At the time of this writing the just releasedNikon D600, along with the also just-announcedCanon 6D, is the world’s least expensive (USD $2,100) full frame 24 Megapixel DSLR. I made something of a discussion of this in my recent satirical essayFull Frame Wars, Part Deux. But this lead (as such always does) to comments that the Sony A850 has been available for around $2,000 for some time, so why leave it out?
We’ll yes, but some things to consider. The A850 is a Sony. This means, for better or worse, that it is not a camera with wide recognition in the enthusiast marketplace. Secondly it has been discontinued for some time. And thirdly, it isn’t a contemporary DLSR. It’s basically a slightly cheapened A900, which is a 4 year old design. Even at its launch while low ISO image quality has very fine, high ISO tended to be much nosier that the competition (Nikon). Also, by today’s standards it’s obsolete. No Live View and no Video. While these are not the sine qua non for many serious photographers (though Live View should be for truly accurate focusing) notwithstanding its price point the Sony A850 was well past itsbest beforedate even before it was discontinued.
Last Corn. Clearview, Ontario. September, 2012
Nikon D600 with 70-200mm f/2.8 @ ISO 1100
The Competitive Field
With that out if the way, in terms of contemporary 35mm full frame cameras in the under USD $3,500 segment of the marketplace, we have five entrants. Prices shown are current on B&H as of September 17 and are in descending order.
Canon 5D MKIII – $3,464
Nikon D800/e – $2,999 / $3,299 e
Sony A99 – $2,798
Canon 6D – $2,099
Nikon D600 – $2,099
I’m not going to do a feature and spec comparison between them, because the reality is that for most people the exercise is academic. If you’re a Sony, Nikon or Canon lens owner you’ll almost certainly buy (if you’re going to at all) a camera from the brand that you own. At first blush there isn’t anything here to make someone switch brands unless they have very specific needs that would be met by one or another.
I’ll start out by saying that I am currently using a Nikon D800/e and enjoying it immensely, not just for its image quality but also for its handling. The Nikon “gestalt” is somewhat different than Canon or Sony, among full-frame DSLRs, but I find that once in hand, with the camera properly programmed to my needs, it becomes a very smooth working tool.
I was curious to see how the D600 would shape up, since its user interface is more from the D7000 family of mid-range cameras than that of the D800. There are differences of course in terms of control placement and number of mechanical controls, but nothing that an experienced D7000 or even D800 user couldn’t get used to in short order. Indeed the actual functionality of the D600 appears closer to that of the D800 than it does to the D7000. Some companies create market segmentation by stripping or crippling features on their lower end cameras. Nikon isn’t typically one of these, especially when the feature is firmware based rather than something that uses more expensive components.
In terms of size and weight the D600 is somewhat smaller and lighter than the D800, though it’s still a handful, especially if someone is coming to it from a much smaller body or system, say an APS-C entry-level Nikon or especially something like a Micro Four Thirds body. Put even a moderate zoom on it and you know that you’re carrying a camera.
Build quality appears to be first rate; magnesium alloy shell, weather sealed (with an also sealed lens) and with body materials and controls that feel first rate.
The eyepiece is different than the one on the D800 (different accessories needed) but the view is full frame of course and very large and bright. This will be a real revelation for anyone coming from a lower-end APS-C model. All of sudden the world appears a lot brighter and larger in the eyepiece, making composition in low light especially much more pleasant.
Of course the rear LCD is the same as the D800 and also Live View and the way that it’s implemented. The camera also inherits the D800’s new AF/MF lever on the left front of the body. Dual SD card slots are most welcome, including the ability to roll-over between cards, put raws on one and JPGs on the other, and so forth. There is Nikon’s now familar built-in flash which can act not just as a fill but also as a trigger for Nikon’s wireless system. A focus assist light is also there, unlike some of the competition, but I must say that I almost always have it turned off, as when shooting people indoors it’s something that draws too much attention to the camera, even when people know that they’re being photographed.
Regrettably Nikon was only able to lend me a D600 for a couple of days over a weekend. Their review sample demand is extremely high. The good news was that it coincided with a beautiful Fall weekend in Ontario, but the bad news is that I wasn’t about to spend the limited time available time doing detailed IQ and noise comparisons.
So I did what I like doing best, which is hiking and driving to interesting locations and taking photographs. I then returned to my print studio and made prints ranging in size from 13X19″ to 24 X 36″. I shot at ISOs from 100 to 3200 and used a wide range of lenses. I did no pixel peeping, just handling, shooting and printing. I must admit though that I did a few print tests comparing IQ to the D800/e
Not Coming Home. Clearview, Ontario. September, 2012
Nikon D600 with 14-24mm f/2.8 @ ISO 3200
In the end what I see is a highly capable camera is terms of IQ. I could only shoot JPG, since this camera has the 1,456th different raw format to hit the market and no raw converter (even from Nikon) is available yet. (Nikon – please help end the madness!!) The noise is quite low up to and including ISO 3200. With a bit of post NR in Lightroom black cats in coal mines can no longer count on their safety. Dynamic range and colour accuracy will have to wait for a technical test, which no doubt DxOLabs will have relatively soon. I wouldn’t sweat waiting for it though. This camera delivers excellent image quality.
Update:DxOLabs shows the D600 to be second only to the D800 and D800e overallcameras in terms of overall image quality.
The Nikon D600 will likely become one of that company’s best selling cameras in the enthusiast upgrade segment. It offers state-of-the-art image quality, reasonably high build quality, much desired full frame with its large and bright VF, and a range of features and functions which is little short of those on the D800s, for almost $1,000 less. While web pundits will debate the merits of the D600 vs. Canon’s 6D in terms of features, and Sony’s A99 in terms of price, the reality is that I think we are finding ourselves at a point in digital camera development where cross grading between brands will become less and less of an issue. All the major brands have feature sets and image quality that will meet most user’s needs. Lenses are the core issue, and once someone has invested in some good Nikon, Canon, Sony/Zeiss glass cameras themselves are becoming mainly a subject of feature and budget considerations rather than just image quality.