Camera Test: Nikon D600 Full-Frame DSLR

This full-frame DSLR provides high-performance at a low price

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The Nikon D600 offers a 24.3MP full-frame CMOS sensor, 5.5-fps burst shooting, 1920x1080p30 video capture, ISO 50–25,600, and a 24–85mm f/3.5–4.5G ED VR zoom lens, all for $2,700.

A full-frame DSLR body has long been on the wish lists of many more photographers than could afford one. Now, both Nikon and Canon have announced cameras priced at about $2,100 (street, body only), pitching them as “low-cost” full-framers.

The first of these to come into our hands is the 24.3MP Nikon D600. While it does indeed feel less like the luxury experience of Nikon’s D800, it’s more like a Mini Cooper than a Hyundai Accent—high-performing with a bit of flair. In terms of its looks, many see a strong resemblance between the new camera and the Nikon D7000.

But when we ran the D600 through the Popular Photography Test Lab, we quickly discovered where the Nikon D600 surpasses the performance of the D7000 by a considerable margin.

In the Test Lab
The D600’s imaging proved well above economy class, with an Excellent rating in overall image quality in our tests from ISO 50 through ISO 3200. Its resolution was particularly impressive: 2930 lines per picture height at its lowest sensitivity of ISO 50.

Furthermore, resolution didn’t drop below our threshold of 2500 lines until its top ISO of 25,600 (Nikon calls this Hi 2). At ISO 12,800 (a.k.a. Hi 1), the Nikon D600 served up 2570 lines. At both of those settings, of course, noise was heavy enough to drop image quality ratings well below the floor for an Excellent rating.

In our color accuracy test, performed with DxO Analyzer 4.1, the D600 easily earned an Excellent rating with an average Delta E of 6.8.

Interestingly enough, the much pricier Canon EOS-1D X and Nikon D4 both peaked at 2530 lines at ISO 50 in our tests. These top-of-the-line DSLRs also sport fewer pixels, faster bursts, and are built to withstand circumstances that might prove devastating to cameras in the class of the Nikon D600. But it’s nice to know that you can get more resolving power from a camera that costs thousands less than those pro rigs.

And if you thought that the D600 might not be able to keep up with those two supercameras when it comes to controlling noise, think again. The D600 matches the 1D X and D4 in keeping noise to Low or better ratings all the way up to ISO 3200. All three cameras also reach Unacceptable noise levels at ISO 12,800 and above. And while the two pro bodies reach the stratospheric ISO 204,800, we think that the Nikon D600’s top ISO of 25,600 is enough for most shooters—amateur through pro.

The main area that the D600 fails to match more-expensive cameras is autofocus. The 39-point system in the Nikon D600 covers a decent amount of the frame, but is rated to work down to only EV –1. And indeed, the D600 gave up completely in our test when the light went below EV –1. Even there, we found more variability in AF speed than we’d like to see: While it averaged 1.27 seconds, in some instances AF time came close to 2 seconds.

At the brightest light level in our test (EV 12), the D600 focused in a less-than-speedy 0.48 second. By EV 6, that had slowed to 0.54 second, which, while not bad, is still behind the 0.49 second that Nikon’s own D7000 managed at that same light level.

Despite all the fuss we’re making here, in our opinion it’s better to sacrifice a little bit of AF speed to hit a lower price at retail than to skimp on the image quality. All in all, the Nikon D600 really impressed us in our lab tests.

In the Field
The new Nikon was also very pleasant to use in everyday shooting. The grip, while not as lovingly sculpted as the one on the D800 and D4, still feels nice in the hand and has a groove on the inside for your fingertips. Plus, there’s a ridge just below the shutter button that gives you leverage to tilt the camera.

Ample dedicated buttons give you access to most of the settings you’re likely to want to change while shooting. Photographers stepping up from entry-level DSLRs might not be used to some controls, such as the AF button built into the AF switch on the front left of the camera, or the autobracketing and flash buttons above that switch. But once you start using the camera regularly, you will likely find those controls well placed and quite useful.

The one real gripe we have is the placement of the ISO button on the bottom left of the nice 3.2-inch 921,000-dot LCD. Nikon’s higher-end cameras place this in the group of three buttons on the top left of the camera, while many Canon cameras place it just behind the shutter button. Either of those placements make it easy to change ISO while keeping your eye at the finder. We were, on more than one occasion, flummoxed by the odd location of the Nikon D600’s ISO button. Worse still, you can’t assign it to one of the function buttons.

As usual, Nikon’s 3D Color Matrix Metering II served up excellent exposures even in some tough situations. We were happy to see up to +/–5 EV exposure compensation, but were baffled as to why autobracketing is limited to three frames.

Even more baffling: why the camera’s automatic HDR function combines only two shots. It produced nice results in many situations, and lets you select 1, 2, or 3 EV for the exposure differential. But we’re surprised that Nikon didn’t step this up to three shots.

Burst shooters should like the D600’s 5.5 frames-per-second continuous shooting, which allows for up to 57 full-sized, fine-quality JPEGs or up to 16 14-bit losslessly compressed RAW images before the buffer fills. In our field testing, the camera’s 3D tracking AF did a fine job of keeping up with moving objects.

Video enthusiasts will likely get weak in the knees over the Nikon D600’s ability to output an uncompressed HD stream to an external recorder from its HDMI jack. More casual video shooters should be plenty pleased with the quality of the video footage the D600 records to SD cards using Nikon’s usual H.264 encoding. There’s little in the way of artifacts and the footage we captured had well-saturated colors and was pleasingly sharp.

The Bottom Line
As we haven’t yet tested Canon’s EOS 6D, there’s no good point of comparison for the NIkon D600. But given the images (both still and moving) that this camera can produce, the well-designed, weather-sealed body, and the vast array of lenses and accessories in the Nikon system, we say it’s well worth the price.

Obviously, we’ll have more to say once the Canon arrives, but for now, the Nikon D600 is the best full-frame bargain you can find. Nikon shooters looking to take their first step into full frame should not hesitate to do so. And Nikon-shooting pros looking to add a backup full-frame body have a wonderful option in the D600. This year’s holiday shopping just got a little bit more interesting.

SPECIFICATIONS
IMAGING: 24.3MP effective, full-frame (FX) CMOS sensor captures images at 6016x4016 pixels with 14 bits/color in RAW mode.
STORAGE: Dual SD slots store JPEG, NEF RAW, and RAW + JPEG files.
BURST RATE: Full-sized JPEGs (Fine mode), up to 57 shots at 5.5 fps; RAW (14-bit), up to 16 shots at 5.5 fps using an SDHC UHS-I card.
AF SYSTEM: TTL phase detection with 39 selectable focus points (9 cross-type); single-shot and continuous AF with 3D predictive focus tracking. Tested sensitivity down to EV –1 (at ISO 100, f/1.4).
LIVE VIEW: TTL phase-detection or contrast-detection autofocus.
SHUTTER SPEEDS: 1/4000 to 30 sec, plus B (1/3-, or 1-EV increments); 150,000-cycle rating.
METERING: TTL metering with 2,016-pixel RGB sensor; Matrix (evaluative), centerweighted, spot (approx. 1.5% viewfinder). EV 0–20 (ISO 100).
ISO RANGE: Normal, ISO 100–6400 (in 1/3-EV increments); expanded, ISO 50–25,600.
VIDEO: Records at 1920x1080p at up to 30 fps; 1280x720p at up to 60 fps; in H.264 MPEG-4 MOV format; uncompressed video output available through HDMI jack; built-in mono microphone; stereo minijack input; maximum clip length: 29 min. 59 sec.
FLASH: Built-in pop-up; GN 39 (feet); hot shoe for dedicated i-TTL autoflash; flash sync to 1/200 sec.
VIEWFINDER: Fixed eye-level pentaprism.
LCD: 3.2-inch TFT with 921,000-dot resolution; 11-step brightness adjustment.
OUTPUT: USB 2.0, mini HDMI video, composite video, and analog audio.
BATTERY: Rechargeable EN-EL15 Li-ion, CIPA rating 900 shots (with optical viewfinder).
SIZE/WEIGHT: 5.6x4.4x3.2 in., 1.9 lb with a card and battery.
STREET PRICE: $2,100, body only.
INFO: www.nikonusa.com

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Nikon's new $2,100 full-frame D600 will be making its way into our test lab very soon, but to give you an idea of how it performs, here's a collection of real-world sample images shot with the 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 kit lens. All the shots use Standard picture control mode, Auto white balance, with Matrix metering, in the sRGB color space. None of the images have been edited. This image of a glass jar in my home doesn't say much about fine detail, but it does show how the D600's auto white balance deals with the daylight pouring in through the window, mixed with the amber light on the left side colored by the slats from my air conditioner. It also shows off the bokeh of the kit lens at the tele maximum aperture of f/4.5. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 400, 1/100 sec., f/4.5, +0.67 EV exposure compensation, lens at 85mm. Download the full-resolution image
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Here's another shot wide open at the tele end of the zoom. There's only a sliver of real sharpness around the green sprout near the middle of the image. In this case we get to see how the bokeh deals with blurring a more complex surface while including lots of darker areas to show some shadow detail. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 100, 1/500 sec., f/4.5, -0.67 EV exposure compensation, lens at 85mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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This Verizon payphone that resides on a corner near my home has sat in its desperately mangled state for months. Zoom in to enjoy the relative lack of noise at ISO 1600 and see if you can count the number of scratches on the top of the earpiece from angry people bludgeoning the phone with it. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 1600, 1/250 sec., f/8, -0.67 EV exposure compensation, lens at 62mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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Lampposts in New York City are often covered in flyers. This one sits across the street from what is hands-down the best Italian restaurant in Washington Heights. It is called Saggio, and you can see its striped awning in the background. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 1600, 1/250 sec., f/8, +0.67 EV exposure compensation, lens at 72mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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Talentless hacks like me love to shoot pictures of rusty iron railings. I shot this one at ISO 3200 just to have an excuse to subject you to it. Being in a shadowy area, and with the railing a bit high for my limited height, I used live view and held the camera above my head. Using the contrast detection system in live view, focusing wasn't particularly fast, but not annoying slow either. The minimal grain at ISO 3200 is impressive. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 3200, 1/640 sec., f/6.3, +0.33 EV exposure compensation, lens at 42mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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When life hands you grapefruits, place them in front of the under-ripe oranges. There's not much more to say about this one, though again, it is shot at ISO 3200. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 3200, 1/1250 sec., f/6.3, no exposure compensation, lens at 72mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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This is a wacky stairwell at the south end of the 181st St A train station. Shot at ISO Hi 1, an equivalent of ISO 12,800, we can observe the diminishing detail available at this camera's penultimate sensitivity setting. We also get to see how the D600's auto white balance fares with what can only be described as the nastiest fluorescent lighting known to humankind. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 12,800, 1/250 sec., f/6.3, -0.67 exposure compensation, lens at 85mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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This is about as mean as you can be to the D600. Shot in the Continuous High drive mode, with 3D focus tracking engaged, and panning along as the A train slowly pulls into the station. Normally I'd have gone for a brighter, more pleasing image, but I wanted to keep it dark to see what happened to noise in the shadows. Compared to a lot of cameras, especially smaller-sensored ILCs, this is actually a pretty good result. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 12,800, 1/800 sec., f/4.5, -0.67 exposure compensation, lens at 85mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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Here's a better-exposed shot at ISO Hi 1. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 12,800, 1/640 sec., f/4.5, no exposure compensation, lens at 85mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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Have you mailed your grandmother a letter lately? Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 100, 1/50 sec., f/5.0, no exposure compensation, lens at 24mm. Download the full-resolution image here
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Don't misuse public trash bins in New York City or else you will pay dearly. With harsh sunlight at my back, it was a bit difficult to see LCD screen to frame this shot with live view. I did my best, but ended up with this somewhat haphazard composition. Shot info: Nikon D600, ISO 100, 1/50 sec., f/11, +1.67 exposure compensation, lens at 24mm. Download the full-resolution image here