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


D600? 6D? D800? D700? Raj Lalwani ponders over the question that is on everyone’s minds, in the final part of our hands-on preview of the Nikon D600.


So it’s been a week with the D600 and as I begin the third part of this hands-on preview, it is probably time to seek some answers. These might not be my final answers, let me add as a disclaimer… a week is certainly not enough time to give a definitive opinion on a camera, and the testing process will go on for the next few weeks before Better Photography publishes a full-fledged review in the November 2011 issue.

But yes, seven days and thousands of frames do seem enough to summarise my list of discoveries—the gems, the hidden nuances, the highlights of the D600 that make it an endearing camera and the whims and quirks that make me wish I had a different camera in my hands.

First, the good news. There are very few of these potential irritants. The D600 is an extremely competent camera that shines in some extremely difficult shooting situations. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Technology has moved ahead so much, that rarely do we find a DSLR from any manufacturer that does not perform well. The point is, what are the reasons to buy a D600 and are there any, to steer away?

On Paper

In terms of features, there is not much to complain about. The more I use the D600, the lesser I miss any so-called missing features that may be there in the D700 and D800. It is the ideal camera for a videographer, with similar movie functionality to the D800, including the ability to record uncompressed Full HD footage via HDMI. One caveat: you cannot change aperture while using Live View in the Movie mode. Of course, Canon still leads the race in video, along with Sony and Panasonic. But considering that a series like Dexter is now entirely shot on the D800, one can say that the gap is much lesser now.

A lot of people have been complaining about the fact that the maximum sync speed of the camera is 1/200sec (and not 1/250sec like the D700/D800). This may affect a few users, but it is not something that cannot be worked around. The camera does allow you to use 1/250sec without using the High Speed Sync mode, albeit with a reduced flash range. Moreover, cameras like the Canon 5D Mark III and 6D have an even slower sync speed of 1/180sec. A serious photographer who wishes to use flash to overpower ambient light can work around such constraints.

The focusing in Live View is as good as that of the D800. Still not Sony SLT level, but relatively usable, as compared to DSLRs of the past generation. The shadow detail and image quality at ISO 6400 is splendid. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Similarly, I do not think the lack of 1/8000sec should affect too many people. Instead, the D600’s sensor’s native ISO is 100 (can be pulled to 50) as compared to the D700 that began at 200. In that respect, even if you are shooting at f/1.4 lens in broad daylight, it should not cause too many problems.

To Use

This is where I had the most number of issues, though overall, the camera does handle far better than several other cameras in the market. It is just that I think the D800 (and now the D600) are a step down from the D700 in terms of basic handling. The dials at the top left feel fiddly, and operating their locks is cumbersome. This is a new fad which I still do not understand. The locks just make you struggle while switching from A to M.

Similarly, the lever to unlock the Drive Mode dial is at the back (as compared to the D700, where it is at the front). This makes it more cumbersome and your fingers need to do a ballet to understand how to switch from one Drive Mode to another.

There is no AF-ON button, so those who are used to using that to activate autofocus on the D700 or D800, you will need to keep that in mind. Several buttons can be configured to activate autofocus including the AE-L/AF-L button (which is at a similar position to where the AF-ON button is on the D700). But this deactivates the shutter-release button from focusing. I like the fact that the D700 allows you to retain both options to autofocus. Here, the functionality is not as smooth.

Similarly, an awkwardly placed QUAL button (I ended up switching from RAW to JPEG Basic without wanting to, while actually trying to change the ISO) and the inability to zoom into 100% by a single press are upsetting.

From shooting gritty black and whites inside a dingy restaurant to capturing the vibrance of the colourful lights outside, the D600 allowed me to switch settings in a jiffy, by simply turning the mode dial from U1 to U2. It is a pity that Nikon did not include this option in the D800. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

The camera does salvage some pride by the addition of the brilliant U1 and U2 modes, which were first seen in the D7000. This option, which is not there in the higher-end cameras, is really useful on setting as you can save absolutely every setting you like and then switch between two sets, based on what you are shooting.

Also, while the body is considerably smaller than the D700, it feels really good in the hand. I daresay that the grip feels better than the D800. Let me explain what I mean. The D700 and D800 are similar-sized bodies, but the D800 made the grip a little thinner. In the D600, the grip is still reasonably slim but considering that the overall body is smaller, it makes sense.

How Does it Perform?

Superbly well, in fact. Image quality is fantastic. The amount of noise is only slightly less than the D700, but the resolution and detail captured is more. This means that if you downsize any of these files to 12MP, they look considerably sharper and cleaner than the D700. Also, at ISO 25,600, the D600 performs visibly better than the D700 even if you inspect the images closely at 100% view.

Autofocus is pretty good, but not at the level of the D700 or D800. I went and did a test I inflict on every new camera nowadays. I went and shot a tree, in the dead of night, with only street light illuminating it. The D700 locked focus while using the central cross-type sensor, but the D600 simply refused to lock.

I finally had to resort to manual focus to be able to lock on to this tree. Do note very few cameras would have been able to lock focus in such pathetically low light… the D600 is still a very good camera in terms of its AF—it is just not as good as the best… the D700, that I had alongside, did the job successfully and though I didn’t have a 5D Mark III with me, I can guess that the Canon would probably have locked focus too. That said, the quality at ISO 25,600 is absolutely stunning. Photograph/Raj Lalwani

Do note… this was an extreme situation in which very few cameras actually manage to lock focus. So while the D600’s AF will serve most of your needs, it is still not at the level of its big brothers.

D600 Vs D800

It is a simple decision really. Close your eyes and ask yourself if you need 36MP. No no, do not ask if you want those pixels, figure out if you really *need* them. If not, the D600 is definitely a better option.

It is significantly cheaper, the hidden costs (in terms of hard drive space, storage cards, a new computer) will not be as much as the rather demanding D800 and there is no compromise on low light performance or dynamic range.

Why would you buy the D800? If you need the extra megapixels, use a lot of heavy lenses and want a larger body for better balance, or if you need the superior build quality and AF system.

D600 Vs 6D

This is a duel we cannot really predict at this stage. As I noted in my initial impressions of the 6D, the D600 seems to score higher in terms of photographic functionality. But in terms of image quality, it is anybody’s game and we should not declare a winner before the 6D actually ships.

The 6D has inbuilt WiFi (as compared to the D600 that needs a separate accessory), so bravo Canon for that.

D600 Vs D700

If you want to make movies, this one is easy. But if you do not care for video, the decision is actually quite difficult. While the D700 has been discontinued abroad, NikonIndiastill sells this camera at a price that is slightly lesser than that of the D600. The D700 has better ergonomics and a superior AF system, but the D600 wins almost every other battle. I think the most logical thing would be to wait for awhile till prices settle, and then see if the D700 is available for a significantly lower price than the D600. If not, pick up the D600. The compromises you make are things you can deal with, can get used to.

But should a D700 user switch to the D600? That is like asking if a D300 user should buy the D7000. Yes, the D600 does improve on the already fantastic image quality of the D700, but you do take a few steps back as well. You win some, you lose some… but personally, as someone who has owned the D700 for three years, I was not tempted enough.

Let me put it this way.

If you are moving to full frame and are confused between the D600 and D700, the D600 is a better choice. That said, if you already have a D700, I would say that the shift is not necessary—the D700 shines despite advancements in technology. You can justify a new purchase only if you are regularly shooting at ISO 6400.

This is not the complete story, of course. The Nikon D600 will continue to be in our test labs for a few more weeks, until we come up with a final verdict. Over the next few days, we will do some more extensive comparisons between the old, the not-so old and the new… the D700, D800 and D600. More importantly, I will be curious to see if the new Canon sensor in the EOS 6D can work some magic and race ahead. Interesting times lie ahead.

You can read the first two parts of this preview here and here.

Tags: Test, Review, better photography, Photokina, Germany, Canon EOS 5D Mark III, d700, Nikon D600, d800, 6d, Exclusive hands-on preview