After many years of faithful service, the time came to replace my trusty Nikon D700. Actually, it still works (almost) perfectly and takes fabulous images but when you are a professional wedding photographer having a new second (or even third camera gives you and your clients peace of mind - I think I am the only Nelson photographer who thinks this though). So what to replace it with? Having heavily invested in Nikon lenses, at least that decision was made, but the most difficult choice was going to be D800 or D600. Lots has been written about the former in particular and its stunning 36Mp and similar build to the D700. But is it really the replacement for the venerable camera that's been with us since 2007? The D600 on the other hand, on paper, seems like more of a "pro-sumer" model with its smaller size and lighter build, so should this be my replacement?
This brief review is based on the fact that, as you will have guessed, I've already made my choice! So I'll try to explain why I chose the D600 (pretty straight forward) and if that was the correct decision (a bit more complicated).
Nikon D600, 17-35mm f2.8, 25s f/9, iso 100
Straight off - I've never felt a need for any more resolution than 12Mp really. Sure, more can't hurt mainly (for me) the ability to crop images with wanton abandon and still end up with a decent sized image. However, this matters most to me at weddings, events, etc where 6Mp is usually more than enough anyway as the print sizes are usually pretty small. When shooting landscapes, I always have much more time to consider my composition and therefore less need to crop, 12Mp has proved enough to print images more than a metre across with very acceptable quality.
So, the 36Mp D800 (generating up to a 75Mb RAW file) is frankly, a bit of overkill for my purposes. I would have settled for less than the 24Mp of the D600, but I didn't have that choice. I don't have the resources to update my computer every year or so and even if I did its a complete pain when I could be doing something else far more useful. Even adding storage is still quite expensive when, for me, two thirds of the data I would have to keep is superfluous. I may have to process 2500-3000 images from a wedding, so anything I can do to reduce the load on my (and my PC's!) system is definitely worth doing.
Nikon D600, 17-35mm f2.8, 0.4s f/13, iso 100
Why not buy another D700?
That's a good question as they were still available when I bought the D600. Well, firstly its nice to have the latest technology isn't it? Also, whilst I said the the D700 has been reliable its not been 100% so. I've actually had 2 of these bodies and both developed a fault with the hotshoe which caused an intermittent mis-firing of the strobe. Apparently its a known fault but its quite hard getting Nikon to admit that and it was serious enough to push me into buying a D3 a couple of years ago as this was the only alternative at the time.
Secondly, I don't just shoot weddings. I've found for (mainly psychological reasons) a bigger camera is better when you don't have to move around too much, you have clients to impress and the confidence inspiring build of a "real" pro-camera is a real, but easily definable, quality. A smaller, lighter camera though is generally much easier to carry about and use. Just try pulling a D3 out of a bag quickly and you'll see what I mean! And the D600 really is significantly smaller and lighter than its older brother. Some people, moving between this and the pro-bodies may find this a bit off-putting but its something I've got used to very quickly. To be honest, once you've strapped a 24-70 f2.8 or 70-200 f2.8 on the front, the size difference becomes a bit of a moot point but the camera still feels balanced and I seem to have been far more likely to carry it around on my bike for example.
The much heralded (by some commentators anyway) "U1 / U2" modes haven't for me been a big issue and I've never actually use them. I'm pretty quick at changing settings and I prefer to do most things manually so I always know where I am. For me, there never seems to be one - or two - "right" settings for different situations so I've practiced spinning dials to get me to where I want to be. I'd probably forget what I'd set the defaults to anyway so it would take me more time to check than to change them.
Lastly there's video. I don't use this feature much but it is good fun to play with and once in a while I'm asked if I can video the wedding speeches at least. So its good to be able to offer this service whilst making it very clear that I'm definitely no expert at creating movies!
Nikon D600, 70-200mm f2.8 VRII, 1/100s f/5.6, is0 400
D800 - worth the extra?
In a word (for me) - "No". The D800 is considerably more expensive and doesn't offer any real advantages apart from, possibly, a more sturdy build. As explained above, the extra resolution is a non issue, even a disadvantage. I challenge a client look at a "real world" (that is viewing a whole image on a screen or a print) to tell the difference between the two cameras. Photographers are slightly strange in this department in that they are actually looking for differences instead of just recognising a photograph made on a very high quality camera, often missing the whole point of photography too. There are a couple of external buttons that would ideally like (and I'll go into those a bit more below) and I find SD cards just way too fiddly and a real pain to use, but otherwise I can't really find anything to justify me spending an extra $1100 or so.
The good bits
I'm generally very happy with the D600 and my reasons for doing so are quite simple. Its small(ish) , light(ish) and takes very nice pictures indeed. Are they better than the D700? Not too sure about that one - the images might just be a little bit "cleaner" and sharper. Maybe. To be honest, I personally pretty difficult to tell then apart on the screen. But the extra resolution is handy in certain circumstances as mentioned above.
One other thing I find very handy for landscape photography is the improved "virtual horizon" feature that now indicates both tilt and pitch. Getting a camera straight, even on a tripod, is still a skill that eludes me.
High iso performance is very, very good. Its at least as good as the D3 which is saying quite a lot. I'm not going to go into comparing images pixel by pixel - what matters to me as a professional wedding and landscape photographer is what the full images look like. I also do like that the base iso has been reduced to 100. I've never been sure why this wasn't previously the case with Nikon (as opposed to every other manufacturer) but it makes my photography just a little bit easier in several situations.
Nikon D600, 50mm f1.4, 1/200s, f/1.4, iso 2000
The not quite so good bits
OK, so there are quite a few little niggles with the camera, mainly due to the design of the body and the ergonomics compared to the D700 / D3. As I said, I'm quickly getting used to them but they are niggles none the less.
- The dedicated autofocus area selector switch has been removed to make way for the LiveView switch. I hardly ever use LiveView and when I do its generally in a situation I have a bit more time to ponder what I'm doing.
- The concentric mode / shutter release dial on the left hand side is pretty fiddly to use and seems very flimsy / wobbly. I think it is very vulnerable to a knock and cameras do get knocks. I much prefer the mode button combined with turning the dials on the RHS as on the D700. I can operate this without lowering the camera. On the D600, we've now got a "record" button for shooting movies in its place and I always find myself pressing this.
- No dedicated "AF-on" button. I use this a lot as its a habit I got into whilst shooting a lot of sports. Its a habit that's difficult to kick now and I'm forever locking the exposure inadvertently.
- Nikon have reversed the zooming buttons for the image review. Why????? This is just silly.
- Flash sync speed has dropped to 1/200 from 1/250. This might not seem much but it makes a difference when shooting portraits in bright sunlight, something I do a lot of at weddings.
- The autofocus points are grouped much nearer to the centre of the frame. To be honest, this isn't as bad as I'd feared but I do shoot off-centre an awful lot, often using the widest points, so it can be a little bit frustrating.
- Did I mention the SD cards? 'Hate them. But having the two slots is brilliant and one of the biggest advantages over the D700. Pretty much every shortcoming of a camera can be worked around of got used to but when you're shooting photographs for money, having the instant back-up always there gives me one less (very important) thing to worry about.
- The colour cast. Yes, its real - a very noticeable green shift on the rear monitor and on the PC that seems more prevalent under certain lighting conditions and is something to do with the auto white balance, apparently. Whilst its pretty easy to correct and I know I should understand in far more detail what its all about, but why should I have to bother? Its not as if Nikon (and every other manufacturer) can't make cameras that work properly in this department. Having another step in the processing workflow is infuriating.
Happily, Nikon have just released a firmware update to reportedly corrects this. I've just installed it and their claim seems to be correct, but we'll see. Not great though for $2500 worth of camera though. I believe the D800 suffered from the same problem but that isn't much of a comfort.
So, am I happy with my choice? The answer is pretty much a resounding "yes" despite a few mis-givings about the button placements, slightly flimsy build and those damn SD cards. I'm pretty careful with my cameras so hopefully, the build won't be an issue and I'll learn to live with the rest. The bottom line is that the D600 takes pictures that are every bit as good (at least) as the D700 and its just a little bit more practical for a photographer on the move. Added to that, its significantly cheaper than the D700 when it first came out so if you are considering a full frame camera and you can afford to add the best lenses to it I'd say the Nikon D600 is a great choice for anyone.