Nikon D600 vs. D800 Hands-on Review and Tips

Is the new Nikon D600 the perfect wedding camera? Is it perfect for anyone? How does it compare to the (nine-hundred buck more) Nikon D800? These questions, and the answer to "Can you give me a great, easy, Bloody Mary recipe?" will all be answered shortly! I recently got my hands on a D600 and decided to review and compare it to my own D800 and D3s. I partnered with my good buddy, Benjamin Edwards (author of the Nikon Creative Lighting System Digital Field Guide book, and an active wedding shooter) to test the cameras and see how they fare in real-world and controlled shooting environments.

First off, I want to clarify that our reviews are not your typical chart-and-numbers type reviews. There are many great sites available for that purpose already and we refer to them often when we want to geek out and get good technical data on cameras. DPReview and DXOMark are just a couple of them. We want to give you hands-on, real-world, hyphen-ated, opinions based on the intended use of the gear–not just how it looks on a chart compared to every other camera out there. (although we will sprinkle in some comparisons just for fun).

I also factor in my unique rating criteria for a product–the Intangible Love Quotient, or ILQ. If you own an iPhone or other Apple product, then you have a good idea of what ILQ is. It's a feeling that makes you simply want to use a product that often sensually overrides common sense. Its great design coupled with ergonomics, build quality, and just plain fun. As with iPhones, there may be other products that excel technically, or by the numbers, but they just don't feel as good in your hand, look as cool, or just make you want to create a special pillow on your bed for them. 

I'll also throw in some user tips for getting the most from your particular product–in this case the Nikon D600 and D800. Stay tuned for a slew of upcoming reviews on other cameras and photo gear. In coming episodes I'll be reviewing The Best Pocket Camera for Serious Photo Enthusiasts, A Light Meter That Can Light Your Fire, and A Constant Lighting Tool For the Studio That Doesn't Suck (or drain your wallet).

A brief introduction to the cameras

I won't bore you with the little details, as you can get the specifics from the manufacturers website. The Nikon D600 is a 24.3 MP full-frame DSLR body that costs about $2100. It is a mid-range camera with a compact body and built-in flash. The Nikon D800 is a higher-mid-range full-frame DSLR with an insane 36.3 MP sensor and costs about $3000. For some of my comparisons, I also reference my trusty Nikon D3s (since replaced by the Nikon D4) which I've used for wedding, portraits, and commercial work since its introduction in 2009. 

My first reaction to seeing the D800 announcement was, “Are you kidding me? Who the heck really needs 36 megapixels! Now I’m going to spend even more money on coffee while I wait for these giant RAW files to import and render. Sheesh.” When I saw the D600 at 24 MP, I thought “Well, that’s a little better, but c’mon, do you really think my clients want  to see every line on their face?!” To qualify my blanket statements, remember I’m looking at these cameras from a portrait and wedding photographer viewpoint and if I were strictly a commercial or fine art shooter I might be saying, “Yipee! The more megapretzels the better! Bring it, baby!” My feelings have changed a little bit, as I’ll explain later.

Wedding photographers generally need 12-18 megapixels for quality enlargements up to 16x20 or so. They shoot a lot of images and thus need manageable file sizes that they can process quickly. They shoot in all lighting conditions–including dim, natural light and high-contrast sunny situations. They have to carry their cameras in-hand for 8 or more hours a day. They need to react and shoot quickly and they have to have a high-tolerance for repeated playing of the Chicken Dance. The camera speed, ergonomics, low light focus-ability, and ease of operation often determining the capture, or miss, of a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

Benjamin had a upcoming wedding, so I gave him the D600 to test on a typical event. What did he think?: 

“One of the most important, if not the most important factor for wedding shooters is ergonomics. I decided that even the best image quality didn't matter when I kept missing shots from fumbling my way through focus points, etc... All that to say, Nikon has taken the D600 to the next level of ease of use and comfort. Right out of the gate users will notice the new hand grip design which seems to conform to the hand in a much more comfortable way. 

The D600 has sharpness to spare! Click the image to see a larger version. ©2012 Benjamin Edwards

Nikon have also decided to make things a bit easier in regard to button placement, making things like accessing LiveView and movie recording simpler. While it can be frustrating to have to retrain your brain on button placement and shortcuts for each new camera model, any experienced Nikon user will feel at home and get things figured out quickly. Anyone jumping ship to the D600 or D800 from another manufacturer may need to sleep with their camera (and manual) in-hand for a few nights. Your spouse will understand, hopefully.

Great color & shadow detail. Click the image to view larger. ©2012 Benjamin Edwards.

As with earlier models from Nikon, the sky is the limit for customizing your menu and shooting experience. Both of these camera's have a native file size that goes well beyond what most people need for weddings. Let's be honest, we don't need 24+  megapixel images of the groom getting his boutonniere on, most of the time. To alleviate the stress on my memory card pouch, iMac and external hard drives, I assigned one of the camera's custom function buttons, located on the right side of the body, near the lens mount to take the camera to "crop mode." This mode gives you a smaller file size by using a smaller portion of the sensor. This is a great feature to use during the ceremony when you may want a bit more "reach" to your lens as it crops in 1.5 times the normal size of the image. The flip side to this is that it makes getting ultra wide shots a bit more difficult. No fear, one button hold and a command dial turn later, I'm back to utilizing the whole sensor and can achieve full frame, ultra wide epicness.

Nice shadow detail. A bit of CA in the highlights surrounding the bride and groom. Click to view larger. ©2012 Benjamin Edwards.

Another of my favorite tricks is to assign one of the two custom function buttons to "spot meter." This is much quicker than changing the meter dial to spot and works well for situations in which the camera's meter may be getting fooled with strong backlight, or other magic tricks." 

(Kevin’s note: I’ll add my own favorite FN button assignments here too: 

  • Instant spot metering (like Ben mentioned)
  • Instant Flash off (for quickly disabling the built-in or attached flash when you want to shoot a quick natural light shot in the middle of flash use)
  • Bracket burst (for a one-click series of exposure captures for HDR compositing)

 Ben continues... 

"Nikon also gives you the ability to set up "My Menu." My Menu lets you group custom functions you think you'll use most. For instance, I like to add Built-In Speedlight Function, Clean Camera Sensor, and the ability to turn on and off the camera's Auto ISO capabilities, to name a few." 

I agree with Ben on the importance of ergonomics and there are a couple features I would miss on the D600 for use as a wedding camera: The D800 has both an AF-ON button and an AE-L/AF-L button near your thumb placement. Many shooters prefer to use a dedicated AF-ON button rather than using a shutter half-press to lock focus. I’m not one of them, but I have many friends who rely on this. The D600 doesn’t have the AF-ON button, only the AE-L/AF-L. You could re-program that button (thanks to Nikon's extensive custom-ability) to perform the AF-ON, but you would then have to program a separate button to do AE-L, or Auto Exposure Lock. I do use, and prefer, a dedicated AE-L button right by my thumb. For those who rely on both buttons, the availability of only one could take some getting used to.

Here’s my summary of some key features and comparisons of the D600 to the D800, or D3s.

Not so loves: 

  • No “AE Lock (Reset on Release)” option in the AE-L/AF-L button custom settings. There are other useful options, but this is my preferred one and its missing. With it, I can tap the AE-L button to lock my exposure and freely recompose. The exposure remains locked until I shoot or turn off the camera, then it resets to normal. I find this to be the safest and most convenient way to use AE-L, but oddly it’s missing from the D600 settings, although available on my D800 and D3s. Users who have never selected this option in the past will likely not miss it.
  • No live control of the aperture in Live View for video mode (you have to turn off Live View, change the aperture, then turn Live View back on to see the changes)
  • Top shutter speed of 1/4000 (compared to 1/8000 on the D800) limits use of wide aperture lenses in bright light or higher-speed flash sync outdoors.
  • Low light focusing not quite as good as D800 or D3s (but probably still better than most!)
  • Doesn't feel as "instant" as the D3s and D4. Focus acquires fairly quick, and shutter response is fast, but the D3s/D4 are just in a league of their own when it comes to responsiveness. (that’s what you get for $6000)
  • File sizes border on too large for typical wedding and portrait work.
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB) is limited to 3 frames and +/- up to 3 f-stops on the D600. I’ve always wished that Nikon would bump this to at least 5 frames so I could quickly use it for my HDR exposures. The D800 now takes up to 9 frames! Couple this with programming a custom button to do an “AEB Burst” and you have a super quick way to take a series of exposures for HDR compositing. (See below for the new in-camera HDR feature)
  • Flash sync speed (using external flash units) of 1/200 second. D800 syncs at 1/250. Higher-speed sync is available with Nikon dedicated flash systems, however.

Loves:

  • Amazing image quality! DXOMark rated this camera as the 3rd highest ever, among all tested cameras–just behind the D800 and D800e for overall sensor quality (based on color depth, dynamic range, and low-light performance). Its sharp as a knife and has incredible dynamic range.
  • Total ISO control from buttons - You can now turn Auto ISO on or off without having to visit the menus, Yah! (for my take on the Why and How of Auto ISO, see the endnote at the end.)
  • Movie controls
    • capture photos during movie capture
    • Dedicated movie record button near shutter - can also set the shutter to start movie capture or capture photos 
    • Dedicated Live View video mode showing video specific camera settings and actual HD video crop
    • Better manual control over exposure during live view than previous models, but still not as full-featured as D800 e.g. you can change ISO or shutter speed only during LiveView in manual mode to see exposure changes. On D800 you can also change aperture.
  • Best dynamic range when over-exposed (among D800 & D3s. See my example photos)
  • Good compromise file size
  • Very low noise at high ISOs. (but has slightly more noise than D800 & D3s)
  • Lightweight body for all-day comfort
  • In-camera HDR function works nicely (although it only works in JPG mode and creates a single HDR file. I would prefer an option to keep the original exposures as well so I could optionally merge the exposures myself in Photoshop). If you want ultimate HDR quality, shoot RAW and use the AEB Burst mentioned above.

Image Quality

As Ben and I both discovered, the D600’s strong point is image quality. Bottom line is that this is currently about the best overall image quality you can get, at any price under $10K. While the D800, D800e, and D3s score slightly higher in some of DXOMarks tests, the difference is minuscule and probably not visually noticeable to anyone but the most discriminating observer under the most demanding photographic conditions. 

I discovered one area of image quality where the D600 actually outshines the D800, even though the “numbers” would suggest otherwise. I usually test cameras at their extremes, because this is where a camera can make or break your shot, especially as a wedding photographer or photojournalist. I tested the D600, D800, and D3s in a typical high contrast scene, but over-exposed the image by 2 f-stops. I wanted to see if, had I screwed up my exposure bad enough, the camera could save my bacon and still capture a useable image. In this particular test, the D600 outshines both its competitors. 

This image below shows the same scene, captured with the same exposure and camera settings, using the same lens, on a tripod, from all three cameras. I over-exposed the scene by 2 f-stops from what the meter suggested. I wanted to see if I could recover highlight detail and restore the image to “normal” using Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw (images were captured RAW for best quality, of course). 

The original image, purposely over-exposed by 2 f-stops. No copyright, you can have it. 

After adjusting the images in Lightroom, I was able to recover enough detail to make it useable. Click to enlarge.

What surprised me is that after my best efforts to restore lost highlight information in Adobe Camera Raw, the D600 actually revealed texture and information in bright areas that the other cameras lost completely! See the image crops of the bright roof area and the car in the distance.

D600 crop. Notice there is some shadow texture now in the bright white vertical wall area that the other cameras have lost.D800 crop. The shadow texture is gone here.D3s crop. My beloved was not able to preserve the texture either 

I was very pleased with how the images from all three cameras were easily made relatively normal and useable, but the D600 seemed to have a slight edge in minimizing the quality loss from user error. 

The other test that I find important is discovering what kind of noise levels are generated under low-light, high-ISO conditions. I’m not talking about head-banger concert noise, but ugly, random color infested noise from over-cooked sensors. Wedding shooters typically photograph sans flash in dark churches, candle-lit dining halls, and underground lava caves. Of course, we then want to make giant wall portraits of the happy couple kissing under this sleep-inducing illumination. Will the image hold up?

One thing I’ve always loved about my Nikons is that when they do make noise, its fairly “organic” looking. In other words, it looks more like film grain and contains little of the color noise that is a signature digital image malady. The D600 shows very low noise at ISOs up to 3200, and its just slightly more than the D800 and, my all-time favorite, the D3s. The below image and crops compare noise and detail in the shadows from an image captured with low available light at ISO 3200.

D600 image at 3200 ISO in low light. Click to enlarge.D600 crop. Notice the low noise and neutral color rendition in the shadowsD800 crop. The noise levels are even less and the color very neutral. The D800 seems to meter a bit brighter than the other cams, hence the exposure difference.D3s crop. Also low noise and smooth. A hint of color contamination in the shadows, but not much.

As with most digital cameras, the D600 shares a slight amount of chromatic aberration, which is the fancy term for those colorful edges (usually purple) along the border of highlight and dark areas. Each generation of camera tends to reduce this anomaly further, but its still going to be present in most any camera at this price range or anywhere near it. The D800 and D3s also exhibit it in certain situations and none of these cameras are CA reducing superstars. They are fairly equal.

Ben’s take on the D600 image quality.

"I once was the proud owner of a D2x, proud that is unless I went over ISO 400. My current wedding camera is a D700 (rated 6th overall for low light performance on DXOMark). My next model must either give me the same high ISO results, or preferably better. Anyone looking to upgrade from their D700 will be extremely happy with the high ISO performance of either the D600 and D800. In looking through my wedding files shot with the D600, each of the files (up to 3200 and 6400) had a very creamy, but yet still sharp quality to them. Any noise at those levels can quickly be taken care of with Lightroom's noise reduction (or your favorite noise plug-in.)

You can shoot all day long at 3200 ISO with the D600, very usable. Click to enlarge. ©2012 Benjamin Edwards

While there seems to be a bit more color noise to the files than in camera's past, again, it's easily taken care of, and for the most part, a non-factor. Did I mention the files were sharp? Yes, they're sharp!

The D600 and D800 both enjoy a dynamic range score of just over 14 stops. What this means for wedding and portrait shooters is having the ability to pull the highlights back and have a generous amount of shadow detail. Can you say epic bride and groom portraits? 

Images like this make me want a D600 in my bag, straight out of camera. Click to enlarge. ©2102 Benjamin EdwardsThe D600 is second only to the D800/D800E in dynamic range, helpful for those mid-day ceremonies. Click to enlarge. ©2012 Benjamin Edwards

All camera models include Auto White Balance (AWB.) This usually means that once set, you automatically had to fix it later in Lightroom or Photoshop. Not so anymore. I found the AWB on both of these cameras to be very accurate."

Video Quality

I am not a pro videographer, although I do use my DSLRs for frequent video projects including wedding fusion shoots and in-house educational and marketing pieces. The actual quality of the D600 video is wonderful - made possible in part by its stellar sensor. It captures in full 1080p HD at up to 30 fps as well as 720p at up to 60fps. I like this 60 fps mode a lot for the ability to make smoother slow motion footage. 

There is one video feature (or lack thereof), however, that might make it less than an ideal choice for serious or dedicated videographers: you can’t change the aperture, and see the results immediately, while using Live View. You have to turn off Live View, adjust the aperture, then restart Live View to see the changes. This annoys me, but may not be an issue to other users. You can still affect the exposure live by adjusting shutter speed or ISO, although many videographers like to stick with a standard shutter speed, like 1/60th (double the frame rate) and not change that during recording. Tweaking the ISO is often the best way to affect exposure without altering the look of the video too much, and at least you have live control over this option. 

The full-frame sensor in the D600 does give your video that extra “depth” that we big f’n f-stop shooters really love and that makes it an affordable DSLR with pro video quality and decent camera handling features.

Summary

As I mentioned in the beginning, I originally felt the stratospheric megapixel count of the D800 was just too high for most mortals making their living off portrait and wedding work–and requiring a somewhat manageable workflow. I still feel that way, but have also found that there is a good compromise. For many photographers, the D600’s smaller file size, stellar image quality, and reasonable price might be just the right compromise. Picky ergonomists and those beholden to the I.L.Q. may find more satisfaction in the D800, yes, despite its hulking, behemoth files. Let me explain.

The D800 has all of the image quality, in good light and bad, of my beloved D3s (or the current D4), at about half the price. It has more resolution–when I need it. It has the complete pro feature set, i.e. great low light performance, a full array of control buttons, many custom settings, high flash sync, and 1/8000 top shutter speed. It’s only slightly bigger than the D600, but significantly smaller than a D3s or D4.

The real question is: What about those stupid big RAW files? (Have I belabored that point enough yet?) A single RAW file from the D800 is about 50MB. A D600 RAW is about 30MB (there is some compression in camera that causes slight variations in size) That means a typical wedding of 1500 images will require approximately 75 GB of storage for the D800 or 45 GB on the D600. Fortunately, you can currently buy 2 - 32 GB SDHC class 10 cards on Amazon for $30 each, pop one in each slot of the D600 and you’re good to go for the entire event.

But wait. After doing some experimentation with the RAW files from the D800 and D600, and trying the new DNG conversion options from Adobe that are available in the latest Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, and Adobe DNG Converter, I think I’ve found a nice compromise. A way to have my megapretzels and eat them too. 

The latest version of Adobe’s DNG conversion software allows not only for RAW file lossy compression, but for creating a reduced resolution RAW proxy. This means I can actually reduce the resolution and compress my original 36 megapixel, 50 MB, D800 RAW files down to 15 megapixels (or any size I want, actually) and retain virtually all of the advantages of a RAW file in an incredibly manageable file size - 7.4 MB

One of the hallmarks of the RAW file is its ability to preserve as much of your camera sensor data as reasonably possible–capturing details in the extreme highlights and shadow areas that .JPG files just can’t hold. RAW files also allow for extreme adjustments to recover lost detail and modify tonality or color balance with little discernible loss in image quality. Jay Peg fails miserably here too.

My initial tests showed that I could create a resized, compressed DNG and make extreme adjustments to recover lost highlights, correct white balance, and reveal shadow detail and not see any visual difference between my original RAW file and the compressed DNG version - using identical adjustments on each. Technically, the compressed DNG is a lossy format, which means that some image quality will be lost in the translation. I just couldn’t see it. The loss is significantly different than the loss you’d suffer in a conversion to .JPG or when your favorite underwear finally disintegrates. JPG compression reduces fine details and the ability to recover information in extreme over/under-exposed areas. DNG compression seems to be lightyears ahead (JPG technology is actually from the 80s). It is new, fresh, and it really works.

So, my win-win workflow looks something like this: 

  1. Use the D800 and capture RAW, suffering through frequent changes of my SD or CF cards. 
  2. Do an initial edit of the images in Lightroom, selecting my absolute favorites or any images that I anticipate will really need to be printed large or at extremely high quality. Mark those to keep at their original resolution.
  3. Convert all the rest of the RAW files to 15MP compressed DNG files saving roughly 42 MB per image.
  4. Continue editing as usual - happy in the knowledge that I have my favorite images preserved in the ultimate image quality and resolution, and all the other images at a quality and size that is comparable to my beloved D3s.

My export settings in Lightroom to create a compressed, resized DNG RAW file from the huge D800 originals. You can also use Adobe Camera RAW or Adobe DNG Converter to do this but you don't have as much control over the downsizing. 

Some final thoughts from Benjamin:

After having shot both of these cameras and assessing what I make a living shooting, I'd have to say "my" perfect camera is a used D3s or a D4. This is a bummer. The "pro" bodies are at least twice as expensive and after a long wedding, leave my wrist screaming at me to just shoot with my iPhone. Why am I not jumping up and down for the D600 or D800 like I thought I would?

File Size: In my very humble opinion, both of these bodies have way to many megapixels for most wedding shooters, even shooting in crop mode. Even if you decide to revert and shoot JPEG, you lose massive amounts of image quality (one of the reasons these camera's shine.) Will your clients notice? That's up to you and them.

AF: Now that you have great high ISO performance you can accommodate all of those brides that want the candle lit ceremony, right? On many occasions during my real wedding test with the D600 I found the AF to really struggle in low light. While it would eventually acquire, the shot was gone. Keep in mind two things: This was a very dark room and this is an entry level camera, not a D4. I will say when light was plentiful, the D600 focused very quickly. 

I did find the D800 AF to be much improved upon the D600 and rightfully so, it's nearly $1000 more and utilizes an entirely different AF system. But 37 megapixel wedding files?

Physical size: As time goes on, the more weddings I shoot, the less I'm concerned with having the biggest camera possible to out-pose Uncle Bob. I've become much more concerned with ergonomics and making sure my wrists work. The D600 and 800 are a perfect combination of size and weight for most wedding shooters. 

What should you get? A D4 in low light and when your hands feel strong, a D600 when light is good and you want to save your wrists, and a D800 for the bride and groom portraits–which lets you take advantage of the1/8000th shutter speed when using your PocketWizards for high speed sync outdoors. 

If I had to pick one, I'd be happy with either of these bodies, probably selecting the D800 for its AF, 1/8000th shutter and ability to produce larger commercial images. 

I’ll guess I’ll just have to sip another latte while doing an extra batch process."

Endnote: What is auto ISO and should I use it?

Most current cameras now have an auto ISO function. Ironically, point-n-shoot cameras were the first to have this feature, then Nikon added it to their DSLR cameras, and finally other DSLR makers followed suit. Nikon has really mastered this function and it has become invaluable to my natural light photography. Auto ISO allows the user to set a lower limit shutter speed (e.g. 1/30th or whatever you are comfortable hand-holding at) and a high ISO cap (I use ISO 3200). Then you just set the starting ISO (usually 100 or 200, whatever your camera’s optimum is) and go take pictures. I shoot in aperture priority mode whenever I’m shooting natural light. 

When the camera deems it can’t make a proper exposure without going below your shutter speed limit, it will raise the ISO to accommodate–adding just enough to nail the exposure and stay within your predefined limits. This means you may have an ISO of 250 instead of 200, as it only adds just what it needs to make you happy–no wasted energy or unnecessary noise.

I’ve used auto ISO religiously for years. On the Nikons it just works. I never have to worry about manually setting my ISO to 3200 for low-light church shots, then chasing the bride out in to the full sun and doing all the family portraits whilst forgetting to reset my ISO to 200 (ask me how I know). The camera remembers for me. The only time I don’t want auto ISO to interfere is when I am shooting in manual mode or when using flash, and thankfully it disables whenever you attach a strobe to your camera or pop-up the built-in flash.

If you haven’t tried it before, take some time to experiment. You may find you love it and can give yourself one less thing to worry about on your...I mean their, wedding day. 

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Oh yah, I thought you’d never ask! If you love Bloody Marys as much as I do, try my favorite home recipe:

  • Trader Joes Bloody Mary mix (contains Clam juice. Sounds gross, tastes great)
  • A dash of Demitris Bloody Mary seasoning
  • Mazama Pepper Vodka or Absolut Peppar
  • 2 teaspoons sweet pickle juice
  • Maria del Sol jalapeño stuffed Manzanilla olives. THE best and only olives I’ll garnish my Mary’s with
  • Rick’s Picks Mean Beans spicy green been pickles
  • Sprinkle of fresh ground pepper
  • Rokz Bloody Mary rim salt adhered with lemon juice on the rim.