Earlier this year, we fell in love with the Nikon D800. How could you not? It's a 36.6-megapixel hulk of a professional camera. But if you don't have $3000 lying around, too bad.
For a lot of serious photographers, the Nikon D600 sounds like an ideal compromise: the camera you can still afford with many of the professional specs you want.
The Nikon D600 has a 24.3-megapixel, full-frame sensor and costs only $2100 for the body alone. Let's just come out and say it: That "only" is relative. This is a camera for people who are willing to shell out some dollar for photography. Still, this is the cheapest full-frame sensor camera Nikon has ever made, and amongst the cheapest you can buy in this class, period.
Until now, there has been a huge price gap between full-frame sensor professional cameras (like the $3000 D800) and the alternatives (like the $1200 D7000). For $2100, the the D600 (along with the forthcoming Canon 6D) splits the difference.
Full-frame sensors are the professional standard: Compared to the APS-C sensors found in most inexpensive DSLRs, a full-frame sensor is 2.3 times larger. Spreading the camera's roughly 24 million pixels over a larger area means larger photodiodes, which in turn do a better job capturing light—less distortion, and better performance in the dark. Suddenly, there's a middle ground for serious photographers whose budgets can't stretch all the way into pro prices.
As a rule, pro cameras look the part: They're big, heavy and covered in customizable buttons. The D600, as you might expect, is smaller and lighter than the D800. It's shocking that dropping five ounces can make such a difference when you're carrying the camera for hours.
The drawback of course, is that you lose the D800's unparalleled operability. The D600's streamlined design has fewer buttons, and though you can customize everything, it's just not the same. You also lose the but incredible cup on the D800's viewfinder.
Simply put, the D600 takes some of the highest quality photos we've ever seen—better in some cases than much more expensive cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, which at 22-megapixels is a nearly identical resolution camera. You can see what we're talking about in this quick comparison. Here are two full-resolution crops from both cameras, taken in broad daylight. Both photos are equivalently exposed at the same focal distance. We used the 24-85mm f/3.5 kit with the D600 and our trusty 24-105mm f/4 with the 5D. The D600 is sharper. (Download the image or view it on its own in your browser to see it at full size.)
As for ISO performance, here's a side-by-side of the D600 and the 5D at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400. This is the highest light sensitivity you generally want to use, and at this setting, the D600 images have less noise. (Download the image or view it on its own in your browser to see full size.)
Now, of course, these benchmarks don't really mean anything if they're not backed up with performance. From the start, the D600's 39-point autofocus system is no match for the super-customizable new 61-point system in the 5D. That said, the D600's system is adequate in most conditions. It fell short, especially in darker or low-contrast settings, but it doesn't take long to get the hang of it.
The camera's overall performance, though, is quite fast. The shutter fires instantly when you press the release. The D600's 5.5 fps continuous shooting speed is comparable to much more expensive full-frame sensor cameras. Still, photographers who like to shoot action might be disappointed that it's not faster.
Nikon has been a step behind Canon on video for ages, and though it's made some strides recently, the D600 suffers from many of the same drawbacks as the D800. The video quality is sharp in broad daylight, but the quality falls apart in low light. Moire and rolling shutter distortions are evident. Inexplicably, you can't change the aperture of the lens in Live View mode.
Excellent image quality in a lightweight low-priced package with all the essentials.
If anything, we're just sad the D600 can't be a D800. We'd love more hardware buttons and more powerful autofocus, sure. It would be nice to have the video quality on par with what Canon offers these days. But considering the price, these drawbacks aren't the end of the world.
This camera's so good, we'd even say that a lot of people who would otherwise shell out for the D800 or 5D Mark III might consider the D600 instead. It's really more than just a scaled-down professional camera for amateurs. This is a different tool altogether. It's a leaner, more efficient DSLR. And that's exactly what most people need.
The crazy DSLRs that war and wedding photographers have dragged into their respective fields of battle have been both a physical and financial encumbrance. Take, for example, the D800. Yes, its sensor has unbelievable resolution, but it comes with two problems. First, processing files that large is very time-consuming—we know many D800 shooters who end up dialing down their sharpness to make life easier. Second, really truly taking advantage of that kind of resolution requires an arsenal of extremely high quality lenses.
In a lot of ways, the D600 gives you the power basically everyone wants, but without going overboard. If you're a serious photographer considering it because the price sounds right, it's almost definitely the one you should buy. If you're interested in shooting video, hold off until December, when we'll have a chance to review the new, comparably priced, Canon 6D.
• Price: $2100 (body only)/ $2800 w/ 24-85mm f/3.5 lens
• Sensor: 24.3-megapixel, full-frame (35.9 x 24mm)
• Max ISO: 6400 (Standard)/ 25600 (expanded)
• Max Image Size: 6,016 × 4,016 pixels
• Video: 1920 x 1080 30/25/24 and 1280 x 720 60/50/30/25
• Max Drive: 5.5 frames-per-second at full resolution
• Screen: 921,000-dot dot, 3.2-inch LCD
• Storage: Dual-SD card slots
• Weight: 26.8 ounces
• Gizrank: 4 stars
Video by Michael Hession. Additional photography by Nick Stango.