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Nikon unwraps its D600 budget full-frame camera

The company reveals its long-rumored prosumer full-frame model, and it looks pretty impressive.

Lori Grunin/CNET

I'm not going to bury the lede: Nikon's prosumer-targeted full-frame dSLR, the D600, will have a suggested retail price of about $2,100, and I expect it to street for under $2,000. Given how few compromises Nikon seems to have made in the camera's design and feature set, that seems like a pretty nice price for enthusiast photographers who've been drooling over an unattainable D800 or 5D Mark III.

Until now, the least expensive full-frame model you could find has probably been the 5D Mark II, widely available for about $2,000, but it's over three years old and its autofocus system was creaky even when the camera was introduced. The D600 rolls current technologies into a prosumer-friendly body (modeled after the D7000) for the same price.

It's worth a small digression to address what might make a camera like the D600 worth more than twice as much as, say, the D7000. As I explained in my coverage of the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1, a full-frame sensor is equivalent in size to a frame of 35mm film. Larger sensors are generally more desirable for two main reasons: they potentially allow for larger photosites (light receptors) per pixel for a given resolution, and provide more creative flexibility with respect to depth of field (DOF) at a given focal length. Larger photosites mean better light sensitivity, which usually means higher-quality photos. As for DOF, for a given distance from the subject, for example, f2 at 35mm will produce a less focused background with a full-frame sensor than with an APS-C. (Want to see the math? Here's a lovely depth-of-field calculator.)

The D600 is essentially the D7000 with a full-frame sensor and some more modern video capabilities. That's what you're paying all the extra bucks for. Whether it's worth it for you depends upon what you photograph. If you primarily shoot telephoto, for example, the D7000's focal-length magnifier of 1.5x means you can use a shorter -- and generally lighter -- lens to achieve the same framing. The D600 does support DX lenses and will automatically frame to APS-C, so you don't lose any of that flexibility, but if you're never going to take advantage of the wider angle of view or use fast lenses, then you're better off sticking with the cheaper D7000 and spending the extra $1,000 on a nice lens.

Updates over the D7000 era include features such as a bump to 1080/30p video; addition of a headphone jack; support for uncompressed and clean HDMI output; an update to the Expeed 3 image processor for improved still and video processing; and the same LCD as the D800.

Here's the current field of full-frame cameras in dSLR-sized bodies:

  Canon EOS 5D Mark II Canon EOS 5D Mark III Nikon D600 Nikon D800/ D800E Sony Alpha SLT-A99
Sensor (effective resolution) 21.1MP CMOS
4-channel readout
14 bit
8-channel readout
14 bit
24.3MP Exmor CMOS
36mm x 24mm 36mm x 24mm 35.8mm x 24mm 35.9mm x 24mm 35.8mm x 23.9mm
Focal-length multiplier 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x 1.0x
Sensitivity range ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 25600/102400 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50 (exp)/100 - ISO 6400/ 25600 (exp) ISO 50
(expanded)/ ISO 100 - ISO 51200/ ISO 102400 (expanded, via multishot NR)
Continuous shooting 3.9fps
14 raw/310 JPEG
13 raw/65 JPEG
(5fps with battery grip)
13 raw/14 JPEG

effective mag
100% coverage
100% coverage
100% coverage
100% coverage
2.4 million dots
100% coverage
Autofocus 9-pt AF
1 cross type
61-pt High Density Reticular AF
21 center diagonal to f5.6
5 center to f2.8
20 outer to f4
9 cross type
15 cross type; 11 cross type to f8
dual phase -detection system
11 cross type;
102pt focal plane
AF exposure range -0.5 - 18
-2 - 20 EV -1 - 19 EV -2 - 19 EV -1 - 18 EV
Shutter speed 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/4,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/200 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 1/8,000 to 30 secs; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync
Shutter durability 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 150,000 cycles 200,000 cycles 200,000 cycles
Metering 35-zone TTL 63-area iFCL 2016-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering II 91,000-pixel RGB 3D Color Matrix Metering III 1,200 zones
Metering exposure range 1 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV (est) 0 - 20 EV 0 - 20 EV -2 - 17 EV
Image stabilization Optical Optical Optical Optical Sensor shift
Video H.264 QuickTime MOV 1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/25p/24p H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/25p/24p; 720/60p/50p
H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p/ 25p/24p
all at 24, 12Mbps
H.264 QuickTime MOV
1080/30p/ 25p/24p; 720/60p/50p/ 25p/24p
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4 1440x1080/30p @ 12Mbps
Rated estimated max HD video length at best quality 4GB
(approx 12 minutes)
29m59s 20 minutes 20 minutes n/a
Audio Mono; mic input Mono; mic input; headphone jack Mono; mic input; headphone jack Mono; mic input; headphone jack Stereo; mic input; headphone jack
LCD size 3 inches fixed
920,000 dots
3.2 inches fixed
1.04 megadot
3.2 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3.2 inches fixed
921,000 dots
3 inches articulated
921,600 dots
Memory slots 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7) 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7), 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC 1 x CF (UDMA mode 7), 1 x SDXC 2 x SDXC
Wireless flash No No Yes Yes No
Battery life
Live View (CIPA rating)
n/a shots
950/200 shots
900/n/a shots
n/a shots
410/500 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 6 x 4.5 x 3 6.1 x 4.6 x 3 5.5 × 4.5 × 3.2 5.7 x 4.8 x 3.2 5.9 x 4.5 x 3.1
Body operating weight (ounces) 32.9 33.5 26.8 (est) 31.7 (est) 25.9 (est)
Mfr. price $2,499 (body only) $3,499 (body only) $2,099.95 (body only) $2,999.95/ $3,299.95 (body only) $2,799.99 (body only)
n/a $4,299 (with 24-105mm lens) $2,699 (with 24-85mm lens) n/a n/a
Ship date November 2008 March 2012 September 2012 March 2012/ April 2012 October 2012

Although it's the same resolution as Sony's recently announced full-frame models, Nikon says the D600's sensor is made to its specifications. Aside from the D600 being lower-resolution than the D800, the cameras have enough differences in the metering and autofocus systems that I expect to see notable ways to distinguish the two cameras -- but who knows. Nikon says the D600 has the same level of dust and moisture sealing as the D800.

Though it lacks built-in wireless capabilities, Nikon is shipping a $59.95 WU-5b Wireless Mobile Adapter, a dongle that connects in the USB port and provides the camera with wireless tethering, upload, and viewing capabilities when paired with a mobile device.

The camera is already in production and slated to ship next week; I'll be getting my evaluation unit this week. Stay tuned for a review once the Photokina rush has ended.

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