Hands on Review: Nikon D600

Finally decided to update my digital gear, still a Nikon D80...

You know how much I prefer shooting medium format film, but let's put it this way: it seems that in photography the greater the image quality the more of a pain the camera is to use.
I still haven't seen anything that equals a Mamiya RZ67, Pentax 67 or Mamiya 7, but those all have one thing in common: they are either huge & heavy or very hard & slow to set up. Jokes on me liking the RZ67 because it's big and hard would be of course totally immature, so let's not make them.

Since I'm going to travel a lot, backpacking and shooting documentary style, I need portable convenient equipment. I also need something that can handle all travel conditions. Not to mention that making full HD broadcast quality video is simply awesome to capture the mood of a place when traveling. 

I will test the Nikon D600 with 2 prime AF lenses and 1 AIS manual lens:
If you've read my previous tests, you know I'm not about counting pixels: I care about usability & ergonomics, and most of all image feel. You can read other reviews if you're about feature and spec sheets. I find it mostly irrelevant for photography and mostly a marketing thing.

This being said, I'm starting this review with some questions and expectations:

1/ Will I not be too disappointed by the image feel compared to my film medium format systems? 

You should wonder: "why getting a DSLR system when you have film 67 equipment?" Once again it's all about usage. Traveling to some remote place, need an all in one piece that can shoot in horrible conditions?  Well let me tell you straight ahead, the Nikon D600 is one hell of a toy for this.
  • It's barely bigger than my old D80
  • It's faster than a D800 for shooting action (5fps)
  • Low light performance (with a documentary kind of use in mind) is excellent
  • Video quality is as good as it gets on that type of machine (providing that you can focus manually). 
  • it's weatherproofed
This being said, it can't compare to the image feel of a medium format system. No camera with a sensor this small (yes, so called full frame are still very small sensor in the world of photography) can give you that special feel.
I however can't hide how happy I am to shoot HDR in high contrast streets, shoot instinctively when film forces me to over think what I do, or be able to shoot inside an apartment without flash or a tripod !
Yes, even I, Ronan the Film Fanatic, admits that digital has its virtues.

2/ What can I really write here that's going to add value for you, the reader, knowing that essentially every recent FX DSLR is likely to produce images of similar quality? (Canon or Nikon, yes fanboys)

In terms of image, feel I honestly don't see much difference with a 5D / D800 / D4. Dynamic range is superior on Nikon at ISO 100-800 but once again, nothing significant to the human eye.
So where is the Nikon D600 striking hard, why is it to me the most attractive SLR package on the market?
  • Image quality is the same as a D4 (image wise & in normal to difficult conditions), and a little superior to a Canon 5D MKIII in normal light conditions, thanks to better metering. However, you need to be a pixel maniac to notice. Indeed Nikon has a much better dynamic range and sensor- according to guys who look at pictures in labs - but this is not the most important: with the D600 all of it for much much cheaper. 
  • How about the D800? It cost about 1000$ or € more than the Nikon D600. It is much better? No it isn't. I believe the main advantage of the D800 is pixels. The pixels are for advertisers, not photographers. If you need 36mp, well then you do, but don't believe one second that it get you medium format quality. Those who wrote that should be banned from writing about cameras.
  • Is the Nikon D600 much better that the D800 in high ISO thanks to larger pixels? Honestly, nothing that strikes the eye. I actually believe it isn't better. D800 images once brought to the same size are ultra clean. 
  • For video, D800 and Nikon D600 are the same: AF is too slow, but image quality is sweet. I'm not a videographer so I won't give much advice here.
I know what you think "he bought one so f*** his objectivity". No it's actually the other way around: I've had a go at a D800, I gave it away. I could send this one back if I wanted. No, really, I tried them all, I picked that.

If I had unlimited resources, given my type of photography, my only DSLR would still be a Nikon D600. For mind blowing digital quality I'd get a Phase One medium format camera or my RZ67.

D4's are for journalists, D800 for advertisers or digital artists who edit a lot and print large. If this is what you want, you know what to do.

So let's get into the things I liked / disliked for the time being, then photo samples !

3 / What I liked
  • light weight
  • ISO performance (although they all kinda compare ok in this product category)
  • metering is terrific
  • weatherproofed
  • dynamic range for digital is great (still doesn't beat Velvia 50)
  • the U1 & U2 user settings (you can program 2 modes)
  • ergonomics (really the manual is not necessary)
  • 95% the same as the D800 costing much more
  • 24MP is plenty enough, my memory cards and computers like it
  • HDR works brilliantly, very natural results
  • using dual SD cards (yeaaah no need to buy CF cards)

4/ What I disliked
  • Nikon still doing those straps that say "FX D600", in other words "steal it from me"
  • 24MP is not that much according to todays standards. I wouldn't crop too much like on a D800.
  • with my AIS lens, it doesn't read the aperture right (it reads f0 at 1.2, and f1 at F2 etc.), but the exposure remains correct
  • AF in video is much too slow. Manual focus only in my opinion. It is not faster on the D800.
  • because it's small, handling for me (tall guy, large hands) is not optimal. I wish it would be a little taller.
  • those new DSLR make your cheap lenses look even cheaper.

I use cameras for 2 things: portraits, and travel photography. For portraits, don't fool yourself: it's a great toy with tons of electronics, but it is pathetic compared to a 67 film system. So is every digital 35mm camera.

For travel or multi purpose photography,  the Nikon D600 is about the best thing around at the moment: light, solid, weatherproofed, great low light perf, HDR mode, HD video that allows TV quality documentary making, a reasonable price.

I'm however asking myself if some of those premium mirrorless ultra compact cameras are not going to be just as good within the next 18 months...

A camera is never just good or bad. It's good or bad for a given type of use. As a multipurpose system,  the Nikon Nikon D600 is amazing. 

- What if you have a DX SLR (D80, D90, D7000) from Nikon:
It's worth it for D80 and D90 owners, totally worth it. For D7000 owners...probably not. If you can resell yours ok, but at full expense, you can keep your D7000 in my opinion.

- What if you have a D700:
The D700 is beautiful camera, if you don't need super large prints and don't care about videos, I honestly don't see why you should get a Nikon D600. It won't show on your pictures. If you care about those things, you know what to do.

- What if you only have cheap lenses:
Avoid, or buy better ones along with it. It exacerbate the lens' weaknesses. 


In really poor conditions, high contrast, low light. There won't be any nice image here, it has nothing to do with the camera anyway (1/you  2/the lens). This is aiming at showing how it renders in more extreme conditions with processing.

I essentially went for groceries at 7-8pm in October in Paris. However it is perfeclty representative of the light conditions you face when arriving in a Indian village early evening: light is crap, but you still want to capture the moment. I also went to a museum at night, then shot on a sunny day with super agressive direct sun light and shadows.

With the Nikon D600, I could shoot, period. Ok it will never get you the rendering of shooting in superb light conditions, but it appears terrific for documentaries ! I could have take none of those shot with my D80.

Yes a D800 and 5D can do it too but as we said before, this can do it while being smaller and cheaper.

  • the meter is very impressive !
  • up to 3200 it is very clean, at 6400 it's still good for A4 printing with a little noise reduction
  • dynamic range stays very decent up to high ISO (excellent from 50-800)
All images are JPEG "Fine" with the highest resolution and lowest compression the camera offers. No noise removal of sharpening, no editing. Click on them to open large then zoom.

I'll add more samples taken in actual shooting situation later.

85mm F2 ISO 3200
85 mm F5.6 ISO 6400, no NR fine jpeg
100% crop

85mm f1.8 ISO 6400, actually light condition was at 8pm in winter in a street with lights only. In other words, it was dark as hell + lens pushed to the max and getting softer.
85mm F2 ISO 3200, some underexposure here but very natural rendering.

85mm F1.8 ISO 3200, spot metering on the bikes.
35mm ISO 800 spot metering on the face
35mm ISO 6400 in "low key mode": to avoid over exposure and reproduce darker moods

with and without HDR

with and without HDR

35mm @ F2 ISO 400, b&w made in element 6

50mm at f2, iso 400

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