Friday, 11 January 2013

Understanding the Nikon D600


I am slowly getting to the reason I started this blog:


Exploring the new Nikon D600, I was stunned by the quality of jpegs, straight out of the camera.

Not only are they clean, noise-free, and with immaculate detail. They are also clean up to very high ISOs, with a fine-grained noise. 

Mostly by coincidence, because I was particularly interested in the jpeg quality, it soon dawned upon me that the Jpeg files of the D600 are so clean that Raw may turn into a specialised setting or, for casual photographers like myself, a thing of the past. 


For all you raw shooters, I suggest you read on. There is nothing wrong with raw and for most cameras, up until recently, shooting raw has been a necessity. If you want to make the most out of your pictures, your raw files have always allowed drawing a slightly higher resolution out of your shots, some degree of shadow or highlight recovery, better latitude for tweaking light and colour and more control of noise and other parameters.

I am sure there is still good reason to shoot raw if your images matter much – for example if you are a landscape photographer making huge prints for an exhibition, or if you have a one-in-a-lifetime chance of getting the shot, like a wedding photographer. 

In this case I shot Raw because the light was so difficult – very harsh contrast for the sunlit interior, extremely gloomy weather with black clouds covering the sky in the exterior shots. I used a Nikon D7000, deck with a Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 DX, interior with a Sigma 8-16, processed the best I could out of the files, using DxO, but still was not happy with the results. It would have been even worse if shot in Jpeg, though:

(The boat is the new Celeste 36, built to our design)

A case for jpeg

Shooting jpeg has always been tempting because it is so simple. 

With the latest generation of Nikon DSLRs it may be even more tempting, not only for simplicity, but also for what it has to offer. Please excuse me for showing some generally rather mediocre pictures – the idea is for them to serve as illustration as they are all jpegs straight out of the camera:

*  Your camera automatically takes care of one of your lenses’ most common imperfections, chromatic aberration, something which will otherwise lead to lower resolution and colour fringing in the outer parts of the image. This aberration is visible on the outline of, for example, tree branches against the sky. There are certain odd lenses which have almost nothing of this defect, but most lenses will appear much better optically by correcting for chromatic aberration. It is ‘on’ by default, with any lens, in Nikon models from the past few years, as long as you shoot Jpeg.

Afternoon rest. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 35 mm f/1,4 Ai-S shot @ f/5,6, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/200 s and ISO 100,  jpeg straight out of camera 

*  Your camera automatically corrects distortion from Nikkor lenses. This is another of the most common flaws in lenses, new or old. Zooms in particular always have visible distortion, barrel-shaped at the widest settings, pin-cushion at the longer end, and sometimes at very disturbing levels. But also wideangle primes, and lately even normal primes, have visible distortion. Only the latest Nikon bodies have this correction, like the D600, and only in Jpeg.

From Hotel Sevilla. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 28-200 mm f/3,5-5,6 G  shot @ 90 mm and f/8, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/200 s and ISO 500,  jpeg straight out of camera

*  Your camera automatically corrects some of the vignetting, or the darker corners, which appear with wideangles and zooms in particular, at wider apertures. This is a coarse correction which can be set to low-medium-high and does not take into account which lens, or which aperture. Still, its effect is gentle enough for it to be used at all times and it does improve the even illumination of a picture slightly. Again, only the latest Nikon bodies have this correction, like the D600, and of course only in Jpeg.

Ageing. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 18 mm f/3,5 Ai-S shot @ f/5,6, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/500 s and ISO 100,  jpeg straight out of camera 

*  Your camera automatically gives you Active D-Lighting, ADL. This is Nikon’s term for the feature that controls the brightest highlights and deepest shadows, and gently tweaks your picture into something slightly more pleasing, while maintaining information. Don’t be afraid to use this feature, it comes into play only when needed, you yourself can choose the amount of correction; it is absolutely brilliant and can be permanently left ON.

Speed kings. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 35mm f/1,4 Ai-S shot @ f/5,6, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/640 s and ISO 100,  jpeg straight out of camera, slightly cropped. 
Shot very quickly with Matrix metering and came out slightly underexposed - no big deal, as I will show later.

*  Your camera automatically applies all the Picture Control settings you have opted for – sharpness, contrast, saturation, hue. You yourself decide whether to apply any noise reduction for high ISO, and how much. You decide which colour space to use, you can fine-tune your white balance for different situations, decide the degree and type of jpeg compression and whether to apply noise reduction for long exposures. The Nikon D600 (together with the D7000) is unique in that it saves three different banks of settings in your U1 / U2 / PSAM dial, if you like, for different kinds of shooting. Whenever you return to U1 or U2 it will be entirely unchanged from last time and, this way, there is basically no way you can screw up your settings.

Celeste coloured Chevrolet. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 35mm f/1,4 Ai-S shot @ f/5,6, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/200s and ISO 100,  jpeg straight out of camera 

*  On a side note, you may have seen reviews showing that, with most Nikon bodies, Jpegs straight out of the camera are visibly softer than the best and most optimised Raw converted images? I have, so far, not seen any tests of optimised Jpegs though… sharpening is always low by default in Nikon DSLRs and can, and probably should, be much increased. I suggest you try this.

Cuban cyclists. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 24 mm f/2,8 AF-D  shot @ f/8, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/800s and ISO 100,  jpeg straight out of camera 

*  With the unbelievably clean jpeg files from the Nikon D600, unlike earlier cameras, there is no visible increase of noise when using Active D-Lighting or vignetting control. With previous generation cameras, such as the D90 (how about the D3 or D700?), ADL had to be used with great caution and was sometimes damaging to pictures, creating big blotches of noise in shadow areas. 

Also, with the high resolution of the D600, distortion correction does not create any visible degradation of sharpness.

Art Déco. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 18 mm f/3,5 Ai-S shot @ f/5,6, A mode, exposure correction -0,3 EV, camera chose 1/80 s and ISO 3200,  jpeg straight out of camera

*  Furthermore, all these corrections can be used at any ISO with good result. Auto-ISO now works like a miracle, adjusting also to the focal length of the lens used. Auto ISO thus goes together like hand-in-glove with Jpeg for quick, intuitive, simplified shooting with perfect control over all parameters. Highest allowable ISO can be set very high – I personally use ISO 10 000 (0,7 EV above 6400). Once set, there is basically no need to ever touch the ISO setting during shooting unless you put your camera on a tripod (case for one of the U1 / U2 settings?).

Full moon. Nikon D600 + Nikkor 50 mm f/1,8 Ai-S ‘pancake’ shot @ f/4, A mode, exposure correction -0,7 EV, camera chose 1/25 s and ISO 10 000,  jpeg straight out of camera 

*  All these corrections are applied by the camera during the split-second that your picture is processed. Just like a Raw file, this requires some hefty processing power and adds a little to the time between shots so if you shoot football action at 5,5 frames per second, it may be a good idea to turn for example distortion control and ADL off. (This is much simplified with the D600 compared to the ‘pro’ bodies – if you save your sports setting as U1 or U2 it will be available by turning the dial; unchanged every time you return to this setting)

*  You get up to 6 times more shots on your memory cards, on the D600 – 10 times if you compare lowest quality full-size Jpeg with Raw + Jpeg high. 

*  With the smaller Jpeg files compared to Raw, time between shots is quicker, you can shoot faster or longer bursts of images without clogging the in-camera memory buffer, and transferring image files to your computer is very quick 

*  You can store tens of thousands pictures on an ordinary computer hard drive, backup to another computer or a modest separate hard drive – no need for multi-terabyte drives. Loading, showing and adjusting your images is quick and easy on more or less any computer, from the past 4-5 years, even on a laptop. There is no need for the latest computer models or huge RAM memory banks.

*  You won’t perhaps even need any specialised Raw converting software such as ACR, Lightroom or DxO Optics Pro. And, as such software is most often not forward compatible – meaning you will have to buy upgrades as you buy a new camera model – you don’t have to spend your hard-earned money on the latest upgrade either. More on this later.

*  Computer time. You may object to this and say that by batch processing your raw files many of the above settings and corrections can be applied with little time and effort. But are your batch processed files any better than you get from a Jpeg out of the camera? Maybe not? So you might opt for raw converting your files more carefully, one by one. That is of course entirely ok, if that is what you enjoy doing. On the other hand you may be growing a little tired of it, or new pictures keep accumulating, waiting to be fixed?

Maybe it is time to reconsider. 


I don’t want to offend anybody but I must confess I have mostly been shooting Jpegs, even when I was using older generation cameras and should have known better. I have used Raw only occasionally, and most often for shots that didn’t matter, missing Raw files when I ought to have had one. Many times, I have had reason to regret not having a raw file. I know, I am probably lazy, or careless. Or both.

I even admit to not even using the highest Jpeg setting. Most of the time, it has been medium. Large files, yes, using all the resolution there is. But, most often, I haven’t been able to spot a difference between the different jpeg compression rates. For the shots above, I used the medium quality setting - 'high', I have never used on the D600.

Now, whenever you do something stupid or out-of-order, something you know you probably should not be doing (like me shooting jpeg only), you tend to make excuses for yourself, telling yourself that it is wasn't so bad after all. So I made up a theory. 

I believe the average Raw shooter is someone interested in technical matters, who likes to be in control, someone who reads websites and threads about photographic technique and collects magazines showing 82 tricks for improving your Photoshop skills. I believe so because I am very much like one of these persons myself. 

Within this subculture of otherwise healthy and sane people, there is a general consensus that raw is a necessity, and jpeg is for those who don’t know better. I am not going to question that view either but from other areas of life we often see this pattern: Someone influential expresses his or her slightly over-simplified wisdom. It later grows into an established truth. And because most of us do what we are told to do, this means there could well be a few people out there who shoot raw just because we think it has to be that way. 

As usual, when everyone says the same thing, there is reason – from time to time – to question the obvious. Anyway, with previous Nikon bodies I have most certainly been wrong in not bothering with Raw more often. 

With the Nikon D600 this has changed. 

The Nikon D600 offers an incredible output in raw. You may have seen it tested by DxO, and other reviewers with a more scientific approach (you can click the DxO link and then select 'Dynamic Range'). Or, there are tests which are both simple and scientific, like here

What is not generally understood is that the D600 (like the D800) offers a Jpeg quality which, when compared to Jpeg from ordinary cameras, is – in some respects – even more impressive.

The D600 jpeg quality is even on a higher level than raw image quality of the past. For example, a jpeg file from a D600 has more dynamic range than the raw file of a D700 - only jpeg dynamic range shown in this graph: 

Jpeg dynamic range, courtesy of

Add to that that, compared to full-frame cameras from a couple of years ago, the new D600 (and D800) have significantly higher resolution, one stop or so better high ISO performance and greater colour depth, plus the automatic corrections which are offered in Jpeg, and you will understand something very significant has happened.

Up until 2011, Raw was the way to go in digital photography. 

From 2012, with the introduction of the Nikon D600 (and D800), this has all changed: 


Of course, one cannot make such a claim without showing something more spectacular. So, hold on to your hats. Again, just plain quick crappy shots but good for illustration of the possibilities inherent in the D600 jpegs.

First a jpg straight out of the camera, Nikon D600, 50 mm f/1,8 Ai-S pancake lens shot in A mode @ f/2,8. 

Matrix metering, no exposure compensation

Camera chose 1/3200 s and ISO 100. ADL set to Auto, picture control Standard, Saturation +1

This was in Stockholm, September 2012, afternoon light with strong backlight and very harsh contrasts which is the reason that it came out a little underexposed. (Or maybe the exposure is fine, this depends on what you want - we cannot allow histograms to decide our exposures, can we?)

The same jpeg image, shadows lifted:

Two 100% crops – I hope they can be shown on your browser at 100 %:

With shadows lifted:

Not too bad, is it? Watch the poster in the window, the pannier bag on the right side of her bike, the sign for Opera ticket sales, and the stone façade. These are out-of-focus parts of the picture. Noise could be expected to be really bad in this nearly black area of the picture, lifted by a few f-stops, but appears very low or almost absent.

Note that the results of shadow lifting will depend on many things:

- How dark the shadows are to begin with
- The ISO
- The amount of ADL used when taking the picture
- The software used for tweaking
- A clear sky, and a contasty lens
- How gentle your touch is

I will get back with a new post and more examples.


I may have missed something, but I have not been able to find any posts on the Internet about this behaviour of the Nikon D600, nor the D800. It is possible that this is the first time it is described. It is not clear whether Nikon itself has realised the possibilities. The Dynamic Range of these cameras is only mentioned in general terms by Nikon.

Also, I cannot explain really, on a technical level, how it is possible. I have a few thoughts on the matter:

*  Since the output of the Nikon D600 (and D800) is so clean both in jpeg and raw, particularly at base ISO - but also higher - it seems that the sensors themselves are extremely efficient.

*  The Expeed 3 processor in the camera may be capable of converting a cleaner jpeg than previously possible, without distorting the raw data.

*  From what I understand, the latest Nikon models use an integrated layout with the sensor and D/A converter in one piece. With shorter leads, and a very thin electrical connection matrix on the chip itself, less background noise is produced, as well as less heat. 


I haven't tried to check but of course it would be interesing to know. 2-3 steps? As a reference, raw shadows can be pushed at least 6 steps in the D600.

My impression is that the latitude is enough for any kind of correction you want to perform, unless you have really missed the exposure to begin with, like shot accidentally in M mode, or the flash did not fire.

But this is just me, and I am not interested in the synthetic appearance of a heavily processed HDR picture for example. I do as little as possible, and with any processing I do I prefer to keep an 'un-processed' look to my pictures.



I have looked briefly at other jpegs at hand, but I have not been able to repeat these results with cameras of other brands, nor with Nikons of earlier generations.



I will cover this in a coming post but you will be surprised at what software I have been using, and what software, so far, has failed.


Yes, there is some headroom there as well. 


One approach would be to expose like how you want your picture to look. It could be a flat, low-contrast picture with dreamy highlights, or a sombre, high-contrast, punchy picture. 

My basic idea is to forget about the histogram, expose to your liking and adjust whatever needs to be adjusted afterwards. Since I most often prefer a punchy exposure, this will also be the best starting point for adjustment - if you go a little dark to begin with, it will be the shadows that need pushing and shadows are the easiest to adjust.


Absolutely, it is possible to enhance shadows with good control of highlights and produce something of a very modest single-shot HDR effect. Not like a surreal HDR, but a credible, natural-looking one.



Again, rather surprising. Which is another incentive for me to write a couple of more posts.

To round up this post, please let me remind you again,: 

This is about the ability of the Nikon D600 to push shadows in JPEG, not RAW

I will get back soon with more examples and, in later posts, try to cover other aspects.

Havana, 10 January 2013 © Gabriel Heyman


  1. I have spent some time lately , reading any available post, trying to make the right decision choosing the right camera for me. It was either Canon or Nikon and than D7000 or D600. Your article made me feel sure footed taking the D600 way. Thank you.

  2. Nikon d610 (d600) the only way to go, selling my other cameras

  3. I couldn't agree more - one year later, there is still nothing to touch the D600 / D610 or D800 in terms of image quality.