Monday, September 24, 2012

Nikon D600 Review

Okay, so I said that the Nikon D600 was the camera that needed no review because it was the culmination of a number of known positive factors that Nikon had already been offering, both feature-wise in other cameras, and service-wise across all of the product range. You didn't think that I could resist getting my hands on it first chance that I got, did you? Well, here it is, in the flesh. That didn't take long did it? Photokina 2012 is over and just like that, it pops up in your store.

Nikon D600
It takes months of planning to roll out a whole new line, and if nothing else, serves to illustrate how serious Nikon is about pushing the affordable full frame market. I assumed that my local independent shop would only get a few trickle-outs, but the answer to "How many do you have in stock?" was actually, "Lots." Nikon has heard you, oh long suffering FX wannabe: the promised land is here. No elusive high-end halo product this; this is the big time now, mass production, mass consumption. Just to give you an idea of what the D600 will mean to Nikon, the bulk of their unit sales historically fell between the D90/D300 cameras. Since there isn't a D400 (not yet anyway), that should give you a really good idea of the volume that the D600 is expected to do. Just a recap, the D600 has been one of the worst kept secrets to come out of Nikon in quite some time, and judging by the scale of the operation, it's not hard to see why. This is a consumer camera, expected to do consumer-like levels of volume, and it's produced in their consumer-oriented plant in Thailand. The only thing not consumer-like about it is the image quality. We're talking about better than D3x output for less than the D700 introductory price. Oh what a difference three years makes.

Nikon D600 with 50mm f/1.4 AF-D

Just to get one thing out of the way... This isn't a D7000 with a full frame sensor stuffed into it. It's a full frame camera following the D7000 formula, but there's a difference between the two. You notice the heft, and it's larger in every dimension, width, height and depth. However, the handling feels just a step higher in quality than the D7000. Part of it comes down to the grip, which has a deeper notch for your middle finger of your right hand to hook onto; the second is that rubber material is the higher quality rubber that's used on the D700. The D7000 was an improvement over the D90, but the D600, like the higher end models, is better. The combination of the deeper grip and improved material gives the camera a more firmly planted feeling in your hand than does the D7000, and inspires a lot of confidence. DPReview forum talk will make you feel as if this camera is inferior to the D800, but when you handle them side by side, it really doesn't feel that way. The D600 feels right for it's heft; the D800 feels over-engineered, but only until you put on one of those Nikkor lenses with the gold band on it.


From left to right: Nikon D800, D600 and D7000

However, compared to DX, the heft is noticeable. Remembering that it shares a similar construction to the D7000, it reminds you more of the D700 than it does of an over-sized DX camera. Operationally, it's as if the D700 went on a diet and slimmed down. Next to the D800, it feels positively svelt and compact even though that camera, too, is lighter than the D700. Overall, the D600 is an easy camera to step into if you are moving up from DX; it's not too bulky, and even more importantly, it won't make you look or feel like a goof with more money than brains. It's a lot of camera, but it won't make you feel like you've bought a lot of camera. Another nice touch is the locking mode dial. The dial turns with a little more firmness than on the D7000, but otherwise, if you've seen the D7000, then the D600 won't be unfamiliar. Some people complained about how easier it was to knock the D7000 mode dial out of position; I would have preferred if they just made these things to click  more solidly instead of resorting to extra locks and push buttons.

Left to Right: D7000 with 50mm f/1.4 AF-D, D600 with 24-85VR
If there is one way that I could sum up the handling, it would be that it's somewhat evocative of the very first time that you picked up a Nikon dSLR. Something about it just wants to be picked up, and held. The grip calls you to grab on and start playing pro-photographer... that's what the deeper grip feels like.You pick it up, and you can't stop playing with it...

D600 Shot of the D7000 - ISO 3200, f/4.2, 1/250sec at 52mm
Another thing that is hefty is the file size. NEF's weigh in around 32mb, or one second-tier iPhone if you are counting. (Edit: After reading this, I now realize that my math skills went out the window due to all of the excitement. That sentence is stupid. Off by a factor of a  thousand). The jpegs alone are 9mb coming straight out of the camera. We are heading for a whole new unfettered age of hard drive space usage here, folks. If you are wondering why the convergence of digital photography and tablets is taking so long, here's the answer. You can't do Photoshop on your iPad if one file takes up the whole storage of the machine (This sentence is also stupid). If you've been pixel peeping the internet, then 24mp samples from the D3x and Sony A900 shouldn't seem all that unfamiliar, but there's just an incredible added weight when you have ownership of a whole bunch of them on your computer. Just a reminder: you don't have to use all 24 megapixels if you don't want to. This machine is going to produce awesome 16mp images if you downsample.

Same shot, 100% crop, 1036*691.
Viewing pictures at 100% gets disorientating, even if you have a very large monitor. The difference between viewing at full-size and viewing at 100% crop is staggering. Pixel peeping is likened to viewing pictures with your nose pressed up to the screen, but on a typical 24" monitor, even if you planted your eyeballs directly on the glass, it would still not be the same as magnifying to 100% crop from a regular viewing distance. Conversely, downsampled images have an additional pop to them compared to native pictures taken with lesser cameras. (The Bayer filter array produces less resolution in the red and blue channels than it does in the green, but downsampling to a smaller resolution, you are basically stuffing more imformation in to the same pixel space.) In preparing the pictures for this write up, I can say that it's a pleasure working with the D600 files. There is an ISO advantage as you would expect, and it's present throughout the ISO range. If you spend any time with this camera, you'll be spoiled for what your expectations for ISO 1600 and above should be.

D600 Shooting 24-85VR ISO 3200, f/1.8, 1/4000s at 50mm
Our camera store had the 24-85VR plugged on it. The boys there say they've been pretty happy  with the results that they've been getting with it, so unless aperture control is a big priority for you, this is very much the kit lens for the D600. It's a modern consumer grade variable-aperture lens, and it feels at home on the D600 in the same way that the 18-70 felt at home when it first appeared on the D70. However, the feel and quality of it are a little closer to the 18-105VR... it doesn't feel quite so substantial and the zoom ring is very stiff. Personally, I don't get too excited about lenses like this, and prefer constant aperture lenses, even if I have to resort to third-party manufacturers and have to do without image stabilization; however, the 24-85VR a very good proposition for what you are getting. There's the whole argument about the point of putting a consumer lens on a 'pro' body, but let's not kid ourselves; for a lot of people, just getting a D600 will be a big enough reach already. Getting some skin in the game is one thing, after that, you have to stay in the game, so the 24-70VR might not be the best next purchase just yet. However, to put things in perspective, this is a far better starter lens than the older 24-120VR than Nikon was trying to pair with the D700. Speaking of lenses, you can read a quick list of viable used alternatives to help take the financial sting out of a DX-to-FX migration in this post.

Nikon D600 Viewfinder with AF Points

The AF system felt snappy and precise,  and if you are coming from the D7000, you will have to get used to having the 39 AF points condensed closer into the center. This makes focusing on off-center subjects  a bit more challenging, but because the points now cover a smaller percentage of the picture frame, my guess is that it will be an easier camera to focus with than the D7000. The internet is full of forum traffic bemoaning the way autofocus works on the D7000. Most of it is self-amplified bunk. However, it is true that the AF sensors in the D7000 cover a larger area than the 51-point unit used in the D300s and the D700. What this means is that a larger light gather surface trades a little bit of specificity in return for increased sensitivity. Now put an upgraded version in a full frame camera, the points become proportionally smaller against the picture frame, and you gain back a little bit of the specificity. All told, it's as if the Multi-CAM 4800 unit in the D7000 was a dry run for prime-time in a full frame life.

D600 from the side

Continuing with the same, but not quite the same motif, a couple of ergonomic tweaks. For one, we are moving deeper and deeper into the era of video convergence. The D600 has a modest tweak to the Live View switch, with one position for stills and one for video; each brings up a different user interface. I like how the video interface also shows you the microphone decibel level input; this is just another improvement that is pushing these cameras towards more serious video work. This is similar to the D800, with a dedicated movie button on the top plate next to the shutter release. I'm not too fond of this arrangement, but I like how video is it's own dedicated menu. However, I personally prefer how the switching to Live View is just a quick tug of the lever on the D7000. It's also more satisfying in a tactile sensation.

D600 from the rear, showing liveview screen for video capture.

On the whole, I like this camera a lot, but not enough to want to buy it just yet. As the digital camera market approaches thermodynamic heat death, the dSLR manufacturers will continue to push consumers up towards full frame to avoid the competitive melee that is happening under DX right now with the slew of advanced compacts and growing number of m4/3 options. However, as capable as the D600 is, the D7000 is already a decent rig for the serious enthusiast. But in one way, holding the D600 is like meeting the D70 all over again. There have now been so many cameras that have followed it, but the D70 was a watershed moment when quality digital photography had finally reached the consumer level. Just look at how many D70's are still in use now; I challenge you to find the original Canon digital Rebel out in the field. The D600 will  likely be like this as well; it's going to be a camera that will be used for quite some time, but just as the D70 laid the groundwork for the D80, D90 and the D7000 after it, one can only look at what's coming down the future. $2100 USD  is expensive now, but as time moves on and technology improves, a $2000 camera becomes less and less expensive. If the D600 isn't the camera for you now, its successor will almost certainly tempt you even more. But for now, the D600 is the king of the enthusiast cameras. I've already fallen in love with the file quality that this machine produces, the only thing stopping me is that my wallet doesn't feel the same way.
My very own D7000 as shot from the D600. ISO 3200, f/1.8, 1/2000s at 50mm

I'd like to thank David Lai and the kind staff at Broadway Camera for letting me have at it with their very first open box D600. If you would like to buy one and thank him for the nuisance that I was to the paying customers, you can reach him at richmond@bccamera.com and pick up your sleek new D600 today. I would have gotten more out of him, however, it seemed like I pushed my luck a bit when I asked if I could play with the Leica M9 and Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH....

2 comments:

  1. one 32 MB file is a full iPhone?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Funny how being all excited reduces your brain cells to mush huh? That there is not some of my best writing.

    ReplyDelete