Nikon's new 24-megapixel D600 is the first consumer-oriented SLR that includes a full-frame sensor, meaning it's as large as a 35mm film frame. While this and other features impress, the D600 may be too much camera for some casual shooters—and the price is not insignificant.
The D600 is one of several cameras, along with recently announced models from Sony and Canon, which include larger sensors in bodies that are less expensive than past pro-level SLRs. I recently had a chance to check out the D600 using two lenses: the 24mm-85mm and a 50mm f/1.4 lens. Here's what I found.
Advantages of a full-frame sensor. One of the reasons many photographers (particularly those who own Nikon or Nikon-compatible lenses) have long sought a full-frame sensor is that when you attach a wide-angle lens, there is no cropping factor. A 24mm wide-angle lens doesn't get cropped to 36mm, as it does with most SLRs, such as the Nikon D3200 or Canon Rebels, so you get a full 24mm.
Another benefit is the ability to get shallower depth of field, helpful when shooting portraits and other subjects when you want to blur the background but maintain sharp focus on the subject. In my test photos (using a 50mm f/1.4 Nikon lens both on the D600 and an SLR with a smaller-sized sensor), I found more blurring (though less than I expected) on the D600 than in the shots from the other SLR.
According to camera makers, the other benefit to full-frame sensors is better performance in low light. But in various low-light shots I captured on the D600, I didn't find the images superior to images I shot on the Nikon D7000, which has a smaller sensor. We'll have additional information on this when we get the D600 into our labs and run it through our full battery of tests.
Taking photos. In the past, camera companies tended to market SLRs with full-frame sensors to professionals, so such models often lacked such consumer-oriented features as a pop-up flash. Pros generally use big, pricey external speedlights that produce better flash shots. But the D600 keeps the novice in mind by including a super-simple auto mode and a pop-up flash.
Although it has a hot-shoe for attaching an external flash, the D600 also includes a pop-up flash, which can be nice for adding fill-flash, like in this shot.
I think Nikon could have provided additional help features, as it does on the Nikon D3200. But if you press the button with the question mark on the back of the camera, you do get a description of the various camera features and settings that appear in the menu.
Overall, I was very impressed with the photos I shot with the D600, whether indoors or outdoors, in bright- or low-light. The burst modes were also quick and responsive.
Shooting video. I captured video in several different lighting situations, such as a bright sunny day, an overcast one, and even at night (at a Halloween pumpkin festival). In all cases, I found the D600 performed very well in auto mode as well as with manual settings. The audio worked very well, too, capturing lots of subtle sounds.
But I do have a couple of minor complaints: First, although the video record button is positioned on top of the camera, right next to the shutter button, there is a metering mode button next to it. Several times, I thought I was recording video, when in fact I had pressed the metering button instead. Second, in some cases the 24mm-85mm lens did not autofocus as quickly as I'd anticipated.
Ergonomics and design. One thing you'll notice the moment you pick up the D600 is that this is a big and bulky camera. Some will like this, but most will find it too big. However, with the 24-85mm lens attached, it was lighter than I expected. I thought images looked great on the 3-inch display and that the menu structure was clear and easy to navigate. I also liked the big sturdy grip below the shutter button.
Bottom line. Although I was impressed with the various features and settings and how well this SLR performed, its price, bulkiness, and plethora of settings may overwhelm and confuse most consumers. You might first consider a mid-range advanced camera like the Nikon D7000, which is probably fine for most people. The D600's larger sensor provides some additional boost in image quality and performance, but most SLRs with APS-C-size sensors, like the D7000, provide a lot of power and performance for less money.
Although some photo enthusiasts will love the variety of buttons and controls on the D600, some novices may be overwhelmed and confused.