Nikon D600: An Exclusive Hands-on Preview (Part 1 of 3)

 


After getting his hands on the camera on the day of its worldwide announcement, Raj Lalwani tells you five things that you need to know about the Nikon D600.

Very few cameras in recent years have created a buzz as volatile as the Nikon D600. Before its imminent release, the internet was rife with rumours that this would be the world’s least expensive full frame DSLR ever. USD 1500, scream the headlines, and almost everyone was amazed. Those who had bought a D800 for double the amount without needing the 36MP probably wanted to drown themselves, and people began to speculate how Canon would respond.

A week after the D600’s official announcement, the conversations have continued, but they have taken a different turn. The dreamers have got a reality check and with a price tag of USD 2100, the D600 is definitely not as inexpensive as early rumours suggested. Murder, cried the cynics, and everyone rushed to criticise the announcement and wondered why someone would not buy a D800 instead.

I have found both these extreme reactions a little juvenile, to say the truth. Before heralding something as the next best thing or crucifying them, let us actually put it through its paces, instead of reacting on the basis of preconceived ideas.

And this is why I think, let’s just dissect the hype and look through the haze, to see what the D600 actually is. At Better Photography, we have had a production piece of the camera ever since the day of its worldwide announcement, and have shot a little more than a thousand frames since them. There is a lot to talk about and some more to think about, so I will be writing this exclusive hands-on preview in three parts.

But before I begin, maybe you should scroll up this post to see a video in which K Madhavan Pillai, Editor of Better Photography, says hello to the D600… not the one I have had with me in Bombay, but in Koelnmesse at Nikon’s photokina booth.

There is a mathematical equation that one can use to sum up the D600.

D600 = D7000 + D800

Maybe, just maybe, I should phrase it like this though.

D600 = D7000 + D800 – D700

What does this mean? Let me put it simply. Take the exterior of the D7000, put in a new full frame sensor that has a resolution that falls between the D700 and D800, borrow the best technology from the D800, take away a few subtle things and voila, you have a new camera!

What does this mean for photographers? Let me tell you five things about the D600 that you may or may not know… both good and bad.

It does not make too many compromises: And the features it actually skimps out on, are the ones that most photographers would rarely need. On paper, if you compare the D600 to the D800, the D700 and even the brand new Canon 6D, the D600 paints a very respectable picture. It does not have the inbuilt WiFi and GPS features of its Canon counterpart (though both are optional additions that one can make), but in terms of pure photographic apabilities, the D600 stands well above the 6D. It has a faster frame rate, better AF system, more high-end video functionality, dual card slots and several other pro features that the 6D lacks. Of course, the 6D may well spring a surprise on us if the image quality trumps the D600 but at the moment, Nikon seems to have taken the lead.

I haven’t got a chance to check out the RAW files as yet, considering that the camera is so new and RAW support, minimal. The quality of JPEGs is exactly what one would expect, with a good amount of latent detail that one can play with.

It is actually not that expensive: The one criticism that the D600 has had is that its Indian pricing (an MRP of a little less than Rs. 1.4 lakh, and 1.25 lakh as its MOP) is very similar to what the D800 used to cost, before its price was increased.

While that is true, let me put things into perspective here. The dollar is not what it used to be. The D800’s initial pricing was very aggressive, but currency exchange has forced the company to increase the price substantially. Also, the D800 needs a significant amount of investment, in the form of lenses that can resolve 36MP, hard drive space, fast high-capacity memory cards and so on… the D600 is a far less demanding camera, and if you work out the hidden costs of the D800, you will find their pricing quite disparate.

The autofocus system is not as good as I expected: Make no mistake, it is a highly competent AF system that is definitely as good as the D7000’s, but since this is a full frame camera, the AF sensors cover only a tiny part of the frame—much lesser than the D7000 or even the D700/D800. In the first few days of shooting, I found it much easier to focus using the centre point and recompose, and while this can be good enough for most users, if I was photographing sports for a living and could not afford the D3S/D4, I would prefer the old D700 any day. That said, the autofocus, if the subject falls within the sensors, is as good as we have come to expect from Nikon.

There is nothing wrong with a smaller camera: And the D600 is definitely not small, if you look at cameras like the X-Pro 1 or RX1. The D7000 itself is a superbly sturdy camera, and unless you are taking the camera to a war zone or plan to jump off a cliff, the build quality should not give anyone, anything to complain about.

Also, I am a little amused at how people think that professional cameras need to be bigger. “Oh, the D700 is so small, they would say,” while comparing it to the D3, “it is not professional enough.” With photographers over the years having used tiny cameras that do not draw attention, I do not understand the correlation between pro quality and a bulky body. In fact, when I took this camera to Bengaluru for a workshop and shoot, I was so glad that it was lighter than the D700 that I am otherwise accustomed to.

Originally shot in colour, this photograph was converted to B&W using Adobe Photoshop CS6. The autofocus of the camera is snappy, but considering that the 39-point AF sensor only occupies a small area in the centre of the viewfinder, it is not as reassuring as the AF system of the D700 or D800.

The devil is in the details: This may seem like a tiny ergonomic complaint, but from the point of view of someone who has used the D700 for the past three years, I found it a major irritant—no ability to jump to a 100% view. On several Nikon DSLRs, including the D700 and D800, one can customise the centre-button of the thumbpad. So if I would press the button while shooting, the centre AF sensor would be selected, and during playback, it would help me directly look at the zoomed in picture and thus, confirm sharpness. With the D600, the ability to tune its behaviour in the playback mode is not there anymore! If I press the centre button, I get access to a Quick Retouch menu, which is a rather pointless shortcut for a camera at this price range.

There is so much more to talk about the Nikon D600, but also so much more to shoot. Let me get back to making pictures with the camera, and tomorrow, in the second part of this preview, I will tell you my initial impressions of its image quality.

 

Tags: 2012, 6d, better photography exclusive, cologne, d600, d800, Germany, koelnmesse, nikon, Photokina, preview, trade fair