Friday, 28 December 2012

Understanding the Nikon D600


Nikon D600 with Nikkor Ai-S 28mm f/2.8

Searching the Internet for reviews on the Nikon D600, you will usually find lists of specifications and different high ISO series, along with some nitpicking about perceived omissions like a dedicated ISO button. This is how it works. Reviewers review what they see and compare what can be compared.

But there is no way one can fully appreciate the D600 based on such a review. Its secrets lie much deeper than its grip, the control buttons or the specifications.

The Nikon D600 is a game-changer. 

Together with the D800, the Nikon D600 is the new state-of-the-art. 

The evolution of digital has had a long uphill climb, and reached a new plateau.

In the following, I will try to show you how, and perhaps why.

The D600 & D800 make the cleanest, most detailed images ever

You all know this; the Nikon D600 has the second highest resolution among full-frame cameras, and the D800 has the highest, with even more fine detail. The D800 wins in resolution but in image quality, the two are very closely related.

However, the most striking quality of both cameras is not about resolution; it is about the image quality as a whole.

There are no cameras before them which can register such clean images, full of detail, darkness, colour and light, without adding or detracting.

Some reviewers have understood this.

DPReview covers much of it here here

DxO Optics has evaluated the sensor here 

And there are a few more:

Still, however good, all these reviewers still miss a few fundamental aspects of the Nikon D600, and of the D800 as well.

I will try to throw some light on the D600, from a different angle.

This is not another review

I will try to cover what is not understood in the Nikon D600, or the D800, but I am not a reviewer, I do not write for money, I am not going to make another high ISO series or write about petty details.

I feel tempted to do just that, because some views expressed elsewhere really miss the point, but most of all I am driven by sheer amazement over what the D600 is capable of. This is what I am going to try to cover.

First, the basics - just a quick background to why I happen to be writing about the Nikon D600 and not any other great camera like the Olympus OM-D, or the Sony RX-100, one of the Fujifilms or the Leica M-9:


For those of you, like me, who are lost in abbreviations, a DSLR is a digital camera with a viewfinder which allows you to look through the lens via a mirror when you compose the picture. These viewfinders give a good preview of what the picture will look like. If you wish to use manual focus lenses there is an unlimited number of focus points - you can focus on any part of the matte screen, watch your motif coming into focus and the background becoming blurred. 

The most recent electronic view finders, or EVF, - like in an Olympus OM-D or Fujifilm X100 work well and are fine alternatives to a reflex viewfinder, with some pros and cons.

A peephole viewfinder, like in the Leica, only gives a remote idea of how your picture is going to be framed, due to parallax errors and other reasons. You cannot use the viewfinder for example close-ups, and there is no way of judging depth-of-field. And while having no viewfinder at all may be ok for pocket cameras and phones, the screen is a hopeless in sunlight, or for those who have reached the old age of 40 years because they will not see clearly without reading glasses.

For critical use, there is nothing like a DSLR, with a big-sized viewfinder.


There are 4 good reasons for this:

 1)   Pictures from a FX, or ‘full format’ camera, with a 24*36mm sensor, have a narrower depth of field than a DX, with its 23,6*15,6 mm sensor.

For example, a picture taken with a 35mm f/2,0 lens on an FX camera (such as the Nikon D600) has a much softer rendering of the background than the same picture taken with a 24mm f/2,0 lens on a DX camera (say, a Nikon D7000). The basic composition will be the same. Both may be taken using the same shutter speed, the same aperture and the same ISO. But they will look rather different.

The smooth background you get from the FX camera makes the interesting part of the picture stand out, making the main motif appear clearer, creating something of a 3-dimensional effect.

 2)   The thing is, you don't even have the choice. There isn’t a reasonably-sized or reasonably-priced Nikon 24mm f/2,0 DX lens in Nikon's lineup. As it happens, there used to be an old manual design which is difficult to find but was used for this picture:

Upper picture: Nikon D7000 with 24 mm f/2,0 AiS shot at f/2.
Lower picture: Nikon D600 with 35 mm f/2,0 AiS shot at f/2. 

(Now, if you wanted these two pictures to have a similar depth-of-field, you would have to use an even brighter 24mm on the DX body; a 24mm f/1,4. Which, of course, exists, only it costs two or three times as much and, with its lens hood attached, has almost the weight and bulk of a D7000 body – not a very good solution if you consider that the main object of DX is smaller, lighter and cheaper than FX)

Nikon has forgotten to provide their DX users with wide-angle primes. It is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to build a system of compact, bright lenses around a DX body. If you are the least bit interested in slightly wider angles your choice will be limited to slower and bulkier zooms. These are optically fine lenses, but they had me longing for something neater.

For the lovers of f/2,8 zoom lenses, there are no DX counterparts either (apart for one, the 17-55). In my view, lenses like the 14-24 or 24-70 make little sense on a DX format.

What the DX owners do have is a range of FX lenses, plus a huge assortment of DX standard zooms, all but one starting at 18 mm and f/3,5. While these are mostly fine lenses, they do not offer any solution for wideangles, bright lenses, soft backgrounds or subject isolation.

 3)   The image quality of the bigger sensor is visibly better than a DX sensor.

 4)   Add to this that the viewfinder of the FX camera is more or less twice as big as that of the DX camera

SENSOR SIZES, courtesy of Wikipedia:

With its latest Nikon models, like the D4, D800, D600 and D7000, Sony or Nikon-branded sensors have taken a huge leap over other makers.

Nikon cameras even outperform Sony’s own DSLRs like the new A99, despite using the same sensors. This is to be expected because Sony uses a fixed semi-transparent mirror which robs the sensor of a little light, even during exposure. (This concept obviously has other very interesting advantages, but at the cost of some sensor performance)

Modern Canon sensors are presently lagging behind, not so much (or sometimes not at all) in high ISO performance but, most evidently, in dynamic range. As of 2012, when it comes to sensor technology and image quality, Canon cannot match Nikon and this holds true throughout their respective DSLR ranges, from entry-level to pro.

Nikon bodies are generally cheaper than Canon as well. Put in another way, Nikon generally offers a lot more for less money.

I don’t want to fuel a Nikon vs. Canon war and, hopefully, by 2014, Canon will start to catch up. Today, they are left in the wake of recent evolution. Do the differences matter? Most definitely they do, and this is what this blog is about.

Pentax make excellent cameras, just as does Olympus, but their respective systems are more scattered or limited, and they do not make any FX bodies.

Because of this, Nikon cameras are, at present, the best starting points or hubs around which to build a system. If you start from nothing, that is.

Then there are Nikkor lenses…


Nikon is the only system where you can find thousands of old and used lenses, sometimes for very little money, and almost all of them will click – mount directly onto your brand-new D7000, D4, D800 or D600, ready to take pictures. Amazing.

Nikon’s bayonet hasn’t changed. There is a limitation to pre-1977 (pre-Ai) lenses, unless these have been modified, that's it.

The old Nikkor lenses are still eminently usable and some of them even unsurpassed, even for the most demanding user. Many of these old lenses are very bright - f/2,8, f/2,0, f/1,4 or f/1,2, - at least as bright as, for example, the f/2,8 superzooms 

You can choose between all kinds of lenses:

* Manual focus, Ai or Ai-S 
Manual focus is still excellent, especially with full-frame bodies like the D600, because of their big viewfinders. Matrix metering works fine, viewfinder information is there, A and M modes work, as does auto ISO, automatic correction for chromatic aberration, flash works wonderfully even in auto, the Exif reads correctly…

Manual focusing has a few advantages – you can focus on any part of the screen, without thinking about AF focus points. With wideangles, e.g. for street photography, you can easily pre-focus. For teles, you might find the focus confirmation signal useful. And if focus is critical, live view is a great tool, like a 10x loupe. Once you get used to it, manual focusing isn’t particularly slow. There is an inspiring thread on manual focus Nikon lenses at Fred Miranda, here. Recommended reading, both because of its content and its friendly tone.

* Earlier autofocus lenses
Then there are the older AF and AF-D lenses. Some excellent, some slightly dated – in such case correspondingly cheap, and available second hand.

From left to right: Nikkor 18mm f/3,5 Ai-S, 24mm f/2,8 AF-D, 28mm f/2,8 Ai-S, 35mm f/1,4 Ai-S, 105mm f/2,5 Ai-S and 28-200mm f/3,5-5,6 G. 50mm f/1,8 Ai-S ‘pancake’ is seen in the mirror. 

* DX lenses in DX crop mode
Nikon’s FX bodies are fully compatible with DX lenses. Which makes sense in the D600 and the D800 which offer 10,5 or 15,5 MP images, respectively, in DX crop mode. You can let the camera crop automatically, or decide yourself.

* DX lenses used like FX lenses
Add to that that some DX lenses like the 35mm f/1,8 cover more or less the FX image area, and some DX zooms cover FX through part of their range, typically at the longer focal lengths. For example, the Sigma 8-16 DX lens covers FX when set between 14 and 16 mm, making a very good ultra wide angle lens.

* The most recent lenses
Finally, the newer AF-S types with built in focus motors, some with vibration reduction (VR) – many of them state-of-the-art, with some very attractive lenses such as the 28mm f/1,8, 50mm f/1,8, 85mm f/1,8, 80-200mm f/4,0 VR, 24-85mm VR, 60mm Micro and a truckload of others.


Owning a number of old Nikkor lenses, some very capable, I have been longing to make use of them. The wideangles in particular, getting the angles of view and bright f/stops they were designed for.

This meant switching to an FX body, and I have long wanted one.

But until now, I could not adjust to the thought of lugging around something weighing a kilo, more than 2 lbs for you imperial people, plus the weight of the lens. I have borrowed them, used them, but have never been hooked.

I also could not really see myself owning some of the lenses usually associated with these cameras. For example the f/2,8 ’holy trinity’ of zoom lenses – the 14-24, 24-70 and 70-200 VRII. I realize these are extremely capable tools, used by professionals, and they make great sense on an FX body.

I guess me too, if I was a professional photographer, covering an event, I would be using a D4 and the big 2,8 zooms. There are many others who find this equipment enticing, also for their personal use. I understand these people. The professional kit is utterly reliable, and it certainly delivers.

But me, no. Taking pictures is something I do for pleasure. I bring a camera everywhere I go, see what turns up, and often take a picture quickly & casually.

Despite being an enthusiast, I’ve never felt enthusiastic about the privilege of lugging a 2 kg camera+lens outfit around. Even a D700 or D800 with a medium-sized lens feels a little too massive. For me, big only means a problem. The strain may be ok for a short walk, but after a couple of hours, it hurts. This of course depends on how you carry your camera; if you use a backpack you can probably bring whatever you like but I tend to carry my camera on my shoulder, sometimes with an extra lens in my pocket. Less than 1 kilo is fine; 1½ kilos is too much for a long walk.

Apart from weight, with a big camera and a big lens you signal wealth. You will often detach yourself from the people you would like to take photos of and from time to time you may even be concerned about being robbed.

Even when you manage to melt in, you often intimidate people with the big chunk of camera and that huge zoom aimed at them, its big petal-shaped lens hood attached and that distinct, mechanical sound of the shutter. People will suddenly be very conscious and their expression will freeze.

No matter how good they are, I could never see myself with such a big camera. Nikon FA, F2, that is where I come from. These are small cameras - incidentally, they were considered professional in their days. Still, very small, as were their lenses.

Enter Nikon D600

What the Nikon D600 does, more than anything, is tying all this together:

*  It offers an amazing image quality, as good as it gets from almost any digital camera ever built, apart from perhaps a Hasselblad, a Nikon D800 or a Leica S. These may all be better in one or the other respect, but not all over.

*  Unlike such cameras, the D600 is small and unobtrusive enough to carry like a…. like just any ordinary old camera

*  The D600 makes a perfect match with hundreds of lenses, new and old, some very small, many very cheap, many very bright, many with extraordinary optics

*  The price of the D600 is a lot more reasonable than anything before it. Seeing what it can do, it may well be one of the greatest deals ever in a camera. More of that later

As I said, I had been waiting for it. I bought mine on September 18, the day of release. I would have paid more. Even if it had been the same price as the D800, I would have chosen the D600.

The D600 is Nikon’s smallest DSLR, ever

Depending on how you want to use it - I will show you one example:

From left to right: Nikon D600, D7000, D800 and D4 in the example below. Image courtesy of Compact Camera Meter, You can change lenses and look at other examples here.  

Pretend you want to go for a walk in the old town of Havana with a 24mm lens on your camera.

If you have a DX body, to get an angle of view corresponding to a 24mm lens on FX, you will need a lens with 16mm focal length, so you will choose between the excellent 16-85 zoom, or one of the bigger 10-24 or 12-24 wide zooms.

If you have a D800, chances are you will put on that beautiful 24mm f/1,4. If you can afford that setup, it is pretty much one of the best you will find.

If you have a D4, why not pair it with the 24-70 f/2,8 zoom? Another state-of-the-art combination, but bigger still.

Habana Vieja is a very spectacular town and you will want to take pictures all the time, of light and colour, houses, cars and people. But you may not want to draw too much attention to yourself. You will be happier the smaller camera you have, and the smallest option of all Nikon DSLRs – you guessed it – is a D600 with a 24mm f/2,8 The old manual focus Ai, Ai-S and AF versions can be bought for a song and the 24mm f/2,8 AF-D can be bought new. They are all optically the same and are all fine lenses – depending on whether you are taking pictures, pixel-peeping or printing posters)

You may argue that this example is misleading because I am not comparing apples to apples – mixing different types of lenses, out of the blue. This is not entirely true, because the examples are based on very common and established recommendations found anywhere.

And the fact remains: If you want to set up any Nikon DSLR with a wideangle lens, there is no way you can pick an outfit smaller than the D600. This, by the way, goes for all wideangles – 14mm, 18mm, 20mm, 24mm, 28mm, 35mm.

Please note that the picture above shows the lenses without their hoods. With hoods attached, the bigger lenses grow by another couple of inches and the differences will be much emphasized. The D600 is also shown with a lens slightly bigger than the 24mm. 

This is a picture of the actual thing – the smallest Nikon DSLR + 24mm (equivalent):

The smallest Nikon DSLR outfit if you want to use a 24mm lens. The D600 on the window sill of room 815 in Hotel Sevilla, Havana, overlooking the Prado and (in the distance) the Capitoleo.

Ok, but what is so special about the D600?

Sorry, I haven’t come to that yet. I keep interrupting myself.

I will start in my next post, which is part II.


  1. Hi Gabriel,

    On the FX vs DX comparison above, the gentleman's chin looks soft in the FX photo. Does the D600 great resolution have such unforgiving effect on focus? Thanks!


    1. Thank you for asking - in fact, these were a few of the first snapshots I took with my new D600 and, more or less by accident, I decided to try D7000 as well to see if there was a difference. The shots are not properly arranged or focused, or anything really, and they are not meant to show anything but the different backgrounds.

      The D600 has so much shallower depth of field that only one eye is sharp, at f/2. This is the reason that his chin looks soft - it should be. But don't look too closely at these pictures - they are just two very quick shots.


  2. Interesting post re the D600 - I used to own a D700 and my favourite lens was my 28mm f/3.5 AI.
    I still have the lens but had to sell the D700 a couple of years ago, and got a FM2 film camera to use with the lens but I want the flexibility of digital again!
    I have now ordered a D610 so hope to make good use of this lens again on digital.
    I hope these "affordable" full frame digital bodies don't push the cost of AI & AI-S lenses through the roof though as I would like some more manual focus Nikkors when I can afford it!
    Perhaps Nikon will start making MF lenses again??

  3. Congratulations boliston - You will love your new D610! One of the best things about it, apart from its sensor, is how well it goes with many of the old Ai and AiS lenses. Your 28mm, from what I have been told, is definitely one of them. There is a thread at FM which I can recommend if you are not already a follower: