SLRs with full-frame sensors (24 x 36 mm) are becoming increasingly accessible and increasingly affordable. Indeed, the Nikon D600 is priced under the £2,000 mark. Better still—this isn't just a pared-down version of a professional model, as was the case with the Sony Alpha 850. The D600 is a genuinely new camera—a little brother to the D800 and an older cousin to the D7000.
Anyone who's already used one of the more recent high-end Nikon SLRs should feel more-or-less at home here. In fact, the D600 is has a pretty similar body to the D800, although its general build feels closer to the D7000. For example, the grip handle isn't as generous or as tall as in Nikon's more heavyweight models, and the trade-off between weight and grip isn't as favourable as in other models in the range. However, the D600 is more accessible to general users, largely thanks to its mode-selection dial (including a "Scene" mode) that doesn't feature in Nikon's Pro cameras.
But although this model may be more accessible and more affordable, that doesn't necessarily make it simple to use. The D600 is still an advanced SLR that you'll need to take the time to get to know. The main menu feels interminably long (the list of customisable options spreads over 50 lines, for example) and you may need to have a quick look at the manual to get your head around everything. Regular Nikon users should find things pretty familiar, though.
Onscreen image quality is relatively accurate, with a neutral default white balance and a well-set gamma. Colour fidelity is also on the better side of average. Note that Nikon even supplies a handy removable screen protection cover to keep the display safe from bumps and scrapes. The viewfinder is about what you'd expect from a full-frame SLR—in other words, it runs circles around those found in the best APS-sensor SLRs that we usually test. Generally speaking, the comfort of an SLR viewfinder is directly linked to the size of the image. This is in turn largely influenced by the size of the ground glass viewing screen, which is the same size as the sensor (in a 100% viewfinder, at least).
The D600 inherits a comprehensive range of connections from the D7000, with a GPS port, HDMI and USB connections, and a stereo mic entry. To that it adds a headphones out, giving you camcorder-like control over the audio in video mode.
Again like the D7000, the D600 has two memory card slots so you can separate RAW and Jpeg shots, switch over to the second card when the first gets full or back up shots onto the second memory card.
The D600 autofocus is similar in spec to that of the D7000, with 39 AF points (it's therefore a little less comprehensive than the D800 autofocus). Plus, the 24-85 mm kit lens has a fairly speedy motorisation system, which brings the D600 pretty much in line with the D7000. Focusing therefore barely takes more then half a second at all focal lengths and only slows down very slightly in low light.
In Live View mode (using the screen to line up shots) it's a slightly different story, as the D600 is much slower. While it's fine for use with a static or slow-moving subject, the autofocus in this mode won't be able to keep up with a child running around, for example. For anyone who prefers using the screen over the viewfinder, an interchangeable lens compact or one of Sony's Alpha cameras are the current market leaders to look out for.
Photo-to-photo turnaround won't hold you back in the D600, and the 5 fps burst mode is perfectly respectable, holding out for up to 14 shots in RAW+Jpeg.
With a 24-Megapixel sensor measuring 24 x 36 mm, the Nikon D600 has a very reasonable pixel density of 2.8 Mpx/cm², compared with 4.3 Mpx/cm² for the D7000, 4.1 Mpx/cm² for the D800 and 6.5 Mpx/cm² for Sony's Alpha 77 (the same definition but with an APS sensor).
The ISO test results are good. A slight touch of smoothing and a little noise start to appear at 3200 ISO, but without proving problematic. Jpeg shots at 6400 ISO are still perfectly usable—8" x 12" prints (20 x 30 cm) look impeccable and a 100% crop comes out OK. At 12800 ISO (H1.0, in fact), noise and smoothing will be visible on prints. While the D600 shows a minor gain in quality compared with the D7000, the difference isn't as marked as their respective pixel densities may initially suggest. And for those of you who aren't put off by a bit of noise, the Fuji X-Pro1 takes shots that are more richly and clearly detailed at high sensitivity settings, in spite of the fact it "only" uses a 16-Megapixel APS sensor!
The 24-85 mm kit lens does a decent enough job. You're better off avoiding the wide-angle setting at f/3.5, but from f/5.6 the image is pleasant and nicely sharp. At f/8 and f/11 the image is sharp and highly detailed right up to the edges of the frame. At 85 mm the lens is sharp and precise from full aperture (f/4.5). At f/8 it highlights the weakness of the low-pass filter—a moiré effect is visible, as you can see on the black and white test card above (taken from the corner of the frame).
The lens does, however, have one noticeable downfall: distortion. Barrel distortion is very visible at wide-angle and pin-cushion distortion is pretty spectacular at telephoto. Most photo editing software has functions to reduce or get rid of these effects, but don't say you haven't been warned—especially since this isn't corrected automatically in Jpeg shots.
The D600 is pretty ambitious in this field, even if it doesn't inherit all the options on offer in the D800. Image quality is good in spite of two things we noticed in out test lab: a slightly visible moiré effect on our static test scene and a tendency to overexpose bright, light parts of the picture around the music box in our moving test scene. The depth of field is obviously quite low (that's one advantage of a 24 x 36 mm sensor, which actually captures a larger image than 35 mm cinema film). Plus, the fact that there's no continuous autofocus means you may have to take some time getting used to focusing manually on a moving subject. But when the image is correctly focused, it's very sharp.
The built-in mono mic is OK but nothing more. The D600 is therefore best used with an external mic (the sound can be monitored by plugging in a pair of headphones).
On the whole, the video mode is a good addition for advanced users who aren't afraid of manual focusing and who are ready to hook up some accessories. But in terms of practicality, it clearly can't be recommended for general users who are used to cameras with automatic functions.