Using the Nikon D600

As we've come to expect from high-end Nikon DSLRs, the D600's core photographic features are found on or close to the surface of the UI in the form of dedicated control points. The generous number of buttons and switches that cover the D600 provide direct 'hands on' access to ISO, drive mode, shooting mode, exposure compensation and white balance (and more). In terms of how its core feature set is exposed, the D600 differs only slightly from the D800, having a metering mode button on the top-plate (as opposed to a 3-way mechanical switch) and a exposure mode dial (rather than a button).

Although it is a characteristic of lower-end Nikon DSLRs, the exposure mode dial does provide the distinct advantage of proving very quick access to the D600's two customizable 'U' banks of customizeable settings. Being able to save two sets of shooting parameters to these positions is very handy if you're switching between working environments or subject types, and quick access to them just enhances their usefulness.

The D600 is a nice solid camera which sits between the D7000 and D800 in terms of size. Slightly larger in all dimensions than the DX format D7000, the D600 is noticeably smaller than the 36MP D800, and lighter, too. With the kit-option 24-85mm attached the D600 is well-balanced and not annoyingly heavy.

Overall handling

In your hand

The general impression of a D7000 on steroids is reinforced when you actually pick the D600 up. Noticeably chunkier than its APS-C cousin, the D600 is still less of a handful than the 36MP D800. Certainly, if you're used to carrying around a D800 with 24-120mm or 24-70mm, the D600+24-85mm will be a welcome change. Obviously, size and weight increase with the MB-D14 battery grip added, but the payoff is that the camera becomes much more comfortable to use with heavier, longer lenses and of course when shooting in the portrait orientation.

In terms of design and UI, the D600 is precisely what we'd expect from a current-generation Nikon DSLR at this level. Exposure settings are changed using two control dials, front and rear, and a large 3.2in LCD serves to display captured images and a live view feed in still live view and movie modes.

MB-D14 Battery Grip

The D600 lacks an integrated vertical shutter release, but for those photographers that need one (or want to pretend like they're using a D4), an accessory battery grip - the MB-D14 ($329) - is available.

The MB-D14 grip adds a set of vertical controls, including a duplicate shutter release and front/rear dials to the D600. It also expands the power options of the camera, and allows the D600 to run on 8x AA batteries via an (included) adapter.

There is no boost in framerate though - grip attached or not, the D600 will not shoot faster than 5.5fps.

Auto ISO

The D600 features the same improved set of auto ISO sensitivity parameters as its big brother the D800, which - if you use this function - has a major effect on how the camera handles in everyday use. You can toggle Auto ISO sensitivity on and off by pressing and holding the ISO button while rotating the camera's front dial, rather than having to delve into the menu. With Auto ISO active, you select your ISO sensitivity via the rear dial, again while holding the ISO button. Be aware though that the camera will use the currently-set ISO sensitivity as its minimum value, so enabling Auto ISO with a value of ISO 100 is, in most cases, the most sensible option.

As on older Nikon DSLRs, you can define the maximum sensitivity the camera will select via the shooting menu. On the D600, this value takes precedence over the ISO selection. If you set ISO 800 as your maximum sensitivity, for example, but enable Auto ISO and set it to 6400, the camera will meter and shoot at ISO 800. In situations like this, where the camera is not honoring your set ISO, the ISO-Auto indicator flashes in both the viewfinder and top plate LCD and the taking ISO is displayed in the viewfinder.

You can specify a fixed, minimum shutter speed value to ensure sharp pictures - this is generally most useful when you need a high shutter speed to freeze motion. The D600's big new trick, however, is an Auto option for minimum shutter speed. In this mode - provided you are using a modern 'CPU' lens which transmits data to the camera - the D600 automatically sets a minimum shutter speed value based on the focal length of the attached lens. This comes in particularly handy when shooting with zoom lenses.

In the ISO sensitivity menus you can specify the range of ISO values from which the camera can select. With the minimum shutter speed set to 'Auto' the camera will use the focal length of the currently mounted lens to determine a hand-holdable shutter speed. An 'Auto' sub-menu (highlighted here in yellow) allows you to bias the camera towards choosing slower or faster shutter speeds for any given focal length.

You can even fine-tune the automatic shutter speed selection. There is an adjustment slider in the sub-menu for 'Auto minimum shutter speed' that ranges from 'slower' to 'faster' in 5 steps. This lets you bias the camera towards higher shutter speeds of approximately 2x and 4x the current focal length, or to lower shutter speed values of roughly 0.5x and 0.25x the current focal length. This former is useful for freezing action with high shutter speeds (or simply minimizing any chance of camera shake with non-VR lenses), the latter for taking maximum advantage of image stabilization to keep ISOs as low as possible.

Specific handling issues

For someone coming from a D7000, the D600 will present an extremely familiar handling experience. But if you're more familiar to higher-end DSLRs, like the D800 or the venerable D300/S, the D600's mid-range ergonomics could throw up a couple of annoyances. During our time with the camera (during which we were also using a D800) only three things really stood out. The awkwardly placed ISO button, lack of an AF-ON button, and the inability to customise the 'OK' button in playback mode.

To begin with ISO, Nikon is oddly inconsistent about where it places this button on its DSLRs, and the D600's ISO button is placed awkwardly, at the extreme lower left of the body. This makes it hard to activate with your eye to the viewfinder. We much prefer Canon's approach, which is consistent now across EOS DSLRs, where the ISO button is located on the top-plate, within easy reach of the shutter button. Fortunately, the D600's automatic ISO function is excellent (see notes above) and via Easy ISO (custom function d-3) you can assign the unused of the two control dials to directly control ISO if you wish. The only trade-off is you'll lose 'Easy Exposure Compensation', if that's a function that you use.

Moving on to the AF-ON button, or lack thereof, a lot of photographers like to 'thumb focus', especially when shooting sports and action. If you're among that number, you'll miss the dedicated AF-ON button found in higher-end Nikon DSLRs. But a quick trip to the D600's lengthy custom functions menu reveals that its AE-L/AF-L button can be assigned to act as AF-ON. If you use AF-ON occasionally, you can save this custom preference to one of the D600's two 'U' custom settings, which will save constantly re-assigning the button.

The D600's ISO button is awkwardly placed at the bottom left of the camera's rear, making it hard to reliably reach for and operate with your eye to the viewfinder. On the plus side, the D600's automatic ISO function is one of the best around, and Easy ISO (custom option d3) is on hand to allow you to control ISO using the 'unused' Control Dial in PAS exposure modes.

Sadly the D600 lacks the useful custom option offered by the D800, whereby the OK button on its rear can act as a one-click magnification control in playback mode.

A feature of higher-end Nikon DSLRs is an 'AF-ON' button, but the D600 omits this control point.

Another one of those 'wouldn't it be nice if...' criticisms of the D600 centers (no pun intended) around the D600's 'OK' button, which sits at the hub of the four-way controller on the camera's rear. The D600's four way controller has an 'OK' button at its hub, which is used primarily to confirm menu actions and reset the central AF point when shooting. In higher-end Nikon DSLRs, this button can be assigned a function in playback mode - the most useful of which in our experience, is one-click medium magnification. This allows you to quickly check critical focus with a single click of the 'OK' button, which is a huge time-saver during a busy shoot. The omission of this function will go unremarked by D7000 upgraders (who never had the option anyway) but could cause frustration for D300S users or D800 owners shopping for a second body.

Another potential issue that we've mentioned in a couple of recent reviews is Nikon's decision to move from a 3-position (single autofocus/continuous autofocus/manual focus) focussing mode switch on the front of the camera, to a new, 2-position (autofocus/manual focus) switch, with a control button. In the new design, with the switch set to 'AF', pressing the button and turning the rear control dials allows you to toggle between single-shot and continuous AF modes. Still with the button held down, you can then use the front dial to cycle among six AF Area modes. This is very simple, very neat, and makes perfect sense from the point of view of unifying form with function.

This 'simplification' comes at a cost, however. Specifically, it makes switching between AF-S and AF-C, and indeed changing AF pattern mode, slower than it was Nikon's previous generation DSLRs. Using the D300S, for example, a quick flick of the left thumb is all it took to go from single AF to continuous, and a quick flick of the rear lever would switch from single-point AF to multi-pattern. With the D600 (and the D800 and D4) there's an extra step - a button press - in both cases. This may admittedly be a minor issue for many D600 owners - the D7000, for example, is identical - but it might fox someone coming from an older DSLR - at least until they get the hang of it.

Another handling-related gripe, regarding aperture (non)behavior in live view mode, is explained in the live view page of this review.