Nikon D600 Review
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Nikon D600 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Good color and accurate saturation.
|In the diagram above, the squares show the original color, and the circles show the color that the camera captured. More saturated colors are located toward the periphery of the graph. Hue changes as you travel around the center. Thus, hue-accurate, highly saturated colors appear as lines radiating from the center. Mouse over the links to compare ISOs.|
Skin tones. The Nikon D600's Caucasian skin tones look realistic in outdoor lighting using auto white balance, just slightly on the pale side. (Likely because the camera doesn't pump reds nearly as much as most.) Manual white balance produced nearly identical results. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Nikon D600 shows a few small color shifts relative to the mathematically precise translation of colors in its subjects, but its overall color accuracy is good. Reds are shifted slightly toward orange, cyans are shifted toward blue, and there are slight shifts in yellow, orange, green and purple, but deviations are relatively minor. (The larger cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) Mean "delta-C" color error at base ISO is 5.11 after correction for saturation, which is about average for SLRs these days. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Nikon D600 lets you adjust image saturation and contrast in seven steps each, brightness in three steps, hue in seven steps and sharpening in ten steps. There are also Auto settings for saturation, contrast and sharpening. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment worked very well, providing a reasonably fine-grained adjustment over a useful range of control. The saturation adjustment also has little impact on contrast, which is what you want, but not always the case.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The series of shots above shows results with several different saturation adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. There is also an Auto setting available that produced results very similar to the default for this scene, though exposure is a little dimmer. See the Thumbnails index page for more (look for the files named D600OUTBSATx.JPG). Click on any thumbnail above to see the full-sized image.
| See full set of test images
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Sensor and Processing
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Very warm results with Auto and Incandescent white balance, though excellent color balance with Manual and 2,600 Kelvin settings.
|Auto White Balance||Incandescent White Balance|
|Manual White Balance||2,600 Kelvin White Balance|
Indoors, in common incandescent lighting, color balance is very warm and reddish with the Auto white balance setting. (We'd say unacceptably so.) The Incandescent setting is also too warm and yellowish for our tastes. (Some users may prefer this look, though, as being more representative of the original lighting.) The Manual white balance setting produced very accurate results. The 2,600 Kelvin color temperature setting (which matches the temperature of our lights in this scene) also performs well, but with a very slight yellow bias. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Natural looking colors and good exposure outdoors, but somewhat high default contrast. Options like Active D-Lighting and contrast adjustment are a help when faced with tough conditions like these.
|Auto White Balance||Auto White Balance|
The Nikon D600 handled tough outdoor lighting under harsh sunlight well, producing very good overall exposure and natural color. Default contrast was on the high side (as most users prefer), so a few highlights were clipped in the model's shirt, pendant and some of the flowers, while darker shadows are deep, though shadows are quite clean as we've come to expect from Nikon SLRs of late. The Far-field shot is well exposed at default exposure, with only a few highlights clipped in white areas. Again, detail in the shadows is very good, and shadow noise very low. Color and saturation in our Far-field shot is natural without looking washed-out.
Extremely high resolution, ~2,700 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, a little higher from RAW.
Our laboratory resolution chart reveals sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 2,700 lines per picture height in the horizontal dirction, and about 2,700 lines in the vertical directions in JPEGs. Complete extinction of the pattern occurs between 3,600 and 3,800 lines. With ViewNX 2, horizontal resolution improves to almost 2,800 lines, but vertical resolution remains about the same at 2,700 lines. Adobe Camera Raw 7.2 produced very similar resolution limits, although with more noticeable color moiré. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Excellent detail with only minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Minimal noise suppression artifacts at base ISO.
Sharpness. The Nikon D600 produces very sharp, detailed images when coupled with a sharp lens, with only minor edge enhancement artifacts visible on high-contrast subjects such as the larger branches and pine cones in the crop above left. Elements with fine detail such as the pine needles show very little edge enhancement. Really excellent results here. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows only minimal detail loss due to noise suppression, as the darker areas of the model's hair show a lot of detail. Individual strands are still distinguishable even in the lighter shadows, though they begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. Excellent results here as well, though the D600's low pass (anti-alias) filter appears to be fairly weak, as some aliasing artifacts and moiré can be seen in the mannequin's hair and in other D600 lab shots. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
Raw vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon D600 does an excellent job at capturing lots of fine detail in JPEGs. A little more detail can be obtained from carefully processing raw files, though, without introducing additional artifacts. Take a look below, to see what we mean:
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking the link will load the full resolution image. Examples were shot at ISO 100, and compare an in-camera Fine JPEG to the matching raw file processed through Nikon's bundled ViewNX 2 software and a conversion by Adobe Camera Raw 7.2 which was sharpened in Photoshop with an Unsharp Mask of 300% with radius 0.3%.
ViewNX 2 produced results very similar to in-camera JPEG, with just slightly higher default sharpening and perhaps a touch better detail. The Adobe Camera Raw conversion shows even better detail.
ISO & Noise Performance
Excellent high ISO performance, with very good results up to ISO 6,400!
|Noise Reduction = Default|
|ISO 50||ISO 100||ISO 200|
|ISO 400||ISO 800||ISO 1,600|
|ISO 3,200||ISO 6,400||ISO 12,800|
The Nikon D600's images are surprisingly clean and very detailed at ISOs 50 through 800, with just a touch of noise becoming more visible as ISO increases. Detail is still excellent at ISO 1,600, with very fine-grained noise. ISO 3,200 shows stronger luminance and chrominance noise, though detail is still very good. ISO 6,400 shows much higher luminance noise as well as more noticeable chroma noise, but noise still pretty fine-grained, so detail is still very good. At ISO 12,800, fine detail takes a larger hit, and chroma noise is quite strong in the shadows. As you'd expect, ISO 25,600 is much worse, with strong luminance noise and noticeable chroma blotching, though some fine detail remains. Overall, though, high ISO performance is excellent, and may be the best we've seen to date when taking resolution into account.
Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.
A note about focus for this shot: We shoot this image at f/4, using one of three very sharp reference lenses (70mm Sigma f/2.8 macro for most cameras, 60mm f/2.8 Nikkor macro for Nikon bodies without a drive motor, and Olympus Zuiko 50mm f/2.0 for Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds bodies). To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. If you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us about it; we already know it. :-) The focus target position will simply have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range and low light tests
Very high resolution with good highlight and excellent shadow detail. Excellent low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
The Nikon D600 handled the deliberately harsh lighting well in the above test. Though default contrast is a little high, highlight retention is good, and shadow detail exceptional. The camera's contrast adjustment also did a good job of decreasing overall contrast without producing strong color variations; see the section below. +0.3 EV exposure compensation produced the best overall exposure here to our eyes. Users printing directly from the camera may prefer the brighter +0.7 EV exposure, however we found it had a few too many clipped highlights, and the default exposure is too dark.* Only a few highlights were blown in the mannequin's shirt and flowers at +0.3 EV, and excellent detail was preserved in the shadows with lower than average noise. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon D600's Active D-Lighting control set to its default of "Off." See below for how Active D-Lighting and contrast settings help with hot highlights and deep shadows.
* Note: Exposure offset may not be representative of what the camera would do natively, due to the third-party lens we use for studio shots. - Which we use because it's one of the sharpest we've ever tested, and it's available across four different mounts.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Nikon D600's contrast setting meets both challenges.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the D600 did a very good job of preserving highlight detail, maintaining natural-looking skin tones, and bringing nice detail out of the shadows. Overall, very good results here, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The series of shots above shows results with several different contrast adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. There is also an Auto setting available. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
One very nice feature of Nikon's contrast adjustment is that it has very little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. As usual, Nikon did a good job here.
Active D-Lighting attempts to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows in high-contrast situations, while maintaining moderate levels of contrast. The series of shots below show the effect of the various Active D-Lighting settings available on the Nikon D600 on our high-contrast "Sunlit" Portrait scene. Note that Active D-Lighting is different from the Retouch menu's D-Lighting, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images though, Nikon very properly doesn't apply tonal adjustments like this to raw file data. NEF files, however, are tagged so that Nikon software can automatically apply the effect when converted.)
"Sunlit" Portrait Active D-Lighting (0 EV)
Mouse over the links to see how the various levels of Active D-Lighting affects our "Sunlit" Portrait shot at default exposure. Click on a link to get to the full resolution image. (Active D-Lighting's effect can be a little subtle in shots like those above, so we decided to use a mouse-over to better show how each setting compares.)
As you can see from the thumbnail images and histograms above, the Low setting works mainly on boosting shadows and midtones, while higher settings do a good job at toning-down highlights without further boosting shadows and deeper midtones, thus avoiding making the image look too flat. Auto produced results very similar to the High setting for this image. Normally, there is a noise penalty to be paid for boosting shadows, but noise levels in the shadows are very low with this sensor, so increased shadow noise is not much of a concern here.
See below for how Active D-Lighting worked with our Far-field shot.
|Far-field Active D-Lighting (0 EV)|
Here are the results with our Far-field shot. As you can see, Active D-Lighting brought up shadow detail while holding on to highlights. The Auto setting did a pretty good job here as well, this time producing results similar to the Low setting.
Like the D5100, D4, and D800, the Nikon D600 offers an in-camera high-dynamic-range imaging function, something we've seen in several DSLRs from competing manufacturers for a while now. When enabled, the D600 captures two images with one push of the shutter button, one underexposed and one overexposed, and combines them in-camera to produce a high-dynamic-range JPEG. (Raw format is not supported.) We're not sure if the Nikon D600 performs micro-alignment of the two images even though the user manual warns of possible cropping. If it does, it can likely only correct for very small amounts of camera movement between shots, and so Nikon recommends the use of a tripod. Obviously moving subjects should also be avoided.
"Sunlit" Portrait HDR (0 EV)
Like the D800, D4 and D5100, the Nikon D600 allows you to set the exposure differential between the two images from 1, 2 or 3 EV, and there's an Auto setting where the camera decides. There is also an option to adjust the amount of "smoothing" that is applied to the boundaries between the two images, with selections of Low, Medium and High. One difference from the D5100 is the D600 adds an option to capture a Single HDR image as well as an On/Off toggle for shooting a series of HDR images. (The D5100 only offers On/Off.)
Mouse over the links above to see how various levels of HDR affects our "Sunlit" Portrait shot and click on a link to get to the full-res image. As you can see, the higher levels make quite a difference to the overall exposure by opening up shadow detail and toning-down highlights, but lower levels of smoothing can lead to artificial looking shadows around bright objects or halos and glowing around dark ones. Colors can also be adversely affected in HDR mode, such as a drop in saturation. Still, it's a useful feature for capturing static scenes with dynamic range that exceeds the sensor for those not willing to use manual HDR techniques (bracketing exposure and then combining images while post-processing).
|Far-field HDR (0 EV)|
Above are the same HDR settings with our Far-field shot. Notice the ghosting of objects or people that were not static during the two exposures.
|Face Detection (0 EV)|
with Face-priority AF
Here, we can see the effect of the Nikon D600's full Auto mode which selected Portrait Scene mode, as well as face detection enabled in Live View mode. As you can see from the shots above, full Auto mode produced a much better exposure than Aperture-priority at f/8 (ISO 100, 1/60s), and it reduced overall contrast and lightened shadows by automatically employing Active D-Lighting, though noise is a bit higher as it boosted ISO sensitivity to 400. Auto mode also selected a wider aperture of f/5 for better subject isolation, and a faster shutter speed of 1/400s to avoid subject motion blur. In Live View mode still using Aperture-priority, Face-priority AF mode also made a huge difference, actually overexposing the subject slightly by using a slower shutter speed of 1/40s.
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work. A full discussion of all the data Imatest produces is really beyond the scope of this review: Visit the Imatest website for details of what the program measures, how it performs its computations, and how to interpret its output.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera D600 JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At default settings and the base ISO of 100, the graph shows 11 f-stops of total dynamic range, with 9.12 f-stops at the "High" quality level. These are truly excellent numbers for an in-camera JPEG, comparing nicely to our previous dynamic range king, the Nikon D800. Both cameras scored within the 1/3 f-stop/0.33 EV margin of error of this test, though the D600's tone curve at the shadow end is a bit "choppy" or discontinuous which could lead to some banding or posterization in very deep shadows. We expect to get a smoother, more well behaved response from a good raw converter, though.
Raw. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a raw (.NEF) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting and tweaking from there. The Nikon D600 raw file scored 2.1 f-stops more in total dynamic range than the JPEG (13.1 vs 11 f-stops), and the score at the highest quality level increased 1.38 f-stops from 9.12 to 10.5 f-stops, one of the highest scores we've had to date. The total dynamic range score is close to the maximum we can measure with the Stouffer 4110 stepchart using an actual lens (the lens likely introduces a small loss in dynamic range), so the camera may actually have more total dynamic range than we can detect. It's worth noting here is that ACR's default noise reduction settings reduced overall noise somewhat (see the plot in the lower left-hand corner) relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG, which tend to boost the dynamic range numbers for the High Quality threshold. Also, the extreme highlight recovery being performed by ACR here would likely produce color errors in strong highlights of natural subjects. Bottom line, though, the Nikon D600's dynamic range scores are excellent, among the best we've measured even when taking the 1/3 f-stop margin of error into account.
Low Light. The Nikon D600 performed very well here, able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night), at all ISO settings with an f/2.8 lens, though lower light levels at ISO 50 are a bit dim because of the 30 second shutter speed limit (bulb mode is required for longer exposures). Color balance with Auto white balance is fairly neutral at higher light levels, just slightly cool, but takes on an increasingly stronger magenta cast as light levels drop, as we've seen with other Nikon SLRs. Noise is well controlled up to ISO 6,400, and even at higher ISOs there's still a lot of detail to work with when high ISO NR is set to "Off" (which still applies some noise filtering at ISO 2,500 and above). The Nikon D600 gives you four options for high ISO noise reduction: Off, Low, Normal, and High, so you have some flexibility in deciding how much noise to trade for detail. Except for the "No NR" shots in the table above, these were all shot using the Normal NR setting, and Long Exposure NR was enabled so it was applied to exposures longer than one second. We didn't find any issues with hot pixels, but a hint of horizontal banding is visible at ISO 25,600. There's also a faint reddish tint emanating from the bottom edge at very high ISOs indicating some minor heat blooming, likely from warm component(s) nearby.
The camera's phase-detection autofocus system was able to focus on the subject down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level unassisted with an f/2.8 lens, and in total darkness with AF assist enabled. In Live View mode, the D600's contrast-detect autofocus was able to focus down to just above the 1/16 foot-candle, which is very good.
(Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Digital SLRs like the Nikon D600 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.
Excellent 30 x 40 inch prints from ISO 50 to 400; ISO 6,400 images look good at 11 x 14; and ISO 25,600 images make a good 5 x 7.
ISO 400 also looks great at 30 x 40, nice color, great detail, no sign of noise or noise suppression artifacts.
ISO 800 images show a very slight hint of luminance noise in the shadows at 24 x 36, but if you didn't see the lower-ISO images you'd never notice. Amazing print size for this ISO.
ISO 1,600 shots show a slight pattern of both luminance and chrominance noise in the shadows, but you have to look closely to make it out, even at 20 x 30 inches. A strange moiré pattern becomes stronger in the red leaf swatch, likely due to the sub-pixels picking up the fabric pattern at this resolution. 16 x 20 is quite good here.
ISO 3,200 shots at 16 x 20 inches start to show a light grain pattern in the shadows. Close inspection also reveals light chrominance noise in the gold and yellow bottles of our Still Life target, mostly speckles of red and green. 13 x 19s are very good here.
ISO 6,400 images are amazingly good at 11 x 14. Again, this is quite high for ISO 6400!
ISO 12,800 prints have slightly pumped color and a louder grain pattern, but the resulting prints still look good at 8 x 10 inches.
ISO 25,600 prints are a bit rough at 8 x 10, but look quite good at 5 x 7.
The Nikon D600 turns in a very good performance, with even application of noise suppression across all elements. There is a slight trace of moiré in the red leaf swatch, which suggests Nikon used a weaker low pass filter, but it also handles that swatch as good or better than most of the cameras we have tested (many of which tend to render it as soft). With a full-frame sensor at a price point well below most others, the D600 turns in an amazingly strong performance in the image quality department.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
The images above were taken from our standardized test shots. For a collection of more pictorial photos, see our Nikon D600 Photo Gallery.
Recommended Software: Rescue your Photos!
Just as important as an extra memory card is a tool to rescue your images when one of your cards fails at some point in the future. We get a lot of email from readers who've lost photos due to a corrupted memory card. Memory card corruption can happen with any card type and any camera manufacturer, nobody's immune. A lot of "lost" images can be recovered with an inexpensive, easy to use piece of software though. Given the amount of email I've gotten on the topic, I now include this paragraph in all my digital camera reviews. The program you need is called PhotoRescue, by DataRescue SA. Read our review of it if you'd like, but download the program now, so you'll have it. It doesn't cost a penny until you need it, and even then it's only $29, with a money back guarantee. So download PhotoRescue for Windows or PhotoRescue for Mac while you're thinking of it. (While you're at it, download the PDF manual and quickstart guide as well.) Stash the file in a safe place and it'll be there when you need it. Trust me, needing this is not a matter of if, but when... PhotoRescue is about the best and easiest tool for recovering digital photos I've seen. (Disclosure: IR gets a small commission from sales of the product, but I'd highly recommend the program even if we didn't.) OK, now back to our regularly scheduled review...
Not sure which camera to buy? Let your eyes be the ultimate judge! Visit our Comparometer(tm) to compare images from the Nikon D600 with those from other cameras you may be considering. The proof is in the pictures, so let your own eyes decide which you like best!
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Note: For details, test results, and analysis of the many tests done with this camera, please click on the tabs at the beginning of the review or below.