Nikon D600 departures from the established standards in the full-frame class of this manufacturer, and its appearance irresistibly resembles the APS-C middle-class body – Nikon D7000, which suggests the type of the customers it inclines to:
Conspicuously smaller body compared to the D800, 141 x 113 x 82 mm, it feels much more comfortable that its appearance suggests, but, at the same time, it is quite a heavy one, it weighs as much as 850 g. If we compare it to the D700, the difference is much greater, and ergonomic differences are such that the great majority would see it as a devastating change, in the first place due to a smaller number of direct commands and their layout, but the D600 will appear to be more comfortable, because it is lighter, and it has a better (even somewhat wider) handgrip that that of the D700/D800! More precisely, its front is dominated by plastic, while back and upper sides are mostly from metal, in order to make a proper cut of the production price, and together with it, the one more interested to us – sale price. Let us look at the official photo of the revealed body of the new camera:
Magnesium body and MB-D14 grip of Nikon D600*
Luckily, that didn't influence the overall robustness, especially if we bear in mind the target customers of this camera. In use, Nikon D600 will be capable of dealing with (bad) weather conditions just as Nikon D7000 does, and there is simply no room for remarks. Bear in mind that “sealed” means that the camera can be exposed to rain and other “wet and dusty” working conditions, but not dipped it in water, for which you will need a corresponding special equipment. The following illustration shows the sealing points of the new body:
Schematic display of the sealing points of the D600*
The specified lifetime of the shutter is a decent 150.000, and since the specification is not the same as a warranty, we have no doubts that the majority of the cameras will successfully reach, and even surpass this number. Nikon’s perseverance on the compatibility of all lenses with F-bayonet often serves as a particular pride of the company. However, sometimes this persistence creates a kind of confusion concerning certain combinations, so, for concrete body-lens combination one should consult the original user manual (available on the last page of the test). Simple listing would not be appropriate here, and a detailed plunging into the matter is far beyond the scope of this test. It is important to mention that only gama PC-E (tilt/shift) lens is not completely supported and that is exactly in the tilt/shift correction segment, just like with previous models adorned with a 35mm (full-frame) sensor. The reason for that is collision of the rear lens element with a mirror mechanism, and one should be careful in any experiments with this kind of lenses! Luckily for all prospective owners, Nikon D600 isn’t deprived of the built-in electro-mechanical support for autofocus on the older lenses without their own motor. That means that the camera has a micromotor and the so called "screwdriver”, which enables this option, favorite to many, and opens up the possibility for the use of very old lenses.
SENSOR, PROCESSOR, AND FEW MORE THINGS
As with many other models, one cannot simply assume what lies behind the Nikon D600 sensor. The overall resolution indisputably indicates that the sensor of the former “flagship" model, the D3x, is offered at a trifle price in the cheaper package; however, a detailed inspection of specifications refutes this with the overall number of pixels. More precisely put, the sensor of Nikon D3x has the exact resolution of 6048 x 4032 pixels, while the one in the D600 has somewhat lower resolution – 6016 x 4016. Although such a difference seems minor, and in practice it is, looking strictly from the point of resolution, it definitely supports the claim of the manufacturer that it is a completely new sensor. As Nikon doesn’t produce sensors but only designs certain models, we can once again talk about a Sony CMOS 35mm full-frame sensor, whose exact dimensions are 35.9 x 24mm, and FOV (Field-of-view) factor 1.0x, which means that the lenses attached to this camera has exactly the range and projection, as it was envisaged, or listed in their specifications.
New or just refreshed? – 24 MP Sony CMOS*
Basic ISO range of the new camera starts at ISO 100 and reaches a maximum ISO 6400, and a software-extended range comes in three lower L ( L1.0 (ISO 50), L0.7 (ISO 64) and L0.3 (ISO 80)) values, and a couple of higher H values (H0.3 (ISO 8000), H0.7 (ISO 10000), H1.0 (ISO 12800) and H2.0 (ISO 25600). We maybe expected somewhat higher ISO range, considering the current trends in this area, but we would not be honest if we said that this does not suffice. Many will hardly ever reach for the H values, so the D600 is quite satisfactory in this regard.
The present processor from Nikon’s kitchen, Expeed 3, is also a part of the D600, and considering the potential it has, no one really expected it to be replaced with a new one. Its capabilities are familiar from earlier, and apart from the support for extremely high requirements of the main sensor, it provides video support, together with extraordinary performances necessary for coordination of all systems of the camera.
The brain of the system – Nikon Expeed 3*
For years, Nikon cameras have a vibrating dust reduction system, embodied in the technology named “Integrated Dust Reduction System”. The system works similarly to the solutions applied in cameras of other manufacturers, and it relies on vibrations of differently charged surfaces and the “low-pass” filter, and dust is shaken away with piezoelectric vibrations. Nikon’s solution vibrates at four different frequencies, with which it effectively affects dust particles of various sizes. Unless customized otherwise, cleaning activates every time you turned the camera on/off. Additionally, you can activate it while you use the camera. The long-term presence of self-cleaning systems in more or less all modern DSLRs shows that this system helps cleaning up the sensor, and not only the sensor, it can be combined with “Image Dust-off” option of software dust removal which, with the help of the Nikon Capture NX2 application, maps the remaining dust particles and removes them from photos.
Proven effective – Nikon Integrated Dust Reduction System*
The lightmeter is absolutely the same as the one in D7000. It is responsible for the exposure metering and the flash power in i-TTL mode. It is a TTL sensor with 2016 pixels capable of metering all three RGB color channels, which, apart from the incident light, meters the color saturation and uses those values to achieve the best exposure and details, regardless of the conditions. As with all other Nikon DSLRs, there are three metering modes, and a special attention is payed to the 3D Color Matrix metering II. This mode uses all three color channels, sampling incident light from the whole sensor, after which it draws an average, taking into account tonality, presence of colors, and, in combination with D and G lenses, the distance on which light is measured, with which the desired part of the frame becomes the “mass center” in determining the correct exposure. In combination with the so called “non-CPU” lenses (lenses without the accompanying electronics), this metering is available only if you enter the relevant information about the lens connected. Center-weighted metering also covers the whole scene, but with the accent on the middle part of the frame, which is why it is favorite when shooting portraits. For complete functionality, it also demands usage of modern lenses, when the diameter of the metering zone can be adjusted according to your needs (ø8, ø12, ø15 and ø20mm; or an average value of 75 % of the middle part of the frame), and if you use an old lens without electronics, the default metering zone is 12mm in diameter. The last metering mode is Spot. This mode places an accent to a very narrow circle of 4mm in diameter (1.5% of the frame area) with a center at the currently chosen focal point, which is why it is used in situations where one has to determine the correct exposure of the focused subject, regardless of the exposure of the rest of the frame. When used with “non-CPU” lenses, it works only on the central point.
In case that a photographer prefers certain corrections in light metering, there is a Fine tune optimal exposure option in Custom functions, which can perform additional “calibration” of the light meter according to photographer’s preferences and for every metering mode respectively, in steps of 1/6 stops. After such a correction, with which you constantly correct the obtained measures for a certain value, and which should not be changed for a custom exposure compensation, metering becomes permanently “changed” for a preferred value, so that it is not recorded in EXIF structure, nor annulled with system reset. Of course, it can be restored to the default value at any time, if there is a need for that. A very convenient option, and especially if you don’t fancy Nikon’s idea of properly metered exposure.
Known from earlier – TTL 2016-pixel RGB exposure metering sensor*
The usual function of high-end Nikon DSLRs, the virtual horizon, is also available on this model. It is intended for easier leveling of the camera in relation to the horizon, and that helps photographers avoid the centuries old problem – “photo leakage”. The advantage in relation to the “stick/rope” methods, with various spirit levels and other systems for leveling, lies in permanent presence before photographer’s eyes, both through the viewfinder and the main display. The virtual horizon is implemented in one axis, regardless of the camera orientation, which means that it will assist in leveling the unwanted inclination to the left, or to the right side, and in vertical or horizontal orientation:
Virtual horizon, camera leveling function at work – inside the viewfinder (left) and on the main display (right)
Autofocus is another element taken over from the D7000, and adapted for the use in a FF body. It is a Multi-CAM4800 AF sensor with 39 AF points, and nine central points are cross-type. This is the distinction in relation to the more expensive D800, which at the same time yields a lower price.
Another premiere – Multi-CAM4800, a new AF module with 39 points, 9 of which are cross-type
39 AF points cover the most important, though relatively small part of the frame, and when needed, one can limit their number to only 11, for manual selection. 33 central points are available at apertures of at least f/5.6 to f/8, and 7 central points are available even at f/8. Layout of all points, as well as of the cross-type points too, depending on the maximal aperture, can be seen below:
A representation of the layout of 39 or 11 AF points, as well as 9 cross-type points
There are three modes of focusing and they are standard for Nikon cameras: AF-S (Single-Servo AF) is the most frequently used mode for one-time focusing with a previously set point or a set of points; AF-C (Continuous-Servo AF) mode is used for permanent correction of the focus in relation to the subject, i.e. its distance and position opposed to the selected AF point or group of points, and as such – serves for tracking a subject in motion; AF-A (Auto-Servo AF) is a hybrid of the previous two which after the initial one-time focusing automatically shifts to a continuous focusing mode, in case it spots a change of distance of the selected target. Apart from these autofocus modes, there is also manual focusing, supported by an integrated rangefinder whose services help a more precise manual focusing, and it is active on apertures of f/5.6 and bigger, of course – on any out of 39 AF points that can be selected.
There are four autofocus modes that are used in combination with the mentioned AF modes. They refer to the number, and type of selection, of AF points. Single-point AF is the most basic variant of the focus, but traditionally the most reliable, because the photographer maintains a complete control of the moment of focusing and of the selected point. It is available in all focus modes:
Single-point AF, focusing with one point selected
The second mode, Dynamic-area AF, represents a way of focusing mainly intended for tracking of a subject in motion, when the accent remains on a previously selected point, and other points help in recognizing and keeping the focus on the selected object. Using is intended for servo mode of continuous focusing (AF-C) or Auto-servo (AF-A), while it is unavailable in Single-servo (AF-S) mode. Depending on the conditions, i.e. the complexity of the motion of the subject, you can opt for one of the three sub-options. They represent the possibility of selecting automated focusing by using all 39 points, by reduction to only 21 or as much as only 9 points. A group of 9 points is intended for situations when it is difficult to maintain one focus point (in Single-point mode) on a small subject that is moving relatively quickly, but still predictable:
Dynamic-area AF, focus area with 9 AF points
21 points will be more convenient for tracking a less predictable motion of the target subject, but with the drawback of reduced accuracy, because the AF system will not always make a good estimate of the necessary distance:
Dynamic-area AF, focus area with 21 AF points
And a variant with 39 points is intended for tracking extremely quick objects which cannot be maintained in the same part of the frame:
Dynamic-area AF, focus area with 39 AF points
In practice, only the last variant of the Dynamic-area mode shows visible oscillations, and that is even natural to expect, because the three-dimensionalism of the followed subjects prevents the AF to determine the necessary distance more precisely. On narrow apertures (f/5.6-f/8 and less) inaccuracy will be less obvious, due to the deeper field of depth sharpness (DOF), while wider apertures will be troubled more frequently by inadequate maintaining of the initial AF point on the subject.
3D-Tracking is the most complex autofocus mode, because it involves a maximum “concentration” of the two key systems in the camera – autofocus and metering system. It is a focus mode with which, after an initial selection of the subject, the subject (in all three axes) is being followed in the frame with an automatic change of the active AF point, as long as the object is reflected inside the marked focus area. Coordination is permanently performed between AF sensor and exposure metering sensor, which analyses tonality, color, and illumination of the selected subject, and based on the data received, informs the AF system of the position of the subject and predicts the motion. If the object, due to the photographer’s late action, temporarily “leaves” the focus area, all that should be done is to repeat the selection of the subject. As we expected, 3D-Tracking is available only in continuous tracking mode (AF-C) and auto-servo mode (AF-A):
3D-Tracking, automatic tracking of a subject in space, by dynamic change of points
Although it appears that this is too big a bite for today’s cameras, 3D-Tracking in some situations manages to keep the focus quite well on the selected subject, which in some cases may produce much better compositional freedom, otherwise far restricted when we talk about action photography. Especially because it requires a minimal need for tracking the target by moving the camera, as long as it is in the “eye” of the focus area. The main difference between this and the previous mode of the dynamic zone with 39 points is that 3D-Tracking doesn’t have a “primary” point. The target is selected in the beginning after which all AF points become equal and pass the priority to one another, in accordance with the movement of the target in the frame. In Dynamic-area mode with 39 points, one point has the absolute priority while others only assist. Anyway, 3D-Tracking isn’t almighty and one should avoid it in almost all situations when the target is not distinctly delineated from the background, i.e. when the background is too close or too confusing so that the exposure meter has difficulties to track the selected target.
The last mode of focusing is in fact the first one offered, if we consider the fact that all manufacturers, without exception, make it the default mode – Auto-area AF is a true example of what happens when a camera tries to “think“, in order to select a subject on his own. That usually involves the closest object in the frame, i.e. the subject, if the exposure meter detects the skin tone. It is available in all focus modes. In Auto-servo mode, it places the focus according to the target selected on its own, and after eventual change of the distance it switches to a kind of 3D-tracking, but the followed target is usually far from the photographer’s preferences:
Auto-area AF, completely automatic selection with all AF points
In real conditions, the sooner you forget about the existence of this variant of “autofocus” (not to say – “thinking” AF system) the better. Not because it is bad by default, but because the camera simply cannot recognize the photographer’s priorities, especially when the object fills only a fragment of the frame covered with all 39 points, or when there are more objects that could be recognized as primary. In this segment, the D600 is no different from other DSLR models whose AF mode tries to “think” regardless of the algorithm of the movement prediction, which in some cases does its job really well. Luckily, due to their versatility, DSLRs are what they are – so that other focusing modes are based on manual selection of certain points or groups of points.
A group of options related to the autofocus offers a set of usual options, among which is the AF Fine Tune, used for fine calibration of the focus. Calibration can be done for as much as 12 lenses, in ±20 steps, for every lens individually or globally for the whole camera. A convenient possibility, which is rarely used, but can be very important in cases of minor problems with the focus, that will free the owner from visiting a service. The only condition is to keep the continuous focus, regardless of the focal length.
Another option for additional adjustment of the AF to the needs of the photographer is Focus Tracking with Lock-On. It is used for adjustment, in five steps, of the reaction speed of the AF system to the change of distance of the selected object, in AF-C or AF-A focus mode. The highest level (5) makes the longest pause between two corrections of the focus (for example, in case you are following a target in whose direction there are frequently unwanted objects which should be ignored by the AF), while the lowest level (1) makes corrections of the distance very often. This option can be completely turned off, when the corrections are done instantaneously, without a pause, which will be used most in shooting very dynamic scenes, when quick corrections are key to a good result. That implies some negative consequences, such is , for example, unwanted and exaggerated reaction of the AF system to the obstructive elements in the frame, i.e. lampposts during shooting a moving car. Those are the exact situations where this option is most useful, because sudden shifts of distance in front of the selected AF point will be ignored.
The usual companion of the AF system on Nikon cameras is a solid AF-Assist lamp, whose illumination improves sharpening in poor light conditions. Its intensity and effect cannot be compared to the AF-assist lamp of an external flash, but it will get the job done in most situations that a camera can deal with without additional lighting. At least until you keep to the central AF point, because that is the only point covered by the AF-Assist lamp, due to the very narrow beam it emits.
As with all the cameras with a more complex auto focus system, it is useful to study its functions, and especially each of its modes, even if you do not need some of them. This approach does not guarantee an absolute success, but it at least frees you of wandering through menus in search for causes of poorly focused shots, and it can drastically shorten the period of adjustment to the new body.
The optical viewfinder, which is usual for DSLRs, is based on a pentaprism that shows 100% of the frame and provides precise framing. The pentaprism secures a brighter projection, and with the magnification of 0.7x, makes the viewfinder very comfortable. The maximum distance of the eye from the optical element which provides a full display of the frame (i.e. eyepoint), is only 17mm, so using glasses might be a problem. Diopter adjustments are available from -3 to +1, via a dedicated wheel on the right hand side of the viewfinder.
Inside the viewfinder, things are more or less common for a Nikon DSLR. Focusing screen is unchangeable, called Type B BriteView Clear Matte Screen Mark VIII, and it is combined with a special transparent LCD film, set between the focusing screen and the pentaprism, which shows the most important parameters, AF points, and a framing grid. The AF points are placed in a visible frame, and they can be seen at the same time only while selecting the AF mode.
The 4x4 framing grid with helps in composing the frame, and you can turn it off, if needed. The illustration below shows the framing grid in action:
The viewfinder of Nikon D600
The D600 viewfinder offers a variety of details that will toggle in some cases because they cannot be displayed at the same time. From left to right, they are: focus and rangefinder confirmation indicator; indicator of currently selected metering mode; indicator of exposure lock (AE-Lock); indicator of locked flash value metering (FV-Lock); flash synchronization indicator; exposure time (i.e. AF mode); aperture indicator for lenses without electronics; aperture; light meter scale of ±2EV range (you can change the ± values); empty battery indicator; flash power compensation indicator; active bracketing function indicator; exposure compensation indicator; AutoISO option indicator; the number of remaining shots (or, depending on the selected mode – ISO value, the level of exposure and flash power compensation; the level of Active-D Lightning function and AF mode; flash ready indicator.
CONTROLS AND OTHER DETAILS
Controls are adjusted to fit a smaller body, and a many solutions come from Nikon D7000, visually very similar to the D600. Front view of the camera reveals a standard layout of buttons. Central part is dominated by the Nikon F bayonet, with the "screwdriver”, a special mechanic system for autofocuses from older Nikon cameras which do not have a motor of their own. On the left hand side of the bayonet, near the top of the grip, is a control wheel that controls aperture, exposure and many other parameters, depending on the selected mode. The area between a relatively comfortable, though still narrow grip, contains programmable keys, the lower one is the Preview button (for checking the depth of field by temporarily adjusting aperture to a certain value), and the other one is the Function button. They can be set to one of a dozen various functions, depending on the user’s preference. Closer to the upper side, above the Fn button, there is the AF-Assist lamp that helps with focusing in poor light conditions, but also serves as the indicator of a delayed release. On the right of the bayonet is an IR receiver used for wireless release via a compatible remote control, and below it is a built-in microphone designed for capturing audio within a video recording. There are two buttons next to it. The first one activates a built-in flash or sets the flash power compensation, if the flash is already up or an external one is attached, while the lower button activates and sets Bracketing, a function of multiple releases with different apertures. Next to the bayonet is a button for unlocking the lens, in order to remove it from the device, and right below it is a lever for selection of manual or auto focus. The solution applied on the D7000 and the D800 is present on the new D600. This means that the button on the lever controls the focus mode, and the front and the back wheels control the selection of the desired combination.
The top side is also customary for Nikon, but again, it is closer to the D7000 than to the D700/D800. Central position is dominated by the case of the prism with a built-in flash and a hot shoe for an external flash, while on the left hand side there is a rotating mode selector with four creative modes ( Manual, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Programmed Auto), Full Auto which is completely automated, No-flash, also automated but when the flash is off, two User modes that you can customize according to your own needs, and one position which combines all scene modes, designed to cover the needs of an amateur without too many ambitions for mastering parameter controls. Nikon prevented the accidental switch of the mode (?) by inserting a key in the middle of the button, which physically prevents a switch. Below the mode selector is another ring, and it is used for release mode selection. Just like the mode selector, it is also “secured” with a specific key, this time on the side, which you need to press in order to switch the mode. We still do not get this solution, efficient in slowing you down, but it is obviously close to the heart of someone from the design team.
The right hand side is also familiar. Far in front, above the grip, is a two-stage shutter button, used for focusing and shooting, and at the base of which is a power button that is also used to temporarily activate display backlight. There are three more keys between the status display and the shutter button: Far on the left is a button for switching lightmeter mode, which is additionally labeled with “Format”, and combined with the Erase button (on the back of the camera), after pressing and holding it for 3 seconds, it initiates card formatting, if you confirm the action. Next to it is a button for stopping video recording, which you cannot reprogram according to your needs, and far on the right is a button for setting the exposure compensation. This button is also additionally labeled, and a green dot means that, in combination with the identically labeled button on the back (ISO), the camera can be restored to factory settings.
Status display of the D600
The display of Nikon D600 looks a lot like the one of the D7000. Basic parameters are similar, and it has the same drawbacks, for example, the lack of the light meter scale which common on more expensive models. Aside from the usually present, battery indicator, exposure time, aperture and ISO values, there are also, quality, flash parameters, Active-DLighting function indicator, white balance indicator, HDR, intervalometer, selected focus mode, selected light meter mode, etc. In general, almost everything you could need, except for the light meter scale, which is not available, just like on the D7000.Too bad, but – they had to cut corners.
The back side also looks familiar. From the point of view of someone used to the button layout characteristic for Nikon D90, this is surely a good thing. Around the big display with a sensor of ambient light on its right side which is used for adjusting the illumination in relation to the surrounding, there are two groups of buttons. On the left side of the viewfinder, there are buttons for switching to view mode and deleting files, and on the left side of the display, there are five buttons. The first one, looking from the top down, is the Menu button for accessing the menu, and the other four buttons are multifunctional and their names depend on the situation: the first one is for color styles and retouching; the other one for white balance, protection of the taken shots and interactive help system; the third changes the shooting quality and zooming in live-view and preview mode, and the last one is used to choose ISO values and zooming out in live-view and preview modes. And, once again, the same drawback on a Nikon camera – the ISO button position. Is it really so difficult to find a better, more logical solution for one of the most important buttons on a digital camera, or is it the best to put it in a remote corner, unavailable without using your left hand while the camera is on your eye? It is absolutely disastrous that, as we are going from the lowest towards the highest class of Nikon cameras, the position of the ISO button is more illogical and unusable. Even if it is a whim, it is too much.
The right back side looks much more logical. On the side of the viewfinder is the previously mentioned diopter adjustment wheel, and a bit to the right is the AE-Lock/AF-Lock button for locking exposure and focus. In the top right corner is the back control wheel, a multifunctional button that, aside from the most basic ones, sets many other key parameters, that can be accessed through the dedicated buttons on the camera. On the right of the display is a rotary dial for locking the selected focus point, in the middle of which there is an eight-step button for managing the system menu and selection of the focus point, together with the OK button for confirmation of the selected options or selection of the central AF point. Just below it is another dial used for switching between the photo and video mode, in the middle of which there is a button for switching the camera into the live-view mode (henceforth LV). Somewhat lower is the Info button for activating the so called Display, a function that turns the main display into a richer version of the status display, with a variety of available parameters, even those that lack on the status display. There is also a speaker, a light-emitting diode which signals that the memory controller is unavailable, and on the right is the rear IR receiver that enables remote release with a compatible transmitter.
The memory card slot is usually on the right side of the camera, hidden under a small cover. Nikon D600 is not an exception, except that under a slightly bulkier cover, there are two identical SD slots. This is another characteristic that gives us the right to call the D600 a “full-frame D7000”. The D600 is compatible with all SD cards, and that involves the oldest SD, somewhat newer SDHC and SDXC, and the newest UHS-I cards that provide the maximum writing speed. Except for them, the Eye-Fi cards that enable you to transfer the shots wirelessly to a compatible Wi-Fi device are also supported. Memory slots are identical and absolutely equal. They can be used in the Overflow mode when slot 2 (lower slot) will be used only when the card in slot 1(upper slot) is full, then, slot 2 can be used as backup, when shots are automatically being stored on both cards creating redundancy, and they can also be separated according to the type of formats so you can store only RAW files on the card in slot 1, and JPEG files on the card in slot 2, or to use slot 2 only for video. There is a wide range of possibilities, and the use is limited only by the user's needs.
Compartment of SD memory slots
When we talk about memory requirements of the new camera, Nikon D600 is not a surprise. The resolution jump that occurred in the last year definitely requires memory cards that are faster and have significantly larger storage capacity. On an 8GB card, you can save: 270 RAW, 530 JPEG or 190 RAW+JPEG shots combined, in maximum quality (14-bit lossless RAW + JPEG L/Fine). Of course, variations are possible depending on the noise reduction (less noise, smaller files), the number of shots at higher ISO values (take up more space), but also depending on the content (shots with mainly uniform areas take less space).
As for the video, Nikon D600 is capable of using the benefits of B-frames, so that it can create shots at a lower bit rate that require less memory, but without impairing the quality. In that way, an 8GB card will save around 45 to 60 minutes of videos in the maximum quality (fullHD, 1920 x 1080 @30fps with sound), depending on the content and the conditions they were shot in, poor light conditions produce videos that require more space due to the higher ISO values and noise.
We will once again be surprised that the battery is, wait for it, familiar from before. It is called EN-EL15, and we had a chance to see it for the first time when (again) the D7000 was presented. This means that these batteries are not rare, which is very positive in case you need a spare battery or a new battery grip. It is a 1900 mAh Li-Ion battery, and “smart” characteristics mark that there is an associated electronics that identifies the battery in camera and monitors its “life span”. Monitoring the battery’s status from charge to charge includes information on the current charge level of the battery expressed in percents, and the information in six levels on the camera’s status display.
MH-25 charger with EN-EL15 Li-Ion “smart” battery
According to CIPA (Camera & Imaging Products Association) standards, the autonomy ensures a solid 900 shots, with a usual use of display and a sporadic use of the pop-up flash. In real use, which includes different temperature and light conditions, a combined use of Live View and a lot of navigating through the menus, as well as lenses with and without stabilization, with and without its own AF engine, battery provided the declared number of shots. In controlled conditions (restricted use of display and LV mode, as well as the built-in flash), you can boost the autonomy up to, and beyond, 1000 shots! The situation in video mode is a bit more complex, in the first place due to the intensive use of the main display, and the sensor, which is constantly active.
If you turn on optic stabilization, the situation gets even worse. In practice, with intensive use, the battery will go through roughly 90 minutes of shooting, which is good and even matches the capacity provided by a 16 GB of memory.
Placed on the left side of the camera, under three rubber covers, lie the connectors. The first part (from top down) contains two 3.5mm connectors. The first one is a connector for an external microphone, and the other one is a connector for headphones used for monitoring audio recording in video mode. Behind the middle cover lie USB and HDMI connectors. The first one connects the camera with a computer, for remote control, transferring photos, or with a printer, for direct printing of the shots.
The second connector is used for connecting the camera with a TV or a similar device, which enables the LV mode of the taken shots, but also recording video with an external device. The last, and the smallest cover, is for the GPS unit, or a wired remote control.
Connectors: Microphone, headphone, USB, HDMI, and a combined GPS/remote
The display, a controversy on Nikon’s top model the D800 because of the color reproduction that is (according to some) too green, is also used on the D600. We do not want to discuss the problem with colors, due to our subjective opinion that display is merely a tool for assessing whether the selected parameter is the right one, and not a monitor that should convey the vivid colors of every shot. But, let us go back to the subject matter. It is a 3.2“ (81mm) display, with 921.000 pixel resolution and 4:3 format that still does not follow the sensor’s proportion which is why a good deal of the area is reserved only for conveying the parameters. The display is equipped with an ambient light sensor, which adjusts the illumination to the working conditions and automatically increases contrast when the camera is used in direct sun light or snow, i.e. it reduces contrast in poorly illuminated rooms. In practice, that works just fine, but as with other similar solutions of other manufacturers, it isn’t always ideal and you might want to set the illumination manually, which the camera allows you to do.
We are already used to a possibility to use the main display as a version of control panel (status display), and Nikon D600 is not an exception. Information Display, as Nikon calls its idea of this function, encompasses almost all relevant parameters and functions that you might need while shooting, and they are all available through the direct use of buttons on the camera, or through the interactive management of cursor buttons. You can adjust the display to night, and day working conditions, manually or automatically. The look of all that is presented in the following illustration:
Basic parameters on Information Display, in day and night conditions
The Live View mode (hereinafter LV) is a common option on DSLRs for a long time now, at first as a semi-professional imitation of a similar function on compact cameras, and then as an obligatory option when recording a video. Technically speaking, LV is a direct projection of the image from the sensor to the main display of the camera, “live”. That’s how it received its name. Except for the obvious option of framing without placing the camera close to your face (which is in case of DSLRs a bit problematic, both because of their weight and because of easier "shuddering" of photos, LV enables a much easier use of a tripod, and helps in all other situations when you physically cannot use the viewfinder. On the other side, LV is a necessary link in more and more important segment of an average DSLR – video recording.
Because of the mirror between the lens and the sensor, LV on DSLRs works somewhat different from the one on compact cameras. To enable the image, the mirror mechanism must raise from its usual position, in order to free the way to the sensor, and in doing that, turn off the possibility of framing through the viewfinder and, much more important, it is not possible to use the phase AF sensor because the mirror must be in its lower position for that. For these reasons, LV mode uses an independent focusing system, known by the name “contrast autofocus”, i.e. CDAF (Contrast Detection AutoFocus). Its way is technically different from the phase one, and it has some good, but also some bad characteristics. A good characteristic is, undoubtedly, its precision, and a bad one comes right out of that precision, it is slow or, to be politically correct – low focusing speed. Focusing is done with the use of a special algorithm that measures the contrast between differently colored areas on the image from the main sensor and stops the focal plane only when it finds a position that ensures the highest micro contrast among the differently colored areas. The precision of the D600 is not in question, but the speed of the CDAF is still a sore point. Although the CDAF is in theory limited in terms of the speed of sharpening, some manufacturers, Olympus in the first place, proved with their mirrorless cameras that CDAF does not have to be slow (quite the opposite), and that the only questionable characteristic remains the focusing moving targets in the continuous tracking mode. As with the phase focus, the uniform the focusing area, the harder is the focusing, and the contrast focusing has obviously more problems in such critical situations.
There are two focusing modes available: Single-servo AF (AF-S) for static targets, when focusing, just like with the phase focus, is done at a one time basis; and Full-time Servo (AF-F) which corrects the focus permanently, reacting to any change of the distance of the subject which is below the selected focal area. All our previous tests taught us that one should not expect much from this focusing mode, and we have to state that even today the situation is not better. Archaic hopping of the focus plane whenever it occurs to it that something has moved (though it often has not) is absolutely inacceptable for anything other than occasional entertainment. Nevertheless, in some cases, users will be able to use some of the modes of the contrast focusing offered by the D600: Normal-area AF is a classic CDAF mode, with a very narrow focal field which can be moved around the frame using the eight-directional joystick button (a “teeter-totter”); Wide-area AF which is similar to the previous one, but the focal area is significantly wider and it is adapted to frames which do not abound with objects in close vicinity; Face-priority AF is a fad long ago incorporated by many manufacturers and it is an imitation of the focus system of the same name found on compact cameras which “looks for” the faces in the frame based on form and coloring and tries to maintain the focus on them; the last mode is Subject-tracking AF which is a LV version of continuous focus and it constantly tracks a selected subject in the frame, similarly to 3D-tracking focus in the phase mode. “Contrast” is more a descriptive category than a real constant. Moreover, you will often wonder, "where is the focus going", although there is absolutely no need for that.
A special treat of LV mode is an extremely precise manual focus system, which allows magnification up to 23 times.
Magnification in LV mode
LV can also display standard parameters in photo and video modes, and you can turn them off if you want:
Parameters in LV mode
There is also the framing grid, as well as the Virtual Horizon, for fine leveling of the camera in relation to the horizon:
Grid pattern and Virtual Horizon in LV mode
It was expected that Nikon D600 will have many good characteristics from the current DSLRs, but we were also aware that it would carry the less wanted ones. One of them, but enough irritating that it can almost spoil the impression of the implementation of the LV mode – is the parameter management. Again. It is interesting that every time Nikon decides to change some trifle, in order to prevent its users to think that nothing is being done on the improvement. The only question is whether all the users have enough sense of humor, so that they do not get shocked with the amount of improvements. Namely, a great majority of previous Nikon DSLRs, except for those most expensive, suffered from an intentional sabotage of the parameter management in LV, in real time. This means that the parameters, such as aperture, exposure, and ISO values, can be changed only “virtually", while in reality they remain on their previous values, all until the user deactivates and reactivates LV. With the D600, Nikon has put the lever one step higher. In order not to confuse the users completely, the design team decided to at least hide what they are doing, so that the attempt to change aperture while LV is active, whether it is a photo or a video mode, will be absolutely ignored, which will make the user understand he cannot do anything, before he loses all hair in shooting with wrong parameters. this is why it is still necessary to leave LV mode and activate it again in photo mode, in order to activate the previously selected parameters, while in video mode you need to set aperture prior to switching the dial to video. It is tedious to repeat the same remark all over again in every test, but that's the way it is. Some would say, all the things come to he who waits. Let us hope that we will live to see that improvement.
Video segment is almost completely taken from the D800(E) model. Recording is possible in two resolutions of the 16:9 format, and several frame rates. 1920x1080 (1080p, fullHD) can be recorded at 24, 25, or 30fps, and the lower 1280x720 (720p) can be used at 25, 30, 50, or 60fps. Each of the recording formats is offered in two qualities – high and normal.
Video encoding is done in MPEG-4 AVC (H.264) format and stored in MOV container. The recording is now limited to a longish 30 minutes, and an average bit rate is around 24 Mbps and it is achieved by using B-frames, as with previous Nikon cameras. In this way, you obtain a high quality with less space required, and, much more important – less requirements in terms of flow on the memory controller. Of course, storage capacity depends on the conditions in which the video was recorded, and you will get proportionally larger files in poor weather conditions, when higher ISO values reduce the possibility of a stronger compression. The only difference in relation to the D800 is a bit stronger antialiasing, which is not a problem for a majority of average users. For a more complex recording, Nikon offers the uncompressed video out signal on the HDMI port, so that you can send the material directly to an external device, without any compression or unwanted parameters written on the screen.
Audio is recorded at 44KHz with 16-bit depth, and it is written uncompressed in Linear-PCM format. Audio recording can be turned off or entrusted to the internal mono microphone, whose input (sensitivity) can be continuously calibrated (depending on the recording conditions) or set manually in three steps. The use of the mono microphone placed in the body of the camera, in which there are many mechanical processes, results with many "parasite-like” sounds, undesirable in a video recording. This is why, when there is a need for a quality audio recording, an external microphone will, with the help of the connector on the side of the camera, yield a much better recording. To make things even better, Nikon offers a connector for external sound monitoring, and with the appropriate headphones you can control the quality, and the level of the input signal while recording.
Autofocus while recording a video is not new on Nikon cameras, but unfortunately – regardless of the fact that the D600 is one of many models which have this option, its implementation is equally poor as it was on the first model. A reminder, continuous focus mode is named Full-time servo (AF-F), and it works like this: after you select the initial target, the camera will try to permanently keep the focal plane on it. We say “try”, because after the first couple of minutes everyone realize that it is still not prepared for these exhibitions. The focal plane will be “nervously” corrected every now and then, and a shift to a wrong side will at times be unacceptably great, so that the resulting recording will hardly be useful. We welcomed the attempt when the D3100 and the D7000 were presented, the subsequent models disappointed us because there wasn't any progress, and what about now? Today, we are free to say that there wasn't any will to make the thing work and be usable.
The fact is that CDAF suffers from certain technical limitations which hamper it to achieve something that matters to hobby-videographers (or professionals in reporter videography). However, a question arises, what is the point of these futile attempts that don’t have any use value, nor can we throw them out of the list of specifications? This is why we recommend that potential owners rely on their own senses and talent in video mode, and stick to the manual focus. You need to go through a period of getting used to it, but the benefits of it are priceless. Exceptionally, an alternative can be to use auto focus, but before you start recording. Or get an expensive additional equipment that will ease the mechanical exhibitions.
You can perform some basic changes on the recorded material, for example, trimming, or cropping individual frames as a kind of a photo. After editing, you can separately save the new recording on memory card.
Except for the D4 (and its forerunners), Nikon insists that every camera must have a built-in flash. The D600 keeps following that tradition, not without a reason. Its guide number is 12 at ISO 100, and maximum synchronization speed is 1/200. Exceptionally, the camera with the reduced power can synchronize at the speed of 1/250. The moment of shutter release can be the first or the second curtain (i.e. flash at the beginning or at the end of exposure, in order for the exposure process to gain as much ambient light as possible). Red-eye reduction is default, just like the so called “slow-sync” which involves longer exposure in order to gain more ambient light.
There are four modes of the built-in flash: i-TTL which, with the help of the light meter, measures the light “through the lens” and allows the most precise flash power metering. The i-TTL is the most often used flash mode because it renders great results with relatively little effort. The power can be compensated from -3EV to +1EV, if there is need for that. Manual mode is, as the name implies, completely manual, where the power can be compensated from a maximum of 1/1 to a minimum of 1/128 of the total power. Due to the fact that the flash uses a pre-defined power, there is no metering, and no, the so called, pre-flash which is used to by the TTL algorithm to calculate the flash power, and that allows you to capture even the external lighting induced by the photocell (Nikon’s external flashes with SU-4 mode, older flashes with photo-cells, or studio lighting). Repeating flash is an option often seen in flash control options of contemporary DSLR cameras, although it is rarely used. It fires the flash as a strobe light on a pre-programmed scenario, the power, number and frequency of the flash can be adjusted, and it can be used when, for example, you need to record the trajectory of an object. The last mode is something that distinguishes Nikon for years, the famous Commander mode - which is used, with the help of the built-in flash, to control the individual remote flashes or groups of flashes, in one of the three modes.
The Commander mode can control up to two groups of flashes (A and B), with the addition of the built-in flash, and every of them can be set to TTL, Manual or Auto-aperture (AA) control, if it is supported, and it enables the flash to calculate the power on its own while exchanging the information about the aperture with the camera. Each of the groups, and the built-in flash, too, can be turned off, and the pop-up will then send only pre-flash which activates the wireless release, without a significant emission of light. Of course, the most frequently used will be TTL and manual modes, as far the most useful, and unless in terms of groups, Nikon does not state any limitations on account of the total number of controlled flashes, except that the optimal number – that will not cause any problems of mutual interfering – is three. Flash recognition is performed with the same setting up of the commander (built-in flash) and the external flash units, in channels from 1 to 4 (3 is the default value).
Support for external flashes is not i-TTL limited, but it is obvious that, if the maximum usage flexibility without too much effort is wanted, using Nikon’s modern or third party i-TTL compatible flashes is indeed desirable. In addition, you should pay attention to the possible support for wireless control through the commander mode, because it would be a shame not to use it. The meticulousness with which Nikon designed the i-TTL algorithm can be seen in the way external flashes work in the bounce position of the head of the flash (a position in which the head turns toward a reflective surface, instead toward a subject in the frame), when it is capable of automatically determine the needed compensation of the flash power, in order to render a perfect exposure. Moreover, in situations that confuse a majority of TTL algorithms, such as shooting in the presence of a variety of reflective surfaces (mirror or glass), Nikon’s algorithm will do just fine and effectively prevent underexposure.
As the D600 does not have a PC-Sync connector for controlling studio lighting via a synch cable, you can do that with the use of an optional AS-15 add-on, or a dedicated wireless release remote.