Nikon D600 Overall Conclusion (01.12.2012)
Nikon's last big DSLR release was the D800. The big news with that camera was its pixel count of 36MP, which when it was released, comfortably eclipsed everything else around (and at the time of writing still does). The D600 doesn't quite reach those dizzy heights, but at 24MP, it matches or exceeds the pixel count of every other full-frame system camera. It is also one of the most versatile, offering a 10.5MP DX crop mode, an in-body AF motor ( which ensures AF compatibility with non-AF-S Nikkor lenses) and compatibility witholder, manual focus lenses. These factors alone will give it serious appeal to two camps - D800 or D4 owners looking for a smaller, lower-cost second body, and D300S and D7000 owners who want to step up to full-frame but don't want (or can't afford) to replace all of their DX-format lenses in one go.
Accordingly, there are two ways of looking at the D600 as it sits within Nikon's current lineup - as a beefed-up D7000, or as a slimmed-down D800. Depending on your perspective, both could be equally valid. The D600 offers a highly compelling entry into full-frame for DX-format veterans but it also incorporates an awful lot of DNA from the D800 at a considerably lower price, making it attractive to people who were holding out for a D800 price-drop or just want a cheaper FX-format second body alongside a D800 or D4.
For a lot of D600 users though, this camera will offer the first experience of full-frame digital photography. You can use DX-format optics on the D600, but we suspect that the resolution drop from 24 to 10.5MP will be a good incentive to upgrade to full-frame lenses (although a lot of fun can be had with the AF DX Fisheye-Nikkor 10.5mm f/2.8G). Fortunately, in the AF-S Nikkor 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G ED VR standard zoom, D600 buyers have a 'kit' lens which offers very good image quality considering its relatively low cost. Similarly, Nikon's AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8G and AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G lenses are excellent performers, while still being reasonably affordable. If you're on a budget, the latest 50mm f/1.8 is a no-brainer but decades' worth of older Nikon lenses will work with the D600, too. This is good news if you're building a full-frame system around the D600 from scratch.
Something that we've definitely got our eye on though, and which we'll be in a better position to comment on over time, is the D600's apparent tendency to attract sensor dust. We're working with Nikon to understand (and further test) this issue and we'll update this review accordingly as we use the camera over time.
The D600 gives very good image quality across its ISO sensitivity span, proving at least a match for its big brother the D800 at a pixel level. Naturally though, the 36MP D800 can resolve more detail, and its extra pixels give a more useful 15MP DX crop mode, too.
At full resolution, the D600 delivers very pleasing JPEGs with plenty of detail, and although pixel-level sharpness is somewhat lacking (a consistent criticism of Nikon's JPEG engine for some time now), sharpening and noise reduction are well-balanced at the D600's higher ISO settings. In fact, up to ISO 6400, you really don't need to worry about noise much at all, unless you're shooting under very warm artificial light, where all cameras struggle. Switching to Raw mode is definitely worth doing if you're a stickler for image quality - not only do you get control over white balance, and the ability to recover some blown highlights, but you'll also be able to tweak noise reduction and eke out the maximum resolution from the D600's 24MP sensor.
Obviously, to get the absolute best out of the D600's sensor you'll need a good lens, but Nikon's current lineup contains a healthy variety of relatively affordable primes and zooms, including the 'kit' option 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5, which delivers pretty good results considering its approximately 600 EUR / 420 Ls / 2070 Lt street price.
As far as handling is concerned, the D600 is similar to the D7000, with the addition of a redesigned live view switch. As such, anyone used to shooting with that model (or a D800, and to a lesser extent the D4) should be able to adapt pretty quickly. Nikon's decision to swap the + and - magnification buttons for image review will fox D7000 owners though, and D800 users might be frustrated by the lack of a 'one touch' magnification option. If you're a heavy live view user, you'll probably dislike Nikon's implementation of manual focus in live view on the D600. It's impossible to adjust aperture during live view shooting, which doesn't matter all that much if you rely on the camera's contrast-detection AF system but makes manual focussing a pain. Effectively you have to set aperture twice - once to establish correct focus (for which you want the aperture wide open) and then again to your desired taking aperture for image capture. This means activating live view twice before you can get your shot.
On the subject of frustration, we've never been all that keen on Nikon's insistence on moving the 'ISO' button around on the surface of its DSLRs, and ideally we'd prefer this control on the top-plate, adjacent to the shutter button. Little things, after all, can make a big difference. The D600's ISO button is poorly placed for easy operation with the eye to the viewfinder, although this is mitigated by an excellent auto ISO implementation that - in practise - should remove the need to visit the ISO button all that often. Another plus - the D600 shares the same battery as both the D7000 and the D800, which should make life a little easier for anyone intending to run it alongside either older model.
THE FINAL WORD
There's a lot to like in the Nikon D600. In fact, really, there are very few areas in which it can be legitimately criticized given its market position and price point. Being a mid-range DSLR (albeit towards the top end) it lacks the customization options of the D800 (and D300S) and borrows its operational ergonomics primarily from the D7000. This will cause some photographers some frustrations (the D600's aperture behavior in live view mode is particularly annoying in a $2200 camera for example) but the bottom line is that the D600 offers similar pixel-level image quality to the more expensive D800, in a similarly tough body which also offers many of the same headline still and video features.
The differences between the D600 and D800 are partly the result of Nikon's attempt to differentiate its DSLR lineup and partly, we suspect, a consequence of design decisions that were necessary to maintain the D600's lower price point.
The D600 is the first full-frame DSLR from Nikon that has not sported a variant of the 51-point AF system first seen in the D3 back in 2007. Instead it uses a tweaked version of the 39-point AF system introduced in the D7000. This system is perfectly capable but makes the D600 noticeably less versatile when focusing in poor light or in challenging conditions like sports, where its smaller, DX-format AF coverage could cause problems. That's the trade-off. If you need the ultimate in AF performance, save up for the more costly camera. Likewise resolution - if you need to make billboard-sized prints, the D800 is a better option. But if you want excellent image quality and solid day-to-day performance from a full-frame body the D600 is a very compelling option, and seems likely to remain so for some time.
The Nikon D600 brings full frame functionality to the masses along with dual SD card slots and 100% viewfinder coverage. Image quality at high ISO sensitivities is outstanding and a wealth of customization options enables quick access to shooting controls.