Bigger is better, the saying goes, and nowhere is that more true than where cameras are concerned. The lure of a full-frame sensor can be sufficient to drive many users towards an upgrade -- a fact Nikon clearly recognises. It's busy pushing chips of that size into more of its mid-range models, among which sits the D600.
It's a chunky beast of a camera, and heavy with it, but it's packed with all the controls and features you might ever need to make best use of its monster resolution.
Sensor and lens
The D600's native resolution is 24.7 megapixels, which when you allow for the unused pixels around the edge produces 6,016x4,016-pixel shots. They're written to SD, SDHC or SDXC memory cards loaded into a pair of parallel slots. This dual-slot setup is becoming increasingly common on more advanced dSLRs and affords great flexibility.
Option one is to carry on shooting for longer with the D600 set to switch to the second card as soon as the first is full. If you prefer the belt-and-braces approach, you can settle on option two, and use the second card as an instant backup -- useful for wedding photographers who won't be wanting to take any risks -- or there's option three: write different formats to each card, with raw NEF files on the first, and JPEGs on the second.
In front of this is the F lens mount, which I used to secure a 24-85mm unit. Thanks to the FX-format sensor the stated focal lengths need no further conversion to work out how they perform in comparison to those on a traditional 35mm film camera. Its maximum aperture at wide angle is f/3.5, and at full telephoto it stands at f/4.5, although you'll experience different results if you buy the D600 body only and pair it with an alternative lens.
On the whole though, if you opt for this lens as part of the VR kit you won't be disappointed. It's fast to find focus, and makes it easy to capture a shallow depth of field with a creamy fall-off to the defocused areas.
As you'd expect of a mid-range dSLR, there's a huge number of buttons and dials dotted around the body. The top plate is dominated by a large read-out for common shooting information, which you can replicate on the rear LCD if you choose.
At the opposite end of the body you'll find the shooting mode selector, with the regular PASM modes supplemented by the kind of auto and scene modes common to consumer models (the D600 does fall into Nikon's consumer line-up, after all).
This is a dual-layered control, with a secondary ring below it taking care of remote control, timer delay and so forth.
For the most part you'll compose your images using the optical viewfinder, but you can lock open the shutter if you'd rather frame the view on the rear LCD. Obviously this is a necessity if you're shooting video, and turning off live view simultaneously shuts down any movie recording. The LCD is fixed, so can't be reorientated like the display on the Canon EOS 650D to compose your shot from less conventional angles.
Built-in editing tools
You needn't wait until you get back to base before you start work on editing your shots, as there's a generous range of creative tools built in. Some of these are simple on/off options, such as monochrome conversion, which doesn't give you any control over contrasts, highlights, shadows and so on. Others, such as D-Lighting, let you step through various strengths to trim the result.
All edited images are saved as copies of the original, so you can still retrieve your untouched shot, and in some cases can apply sequential edits, although once some options are applied it blocks you from applying others on top.
One benefit of a larger sensor, such as the one found here, is that the camera tends to have better low-light performance, as manufacturers can afford to space out or enlarge the photosites on the chip. This certainly paid dividends with the D600, where high-sensitivity shooting resulted in very clean results.
At ISO 1,000, which was used to photograph the cat below, the level of grain in the image is impressively light and doesn't hamper capture of fine detail such as the hair and whiskers on the cat's face. The cat's fur is full of detail, and flat areas such as the illuminated wall behind it are smooth.
Maximum sensitivity is ISO 100-6,400 (extendable to ISO 25,600) with compensation of +/-5.0EV, broken down into steps of one third of a stop. On the basis of this performance, I had no hesitation throughout my tests in switching the D600 to its flash-off auto setting and letting it choose whichever sensitivity it preferred. Even at ISO 1,600, noise was only faintly visible upon extremely close inspection.
Shutter speeds range from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds, plus bulb. These are pretty much de rigeur for a camera of this level, and give you the freedom to freeze or blur pretty much any subject you choose.
Colours remained vivid in all lighting conditions, both indoors and out, but never to the point of being unrealistic. Gradual transitions between similar tones were smooth and well controlled, while striking contrasts were sharp.
In very occasional circumstances, the lens I used in my tests introduced a very small amount of colour fringing into my results -- an effect known as chromatic aberration -- although your own experience will depend entirely on your choice of lens, as this is particular to the way it focuses the incoming light, and not the camera body itself.
On the whole, though, such stark contrasts were kept well under control. The Blackbird below contrasts sharply with the tall windows at the back of the hangar, yet the edges remain crisp throughout the focused area, with a very definite, well-defined black finish to the fold of the wings and fuselage.
Still life test
I performed the still life test with the D600 set to aperture priority at f/13 to extend the depth of field. It was mounted on a tripod so that an extended exposure time when using ambient light wouldn't lead to camera shake. In all lighting conditions -- studio lights, ambient light and using the onboard flash -- it maintained a constant self-selected sensitivity of ISO 100.
Under ambient light the exposure time ran to 1.6 seconds, resulting in a brighter image than that shot under studio lights, which required an exposure of just 1/10 second. This didn't lead to any reduction in the level of detail captured in the finished image however, or overexposure of the result.
Contrasts were stronger when using the on-board flash, and the shadows cast behind some objects were strong, but again colours were well differentiated, if not quite so neutral as they had been under the other two lighting conditions.
Image capture in movie mode is as snappy as it is when shooting stills. Again, colours are true to the originals and sharp contrasts are cleanly rendered.
It copes well with changes in the level of available light, compensating smoothly and without stepping, and the soundtrack is extremely cleanly recorded. Indeed, the D600 demonstrated some of the best long-distance sound recording I have yet come across.
I kept the microphone set to auto sensitivity throughout my tests, but should the need arise you can switch to manual sensitivity, which lets you configure it to a level of your choice on a 20-point scale. Whatever setting you choose, dual meters on the screen monitor the current recording level.
At best, movies are shot at 1,920x1,024p, 30fps, although the resolution can be stepped down to 1,280x720, which will increase the frame rate to 60fps. There's no option to shoot VGA or smaller sizes for online use, or to record exceptionally high frame-rate capture for smooth, slow-motion playback.
The D600 may sit within Nikon's 'consumer' dSLR line-up, but don't expect to bag one for a few hundred pounds -- not for a few years, anyway, and even then not brand new.
Buy one today with the kit lens I used in my tests and you can expect to pay around £2,000 -- a price that represents extraordinary value for money, undercutting a similarly-tooled Canon EOS 5D Mark III by around £500 on the high street.
The Canon has a slightly higher frame rate for continuous shooting (6fps to the Nikon's 5.5fps), a higher maximum sensitivity without resorting to extended modes and 61 autofocus points, versus the D600's 39. The Nikon, meanwhile, has a built-in flash, it's lighter and it has a fractionally higher resolution.
All in all, then, the two are extremely closely matched, which means that when you take price into consideration the Nikon D600 looks like the more tempting deal for anyone looking to move up to a full-frame dSLR. Unless you have a stash of Canon lenses that you want to carry on using, then it's hard to recommend anything else.
The Nikon D600 should be considered something of a benchmark. It's a close to perfect marriage of features and price, that with a little bit of hard saving it puts full-frame photography within many an ambitious amateur's reach.