Nikon and Canon have recently squared off against each other in a new segment of the digital SLR camera market that they’ve carved out, both bringing out their cheapest, smallest, lightest, simplest full-frame DSLRs.
Nikon D600: Design, features, and specifications
In terms of its design, the Nikon D600 is very similar to the Nikon D7000 that it supplements in the enthusiast-to-professional part of Nikon’s digital SLR line-up. It’s also functionally similar to the D800, which is the next step up in quality, price and performance.
The basic layout of the Nikon D600 is accessible to anyone who’s used a recent Nikon digital SLR. The back of the camera is dominated by the 3.2in, 921k dot LCD screen. Above that, you’ll find the same size viewfinder as Nikon’s more expensive full-frame cameras. Five buttons line the left-hand side of the camera’s back, in the same layout as the D800, although upgraders from the D7000 will notice that the ISO and playback zoom in button has been swapped with the zoom out — a slight hurdle to overcome if you’re comparing the two cameras directly.
You’ll use these buttons for most shooting adjustments, alongside the five-way joystick and live-view switch on the LCD screen’s right. Like other enthusiast-level DSLRs the Nikon D600 has two control dials, allowing independent adjustments of two settings (shutter speed and aperture, say) simultaneously in the appropriate shooting mode.
The top of the camera is again a close relative of the D800 and D7000. On the left of the camera’s viewfinder pentaprism hump, there’s a combination mode dial and shutter drive dial, both of which have independent locking mechanisms — a reliability upgrade from the D7000, which can’t lock the mode dial. In our long-term testing of the D7000, it is prone to accidentally changing this dial if it’s thrown into a bag for travel — so the lock is a good thing.
The Nikon D600 has a hot-shoe on top of the viewfinder, sitting in front of the built-in flash — something that you won’t find on many other full-frame cameras, marking the D600’s intentions to appeal to entry-level, all-in-one-style users. To the right of the pentaprism hump is a status screen showing all the necessary shooting details, and easily-accessible buttons for basic shooting adjustment — go-tos for metering and exposure compensation. There’s also a dedicated movie recording button alongside the combination two-stage shutter button and on/off switch.
The front of the camera is dominated by Nikon’s F lens mount, surrounded by two customisable function buttons and Nikon’s multifunction autofocus switch. There’s also an autofocus assist lamp and flash adjustment buttons.
The D600 is very easy to get used to, especially if you’ve got previous experience with a Nikon digital SLR. It’s comfortable in the hand, and it’s well-sized and appropriately contoured — a little rounder and easier to hang on to than the D7000. The controls are easy to comprehend as an entry-level DSLR user, and the camera’s basic, hand-holding scene modes make it easy to use with no experience.
The Nikon D600’s control scheme strikes a good compromise between being new-user-friendly and functional for those with prior experience — if you’re thinking of buying a digital SLR but don’t know how to use one (but want to learn), the D600 is aimed at you, and it’s able to guide your learning well.
It's also impressively small and light for a category of cameras that have traditionally been bulky and achingly heavy. If you put it side-by-side, hand-in-hand with the Nikon D7000, it's hard to tell the two apart. This is an excellent thing — we love the D7000's design, size, and handling, so to see effectively the same chassis with a full-frame sensor is impressive.
Nikon D600: Performance and image quality
The Nikon D600 uses a 24.3 megapixel, 35.9x24mm ‘full frame’ sensor, of the size that until now has been restricted to high-end, high-priced professional and enthusiast-level digital SLRs like the Nikon D4, D800, and Canon 5D Mark III. It’s got a native ISO range of 100-6400, expandable to 50-25600 for more versatility.
In practice, it’s able to produce images with unarguably excellent image quality. The pictures that it captures are incredibly detailed — a full 24 megapixels of detail that’s incredibly clean and sharp at ISO 100, maintaining almost all detail until ISO 800 and dropping in slight increments to the maximum ISO 6400. The expanded ISO settings are also useful, although ISO 25600 especially shows some degradation in detail in larger portions than the native ISO range.
It's a definite step up in picture quality and ISO performance from Nikon's crop sensor cameras like the D3200, D5100 and D7000. It's also more than enough camera for all but the most demanding studio, landscape or professional photographers — who can already justify other quality or ergonomic features of the higher-priced D800 and D4 to suit their needs.
The Nikon D600 has an excellent metering sensor, dealing very well with difficult lighting conditions including strongly-backlit subjects and harsh daylight. Similarly, its automatic white balance does a very good job under all the lighting conditions we tried — the D600 handles fluorescent and tungsten lighting with ease, doing a better job than the already-impressive D7000.
The D600 can shoot at 5.5 frames per second, slotting in slightly below both the D7000 and D800, which can shoot at 6fps. It’s generally fast enough to catch that special moment in high-speed situations, to be fair — if you know enough to think that 5.5fps might not be enough for you, you’re probably in the market for a more expensive camera like a Nikon D4 anyway.
Autofocus on the D600 is largely inherited from the step-down D7000. It’s got 39 autofocus points, 11 of which are of the high-quality cross-type. Like the D7000, the Nikon D600 is an excellent performer when it comes to autofocus in bright, daylight conditions as well as reasonably dim lighting.
When it comes to very dark lighting it does hunt for focus — this is an area where it’s bested by the Canon EOS 6D’s ability to focus in -3EV lighting. The autofocus points are also quite closely clustered towards the centre third of the camera’s frame — making it a little difficult to focus on any objects on the outer edges of an image, especially if you don’t like using the centre focal point for focus-and-recompose shooting.
If you need better autofocus from a Nikon product you’ll need to spring for the more expensive D800 or the D4. In our experience using the D600 as an everyday camera for two weeks, it handled all but the most difficult autofocus conditions where we’d expect anything but a professional camera to struggle.
The Nikon D600 we tested came in a bundle with the Nikon 24-85mm f3.5-4.5 kit lens. This lens is small, light, and has excellent image stabilisation built-in. It doesn’t have the constant aperture of a more expensive lens — you’ll need a 24-70mm f2.8 or 24-105mm f4 for that — but we think it makes an excellent all-in-one walk-around lens that’s very well suited to the D600.
Nikon D600: Conclusion
The Nikon D600 sits comfortably below the Nikon D800 in the company’s line-up, although it’s put here by some very obviously engineered limitations in ISO performance and autofocus. Given its low price, easy-to-understand interface and unprecedented improvements in size and weight, though, we think the D600 will be a real winner for Nikon.