Inexpensive -- well, it's all relative -- smartly designed, fast, and with generally excellent photo quality, the Nikon D600 lives up to the buzz it generated from its first days as a baby rumor.
With one disappointing exception, the D600 delivers terrific photo quality for the price. It produces relatively clean image data at low and midrange ISO sensitivities, and has very smart JPEG and noise-reduction algorithms. You get very clean JPEGs up through ISO 400. I start to see a little degradation in shadow areas at ISO 800, though there's no corresponding degradation in well-lit areas until about ISO 3200. JPEG images are generally quite usable through ISO 1600; depending upon the scene and lighting you can probably push it as high as ISO 6400, though I'd recommend working with raw to be on the safe side. I was a bit surprised that it wasn't significantly better than the Canon EOS 5D Mark II at ISO 12800, but the D600 does have less clipping in the shadows and I couldn't find any hot pixels.
Like most full-frame cameras, the D600 produces photos with a nice, natural sharpness and tonality. It renders a broad dynamic range, although disappointingly there's a lot less recoverable detail in clipped highlights,even in 14-bit raw files, than with more expensive models like the 5D Mark III and (it will be interesting to see how the Canon EOS 6D fares under similar circumstances). The D600 does very well with shadow detail, however.
As with many of the current Nikon models, the color differences between the Standard and Neutral Picture Control color settings are relatively minimal, but the Standard seems to push the contrast a bit. That might be an issue when shooting high-key images because of the aforementioned clipping problem with highlights. Saturated reds and pinks also display a little contouring in the JPEGs -- they're actually pretty good -- but the data is there in the raws to pull back the detail.
|Click to download||ISO 200
Overall, the colors look bright, saturated, and appealing. I found the automatic white balance just a little too cool outdoors, but the sunlight these days is starting to cool as well (and using the Keep Warm Lighting setting in the white balance doesn't help if there's no warm light). Of course, you can tune that to your taste here as you can with almost every other camera these days.
In good light, the video looks fine: reasonably sharp and well-exposed with relatively few artifacts. In low light and darkness it displays a lot of color noise and loses quite a bit of dynamic range compared with much more expensive models as well as the less-expensive Canon EOS Rebel T4i.
Note: We recently updated our testing methodology to provide slightly more real-world performance, so the results aren't necessarily comparable with previous testing. Until we're finished refining our procedures we will not be posting comparative performance charts.
I found the D600 fast enough to handle anything I threw at it. It takes about 0.4 second to power on, focus, and shoot. In good light it takes about 0.5 second to adjust exposure, focus, and shoot, which rises to about 0.6 second in dim light. (These times are slower than our previous methodology would have delivered because it did not take into account exposure.) JPEG and raw photos each take around 0.2 second from one shot to the next, which increases to 0.6 second with flash. In practice, however, focusing and shooting usually felt close enough to instantaneous. One exception is the processing of raw+JPEG shots, which occasionally held me up on reviewing images right after shooting. Live View autofocus is pretty typical for a dSLR: a bit cumbersome and slow.
Continuous shooting runs about 5.5 frames per second for either JPEG or raw, but when a raw burst hits 16 frames the buffer fills and it slows to 4.6fps (with a SanDisk Extreme Pro 95MB/sec SDXC card). I did find that using the 39-point AF tended to slow it a bit as well, with hit-or-miss accuracy. One not-uncommon annoyance is that in the multipoint tracking AF modes it doesn't show you what it's locked on, so it's impossible to tell in advance if it's working correctly. Single-point AF works pretty quickly and accurately; I found the slowish movement of the lens barrel of the 24-85mm lens to be the performance bottleneck instead.
While battery life is rated competitively for this class, I did want to offer one warning: despite supporting the Eye-Fi API in-camera, the card definitely drains quite a bit of battery. And the LCD definitely requires some shading and magnification via a loupe for shooting video, if not for basic Live View operation.