In 2007 Nikon introduced their first full frame digital SLR camera - the D3. The high ISO capabilities of this camera's sensor were startling at the time. 2008 saw the introduction of the Nikon D700, which combined the full frame sensor of the D3 with a body and controls which were very similar to the DX D300. It was an instant hit as it provided the same image quality as the D3 yet was considerably cheaper.
Around the same time, Canon introduced their 5D Mark II as a direct competitor. The pixel count was double that of the D700 and a very successful HD video capability was thrown in.
Despite the lack of pixel count at 12MP, the D700 had the edge in picture quality at high ISO and its autofocus was far more reliable. It was, and still is, a fantastic all round camera.
Roll on to 2012 and Nikon and Canon both introduced replacements to the D700 and 5D Mark II. However they took slightly different routes in the evolution of the smaller bodied full frame digital camera. Canon opted to improve their high ISO capability, maintaining a similar pixel count while finally sorting out the focusing issues of the predecessor. Nikon announced their long awaited D800 with full HD video and a whopping 36.3MP sensor. Could the increased resolution still give the same high ISO capability as before?
Recently announced and just shipping is another Nikon full frame offering - the D600. Interestingly it is smaller than the D800 yet still packs a 24MP sensor. Nikon users have waited for years for an update to the hugely successful D700 and then two potential replacements come along at once. So here I attempt to find out which one could be more suitable for you if your purse strings stretch that far! This is deliberately not a technical review of each camera's features, but rather a glimpse at how useable the D600 and D800 are in the real world and what you can expect in terms of output and image quality.
Anyone familiar with a Nikon D300, D300s or D700 will instantly feel at home with the D800 camera body. The body itself has evolved a little and is comfortable to hold, and virtually all features are accessible in the same way without resorting to diving into the menu system. LCD resolution is unchanged but the screen is slightly larger at 3.2". Focus modes are accessible in the same way as the D7000, live view now has its own dedicated button and switch and there is a separate record button for video capture. All good news.
Similarly anyone familiar with a Nikon D7000 will feel at home with the D600. The body is the same size as the D7000, but it is not quite as user friendly as the D800. Both the D600 and D800 have excellent bright viewfinders with 100% coverage - in terms of shooting, what you see is what you get.
Through that viewfinder you can see the first compromise with the D600. The focus points are weighted heavily in the centre of the frame, whereas the focus point coverage in the D800 is much larger. This may or may not be a deal breaker depending on how and what you shoot, but I missed a few shots on the D600 as a result. I rarely use focus tracking, but it worked well on both cameras in good light. The D800's autofocus really locked on well at night which is a great improvement over its predecessor, which itself was no slouch.
Both cameras offer a virtual horizon showing pitch and roll which is very useful when shooting in a more considered style. If you shoot with a wide angle lens, you can be sure to reduce or eradicate converging verticals altogether. In camera HDR features on the D600 and D800 as well as in camera Time Lapse - this creates HD quality movie clips at 30FPS, with a maximum shooting time of 8 hours (see the bottom of blog post for an example). For anything more serious, either the built in or a remote intervalometer is more useful but as a built in option it is a fun and creative additional feature.
Adding to their more professional credentials are dual memory cards - the D600 accepts SD cards and the D800 accepts a single CF card and single SD/SDHC/SDXC card.
OK - so what are these cameras like to shoot? I'll start with the D800.
The D800 is a beast. Where the D700 was a highly capable camera, the D800 needs careful handling. The old adage of taking the reciprocal of your focal length on full frame (e.g. shooting with a 50mm lens needs a minimum shutter speed of 1/50th second) when hand holding no longer rings true if you wish to make the most of the stunning resolution that this camera can offer at a pixel level. You have to watch your technique and really make the effort. If you do, you will be rewarded with amazing resolving power. You will need to have good lenses and a good tripod to make the most of this camera.
D800, 50mm f1.4G @f8, 15 seconds, ISO100
A heavy crop from the image above
Image quality at low ISO is stunning. You can crop images heavily and still have sufficient pixels to create a highly detailed final image. High ISO files, on initial inspection, look noisy. However once resized to a comparable size and applying noise reduction software they are cleaner than D700 files. Nikon have managed to improve the D700's low light capability while increasing the resolution successfully. Dynamic range is also greatly improved, which will benefit anyone processing images shot in high contrast scenes.
D800, 14-24mm, 13 seconds, ISO100
D800, 14-24mm, 1/30th second, ISO6400
Now all that resolution comes a compromise - file size. Importing RAW files through Lightroom 4.2 and creating .tif files yields files of over 200Mb. Without resizing, converted .jpg files are over 20Mb. You are going to not only need good technique and glass - add a very fast processor in your computer, large amounts of internal and external storage and fast writing high capacity memory cards to the mix. Spec your next PC/Mac purchase wisely! The other flip side to the resolution is the frame rate, which is a maximum of 4fps in FX mode. Switching to DX mode increases this to 5.5fps, but you will lose a lot of resolution in doing so.
If you are willing to accept the tradeoffs that 36.3MP gives you then you will be rewarded with the ultimate in current DSLR image quality. But who is this camera for?
If you shoot portraiture, be prepared to sit in front of your computer a little longer after each shoot with your post processing. Every tiny blemish will be visible. Beautiful models will hate this camera! If you shoot sports this possibly isn't the camera for you. The low frame rate is not the be all and end all with sports photography, but the D800 takes time to write those large files and clear its buffer. The flip side - you'll have plenty of opportunity to crop. If you are a wildlife photographer, the ability to crop coupled with low light capability may make this camera ideal for you. If you shoot architecture and landscapes then the detail that this camera resolves will be enticing. If you shoot commercial then look no further. If you regularly make large prints then you will see benefits in terms of viewing your print from up close. If you have money to burn then you may just buy it because in marketing terms it has 36.3MP so it must be the best! 36.3MP really gives tangible benefits, but sadly many people that buy this camera will neither appreciate this nor have the technique and lenses to make the most of it, instead printing small or posting to social media. It truly is a specialist tool.
D800, 35mm Carl Zeiss, f5, ISO320
So where does the D600 fit in? A 24MP sensor coupled with a smaller body is a great thing. Low ISO image quality is again beautiful and noise control is as good or slightly cleaner than the D800 up to ISO6400. Comparing with the D7000, which many potential owners will do, shows that the full frame sensor really benefits the High ISO capability of the D600 over its DX cousin. Compared to the D700 the High ISO image quality shows more than a 1 stop improvement, combined with double the resolution.
D600, 50mm f1.4G, f3.2, 1/4000th, ISO100
Physically the D600 is smaller than the D800, but is it also quieter. Street photographers will appreciate the quieter shutter and smaller form factor, whilst still benefitting from full frame image quality. Frame rate, the Achilles heel of the D800, is improved at 5.5fps with the D600. The D800 can only match this while shooting in DX crop mode, negating its high mega pixel advantage in doing so. Flash max synch speed and a maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th second are both slower than the D800/D4, but that's not a big issue. If you own larger and heavier 'pro' lenses then a battery grip will help balance your setup considerably.
D600, 50mm f1.4G, f3.2, 1/160th, ISO100
In terms of performance and image quality the D600 really is more of a spiritual successor to the D700. It's more of an all rounder than the D800, is nearly as capable as the legendary D3S in low light, and produces beautifully crisp and clean files with 24MP resolution. Dynamic range is as impressive as the D800 and the file sizes won't put so much strain on your home computer and storage requirements. My only gripes are the ergonomics, where dials and controls don't fall as readily to hand, and the focusing system. Nikon owners coming from the D90/D7000 bodies will not feel any discomfort with either and not know what they are missing, but D700 owners may feel their workflow while shooting is affected.
D600, 50mm f1.4G, f3.5, 1/250th, ISO1100
In 1996 Porsche introduced the brilliant Boxster sports car but there was a feeling that they had not engineered the cars to be as good as they could be, for fear of stealing sales from their more prestigious and expensive 911. At the time the 911 was a difficult car to drive on the limit but once mastered the rewards were fantastic. The Boxster was less powerful, easier to drive and handled just as brilliantly.
It's a similar story with Nikon and the D600/D800. Give the D600 the same focusing system and ergonomic body as the D800 and D800 sales will definitely suffer. The D600 has been engineered to differentiate itself from the D800.
Still, Nikon's hit a home run here. That differentiation has reduced cost - the D600 will surely become the volume seller in Nikon's full frame range, be an excellent entry into full frame photography for many as well as a common back up body to D800 and D4 professional photographers.
Sample D600 in camera Time Lapse. 2/35 Distagon, f16, ISO100, 1/60th, 3 stop ND Filter