephotos, the D800 is a better choice, though you pay more for it. Sometimes just getting the right lens is the right decision.
Before I get to some not-so-great news, let me say this: the D600 is a very well-rounded camera. This is a better high-end consumer camera than we had in the film SLR era when all is said and done. That's great, and I think that Nikon nailed the specifications and performance pretty much right on the head. The D600 is potentially one of those cameras you buy and use for a very long time and are perfectly happy with.
What Nikon didn't nail is quality control out of the factory. I've gotten some flack on my apparent change of position on this, so I need to explain.
Soon after D600's started shipping I started hearing the same complaints from early D600 adapters as you might have seen on some Internet fora: D600's were being delivered "dirty" from the factory. There was a huge build-up of dust--in particular in the upper left corner of the image--and often accompanied by very obvious lubrication rings. Before I had a chance to see this in person (and partly experienced it myself), I chalked this up to haste on Nikon's part. So they didn't clean some cameras as well as they should have. Definitely not something you'd expect on a US$2100 product, but cleaning a sensor isn't all that much trouble; I've been doing it and telling people how to do it for well over a decade.
Unfortunately, it started to become clear this wasn't just forgetting to clean sensors before boxing cameras. Some cameras I've seen were showing hundreds of spots, and close examination shows that it isn't "dust," but something more akin to what I'd call debris. In some cases these spots were so large that they showed up at f/8, which means it isn't dust. Spots so big that I could clearly see the offender without magnification while looking at the sensor with Lock Mirror Up for Cleaning. Moreover, even if you cleaned the sensor, within a thousand or so shots the army of black dots would be back, right up there in the upper left corner again.
My personal copy of the D600 has shown a few of those large particles so far, but not the excessive number I've seen on some other cameras. More problematic is that my D600 is definitely throwing lubricant on the sensor, and that's a bear to clean. Generally I have to use a detergent-based solution in a first pass, wait for the sensor to completely dry, then use an alcohol-based cleaner to remove any streaking. At the 250-image mark, my sensor filter had well more than a dozen lubricant spots, and they continue to proliferate as I use the camera. So I'm doing more cleaning of the sensor than I'm used to with recent Nikons.
This is all much more serious than just some casual dust left behind by manufacturing. Something seems to be shedding inside some cameras (or there's a large store of material hidden away where we can't see or get to it, but which the air movement caused by the mirror flip and shutter are causing to come to the sensor). Plus many D600's are more prone to lubricant throwing than other recent Nikon models (my D600 is far worse at this than my D800, D800E, or D4). Thus, some of those that sent their cameras into Nikon for cleaning got back a clean sensor only to find that a thousand or so shots down the road the problems were back. It was at that point where I began to change my position. Moreover, I know that some D600 users in Japan have been in multiple times for "cleaning," so Japan has to be well aware of the problem at this point.
Nikon themselves now quasi-admit to an issue. Unfortunately, besides the awkward wording of this "article" (now posted on several Nikon sites around the world), Nikon uses the words "reduce this issue," not "fix this issue." I've gotten reports from some who've had Nikon look at their camera, gotten a clean camera back only to have the dust reappear as before. I've also gotten two emails from people claiming that Nikon replaced the shutter on their camera when the camera was sent in for dust. But at present I have no real statistics on the prevalence to dirty the sensor on D600 models. From Internet chatter, my In Box, and my personal experience, it seems relatively common, though.
So in the course of examining this issue closer (and closer [and closer]) I've gone from a position that Nikon just shipped some unclean cameras to a position that Nikon shipped quite a few cameras with some clear recurring annoyance. How many and how big a problem is still unknown. I continue to look into this problem and am still trying to assess how widespread it is and whether Nikon is doing more than just "reduc[ing] the issue." Thus, at present, I can't in good faith either recommend or not recommend the camera. Which is a shame, because it's a very good camera, as I've already pointed out. I guess if I had to give you advice I'd say buy from a good dealer who'll help you if you experience this issue, and be prepared to have a rocky initial relationship with your camera if it does have this problem. Learn how to clean the filter over the sensor yourself and be prepared to do that more often than you have to with other Nikon DSLRs. Not really what I wanted to write in a review, but, well, there it is. Ain't my fault, after all. I'm just the messenger reporting what I've learned so far.
no recommendation (see review)
The D600 is a strong performer, and more than enough camera for most folk. Sure, its 24mp doesn't match the D800's 36mp, but here we have a camera that exceeds D3x performance at one third or less of the cost. Definitely a value.
Review product source: purchased body
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Since we've now had three "small" FX bodies, it probably is useful to look at a table of the primary differences:
Rather than wait til later in the review to address the differences, I think it important to get right to the differences between these three similar bodies and why you'd choose one over another:
Which brings me to those considering the D700 on the used market. As I write this, the D700 has seen somewhat of a resurrection in prices on the used market, now (Feb 2013) selling for US$1600-1700 in excellent condition. That's not a heavy discount from a new D600. Buying a new D600 over a used D700 you gain warranty, 100% viewfinder, lots of tech (see above), double the pixels on a better sensor. I contend that you'd be better off shooting JPEG Medium on a D600 than JPEG Large on a D700 at any ISO value. People are getting hung up on pixel peeping, but not pixel peeping at apples-versus-apples comparisons. Simply put: if you're a D700 user and wanted better high ISO performance, the D600 delivers that in spades (as does the D800). There's nothing particularly wrong with a D700--it's still a fine camera--but both the D600 and D800 are upgrades, just in different ways. I normally suggest that most people aren't well served but upgrading from one generation of DSLR to the next; I usually suggest that they skip a generation. But in the case of the D700, enough has changed since it came out that I'll repeat the statement I just made: both the D600 and D800 are reasonable upgrades to the D700. You can go slightly down body (D600) and get better image quality and all the latest tech, or you can keep the same body level (D800) and push right to the best performing DSLR on the market as I write this. All those people complaining that there isn't a true D700 upgrade aren't seeing reality: there are two upgrades to choose from. And yes, I've voted with my wallet: I've sold my D700 and there's nothing that I miss.
Yeah, the cheese keeps moving (see my D800 review). One particular head-scratcher on the D600 is the Custom Setting numbering, in particular the D# settings. Consider:
Continuous Shooting Speed: D2 (D800), D5 (D600)
The list of numbering differences goes on, quite considerably in the case of the D600 versus D800. To what end? How is this new order better for the D600 user than the old order was for the D800 user?
Now not every Nikon DSLR user handles more than one Nikon DSLR at a time like I do, but it's still a cognitive dissonance when you update to a new model. We've put up with this Custom Setting renumbering nonsense since the F5, believe it or not. Does this mean that Nikon really doesn't know what a set of base Custom Settings would be and that they need to keep them static? Or is that Nikon thinks a D600 user is more likely to change viewfinder settings than continuous shooting settings, and therefore has reordered them to make the most likely used thing on top? Whatever the reason, it's annoying to us long-time Nikon users, and it feels more like tweaking for tweaking's sake than causing any functional and practical difference.
There, I got that out of the way. I feel better now ;~).
Handling really boils down to three aspects: (1) overall feel (hand positions, etc.); (2) button and control placement and quality; and (3) menu and internal settings adjustments. I've already started to deal with #3, so let's stay on that subject for a moment.
Overall, the D600 menu system is going to look remarkably familiar to any recent Nikon DSLR user. Some of the menus (e.g. SHOOTING menu) still sprawl and have the wrong ordering to likely usage and things like slot role and file naming in the wrong place, too (they should arguably be on the SETUP menu, as they're something you don't change a lot while shooting). But Nikon is now in a tough situation with menus: changing them opens them up to the criticism I just made about Custom Settings numbering, while leaving them as is offers continuity. I guess my message to Nikon is this: choose one, not both. If we're going to have an upheaval in where things are, do it all at once for the current and future cameras and be done with it. Make sure it's well thought through and both structured and ordered correctly. If not, don't keep moving a few things: leave things where they are (or at least in the same order between cameras; some cameras don't need certain Custom Settings).
Moving on. Some people aren't going to like the hand position, some will. Unlike the changes made to the D4 and D800 models to slope the area where the shutter release is, which changes the right hand feel considerably, the D600 is still the old school, relatively horizontal shutter release position. If you're a one-handed shooter, that position isn't comfortable. If you're a two-handed shooter (as most of us were from the film SLR era), it should feel fine.
One common complaint I get from people are the lack of dedicated ISO, WB, and QUAL buttons on the consumer models. Personally, I don't find the overloaded button structure (one meaning during playback, another meaning during shooting) to be a problem at all. I actually prefer the positions of the ISO, WB, and QUAL buttons on the D600 to the D800. Why? Because Nikon's basic control interface is left hand presses button, right hand twirls dials. My left hand during shooting is not on top of the camera, where the D800's buttons are, it's under the camera. Often I can reach around with my thumb and find the right button (if Nikon wouldn't keep moving them ;~). The ISO button is easy for me to get to without moving my hand much.
Here's the thing that's killing all you consumer body users: you're leaving Image Review to On. Moreover, you're not in the habit of half pressing the shutter release when you want to set something. Those two little things (canceling Image Review, half press the release) will always make the buttons active for shooting. So what if you have to press the playback button to see what you shot? When you're reviewing images, you don't need the camera to be responsive to shooting settings. When you're shooting, you need the camera to be responsive to shooting settings. Nikon didn't mess this up, in my opinion, they just didn't point out the obvious in their manuals. Frankly, if you're always taking the camera from your eye to look at the last image you shot, you should probably be using a different button to change settings: the info button will get you to things very fast. But if your eye is at the viewfinder, where it should be for taking pictures, kill the image review and just get used to the button positions, simple as that.
Unfortunately, the QUAL and WB indicators are not in the viewfinder, so you'll be taking your eye off the viewfinder eyepiece to set those things, anyway. But that ISO button can be twiddled while looking through the lens at your subject, including turning Automatic ISO on and off (Front Command dial+button).
Overall, shooting controls work as well as any consumer DSLR I've used, and I'm quite comfortable with what Nikon did with the D600 in this respect. I get a kick out of the people complaining about the locking Mode dial, but frankly, that's better than the alternative. While the Mode dial has U1 and U2 (user settings) positions that you may want to change between, I think that exposure mode and whole camera changes are things you should have to think about each time you make a change, not just jerk around like a dog playing with a bone. Locking dials is welcome in my book.
The one handling area that is still lagging on the D600 is Live View. We're back to the "must set aperture prior to entering" problem. This has a lot to do with the parts Nikon uses to run the aperture activation arm in the consumer models, but a US$2100 camera really ought to do better here. It's still a step forward from D700 Live View, as the mirror stays up unless you use flash, but not having a live aperture is something that sticks out on a camera this well specified.
Writing to Card
Be careful, however. If you put an older non UHS-1, slow card into the second slot, you can lower the camera's overall performance. Maybe not for shooting if you're using Overflow as your Slot 2 Role, but every time the camera has to hit both cards--which includes image review--performance is determined by the slower slot. To put that in perspective: I took the oldest 2GB SD card I have, which might not even be 20MBps peak performance (it's unmarked) and put it in the second slot with a top-of-the-line SanDisk in the first slot. Image review slowed noticeably, even looking at images on the first card.
But that smaller "area" is what gets people: the focus sensors don't even hit the one-third points. The actual area seen by the D600 focus sensor is the same as is seen by the D7000 focus sensor, by the way. It's the change in angle of view (DX crop versus FX) that changes the apparent area covered. There's good news and bad news buried in the 39-point focus sensor for those of you contemplating the D600. This is the best implementation of the 39-point system so far, by a tiny bit. Many people also don't realize that the line sensors in the 39-point version are somewhat larger than those in the 51-point version, either. That has both positive and negative implications in and of itself. The positive and the negative is that it's more likely that sensor is seeing something that isn't perfectly centered on the viewfinder indicators. Sometimes that means the camera is finding the subject you didn't quite get the sensor on and that's what you wanted, sometimes it means that the camera is seeing something you don't want it to see when focusing. Remember, those viewfinder indicators are not indicative of the size and shape of the autofocus sensor.
But let me cut to the chase here: a lot of consumers just focus in the center. Good news: the nine central sensors are all cross hatched and large. Central focus is pretty darned sure and reliable. Even Dynamic Area 9-point with the center area selected is darned good. It's all the things that you can do outside those central nine sensors (3D Tracking, Auto Area, 21-point/39-point Dynamic Area, Single Point with one of the outer sensors, etc.) that would probably get you into focus situations where you might not like the performance as much. As it is, a lot of shooters are focus-and-reframers. Great, stick to the central area and learn how the geometry of reframing works and you'll be just fine.
My D600 can produce significant swings even in my office. Focusing on the bright white wall versus a dark black bag nets me a one-third to two-thirds stop difference in the matrix meter, with the same framing. This isn't as bad as some of the consumer bodies have been, but it's a bit more than I'd like to see.
Noise and Dynamic Range
We're now in an era where output sizes aren't really expanding but capture resolution is. For almost everyone, we have a fairly fixed print size. Let's assume for a moment that this is the maximum size a desktop inkjet can print (13x19"). In that 19" a 12mp camera is going to have to fit 4000 pixels, a 24mp camera 6000. So we've got 210dpi for the 12mp image and 315dpi for the 24mp image. Pixels are buried in both cases, but more so in the 24mp image. You're simply not going to see low-level noise in visible amounts using either camera.
Meanwhile, at the other end, for those pictures we have the same amount of light hitting the same sensor area (FX, or 24x36mm). The net result is that: same amount of light, same sized print, you're going to get similar looking results from the 12mp and 24mp cameras, all else equal. We can completely equalize things by first downsizing the 24mp image to 12mp, thus masking per-pixel noise, but I don't think we have to go that far for most people because they're simply not printing large enough to produce a visible difference in the first place. Note my "all else equal" earlier in the paragraph. Guess what? The D600 isn't equal to the D700, it's better. The D600 sensor has better read noise and overall dynamic range properties than the D700, despite the increase in pixel count. Thus, it does pretty darned good. Don't believe me? Well, I don't even have to show the raw image optimized. Here's a straight out of camera JPEG shot at ISO 3200 with just the white point and black points reset slightly:
Yes, you guessed it: twice as many pixels as the D700 means I get twice as many basketballs in the shot ;~). Seriously folks, this is actual pixel view, about 13% of the overall image. Noise is very well behaved, though the built-in noise reduction (which kicks in no matter what at ISO 2500) has reduced detail slightly. Colors have blocked up slightly. How's it look in real life? How's this:
That's Philadelphia 76er Evan Turner not being successfully guarded by the usual gang of Men's Health players at our weekly games, by the way. Let's go in and take a look at that hand position:
Surprise, I've bumped the ISO to 6400. I'm also shooting at f/4.5 with the 24-85mm VR lens from the half court position ;~). Try that on your D700! ;~0
With faster lenses and care, I can do far better than these results (I was also temporarily subbed out of the game, and was completely gassed at this point; I'm surprised I could even pick up the camera I had been running so hard [I was on Evan's team, thankfully]).
Resolution and Diffraction
Let's pixel peep (remember, multiple compressions are in effect with samples on the Web like this):
This is the 16-35mm at f/8, and infinity should be just a bit out of focus (my usual methodology in landscapes; I don't use hyperfocal). This was actually a quick handheld grab without paying a lot of attention: my primary camera was on the tripod and set up for the shots I wanted to take.
Basically the D600 is almost perfectly matched to the largest desktop inkjet printers: 300 dpi at 24mp is 20", just an inch beyond the largest print the desktop inkjets can do. You're not going to want to push beyond f/11 if you can help it, as diffraction starts becoming an issue that'll rob some acuity if you print that big, but had I shot this with an F100 and Provia I wouldn't have expected any different result (well, I'd have grain that I would have had to get out of the scan).
Overall, I'd say the video quality is very appropriate for the price point and likely user of this camera.
Should You Get a D600?