Nikon D600 - The Poster Child of Modern DSLR
This review will not discuss image quality in any depth. Long story short - D600's IQ lives up to its reputation, it is that good. For more detailed examination of image quality and test image comparison readers should read DPR and DXO's reviews. This review is divided into two parts, first part will focus on a few specific points that I think D600 has made life much easier for me as a photographer; technology should make life simpler, not more complicated, and D600 has done well in that regard. In the second part I will discuss my thoughts on a couple of "perceived problems" associated with the D600. I hope this review would help potential D600 buyers make their purchase decision and help existing D600 owners get more out of their D600.
A Great JPEG Shooter
I have been shooting Canon SLRs for 4 years and during this time I have used Canon 1000D, 400D, 450D, 500D, 550D, 60D, 7D, 1Ds2, and 1Ds3, of which I owned 1000D and 60D (which I still own). I have at numerous stages attempted to shoot JPEG and RAW hoping to get acceptable Out-Of-Camera JPEG so I can spare myself from having to process every RAW. Unfortunately the JPEGs I got from these cameras have never been up to my standard. Processing every RAW proved to be necessary. Most commonly I find the OOC JPEG (from cameras I have used in the past) to be too contrasty and lack highlight and shadow detail; second most commonly, the white balance always needs tuning; the rest of my post processing involve the usual sharpening, noise reduction and some colour adjustments.
To my surprise, D600's OOC jpeg is near perfect. White balance is accurate more often than any other camera I have used. With Active D-lighting on High, the camera seem to use all the Dynamic Range at its disposal and the final image look very detailed and natural, similar to how I remember the scene in my mind. Sharpness and noise cleaning seem to be very good with D600's OOC JPEG, the difference to a carefully processed RAW is not very noticeable. With the D600 I have been shooting JPEG + RAW, I find about 30% of the JPEG to be as good or better than the quick RAW conversions I have done myself (thought it cannot match more careful and lengthy post processing). The only thing D600 JPEG engine noticeably lags behind proper post processing is distortion correction (it still does some). But I consider this a very minor issue for casual shoots where I want OOC JPEG.
My conclusion is that for most casual shoots, I can get away with not doing any RAW conversion. This to me is a big plus, the less we have to do the better.
A Near Perfect Auto-ISO
Those who understand how "ISO" works in digital camera would agree that ISO is the last parameter the photographer should bother himself / herself with. My view is that photographer should focus on selecting the slowest possible shutter speed and the ideal aperture for the shot, and let ISO take care of itself. I have long wanted a fully functional Auto-ISO with Canon SLRs. Canon is very slow at developing and refining Auto-ISO; it was not until 5D2 that it even had a mostly-working auto-ISO; as of 2013 auto-ISO in Canon cameras still do not have Exposure Compensation, do not work with flash, and AE-lock does not lock ISO (except 5D3 and 6D). D600 has none of these drawbacks, at the same time it packs a few extra features in its Auto-ISO implementation.
EC for Auto-ISO does not work the same way as EC for Av or Tv mode. EC for Auto-ISO does not alter the amount of light, instead it alters the amount of amplification applied to the RAW signal. The reason we would want to use it sometimes is to lower this amplification to preserve highlight. This works especially well with D600 because it has excellent DR in the shadows. it is often not necessary to amplify the RAW signal to usual standard, post processing brightening would produce the same result minus the blown highlight. It should be noted that D600's excellent ADL produces excellent jpeg this way too. With other cameras, if you underexpose ISO by 2 stop, you would get significantly darker unusable JPEGs, with D600, JPEG is still a little darker but remain quite usable.
Another use of EC in Auto-ISO is when using the camera with a manual flash unit. In late afternoon and indoor shots I dial Auto-ISO EC to -1 to -2 and set my YN-460II to medium, the exposure is in the general ball park and well within the adjustment range without any Iq penalty.
D600's Auto-ISO allows the user to adjust the shutter speed threshold before bumping to the next ISO, it can be any particular shutter speed or it can be "auto". In "auto" mode the camera will bump up ISO in accordance with lens's Focal Length. This in itself can be further find tuned. In default the rule is classic 1/FL rule, e.g. 50mm is 1/50s, 100mm is 1/100s. User can make it slower (2/FL) or faster (1/ [2xFL] ), such as 1/25s for 50mm or 1/100s for 50mm. There are total of 5 different adjustment possible from slowest to fastest. I leave it on default because it seem to work well for me. I set it to fast in U2 mode which I will explain later.
Lastly, D600's auto-ISO can be switched on and off without going into the menu, when you press the ISO button at the lower left of the camera's back, turning on wheel adjusts ISO and the other toggles Auto-ISO.
The only possible improvement to D600 I would suggest is automatic minimum shutter speed adjustment when lens VR is recognised. When shooting a VR lens that provide 2 stop stablisation, Auto-ISO should slow down minimum shutter speed by 2 stops to take advantage of the VR function.
Custom Mode - Have it your way
Some of the other cameras I used in the past also had custom mode (such as 60D), I never had much use for them. With D600 I decided to make U1 "dummy AV mode" - the mode I set the camera to when I want a stranger to take pictures for me. Why do I need dummy mode? Because firstly, I use AEL/AFL button for AF-ON, it is too hard to explain how this works to most people. In my dummy mode the shutter button is AF-ON (same as default). Secondly, I use the 1/FL rule for shutter speed and auto-ISO goes up accordingly. This is too slow for most people, either because they do not hold the camera properly or they just have shaky hand. I set auto-ISO to follow the 1/ [2xFL] rule on shutter speed so for the same lighting, U1 will use twice the shutter speed and twice the ISO as I would in Av. My U2 mode is the same as U1 except it follows 1/FL rule, I use this mode when using VR lenses.
Dust and Oil
My D600 has some dust spots that are only visible when shooting at small apertures, so far I have not looked very hard for oil spots and I am not aware of any present. My solution is a 4 pack swap from BHphoto although I have not used it yet. My position on this matter is that while this is a most widespread "defect" I know in the SLR world, its actual harm has been blown out of proportion. It has been six month since release and I have not heard of one single report of anything permanently damaged by the oil and dust - such as shorted circuit or broken shutter or damaged sensor. In fact we havent heard of a single report of wet clean damaging D600 or warranty found to be voided because of a wet clean (despite such disclaimer). So basically, this a problem that can be fixed by anyone using a 13 dollar swap.
Some people have complained that D600's AF system is inadequate because it is a re-branded DX AF system from D7000. I think such criticism is unrealistic and unfounded. Most people opt D600 over D800 because it is significantly cheaper (as well as being lighter and less demanding on the PC, but these are secondary considerations). We cannot realistically expect D600 to be every bit as good as D800 while maintaining a significant lower price tag. For its price, D600 sports a very good AF - 39 point with 9 cross type. In comparison the similarly priced Canon 6D sports a 11 point system with just one cross type. And let us not forget the 30000 US dollar Leica S2 has just one AF point. In practice I find the D600's AF to be more than adequate, It is accurate and fast, has a good coverage around the centre making tracking easier and the edge AF points still make off-centre composition possible.
I bought D600 after months of research, I was fully aware of its oil and dust issue, but I decided that the IQ superiority outweighs any consequence that could flow from the issue. I also quite liked the fact that this 2000 dollar FF has an action shooting orientated AF system. Over the last two and half month D600 did not give me one bit of nasty surprise. On the contrary, I found several pleasant surprises, such as the excellent OOC JPEG output and fantastic auto-ISO set up. I am very happy with this purchase and anyone who is contemplating on buying a D600 would be missing out if they let the oil and dust issue stop them.
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